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Overview of Social Contract Theories

Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) and John Locke (1632-1704)

The central topic is The Legitimacy of Government,
aka our Obligation to Obey the Law.
As the story goes, throughout the middle ages people believed that Kings were placed on
the throne by the Will of God. And therefore to disobey the law was equivalent to
disobeying the Will of Godwhich in those days was not an option for decent people. If
a child were to ask a parent, why do we pay taxes and follow all the rest of the Kings
law? the obvious and persuasive answer was, because it is the Will of God. End of
But history, and therefore that story goes on. People and culture and the times became
more modern, more secular, more questioning. The appeal to Gods Will and the Divine
Right of Kings did not work so well, and for some it did not work at all. This created a
serious crisis, because the foundation of civil society is to have some sense of the
Legitimacy of Government and our Obligation to Obey the Law.
To continue the story, the notion of Social Contract came to the rescue, thanks to writers
like Hobbes and Locke (and Rousseau in France). Government rests upon a Contract that
was once made and that we tacitly all agree to which established the government,
gives it legitimacy, and obligates us by virtue of our prior consent to obey the law.
Hobbes and Locke are both social contract theorists, but with major differences. The
defining moment for Hobbes was the execution of King Charles II in 1649, and the
disruptive events leading up to that. His Leviathan was published just two years later, in
The defining moment for Locke was the Glorious Revolution, and the disruptive events
leading up to that. His Second Treatise on Government was published just two years later,
in 1680.
As you can see from the brief biography below, Hobbes himself was not wealthy, but a
generous uncle put him through Oxford and he then spent his life (as a tutor, and
perpetual houseguest) of wealthy and powerful British aristocrats, who were all
traditional supporters of the Crown. He took their side, even into the civil war and even
through the beheading of Charles II in 1649. Hobbes had fled to the continent, but was
watching and thinking and writing. In 1651 he published The Leviathan providing a
theoretical basis for the concept of a Strong Monarchy. In effect, he was publishing a
justification of the Early Stuarts, and a denunciation of the regicide act of beheading the
King. In his view neither Reason nor Justice could justify rebelling against the Crown.

A few main points that you will see in the Hobbes selection here:
All human (and other animals) movement traces to Desire & Aversion.
All our emotions and evaluations of people are thus based on Desire and
Aversion (see ch. 6).
In the State of Nature everyone has virtually unlimited Rights.
Hence, I have just as much right to the apples you picked as you do.
This obviously can lead to confrontation. To war. To his famous phrase that
life in the State of Nature is nasty, brutish and short.
People get desperate, they will to ANY thing to have peace, and so:
To create a Civil Society and achieve peace, everyone agrees to give up ALL
their rights to the Sovereign, who will then give back whatever rights he
choosesbut who can recall any of those rights at any time (and for any
reason, or no reason?)
Locke was born a generation later, and developed different views. He was a 28 year old
medical student at Oxford when Charles II took the throne in the Restoration of 1660.
Eventually, his views came to the attention of the Later Stuart authorities, and in 1682 he
went into exile in Holland. There were efforts to extradite him and others back to
England, but he stayed in Holland until after the Glorious Revolution of 1688. He had by
then written a number of things on government, and his Second Treatise on Government
was published in 1690.
A few main points that you wills see in the Locke selection here:
In the State of Nature people do Not have unlimited rights.
If I pick some apples, they belong to ME and no one else, because I mixed
my labor with them. (see Ch. 5, Of Property)
Similarly, the soil I plow and the harvest that results is Mine, because I
mixed my labor with the soil. (see Ch. 5)
Nonetheless, in the State of Nature some nasty people are likely to try to take
away things that are justly Mine, and this can lead to conflict.
To create a Civil Society and achieve peace, everyone agrees to create a
government and live under majority rule.
The purpose of the government is to obey the Rule of Law and to promote the
Common Good.
However, if the government/King fails to do these things, the people have a
right to put a new government in place (as happened in the Glorious
Below are two brief biographies. Longer biographies can be found at:
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy


Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679)

Thomas Hobbes was born at Westport, adjoining Malmesbury in Wiltshire, on April 5, 1588. His father was
the vicar of a parish. His uncle, who was a tradesman and alderman of Malmesbury, provided for Hobbes'
education. When he was 14 years old he went to Magdalen Hall in Oxford to study, already an excellent
student of Latin and Greek. He left Oxford in 1608, and became the private tutor for the eldest son of Lord
Cavendish of Hardwick (later known as the Earl of Devonshire). He traveled with his pupil in 1610 to France,
Italy, and Germany. He then went to London to continue his studies, where he met other leading scholars like
Francis Bacon, Herbert of Cherbury, and Ben Johnson.
Hobbes maintained his connection to the Cavendish family, however, in 1628 the Cavendish son died, and
Hobbes had to find another pupil. In 1629 he left for the continent again for a two year journey with his new
student. When he returned in 1631 he began to tutor the younger Cavendish son. It was around this time
that Hobbes' philosophy began to take form. His manuscript Short Tract on First Principles was most likely
written in 1630. In this piece he uses the geometrical form, inspired by Euclid, to shape his argument.
From 1634 to 1637 Hobbes returned to the continent with the young Earl of Devonshire. In Paris he spent
time with Mersenne and the scientific community that included Descartes and Gassendi. In Florence, he
conversed with Galileo. When he returned to England he wrote Elements of law Natural and Politic, which
outlined his new theory. The first thirteen chapters of this work was published in 1650 under the title Human
Nature, and the rest of the work as a separate volume entitled De Corpore Politico. In 1640 he went to
France to escape the civil war brewing in England. He would stay in France for the next eleven years, taking
an appointment to teach mathematics to Charles, Prince of Wales, who came to Paris in 1646.
At this time Hobbes friend Mersenne was encouraging scholars to respond to Descates' forthcoming treatise
Meditationes de prima philosophia. In 1641 Hobbes sent his critique to Descartes in Holland, and they were
published in Objectiones with the publication of the treatise. The two men continued their discourse,
exchanging letters on the Dioptrique, which had been published in 1637. Hobbes disagreed with Descartes'
theory that the mind, independent from material reality, was the primal certainty. Hobbes instead used
motion as the basis for his philosophy of nature, mind and society. His correspondence with Descartes led to
a paper on his views on physics and a Tractatus Opticus to works published by Mersenne.
By 1640 Hobbes had plans for his future philosophical work, expecting it to take shape in the form of three
treatises. He planned to begin with matter, or body, then look at human nature, and then society. However,
inspired by the political unrest in his home country, he began instead with the third treatise on society. De
Cive was published in Paris in 1642. When the Commonwealth had reestablished a stable government in
England, Hobbes published the same text in English under the title Philosophical Rudiments concerning
Government and Society. The book was highly controversial, and criticized by both sides of the English civil
war. He supported the king over parliament, but also denied the king his divine right. Oxford University
dismissed faculty under the premise of being "Hobbits". Hobbes also ventured controversial views on God
and religion, and the Roman Catholic Church put his books on the Index. In England ther
In 1651 Hobbes returned to England, fearing that France was no longer a safe haven for the exiled English
court. This same year saw the publication of Leviathan, Hobbes' most influential work. In the introduction to

the book Hobbes describes the state as an organism, showing how each part of the state functions similarly
to parts of a human body. As the state is created by human beings, he first sets out to describe human
nature. He advises that we may look into ourselves to see a picture of general humanity. He believes that all
acts are ultimately self-serving, even when they seem benevolent, and that in a state of nature, prior to any
formation of government, humans would behave completely selfishly. He remarks that all humans are
essentially mentally and physically equal, and because of this, we are naturally prone to fight each other. He
cites three natural reasons that humans fight: competition over material good, general distrust, and the glory
of powerful positions. Hobbes comes to the conclusion that humanity's natural condition is a state of
perpetual war, constant fear, and lack of morality.
In the Leviathan, Hobbes writes that morality consists of Laws of Nature. These Laws, arrived at through
social contract, are found out by reason and are aimed to preserve human life. Hobbes comes to his laws of
nature deductively, still using a model of reasoning derived from geometry. From a set of five general
principles, he derives 15 laws. The five general principles are (1) that human beings pursue only their own
self-interest, (2) that all people are equal (3) the three natural causes of quarrel, (4) the natural condition of
perpetual war, and (5) the motivation for peace. The first three Laws of Nature he derives from these
principles describe the basic foundation for putting an end to the state of nature. The other twelve laws
develop the first three further, and are more precise about what kind of contracts are necessary to establish
and preserve peace.
Hobbes saw the responsibility of governments to be the protection of people from their own selfishness, and
he thought the best government would have the power of a sea monster, or leviathan. He saw the king as a
necessary figure of leadership and authority. He felt that democracy would never work because people are
only motivated by self-interest. He saw humanity as being motivated by a constant desire for power, and to
give power to the individual would result in a war of every one against the other that would make life "solitary,
poor, nasty, brutish, and short."
After returning to England in 1651, Hobbes had spent a couple of years in London, before retreating to the
home of his former pupil the Earl of Devonshire. In 1654 Hobbes was surprised by an unauthorized
publication of a tract entitled Of Liberty and Necessity, which he had written in response to an attack by the
bishop Bramhall on Leviathan. Bramhall was enraged by Hobbes response, and Hobbes was prompted to
write a further and more elaborate defense in The Questions concerning Liberty, Necessity, and Chance,
which was published in 1656. In 1655 Hobbes published De Corpore, the first part of his philosophical
system. This work looks at the logical, mathematical and physical principles that create the foundation of his
philosophy. The second part of his system, De Homine, was published in 1656.
In 1667 Leviathan was mentioned in a bill passed in the Commons against blasphemous literature. Although
the bill did not pass both houses, Hobbes was scared into studying the law of heresy, and wrote a short
treatise arguing that there was no court that might judge him. He was forbidden to publish on the topic of
religion. Many of his works were kept from publication, however a Latin translation of Leviathan was
published in Amsterdam in 1668. Around this time he also wrote Dialogue between a Philosopher and a
Student of the Common Laws of England. Among the titles that remained unpublished during his lifetime are
the tract on Heresy, and Behemoth: the History of the Causes of the Civil Wars of England. He continued to
write, and he wrote his autobiography, in Latin verse, when he was eighty-four years old. In his final years he
completed Latin translations of the Iliad and the Odyssey, and in 1675 he left London for the last time to live
with the Cavendish family in Derbyshire. Hobbes died at Hardwick on December 4, 1679.

John Locke (1632-1704)

John Locke was born on August 29, 1632, in Warington, a village in Somerset, England. In 1646 he went to
Westminster school, and in 1652 to Christ Church in Oxford. In 1659 he was elected to a senior studentship,
and tutored at the college for a number of years. Still, contrary to the curriculum, he complained that he
would rather be studying Descartes than Aristotle. In 1666 he declined an offer of preferment, although he
thought at one time of taking up clerical work. In 1668 he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society, and in
1674 he finally graduated as a bachelor of medicine. In 1675 he was appointed to a medical studentship at
the college. He owned a home in Oxford until 1684, until his studentship was taken from him by royal
Locke's mentor was Robert Boyle, the leader of the Oxford scientific group. Boyle's mechanical philosophy
saw the world as reducible to matter in motion. Locke learned about atomism and took the terms "primary
and secondary qualities" from Boyle. Both Boyle and Locke, along with Newton, were members of the
English Royal Society. Locke became friends with Newton in 1688 after he had studied Newton's Principia
Mathematica Philosophiae Naturalis. It was Locke's work with the Oxford scientists that gave him a critical
perspective when reading Descartes. Locke admired Descartes as an alternative to the Aristotelianism
dominant at Oxford. Descartes' "way of ideas" was a major influence on Locke's An Essay Concerning
Human Understanding.
Locke studied medicine with Sydenham, one of the most notable English physicians of the 17th century. His
skills in medicine led to an accidental encounter with Lord Ashley (later to become the Earl of Shaftesbury)
in1666, which would mark a profound change in his career. Locke became a member of Shaftesbury's
household and assisted him in business, political and domestic matters. Locke remained at Shaftesbury's
side when the Earl was made Lord Chancellor in 1672, making presentations to benefices, and eventually
becoming his secretary to the board of trade until 1675, when Shaftesbury lost his title.
Locke's ideas on freedom of religion and the rights of citizens were considered a challenge to the King's
authority by the English government and in 1682 Locke went into exile in Holland. It was here that he
completed An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, and published Epistola de Tolerantia in Latin. The
English government tried to have Locke, along with a group of English revolutionaries with whom he was
associated, extradited to England. Locke's position at Oxford was taken from him in 1684. In 1685, while
Locke was still in Holland, Charles II died and was succeeded by James II who was eventually overthrown by
rebels (after more than one attempt). William of Orange was invited to bring a Dutch force to England, while
James II went into exile in France. Known as the Glorious Revolution of 1688, this event marks the change in
the dominant power in English government from King to Parliament. In 1688 Locke took the opportunity to
return to England on the same ship that carried Princess Mary to join her husband William.
Locke had written Two Treatises of Civil Government in the early 1680s while Whig revolutionary plots
against Charles II were still in the works, and in 1690 he was finally able to publish them. This work is a
theory of natural law and rights in which he makes a distinction between legitimate and illegitimate civil
governments and argues for the legitimacy of revolution against tyrannical governments. He saw that the
reason government is established is to protect the life, liberty and property of a people, and if these goals are
not respected, then rebellion is entirely permissible by the population who originally consented to the

government's power. The first treatise is an attack on Sir Robert Filmer and his text Patriarcha (1680), which
he wrote in defense of divine monarchy. Locke uses this critique to launch his criticism of the work of
Thomas Hobbes. In the Second Treatis Locke states his theory of natural law and natural right, revealing a
rational purpose to government. Locke felt that the public welfare made government necessary and was the
test of good government, and he always defended the government as an institution.
In 1690 Locke was also able to publish An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, which he had been
working on since 1671. In this book he establishes the principles of modern Empiricism, and attacks the
rationalist concept of innate ideas. Drawing on earlier writings by Chillingworth in which human
understanding is said to be limited, Locke sets out to determine these limits. He writes that we can be certain
that God exists, and be as certain of mortality as we are of mathematics, because we create moral and
political ideas. He states that we cannot, however, know the underlying realities of natural substances, as we
can only know their appearance. He imagined that the human mind begins as a "tabula rasa," and that we
learn by our experience.
The new government of England offered Locke the post of ambassador to Berlin or Vienna in recognition of
his part in the revolution, however Locke declined the honorable position. In 1689 he became commissioner
of appeals, and from 1696 to 1700 acted as commissioner of trade and plantations. In 1691 Locke
responded to financial difficulties in the government by publishing Some Considerations of the
Consequences of Lowering of Interest, and Raising the Value of Money, and in 1695 Further Considerations
on the topic of money. In 1693 he published Some Thoughts Concerning Education, and in 1695 The
Reasonableness of Christianity. He was later inspired to write two Vindications of this last work in response
to some criticism. Locke invested a great deal of energy in theology in his later years, and among his work
published post mortem are commentaries on the Pauline epistles, a Discourse on Miracles, a fragment of the
Fourth Letter for Toleration, and An Examination of Father Malebranche's Opinion of Seeing all things in
God, Remarks on Some of Mr. Norris's Books. After his death another chapter of An Essay Concerning
Human Understanding was published under the title The Conduct of the Understanding.
In his final years he lived in the country at Oates in Essex at the home of Sir Francis and Lady Masham
(Damaris Cudworth). Locke had met Cudworth in 1682, a philosopher and daughter of the Cambridge
Platonist Ralph Cudworth. They had an intellectual and amorous relationship, which was cut short by
Locke's exile in Holland. Cudworth had married Sir Francis Masham in Locke's absence, yet she and Locke
remained close friends. Before his death, Locke saw four more editions of An Essay Concerning Human
Understanding and entertained controversy and critiques regarding the work, engaging in a series of letters
with Edward Stillingfleet, Bishop of Worcester, which have since been published. He died at Oates in Essex
on October 28, 1704.