Hobbes and Locke: On the Social Contract

It is customary to position Hobbes and Locke against each other.  In reality, most philosophers and political philosophers see themselves as two sides of the same coin, much like Plato and Aristotle (especially in the eyes of Plotinus and the Christian synthesizers of Plato and Aristotle).  So what does the social contract entail in Hobbes and Locke?  Why are they really two sides of the same coin?

I. Two Sides of the Same Coin

The most obvious answer from reading Part I of Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan, and Locke’s Second Treatise, is that the social contract aims to secure men’s lives.  In securing men’s lives it secures their liberty, and specifically for Locke, their property.  (Since in Locke property is a means to self-preservation as I examined in this post.)  For in the state of nature, which is a war of all against all in its de-facto state according to Hobbes, or eventually descends into a state of war over in Locke, we either die or live in a constant state of fear.  Furthermore, our liberty – which is the absence of external impediments on our motion and ability to consume – is nullified when we encounter another person.

This leads to the second answer as to what the social contract secures.  It secures us from other people.  Other people are the problem in Hobbes and Locke.  Other people come into conflict with me and become an external force against my natural liberty.  Other people come into conflict with me and become a barrier to my ability to use and consume material goods for my self-preservation.  (The outcome of this securing us from other people reduces intimacy and contact with others, for too much intimacy leads to possible anguish, frustration, and heartbreak, or too much contact might descend into conflict.)

The law of self-preservation, thus, makes men “moral” in the sense that the law of self-preservation doesn’t lead to a perpetual state of war and violence.  For if other people are the problem to my freedom I have two logical solutions to this problem: Eliminating (killing) everyone or making some sort of contract agreement with them.  The law of reason, which is the law of self-preservation, leads men to forming contract agreements with each other.  Thus, we can see that Hobbes and Locke are, in fact, two sides of the same coin.

II. The “Split”

It is, however, in this coming to a contract agreement that Hobbes and Locke differ.  For Hobbes, the contract is consummated in the form of a covenant, which is a mutually obligatory compact that the signatory parties, and those who are born under the covenant established, are bound by duties to discharge.  This is the maintenance of self-preservation, peace, and justice that is achieved through the formation of covenant society.  Covenant society is not the same as social society.  This is because Hobbes’s anthropology is purely individualistic in the atomized sense.  I and you are only bound together by a contract.  We are not bound together by a natural social animus as most of the ancient philosophers and Christian theologians maintain.

Justice, as Hobbes informs us, is about maintaining the respect of each other’s lives (e.g. self-preservation) and respecting and maintaining the peaceful order that covenant society achieved.  To break the laws, rules, and peaceful order of the covenant society is, itself, the truest and fullest act of injustice.  Yes, following Hobbes’s logic that means civil disobedience is a form of injustice because, while you may not be physically harming anyone, you have put their lives in jeopardy by the act of disruption of peaceful covenant order which rests on the individual respecting the laws of the covenant society.  Self-preservation, peace, and justice, in the form of maintaining covenant order, allow men to live peaceful, secure, and “happy” lives.

The contrast between Hobbes and Locke follows from this separation of where they go from the agreement to the social contract.  But Locke does not disagree with Hobbes that this is what social contract and covenant society aims at achieving: Self-preservation, peace, and justice.  Instead, Locke wants to expand this to include certain “rights,” namely the right to property.  What Locke fears about Hobbes’s model is that it does not leave enough room for, what Hobbes would have regarded as artificial rights – rights that, because they are discarded in leaving the state of nature, do not actually constitute natural rights, for the only natural right(s) in Hobbes is the right to life because this is the one thing people never give up in the contract – natural rights.

III. Locke’s Expansion of Hobbes, Not Rejection

For Locke we possess certain natural rights we are entitled to by our very nature.  Yes, Locke’s philosophy already includes an entitlement mentality.  The only thing you’re entitled to in Hobbes’s view is the right to life.  If you are alive you should be grateful just for this, as he makes clear in Chapter 15 of Leviathan.  For Locke, if self-preservation (life) is our must basic natural right, extended natural rights must logically follow from this.  Thus, property is one of those natural rights.  The ability to work and produce, and keep what one has produced so as to consume or barter/trade with another, is another natural right that extends from the right to property.  This is the ownership right.  Which is why, in Locke, you have the fickle problem of taxation.  Locke agrees that a basic amount of taxation is necessary for stable order and peace in civil society, but the government, he tells us, can only raise taxes if the people consent to it.  Because people have a right to what they own which comes from their work.  (We must remember that Locke was writing in a time before industrial capitalism, to work meant to produce something with your own sweat and hands and that meant, for Locke, it was yours and yours alone, and you were able to decide what to do with it – e.g. trade it for something someone else has produce or consume it yourself.)

Thus, paradoxically, this means the government actually takes on more responsibilities in Locke’s theory of the state than in Hobbes’s theory of the state.  Why does the state take on more responsibilities in Locke than in Hobbes?  Because the task of the social contract is to also guarantee, or secure, those rights for the individual: The right to property which requires property laws and redresses for when someone has “stolen” your property which mandates compensation for what has been lost.  So whatever rights the government, from Locke’s perspective, is to secure for us, it has to take on power and responsibility to secure it.  This is why Locke states that one of the tasks of government is to “decide the rights of subjects.”  And once it does so, it becomes the custodian of those rights (which it can also take away since they are not natural); which does mean that the state has grown in power and responsibility.  The more “free” or “rights” individuals gain, the stronger and more powerful that government (or state) has to become to secure those rights because we can’t secure them ourselves.

This is what “libertarians” (in the American bastardization of the word) don’t understand about Locke’s theory or liberalism in general.  It is not a theory of limited government.  It is a theory about proper government power to secure particular rights for us because we cannot secure them for ourselves in the state of nature.  The paradox in Locke’s brand of liberalism is this: The more rights an individual has the more responsibilities, and therefore the more power, the state (or government) must take on in order to secure those rights.

The logic of Locke works this way: In order to secure our life, which emanates from the law of self-preservation, we have certain rights that are attached to, or grow out of, the law of self-preservation.  This is what the social contract must secure for us since we cannot secure it for ourselves in the state of nature.  Locke believes this is the logic that Hobbes failed to recognize since, for Hobbes, the securing of life and peace is by providing a space of order and stability.  Locke agrees with that, but also adds on that we must have certain rights as well.  Therefore, building from Locke’s own logic, if we conclude that certain rights enhance our right to life, thus rights are “natural” because they are attached to the right to life.  But the peculiarity of Locke is that despite these rights being natural, we cannot secure them by natural means.  We must secure them by an artificial means: The state.  Which is why he writes in Two Treatises that the task of the legislature is to decide the rights of its subjects.  Conversely, if we come to conclude that certain rights are counter-productive to the right to life, then the government can take away those rights because they are not natural rights and are only rights by convention.

IV. Conclusion

Therefore, in Hobbes and Locke we can see the task of the social contract.  They are both in agreement that it is established to secure peaceable living.  It isn’t really about securing and maintaining freedom and liberty wholesale.  That is actually what Rousseau’s notion of the social contract is about, which I will detail in a later post.  Where Hobbes and Locke differ is not so much disagreement, per se, as much as it is Locke building from Hobbes.  If the task of the social contract is to secure our lives Locke argues that this means it will have to secure some basic rights that emanate from the law of nature that is self-preservation.  The most visible of these “branch rights” (so to speak) is property.  The second most visible right is the ownership that logically comes from property.  Since we are fundamentally bodies, and our lives tied to our bodies, that also means we have rights to use our bodies as we so please.  You can start to see the cascading effect in Lockean theory here.  The other important thing to recognize from Locke’s theory is this: In order to secure these rights for us the government must take on greater and greater responsibility.  This has led many scholars of Locke to note a paradox with regard to Hobbes.  Yes, Hobbes was an absolutist in the sense that the government guaranteed us no other rights than the right to life which is found through the establishment of order which we must accept and abide by in order to have a peaceful and secure life.  But while Locke wants the government to secure “basic rights” for us, this entails the government actually taking on more responsibilities, and with these responsibilities, more power, than Hobbes ever envisioned.

Who, then, scholars ask, is really the regulatory absolutist between Hobbes and Locke?  And has not the trajectory of modern liberal nations not played itself out according to the logic of Locke?  That is, to have more rights actually does require a more powerful, more expansive, and more systematic government.  This is, again, one of the reasons why almost all political theorists and political philosophers do not see much a difference between so-called “classical” liberalism and modern liberalism.  Modern liberalism simply applies the internal logic and principles of classical liberalism to fit the advances of the modern age.

Lastly, the social contract of Hobbes and Locke, but especially more clearly in Locke, is ideological.  It has an ideology to it, a goal to which the forces of political power, law, and state, all combine to achieve the forced construction of something.  That society which is to be constructed is a atomized, equal, and “free” society, grounded in an economistic (consumeristic) way of life.  What Enlightenment politics established was the spirit of ideology; something that the ancients viewed with suspicion.  Aristotle called such persons the “man of action,” Cicero the “man of folly,” and St. Augustine as captured by the spirit of the lust for domination and self-centered glory.

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