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The Social Contract The Ideas Of John Locke Philosophy Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Philosophy
Wordcount: 2517 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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“The reason why men enter into society, is the preservation of their property; and the end why they chuse and authorize a legislative, is, that there may be laws made, and rules set, as guards and fences to the properties of all the members of the society, to limit the power, and moderate the dominion, of every part and member of the society: for since it can never be supposed to be the will of the society, that the legislative should have a power to destroy that which every one designs to secure, by entering into society, and for which the people submitted themselves to legislators of their own making; whenever the legislators endeavour to take away, and destroy the property of the people, or to reduce them to slavery under arbitrary power, they put themselves into a state of war with the people, who are thereupon absolved from any farther obedience, and are left to the common refuge, which God hath provided for all men, against force and violence [1] “.

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Andrew Heywood in the third edition of his book, “Politics”, describes the social contract as “a voluntary agreement amongst individuals through which an organized society, or state, is brought into existence” [2] . “Contractarian theorists” [3] , the main ones being Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, created their social contracts based on their assumptions about man in the state of nature [4] . The philosophers’ view on human nature usually determined the state of nature. He then used this as a guide to create his social contract [5] . Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau each had differing opinions on the state of nature.

Hobbes was very pessimistic about human nature and so created a bleak picture of the state of nature. He believed it would be a state of total chaos and lawlessness, where there would be absolutely no sense of right and wrong. His social contract as a result was in favour of an authoritarian government that would bring about a sense of order and stability. Locke in contrast was more optimistic and made the state of nature look very attractive. He believed in the existence of natural laws that would restrain and censor human behaviour. In his social contract, he reflects this view by suggesting that an authoritarian government is therefore not necessary. Finally, Rousseau believed that all people have similar views and are willing to work together for the common good. His social contract thus proposes a government that reflects the will of the people [6] .

In summation, the social contract basically has three elements. The first part looks at what life would be like in a “hypothetical stateless society” [7] and establishes that certain factors would make it uncomfortable for people to live peacefully in the state of nature. The second part then concludes that people will be willing to give up their rights and freedoms in exchange for the protection they will get under the rule of a legitimate government. Finally the third part states the responsibilities of those bound by the social contract [8] .


Locke’s Two Treatises of Government was published in 1689.The First Treatise is an attack on Sir Robert Filmer’s views on the institution of Monarchy. Locke did not believe in Filmer’s idea of the “divine right of kings” [9] and was opposed to the idea that the king’s authority is God-given. The Second Treatise on the other hand deals with the purpose of a government and the limitations on its power [10] . Jeremy Waldron in his article, “John Locke: Social Contract versus Political Anthropology”, describes it as “a story which divides the history of each territorial society into two sharply distinguished eras”. According to Waldron, the first era talks about man in the state of nature, governed only by the laws of nature. The second era however discusses man in an “organised society” [11] , under the rule of a democratic government [12] . The ideas Locke puts forward in his book are believed to have had a great influence on most Western democracies including France and the United States of America [13] .


Locke begins his book by looking at the state of nature. Unlike Thomas Hobbes, who believed that the state of nature would be a perpetual state of war, John Locke is much more optimistic about human nature. He argues that there would not be absolute freedom in the state of nature because there are natural laws which all rational human beings abide by. These laws, he suggests, are God-given and can be discovered through self-reflection. The natural laws would consequently restrain us from harming ourselves and others. In this respect, people would have the right to punish those who try to deny them their rights. This right would also extend to second and third parties, not directly involved. Simply put, people in the state of nature would have the right to protect their property and that of other people. Locke nonetheless recognises that people could abuse this right, under the guise of protecting their own rights. There could also be instances where both parties would think they are in the right and there would be no neutral judge to decide [14] . Thus to ensure fairer adjudication of conflicts, people would agree to delegate this right or function to a government created with their consent. [15] 


Locke further argues that all people have an equal right to own property in the state of nature. In his opinion, we need to consume and exploit the earth’s resources in order to survive. “Modern Political Thought: A Reader” quotes him as saying “The Earth, and all that is therein, is given for the Support and Comfort of their being” [16] . Hobbes was of the view that people in the state of nature would compete with each other for the few resources available. Locke in contrast seems to suggest that the world’s resources are plentiful, thus we would cultivate our own resources, rather than steal them from someone else. It would be easier to own our own things, rather than having to steal from others all the time [17] . He goes on to include that human labour adds value to the land. Thus if for example you till a piece of land, you have a right to it as long as it does not belong to anyone else. Each person, however, only has the privilege to take enough for him or her. In effect if you take in excess, you have taken a portion of another person’s share and you are hence, liable to punishment [18] .


The Second Treatise goes further to discuss why it would be necessary to live under the rule of a democratic government, or what he refers to as “a civil society” [19] . In Locke’s opinion, people would choose to give up their freedom and liberty and live in an organised society in exchange for the protection of especially “life, liberty and property” [20] We therefore make individual sacrifices for the greater good. By consenting to give up these rights and freedoms, Locke believes we thus enter into a social contract. Here he introduces the concept of tacit consent. One possible argument against the civil society is the idea that you did not explicitly give your consent to live in an organised society. Locke thus explains that if you fully enjoy the benefits of living in an organised society, then you have given your tacit consent to be bound by the terms of the social contract. You have therefore implied your agreement [21] .


Possibly the most controversial aspect of Locke’s Second Treatise, is his idea of the right to rebel. John Locke believed that legitimate governments rule by the consent of the people. The people therefore have the right to abolish the government when it does not live up to expectations. Thus when the rulers become tyrannical, corrupt and no longer work for the common good, the people can rebel and have it overthrown. This probably stems from his belief in the democratic system of government. The book, Philosophy The Classics describes the concept this way: “The government or ruler is given a position of trust; when that trust is betrayed all obligation on the part of the people is dissolved” [22] . It is believed that this notion was the justification for the assassination attempt on the King of England and his brother, otherwise known as the Rye House plot [23] .


The main arguments against John Locke’s social contract have to do with its dependence on religious morality. Locke seems biased towards Christianity and bases his concept of the laws of nature on Christian doctrine. Critics however point out that in Locke’s time, Christianity was dominant and atheism and other religions were quite rare. Currently though, people are leaning more towards atheism and the other religions. Hence his convictions do not hold much water then, unless they can be proven without the emphasis on Christianity [24] . His arguments are consequently only valid for those who accept his religious beliefs and are not relevant to others who object to it. In essence, without the existence of Christianity, the state of nature would be total chaos, just like Hobbes state of war [25] .

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Locke’s argument that all men are equal under the laws of nature is also not entirely defensible. His argument on property ownership seems biased towards the rich. He claims in his book that whatever land you mix your labour with is yours. He contradicts himself then when he specifies in the fourth chapter of his book, that the land a servant works on belongs to his master. If all men have an equal right to own property under the laws of nature, then the servant has the right to own property as well. All men are therefore not as free and equal as Locke claims they are [26] .

In conclusion, John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government provides an in depth look into his idea of a just society. His argument is basically that men are equal and free in the state of nature. Certain factors could however hinder them from enjoying a peaceful life. They thus resort to living under a social contract, where they give up some of their rights and freedoms in exchange for protection from the state. The state is then supposed to ensure the protection of the rights of its people. If the state is not functioning as it should, then the people have the right to rebel and overthrow the government. These ideas are however flawed because not all of Locke’s ideas are defensible. He is biased towards the Christian faith and also contradicts himself when it comes to his concept on the ownership of property. All in all I think his ideas are too idealistic and cannot really be applied in the real world.


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