Hobbes and Locke Social Contract Theory

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Hobbes and Locke Paper: Social Contract Theory
April 15, 2012

Thomas Hobbes and John Locke are two of the most influential political philosophers of the modern age. Their ideas on political philosophy, among other ideas, have helped shaped the Western World, as we know it. One of the most important theories that the two have both discussed, and written in detail on, is the idea of the social contract. Social Contract Theory is the view that moral and/or political duties depend on a contract that leads to the formation of a civil society. Thomas Hobbes was the first person to come up with the idea of a social contract in his text, Leviathan. As with any concept in history, other political philosophers have used Hobbes’ theory as a stepping-stone. One of those men is John Locke, who presents a very different account of how it is civil society is formed. Although both men have very different accounts on the social contract notion, there are some similarities between the two. Before putting pen to paper Hobbes had a front row seat to a quintessential moment in early English history—the English Civil War. The war was a dispute between King Charles I and his followers, the Monarchists and the Parliamentarians. The Monarchists preferred the traditional authority of the king, while the Parliamentarians demanded more power for Parliament, England’s quasi-democratic institution. Hobbes is somewhere in between the two groups with his own set of views. Hobbes believed that political authority is based on the self-interest of the members of the society, all of who are considered equal. He argued that no single individual had the power to rule over the rest. He also backed the conservative point of view that the sovereign must have absolute authority in order for society to last without disruption. It is in the rejection of the Monarchist point of view, that Hobbes and Locke find their first similarity. Both authors sought out to refute the positions presented by Robert Filmer’s Patriarcha, regarding the issue of the Divine Right of Kings. Filmer believed that God gave absolute authority to the king. Since God gives the power to the king, political society focused on obeying God unconditionally. Although Hobbes did agree that it was necessary for a king to have absolute authority in order to keep the people in line, he believed that authority came from the people living in the community and not God. Locke’s most influential political writings come from his Two Treatises On Government. His First Treatise is focused almost entirely on rejecting Filmer’s theory. Locke is in line with Hobbes in his belief that political authority comes from the consent of the governed. Along with this similarity, both men also agree on the idea that those people in a State of Nature will willingly consent to coming together to form a political society. They also agree on the belief that people would live in fear of each other regardless of their ability to use reason. Human nature allows men to be selfish. All people have the natural right to defend their own life, liberty, health and property. This fear is what leads many people to come together and form a state so that there would be a central authority to protect their life, liberty, health and property of all people within society.

Along with creating the outline for the social contract theory, Hobbes was also a major contribution to the idea of the State of Nature, a hypothetical situation used to show how people lived before the establishment of society. In the State of Nature, life was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short,” characterized by self-interest and the absence of rights and laws (Hobbes 89). Hobbes believed that man was fundamentally evil and required a central authority to keep them out of the conditions of the state of nature. Locke, on the other hand, saw individuals as exercising moral limits over their actions. In order to answer the question of why the people should...
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