Beneath the Contract: On Hobbes, Locke, and The Social Contract
For this semester I’ll offer my reflections on an introductory, freshmen-level course on western core texts that I am teaching.   It is difficult for a person today to think of a citizen’s relationship to government other than being a social contract, such is the powerful hold that Hobbes and Locke have over us. Social… The post Beneath the Contract: On Hobbes, Locke, and The Social Contract appeared first on VoegelinView.

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For this semester I’ll offer my reflections on an introductory, freshmen-level course on western core texts that I am teaching.

 

It is difficult for a person today to think of a citizen’s relationship to government other than being a social contract, such is the powerful hold that Hobbes and Locke have over us. Social contract theory is simply individuals consenting to surrender some of their freedoms and submit to authority in exchange for the state to protect their remaining rights and maintain social order. Both Hobbes and Locke begin their social contract theories by examining the human condition absent of any political order, which they call the “state of nature.” To use Locke’s words, it is a state of “perfect freedom” and “equity” where individuals can act and dispose of their possessions as they see fit and where everyone exists equally without one another “without subordination or subjugation.”
The challenge confronting social contract theorists is why individuals would voluntarily consent to give up their natural freedoms in the state of nature to obtain the benefits of political order. For Hobbes, life in the state of nature was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”: everyone would have unlimited freedom to the “right to all things” and thus would result in a “war of all against all” (bellum omnium contra omnes). To escape this condition, individuals would contract with each other to establish a “commonwealth” in which they gain “their own preservation, and of a more contented life thereby.” While the sovereign may be tyrannical, an absolute government was better than the anarchy of the state of nature, which Hobbes saw in his own life during the English Civil War (1642-51) and the Thirty Years’ War (1618-48).
By contrast, Locke offers a different account of the state of nature where people do not harm another in their “life, health, liberty, or possessions” because the law of nature commands it so, whether it is reason, God, or both. However, not every person consults the law of nature, thereby creating a condition where people have no security in their rights and therefore live in a state of fear. Individuals consequently agree to form a state that would establish the rule law and provide impartial judges to protect their lives, liberty, and property. Citizens would delegate to the government their absolute right of violence, although reserving the inalienable right to self-defense, which includes the right to “resume their original liberty, and, by the establishment of a new legislative” when the state breaks the social contract. In other words, under certain conditions that Locke describes, citizens have a right to revolt against the state and form a new one.
While both Hobbes and Locke differ in their accounts of the state of nature and, as a result, provide a different type of social contract, they both share the assumption that political order is not natural but artificial. It is the opposite of Aristotle’s dictum, “man is by nature a social and political animal.” For both Hobbes and Locke, the social and political order is a human creation. The state of nature – and the individual in that state – is likewise artificial. Hence, Hobbes’ view that the individual is driven by “competition, diffidence, and glory” and Locke’s version that one is motivated to protect one’s life, liberty, and possessions is actually the same position in spite of the superficial differences. The individual, the state of nature, and the social contract are all human creations with no innate attachment to nature or God.
As Alasdair MacIntyre has pointed out in his After Virtue, the modern project is the cherry-picking of certain aspects of human nature and constructing a political order around those selective attributes. Both Hobbes and Locke are at the beginning of the modern project and whose theories still haunt us today in our trying to make sense of the proper relationship between the citizen and the state. But the more interesting question to ask is not which social contract is better but to examine whether the idea of the social contract itself is correct. Does this account comport with the reality in which we live and know? Is our loyalty to our country and fellow citizens simply contractual? Or is it something deeper? And if so, what would that be?

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