John Locke’s Social Contract Theory

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John Locke was an English philosopher and physician regarded as one of the most influential Enlightenment thinkers and known as the “Father of Classical Liberalism.” Considered one of the first of the British empiricists, following the tradition of Francis Bacon, he is equally important to Social Contract Theory. He developed his Social Contract Theory in his famous book “Two Treatises on Civil Government (1690).” The first treatise is concerned almost exclusively with refuting the argument of Robert Filmer’s Patriarcha, which dictates that political authority was derived from religious authority, also known by the description of the Divine Right of Kings, which was a very dominant theory in seventeenth-century England. The second treatise contains Locke’s constructive view of the aims and justification for civil government, and is titled “An Essay Concerning the True Original Extent and End of Civil Government.” His work greatly affected the development of epistemology and political philosophy. His writings influenced Voltaire and Rousseau, many Scottish Enlightenment thinkers, as well as the American revolutionaries. His contributions to classical republicanism and liberal theory are reflected in the United States Declaration of Independence. John Locke had witnessed the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and the wave of individualism in England which greatly influenced the political and legal theories in Britain at that time. He, therefore, came out with a new interpretation of the Social Contract rejecting Hobbes’ earlier concept of the state of nature.

For Hobbes’s interpretation, the necessity of absolute authority, in the form of a Sovereign, followed from the utter brutality of the State of Nature. The State of Nature was completely intolerable, and so rational men would be willing to submit themselves even to absolute authority to escape it. For John Locke, the State of Nature is a very different type of place, and so his argument concerning the social contract and the nature of men’s relationship to authority are consequently quite different. While Locke uses Hobbes’ methodological device of the State of Nature, as do virtually all social contract theorists, he uses it to a quite different end. Locke’s arguments for the social contract, and the right of citizens to revolt against their king were enormously influential on the democratic revolutions that followed, especially on Thomas Jefferson and the founders of the United States.

According to Locke, the State of Nature, the natural condition of mankind, is a state of perfect and complete liberty to conduct one’s life as one best sees fit, free from the interference of others. This does not mean, however, that it is a state of license: one is not free to do anything at all one pleases or even anything that one judges to be in one’s interest. The State of Nature, although a state wherein there is no civil authority or government to punish people for transgressions against laws, is not a state without morality. The State of Nature is pre-political, but it is not pre-moral. Persons are assumed to be equal in such a state, and therefore are equally capable of discovering and being bound by the Law of Nature. The Law of Nature, which is in Locke’s view the basis of all morality, and given to us by God, commands that we not harm others with regards to their “life, health, liberty, or possessions.” Because we all belong equally to God, and because we cannot take away that which is rightfully His, we are prohibited from harming one another. So, the State of Nature is a state of liberty where persons are free to pursue their interests and plans, free from interference, and, because of the Law of Nature and the restrictions that it imposes upon persons, it is relatively peaceful. Property plays an essential role in Locke’s argument for civil government and the contract that establishes it. According to Locke, private property is created when a person mixes his labour with the raw materials of nature. So, for example, when one tills a piece of land in nature and makes it into a piece of farmland, which produces food, then one has a claim to own that piece of land and the food produced upon it. Given the implications of the Law of Nature, there are limits as to how much property one can own: one is not allowed to take more from nature than one can use, thereby leaving others without enough for themselves. Because nature is given to all of mankind by God for its common subsistence, one cannot take more than his fair share. Property is the linchpin of Locke’s argument for the Social Contract and civil government because it is the protection of their property, including their property in their bodies, that men seek when they decide to abandon the State of Nature.

It was for the protection of property that man entered into the ‘Social Contract’. Property meant life, liberty, and estate. Locke says “every man has a property in his person.” The property was insecure because (i) there was no established law, nor (ii) an impartial judge, and (iii) the natural power to execute natural law was not always commensurate with the claim. To remedy this flawed man entered into the Social Contract by which he yields to the sovereign, not all his rights, but only the power to preserve order and enforce the law of nature. People made two contracts, namely social and political contracts. The Social Contract was made between the people themselves. They surrendered only some of their rights- the right of interpreting and enforcing the law of nature. It was only a limited surrender and not a complete surrender of their rights. Moreover, they surrendered their rights to the community as a whole and not to any particular individual. Thus, they established civil society. The second contract called the governmental contract was made between the people and the rule. It was made to enforce the first contract. By this, the government came into existence. The state of nature was put to an end using these two contracts.

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Thus, the individual retained the natural rights to life, liberty, and estate, for they were the natural and inalienable rights of man. The purpose of government and law is to uphold and protect natural rights. So long as the government fulfils its purpose, the laws given by it are valid and binding but when it ceases to do that, its lawyers have no validity and the people have a right to revolt against the government and overthrow it. The state of nature which precedes the Social Contract was not a state of anarchy, but a state of liberty. Locke advocated a state for the general good of the people; the subject conditionally surrenders his liberty to the sovereign.

It may be stated that Locke’s idea of Social Contract was founded on a new secular approach to natural law whereby the power of the government was conceded on trust by the people to the rulers and any infringement of the conduct by the rulers was treated as a breach of the people’s fundamental natural rights which justified revolt against the government. Locke pleaded for a constitutionally limited government. The nineteenth-century doctrine of laissez-faire was related to an individual’s freedom in matters relating to economic activities which found ground in Locke’s theory. Unlike Hobbes who supported State authority, Locke pleaded for individual liberty.


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