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COMPARING THE SOCIAL CONTRACTS OF HOBBES AND
Locke and Hobbes both share a vision of the social contract as instrumental in a state’s
political stability. However, their respective philosophies were informed by a starkly
contrasting vision of human nature. This essay explores the historical context of each
philosopher and considers the differences in the social contractual theory that emerged
from their distinct perspectives on the state of nature.
I THE STATE OF NATURE AND THE SOCIAL CONTRACT
The notion of the social contract has been, quite simply, one of the most important
paradigms of Western philosophical and legal theory in helping to shape our
understanding of justice and social structure.
Sharing some elements of thought, though
differing in many more, 17
century Englishmen Thomas Hobbes and John Locke stand
out as amongst the most significant proponents of social contract theory. Held up
against the light of contemporary scrutiny, analysis may expose flaws and weaknesses
in their arguments. However, even more so it reveals that the sophisticated methods
they employed, the scope and structure in their observations of complex, ubiquitous
principles, and the depth of their impact in modern thinking ascribes them undeniable
stature and demonstrates the enduring value we can still gain from reviewing and
comparing their work on social contract theory.
Hobbes and Locke were not the first to use the social contract model as a tool to explain
the foundations of human society; earlier exponents of the theory can be traced much
further back in history. Arguably, elements of the social contract have existed as long as
ethical theories have been publicly espoused and recorded in writing.
For example, in
Ancient Greece we find Plato‟s Republic describing a friendly communal debate about
the meaning of justice in which Thrasymachus and Glaucon introduce principles of
social contract theory,
and conceptions of human nature,
that have been elaborated
upon by countless thinkers since, not least among them Hobbes and Locke. While the
Completed his LLB/BA (Sustainable Development) in early 2010 and is currently working as a
sustainability and planning practitioner in Sydney, and completing his Honours in Sustainable
Development with a research focus on the establishment of carbon rights in Indonesia.
Robert C Solomon, Introducing Philosophy: A Text with Integrated Readings (Oxford University Press,
ed, 2008) 566.
Montague Brown, The Quest for Moral Foundations: An Introduction to Ethics (Georgetown University
Press, 1996) 36.
Plato, Plato’s Republic (Dent, 1969) 12-46.
J W Gough, The Social Contract Theory: A Critical Study of its Development (Oxford University Press,
The Western Australian Jurist Vol. 1, 2010
„mechanical principles of materialism‟
are generally emphasised as the shaping
foundations of both humanity‟s social contracts, it also has to be recognised that Hobbes
and Locke shared a grounding in the classics that was similarly influential in forming
their views on political philosophy and human behaviour.
The links between the pair, both regarded for their social contract theory and with a
common debt to classical philosophy and to the influence of materialist thought, begin
to wane when the substance of their work is analysed more closely. Vastly different
individual circumstances helped define striking distinctions in personal outlook.
Hobbes‟ notably grim social contract theory, at its core reflecting what he believed was
the brutal, nefarious reality of instinctive human behaviour, was surely a product of a
worldview that could not overlook the troubled time he lived in. For much of his life,
Hobbes‟ world was one of political upheaval and war; the Thirty Years War was taking
place in Europe, and a Civil War drastically transformed political dimensions in
England. These extended periods of tumult fashioned a pessimistic outlook on human
nature, and instilled in Hobbes a strong conviction for an absolute monarchy, believing
that ultimately the only capable form of social governance was a sovereign with
„unrestricted ruling power‟.
Locke reached his intellectual maturity in the more settled years after the English Civil
War, and was politically associated with the Whigs, who pushed for a limited
He felt that an effective sovereign did not require absolute rule and, rather,
pushed for more individual freedoms. In fact, if we accept that the aim of Hobbes‟
social contract was to establish the necessary conditions for an all-powerful sovereign,
we find in turn that Locke‟s social contract had an altogether antipodean argument.
Partly as a result of his involvement in an attempt to prevent Charles II‟s royal
absolutist younger brother James from succeeding the throne, Locke‟s intention was to
justify the peoples‟ ability to resist absolute monarchy through rights granted in a mixed
Aware of the moulding contexts from which Hobbes and Locke arose, and the ultimate
conclusions that they were trying to reach and justify with their respective versions of
the social contract, we may then retreat to the essence of their theory and observe the
different ways in which they developed their arguments to achieve their goals, which in
turn provides ample opportunity for critical analysis.
One of Hobbes‟ defining features is the method in which he chooses to relate his social
contract. Hobbes was adamant that a rigorous, rational argument was necessary to cure
the ills of an ailing state political structure based on „bad reasoning‟.
As a materialist
John Rawls, Lectures on the History of Political Philosophy (Harvard University Press, 2007) 29.
Rawls, above n 5, 29.
Dora Kostakopoulou, „Floating Sovereignty: A Pathology or a Necessary Means of State Evolution?‟
(2002) 22(1) Oxford Journal of Legal Studies 135, 141.
Gough, above n 4, 127.
Rawls, above n 5, 105.
Jean Hampton, Hobbes and the Social Contract Theory (Cambridge University Press, 1988) 1.
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he was convinced that sound reason must possess geometric precision,
opted to enhance the scientific certainty of his thesis with the formal legality of contract
While the integration of legal theory into his political philosophy lent support
to Hobbes‟ „individualistic metaphysics‟,
ultimately the contractual premise that
Hobbes sets forth has come to be questioned in its final conclusion as unconvincing in a
strict legal sense.
Calculatedly removing any sentimental notions about humanity‟s inherent virtue,
Hobbes‟ theory began with a belief that people in an original state of nature are
primarily interested in preserving their own lives, even if that meant destroying the life
of another. This proliferation of self-interested individuals creates a state of perpetual
conflict with each other, or universal war.
Humanity‟s self-interest in turn obliges him
to seek a path out of this violent state towards peace and freedom from pain and anxiety,
where he can pursue pleasure.
This leads to the first step in Hobbes‟ social contract.
To avoid war, all individuals must enter into a covenant with every other person,
agreeing not to harm one another. This agreement alone, however, is not sufficient to
Compliance with this social contract requires the coercive power
which Hobbes believed only a powerful sovereign could provide. Merely placing trust
in an unadorned, non-binding agreement between individuals is not just imprudent, but
unlawful according to Hobbes.
The social contract‟s success depends on the
immediate institution of a sovereign upon whom individuals have surrendered all
and who is able to ensure obedience both to natural law and whichever
commands he delivers.
Hobbes‟ sovereign power is not a party to the social contract,
but instead a recipient of the powers conferred upon him when all under the sovereign
enter the universal compact and sacrifice their liberty in the process.
Many commentators believe that by placing all faith in the sovereign to enforce the
social contract, Hobbes‟ theory fails to reach the standard of ultimate and convincing
proof in a strictly legal sense. Hobbes‟ main weakness is that he is never able to explain
why one should not break the social contract and disobey the sovereign, which seems to
be little more than a moral responsibility.
The typical legal answer to the question of
enforcing a contract would be that the courts will uphold the law; in the state of nature,
without an established system of jurisprudence, Hobbes has difficulty in responding to
Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (Dent, 1937) ch 5 part 1.
Gough, above n 4, 107.
R A Grover, „The Legal Origins of Thomas Hobbes‟ Doctrine of Contract‟ in Preston King (ed)
Thomas Hobbes: Critical Assessments (Routledge, 1993) vol 3, 543.
Hobbes, above n 11, ch 13 part 1.
Brown, above n 2, 39; Hobbes, above n 11, ch 14 part 1.
David Gauthier, „Hobbes‟s Social Contract‟ in G A J Rogers and Alan Ryan (eds) Perspectives on
Thomas Hobbes (Oxford University Press, 1988) 134-137.
Brown, above n 2, 39.
Gough, above n 4, 103.
Gauthier, above n 16, 137.
Gough, above n 4, 103.
Brown, above n 2, 41.
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the problem of enforcing and upholding the contract.
Further undermining the
persuasion of Hobbes‟ argument is that his social contract is essentially hypothetical,
and seems to have no obvious parallel in history. In the end, Hobbes must admit that it
is fear alone that keeps humanity complying in subjection.
Locke‟s theory is similarly compromised by the “historical objections to the social
contract”, however, he intended to demonstrate a rational argument rather than relate a
In reality though, his more digestible argument founded on notions
of equality and rights to property would find itself powerfully expressed in the
constitutional foundations of the United States of America, where the Declaration of
Independence is closely modelled on elements of Locke‟s Second Treatise of
Locke‟s state of nature is free of Hobbes‟ „force and fraud‟, with men instead „living
together according to reason‟ but without a guiding authority to follow. Naturally,
individuals are inclined to avoid a solitary life, and inevitably start a family, which
eventually leads to the formation of political society.
The social contract has a two-
step progression: firstly from individuals to collective society, and secondly a „vesting
of power in the legislature as a trust.‟
Contrary to Hobbes‟ society, where rights are
sacrificed entirely in fear, the power placed in the legislature is in Locke‟s opinion „a
positive, voluntary grant and institution.‟
The obligation is for the government to serve
the people, and the right of the public to resist authority is fundamentally inherent and
unable to be compromised.
Locke‟s strong assertion of the natural right to property further sets his doctrine apart
from Hobbes. Locke expanded the conventionally accepted notion that humanity
possesses a private property right over their own body, elaborating further that the
property one‟s body cultivates is also an integral component of the basic freedom and
dignity which all are equally owed.
He considered that this right existed, but was not
sufficiently protected, in a state governed by natural law, and thus it was necessary to
integrate the right to property as a fundamental element of his social contract.
Locke‟s doctrine of „government by consent of the governed‟,
with its palatable and
contemporarily attractive principles of limitation of government, and prevention of the
Grover, above n 13, 543-544.
Gough, above n 4, 105.
John Locke, „Second Treatise of Government‟ in John Locke, Political Writings (Penguin Books, 1993)
ch 7 para 77.
Gough, above n 4, 128.
Donald L Doernberg, „“We the People”: John Locke, Collective Constitutional Rights, and Standing to
Challenge Government Action‟ (1985) 73 California Law Review 52, 62.
Doernberg, above n 27, 62.
Locke, above n 25, ch 7 para 88-102.
Solomon, above n 1, 589.
Gough, above n 4, 131.
Doernberg, above n 27, 59.
The Western Australian Jurist Vol. 1, 2010
interference of natural rights including property, has seen his writing retain relevance
and manifest with material impact in politics to this day. In reality, however, his social
contract is little more than a general model or structure to contain his arguments, and
amounts to little more than a one-way trust between „a government obligated to the
people, (and) not they to it.‟
Ultimately, the social contract is not as fundamentally
essential to Locke‟s theory as it is for Hobbes.
John Locke was born in 1632, the son of a lawyer of Wrighton. He taught
Greek and rhetoric at Oxford while completing his studies in medicine and
science. His interests turned to moral and political theory thanks to his
father’s enthusiasm for the parliamentary cause during the English Civil War.
The English Civil Wars (1642-1651) stemmed from conflict between
Charles I and Parliament over an Irish insurrection. The first war was
settled with Oliver Cromwell’s victory for Parliamentary forces at the
1645 Battle of Naseby. The second phase ended with Charles’ defeat
at the Battle of Preston and his subsequent execution in 1649 .
John Locke (1632–1704), wrote extensively about two particular ideas:
1. the social contract and
2. natural law.
The social contract was a shorthand way of describing the mutual duties and
responsibilities of the government and the governed. The consent of the
governed, or the citizens, legitimized the authority of the government. This
consent was based on an understanding of what the government would do
for the governed, and, likewise, what the citizens owed in terms of obedience
to the state. This implied contract could be broken if one side failed to live up
to expectations, however; for example, if the citizens agreed to place
themselves under a particular government so it could protect their lives and
property, and in turn it abused the citizens’ rights and property, then the
contract was broken, and the citizens had the right to revolt against the state.
Locke does preserve a distinction between natural right and natural law, the
latter of which is distinguished by its enforceability. But the legitimacy of that
power derives from the right that everyone has to preserve their own basic
rights. No one has the right to invade the rights of others, and “everyone has
the right to punish the transgressors of that Law (of nature) to such a Degree,
as may hinder its Violation.”
Locke wrote Two Treatises of Civil Government appeared in 1690. In the
Second Treatise, Locke posed the question: if individuals naturally are free,
why should they ever choose to cede some of their natural rights to
government? The answer, Locke argued, was that the state was necessary
to protect property and liberty. Where protection ended, he continued, so did
the legitimate authority of government.
John Locke believed that human nature allowed for peaceful, cooperative
relationships between individuals, and the state’s chief responsibility was to
try to maintain the freedom that would allow individuals to recapture this state
of nature again. Thus it can be said the Locke had a more optimistic view of
the state of nature. He believed that a man’s place in society was not
necessarily a struggle against his neighbors in contrast to the views of
Hobbes. He saw human nature as civil, reasonable, tolerant, and industrious,
with its distribution of talents and opportunities being essentially equal
He also disagreed with Plato that private property would necessarily create
enemies. He instead claimed that people are born with equality and
freedom, and if this turns competitive and ugly, it is because of their
actions. Governments are formed to ensure peace and freedom between
people. This creates the possibility of economic freedom that is unregulated
by the state, provided one does not harm one’s neighbor, people are at
liberty to do as they please.
For Locke, the danger to peace was not the grasping natures of men
pursuing their own interests, but the rapacious behavior of the monarch and
his contempt for natural rights. The behaviour of the monarch is the type of
behaviour that forced man to move from the calm state of nature to the state
of war to protect their property and their rights. The lesson of the civil war,
for Locke, was not the need to defend the absolute power of the monarchical
sovereign. Rather, the lesson was that the Stuart monarchy had lost, and it
had to pass down its stolen powers if the institution were to continue at all.
For Locke the cause of the conflict was the violation of those very liberties
which Locke saw as natural and widely held. The people who fought against
the thieving monarchs, including himself, of course had only acted to protect
what was reasonably and rightfully theirs. Further, it was through their natural
respect for the rights and reasons of each other that the wealth, which the
monarch sought to extract through taxes, was theirs in the first place. A king
according to Locke does not generate prosperity: industry, cooperation, and
exchange. Locke argued that the nature of production and the way its
bounties should be distributed is plain to anyone who sets their mind to it.
The exercise of freedom and reason and its industrious deployment is thus,
for Locke, the natural disposition of man. The role of government is not to
change this disposition, but merely to assist its facility and
development by providing for a neutral judge when disputes occur.
Locke said that men should be allowed to regulate their own commerce.
Governments should exist only to protect people from injustice against
the state and against the people, whether from outside sources or from
threats within their borders. Locke also explained why some members of
society were able to amass such a state of wealth; it was through their own
labor that they were able to make enough to sell and, consequently, gather
Locke’s theory of government does not solve all the problems of a
democracy. But it does clearly set forth the doctrine of government as
essentially a representative body of the people’s rights and interests.
In Locke, the political theory of the liberal–democratic state finds a defender.
But there is one crucial problem: how to justify curtailing the will of the
majority if it makes unjust claims by intruding on the rights of a minority, or
single person. Locke’s theory of the state was built around the need to
defend a right, the right to property.
Locke argued that individuals were not bound to obey governmental laws
that ignored their rights and therefore contradicted natural law. Second,
Locke articulated a positive view of human nature that challenged the
prevailing view of humans as incapable of peaceful coexistence without
intrusive state interference. Third, he explained the idea that governments
derived legitimacy from the consent of the governed. The compact, or
agreement, between the state and its citizens placed duties on both; if
the government failed to meet its responsibilities and breached the
contract, citizens, according to Locke, possessed the right to revolt.
Last, Locke argued that liberty was dependent on private property. A state
that protected private property ensured the freedom of its citizens. Locke
defined property as an act of creation, mixing labor with land grew crops,
which therefore were property and thus expanded the term to include political
ideas, religious beliefs, and even an individual’s self. Locke’s contribution to
political theory in general and libertarianism in particular cannot be
He argued that all individual rights ultimately draw justification from self–
ownership, through which a person’s thoughts, beliefs, possessions, and
labors are his or her own. His defense of life, liberty, and property and the
right of revolution for citizens whose government fails to protect these rights
influenced revolts such as the American and French Revolutions, documents
such as the American Declaration of Independence, and even activism such
as the U.S. Civil Rights Movement. By illuminating the values and issues of
individualism, Locke provided the framework for an ongoing dialogue and
earned the title of father of libertarianism.
The British scholar Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679) was one of history’s most
persuasive champions of authoritarian government. Hobbes lived during
an extremely turbulent time in European history when the authority of the
church, the state, and philosophy were all being challenged. The
Reformation had unleashed religious wars, Spain and England were locked
in conflict. In fact, Hobbes was born in the same year the British defeated
the Spanish Armada and England faced a long civil war that resulted in the
beheading of King Charles I in 1649. He was an unapologetic supporter
of royal power, Hobbes argued for a strong state whose powers could not
be undermined by the people.
He sought to apply logical mathematical and scientific principles to the study
of politics, Hobbes rejected any Platonic or Aristotelian notion that some
people are more virtuous and, therefore, more fit to rule. He dismissed any
appeal to innate reason or religion as reasons for authoritarian rule. But,
instead of weakening a ruler’s authority by removing traditional arguments
supportive of kings or aristocrats, Hobbes greatly strengthened a ruler’s
claim to power.
Theorists such as Plato and Aristotle, had based their defense of strong
government on the unequal intellectual, moral and spiritual capacities if
human beings. Because of this supposed inequality, Plato and Aristotle held
that a gifted or chosen individual (or in some cases a small elite group) had
both a right and an obligation to govern in an autocratic fashion. Hobbes,
however, believed in the near equality of all human beings. Although he
acknowledged that some people were more powerful, more courageous, and
more intelligent, he noted that even the weakest could find ways to kill or rob
For Hobbes, the reality about society was that every person experienced two
closely linked emotions:
1. a desire for power and
2. a fear of death.
The desire for power resulted in a savagery that led everyone to harbor a
justifiable fear of being attacked, robbed, and destroyed. Hobbes described
an imaginary “state of nature” to explain what life would be like if people
were simply left to their own devices. Without the rules and protections of
government, people would be in a perpetual state of war against each other.
As a result, they could not conduct business, develop an intellectual or
artistic life, organize society, or ever feel safe. Life would be “solitary, nasty,
brutish, and short” according to Hobbes.
The question that arose was how could people escape this brutish
reality as described by Hobbes. Thomas Hobbes believed the only way for
people to escape the profound danger posed by their own brutal ambitions
was for the people to covenant together and turn over all power to a
sovereign. This transaction had to be both complete and irrevocable. The
agreement or covenant as Hobbes describes it was a social contract that
was made among the people themselves; the ruler had no part in arranging
for the bargain that gave him complete power. As a result, the covenant could
not be undone by the people because they freely had relinquished all their
rights to the ruler in an unconditional
manner. Although Hobbes conceded that the sovereign might be an
assembly (for example, something similar to the British Parliament), he
however believed that a single monarch was best. In any case, the
sovereign had to be indivisible and absolute.
In his book Leviathan (1651), Hobbes described what life would be like
without a strong government.
During the time men live without a common power … they are
in that condition which is called war: and such a war as
is of every man against every man…In such condition,
there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof
is uncertain; … no society and, which is the worst of all,
continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man,
solitary, nasty, brutish, and short.
In essence Thomas Hobbes believed that humans in nature were violent,
greedy, and irrational, and the state had to set up mechanisms to control
these base instincts of citizens.
In Hobbes’ view, the sovereign could commit no injustice, the sovereign
could not be punished or removed, and the sovereign had the right to use
any means thought necessary to ensure peace and security. In the pursuit
of order and security, the sovereign had a right to control the content of books
and opinions, make laws at will, and hear and judge all legal cases. Hobbes
recognized that government might, at times, make the people miserable. But,
he argued that such misery was unavoidable and should be accepted.
The nature of Hobbes’ authoritarian views are especially clear when he
explained the relationship between government and the individual. Hobbes
gave no room for questioning or challenging the government. He
rejected the idea that a private individual had a right to rely on his or
her conscience as a measure of good and evil. Only the law of the state
could provide that standard. Therefore, Hobbes said it was not a sin to go
against one’s conscience if conscience came into conflict with the law.
Education, discipline, and correction must be used by the sovereign to
prevent people from advancing their own private judgements opposing
official orthodoxy. While citizens must obey the law, the sovereign stood
above the law. Hobbes reasoned that if the sovereign stood under the power
of the law, then sovereignty would be diminished. Writing about wealth,
Hobbes said that citizens had a right to protect their property against
other citizens. But, they had no absolute right to any property needed
by the sovereign.
Hobbes believed the power and authority of the sovereign should never
be limited or divided. Any diminution of government sovereignty put the
people at risk because their only security rested in the ability of the state to
keep both internal and external peace. At one level, Hobbes’ ideas apply
equally to democratic and authoritarian states. Even in the most open
modern democracies people are not free to disobey the law, take the law into
their own hands, avoid paying taxes, or set up separate governments within
a country. But, Hobbes is more justly regarded as a strong defender of
authoritarianism than of the sovereignty of democratic systems.
Certainly, he himself was uncomfortable with democratic sentiments. For
Hobbes a ruler should exercise absolute and unrestricted power and
because of the authority that he commands he must stand above all other
associations and groups in society
HOBBES, LOCKE AND THE STATE OF NATURE THEORIES:
Michael P. Greeson
University of Central Oklahoma
Both Thomas Hobbes and John Locke utilize a “state of nature”
construct to elucidate their more general views on human nature and
politics. Yet their conceptions of man’s original condition in the state
of nature are usually contrasted: the political philosophy of Locke’s
Second Treatise paints man as a “pretty decent fellow,” far removed
from the quarrelsome, competitive, selfish creatures said to be found
in Hobbes’s Leviathan.1 Lockean man seems to be more naturally
inclined to civil society, supposedly more governed by reason. From
this interpretation of human nature, Locke concluded that the state
of nature was no condition of war, placing himself in opposition to
the traditional interpretation of Hobbes.
Itismy contention that although Locke painstakingly attempts to
disassociate himself with the Hobbesian notion of the “se1f-inter
ested man” in a perpertual “state of war,” the execution of this
attempt falls short, and can even be recognized to implicitly (if not
explicitly) contain the very reasoning that Hobbes ulilizes to advo
cate the movement of man from the state of nature to civil society. In
order to demonstrate the truth ofthis contention, I will briefly ou tline
the development of their philosophies and offer both a reinterpreta
tion ofthe Hobb esian sta te of nature, and a cri tical anal ysis 0 fLoc ke’ 5
view of the state of nature in the Second Treatise.
I. Hobbes: Method and Problem
Hobbes offered a materialistic metaphysics that utilized a simpli
fied version of Galileo’s resolutio-compositive method. According
to this method, complex phenomena are broken down into their
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1Examples of the many works in political philosophy that hold such views are
Simmons, A. J. “Locke’s State of Nature,” and Great Political Thinkers, W. and A.
Ebenstein, New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanavich College Publishers, 1991.
Episteme • Volume V • May 1994
2 MICHAEL P. GREESON
simplest natural motions and components. Once these elements are
understood, the workings of complex wholes are easily derived.
Hobbes’ intent was to develop a systematic study in three parts,
starting with simple motions in matter (De Corpore), moving to the
study of human nature (De Homine) , and finally to politics (De Cive),
each based, respectively, on a lower level of analysis (Lasco and
Williams, p. 230). Hence, reality for Hobbes is reducible to mechanis
tic and material principles, or, simply stated, bodies m motion. If we
are to understand politics. Hobbes suggests that we should look at
such phenomena in tenus of the relationships between “men in.
Furthermore, Hobbes adopted the Galilean proposition that that
which is in motion continues in motion until altered by some other
force. (Of course, this is a theoretical assumption which, indepen
dently, cannot be proven true or false, since all we do observe are
bodies that are acted upon by such forces). Likewise, Hobbes as
sumed that human beings act voluntarily based upon their “pas
sions,” until they are resisted by another force or forces. This outward
motion of the individual is the beginning of voluntary motion, which
Hobbes calls “endeavor.” Endeavor directed towards an object is
called “appetite” or” desire.” Endeavor dlrected away from an object
is called “aversion” (Gauthier, p. 6).
The several passions of man are “species” of desires and aversion,
which are directed toward those objects whose effects produce
pleasure and away from those objects which produce pain. Thus,
Hobbes conceives men to be self-maintaining engines whose “mo
tion is such that it enables them to continue to ‘move’ as long as
continued motion IS possible” (Gauthier, p. 7).
From this account of utili tous motion, itlogically follows, accord
ing to Hobbes, that each man in the state of nature seeks only to
preserve and strengthen himself. “A concern for continued well
being is both the necessary and sufficient ground of human action;
hence, man.is necessarily selfish” (Gauthier, p. 7).
!tis this perpetual endeavor for self-preservation within the state
of nature which gives rise to a condition of “war.” Hobbes believes
that men, being originally all equal in the “faculties of the body and
mind,” equally hope to fulfill their ends of vital motion (Leviathan, p.
100). Hence, if “two men desire the same thing, which nevertheless
they cannot both enjoy, they become enemies,” for both, knowing
3 HOBBES, LOCKE AND THE STATE OF NATURE THEORIES
naturalmorallaw would b e privy to the unconditional, absolute and
categorical right to preserve oneself at all cost (Leviathan, p. 98). This
state of war encompasses all, “everyman, against everyman” (Levia
than, p. 100). Without a common power to police and settle disputes,
man is in a perpetual condition of war; “war consisting not only in
battle, orin the act of fighting, but in a willingness to contend by battle
being sufficiently recognized” (Leviathan, p. 100). The state of nature
is seen as a condition in which the will to fight others is known,
fighting is not infrequent and each individual perceives that his life
and well-being are in constant danger (Leviathan, p. 100). Accord
ingly, men in the state of nature live without security other than their
own strength; this is argued to be the natural condition of mankind,
and leads Hobbes to the conclusion that such existence is “natural”
to man, but not rational (whereas society is seen as rational, but not
natural, contra Aristotle) (Kavka, p. 292).
It is within this irrational condition of “war,” or Hobbesian” fear”
or “despair,” in which human beings find little hope of attaining their
ends without conflict, that mortal men are compelled to elect a
sovereign and move out of the state of nature; only then can the
imperative of self-preservation be truly fulfilled through peace
(Lemos, p. 24). It is important to note that the state of nature, for
Hobbes, is a philosophic device employed as a means ofhypothesiz
ing about human behavior in a pre-political and pre-socia] state, Le.,
a state without any extemal constraint on behavior. As Hobbes
indicates, His not necessary to presume such a state actually existed,
only that it captures essential features human beings would exhibit
in such a condition.
Hobbes’ political philosophy was received in his own time with
nearly universal rejection, being more often renounced than actually
read. Hobbes was labelled an atheist, the “monster of Malmesbury,”
a schemer, a heretic and a blasphemer (De Cive, p. xx). His advocacy
of an absolute monarch as the solution to man’s inherent condition
further distanced him from the “enlightened” mainstream of 17th
century political thought, including Locke’s philosophy. It is a
commonly held view that although Locke makes no specific mention
of Hobbes in the Second Treatise, it may nonetheless be interpreted as
an attempt to systematically refute both the notion of absolute mon
archy and Hobbes’s description of the state of nature (Lemos, p. 74).
4 MICHAEL P. GREESON
II. John Locke: Method and Problem
Philosophy, Locke tells the reader in the introduction of his Essay
Concerning Human Understanding, is “nothing but true knowledge of
things.” Properly, philosophy contains the whole of knowledge,
which Locke himself divides into three parts: a physica or natural
philosophy, practica or moral philosophy, and logic, the” doctrine of
signs.” The goal of the philosopher is to build as complete a system
as he possibly can within these three categories (Aaron, p. 74).
Yet Locke persuasively argues in the Essay that mankind’s ability
to gain true knowledge is significantly limited, and sets himself the
task of determining the demarcations of human knowledge. To help
mankind rid itself of this “unfortunate” failing, he argues that man
has been endowed with talents capable of allowing him to live a
useful and profitable life. The Essay is extremely pradical: we should
concentrate on what we can know, and not waste our energy or e Hort
searching for knowltdge of things which lie beyond us (Aaron, p. 77).
It is exactly these practical and utilitarian ends that moti va ted the
construction of his nloral and political philosophy. Although politi
cal and moral philosophy are not reducible to metaphysical plin
dples thot app.ly outside of their respective fields of inquiry (thus
explnining the difficulties between advocating, on one hand, the
strict empiricism of the Essay, and, on the other hand, the rationalist
naturalluw theory of the Two Treatises), in all of his writings Locke
assumes, fu ndamentally, that man knows enough to live a good and
righteous hfe if he so chooses.
Locke argued that the state of nature is not identical to the state
of war, and, although it is “inconvenient,” nature is governed by a
nuturullnw known by reason, the “coounon rule and measure God
hus given mankind.” The nalurallaw “teaches all mankind who will
but consult it that, being all equal and independent, no on€: ought to
harm anothel: in his Hfe, health, liberty or property” (Locke, p. 4). If
the law of nature is observed, the state of nature remains peaceful;
conv(mtional wisdom defines this condition as one of mutual love
(via the “judicious” Richard Hooker), from whence are “derived the
great maxims of justice and charity” (Locke, p. 4).
Yet, according to Locke, God has instilled in natural man a
“strong obligation of necessity, convenience and inclination to drive
him into society”; hence, men quit their “natural power, resigned it
5 HOBBES, LOCKE AND THE STATE OF NATURE THEORIES
up into the hands of the community” for the assurance that their
property will be preserved (Locke, pp. 44, 48, 53).
Men being, as has been said, by nature free, equal and
independent, no one can be put out of this estate and
subjected to the political power of another without
his own consent. The only way whereby anyone
divests himself of his natural liberty and put on the
bonds of civil society is by agreeing with other men to
join and unite into a community for their comfortable,
safe and peaceable living one amongst another, in a
secure enjoyment of their properties and a greater
securitr against any that are not of it. (Locke, p. 53).2
An equally important factor motivating men to forfeit the perfect
freedom of the state of nature is that within this environment, each
man has a right to interpret natural law and to punish what he judges
to be violations of it (Lemos, p. 85). Anyone who violates another’s
right to life, liberty or property has placed himself in a state of war,
and the innocent party has the right to destroy those who act against
him because those that are waging war do not live under the rule of
reason, and, as a result, have no other rule but that of force and
violence. Furthermore, this state of war would be perpetual ifjustice
could not be fairly administered (Locke, pp. 11,13).
Therefore, in order to avoid a state of war, Locke suggests that
one must forfeit the state of nature, creating an environment where
disputes can be decided upon by an impartial authority (Locke, p.
It would seem, at least upon prima facia analysis, that although
both thinkers utilize a state of nature device to demonstrate political
necessity, their similarities would end there. Hobbes’ slate of nature
would seem to be populated by self-interested egoists whose per
sonal gain is ultimately important. Locke ,on the other hand, appears
to suggest that a “civil” nature permeates pre-ci viI society to such an
extent that man is voluntarily obliged to respect his fellow human
beings. and the formation of civil society soon follows.
The common conception regarding the state of nature theories of
Hobbes and Locke is thus presented. I shall now turn to the argu
2 A classic statement of libertarianism!
6 MICHAEL P. GREESON
ments as to why this conception is invalid, beginning wi th a reassess
ment of Hobbes’ position, followed by specific argtunents regarding
Locke ‘snotion of pre-political man’ smoti vation to pursue civil ends.
III. Reassessing Hobbes
To understand morality and politics, Hobbes argues that one
must understand man qua man; hence, psychology becomes the
necessary foundation of moral and political science. And the only
way to view mankind in its most natural condition is to assume a
hypothetical state of nature in which men act purely out of passion,
void of reason at Ie ast initially. Hobbes’ account ofthe state of nature,
as shown in Chapter 17 of Leviathan, was expressly “designed to
provide a glimpse of man without the garb of convention, h’adition
or society, so asto uncover the underlying principles ofthemundane
equity of natural man, without assuming an transcendent purpose or
will” (Lasco and Williams, p. 252). Therefore, Hobbes’ prescription
for stability was a deduction from the necessary behavior of man in
a theoretical society, nnt emphasizing how men ought to act, but
rather how they would act void of any relationships, whatsoever. It
is in this condition that our endeavors dispose us towards plensllre
or pain; man, being concerned with only those endeavors which
serve to preserve himself, chooses those objects which meet this
condition. Hence, man wOl1Jd find himself often in competition with
others for the same objects, and a state of war would ensue, with each
having the “right to everything” he wishes. 3
Historically, the negative interpretation of this condition of
nature, being a “war of all against all,” has been dominant in political
and philosophical circles. Sterling Lamprecht defines the common
conception of Hobbes’ psychology as follows:
God made man such a beast and a rascal that he
3Keep in mind that the aim of Hobbes is not to suggest thnt we can actually
observe such a condition, or that it is even remotely possible; this is m0rdy a
fundqmental axiom in Hobbes’ thought experiment. In fact, R.E. Ewin hilS nrgued
that this more radical form of the natural condition is lIsed by Hobbes as part of a
reductio, as to pointou t the logical inconsistencies between simultaneously ilssuming
the existence of both such a natur<ll condition and the pursuit of self-preservation:
they ultimately prove contradictory (Ewin, p. 108).
7 HOBBES, LOCKE AND THE STATE OF NATURE THEORIES
inclines universally to malice and fraud. Man’s typi
cal acts. UJ1Jess he is restrained by force, are violent
and ruthless, savagely disregarding the persons and
property of his fellows. His greatest longing is to
preserve himself by gaining power over others and
exploiting others for his own egoistic ends (De Cive, p.
Lamprecht labels this view “Hobbism,” and argues that in this
view of human nature, Hobbes is far from being a Hobbist. Hobbes
gives, to be sure, a picture of man in the state of nature which is far
from becoming. But, Lamprecht argues, Hobbes did not intend to say
that his picture of man in the state of nature is an exhaustive account
of human nature. Rather, the concept of man in the state of nature
enables us to measure the extent to which reason and social pressures
Le., other “forces” determine and direct the expression of human
The idea of man in the state of nature is for social
science like that of a natural body in physical science.
Physical science holds that a body continues in a state
of rest or uniform motion in a straight line unless
influenced by outside forces. Actually, there is no
body which is not influenced by outside bodies; but
the idea of such a body enables us to measure the
outside forces (De Cive, p. xxi).
Such a natural man in “full motion” would be observable when
ever one operates wholly under the dominion of passion, without the
restraint, or to use Hobbes’ language, “the opposing force,” o.f
reason. Man, acting on his own, with no concern for others’ sel£
preservation, guided by short-term considerations only, is doomed
to failure in a state of nature. But if long-term moral and political
arrangements (i.e., a voluntary social contract) enable them to main
tain themselves without facing a war of all against all, then the basic
cause for hostility is removed (Gauthier, pp. 18-19). In fact, many
scholars suggest that the whole concern of Hobbes’ moral and
political philosophy is to show men the way out of this short-term
condition of war and into a long-term condition of peace, for human
life can continue only if mankind can remove itself from such a
8 MICHAEL p, GREESON
condition. David Gauthier, inhis treatise titled The Logic OfLeviathan,
states this argument most eloquently:
In the beginning, everyman has an unlimited right to
do what he will, conceiving it to be for his preserva
tion. But the exercise of this unlimited right is one of
the causes of the war of all against all, which is
inimical to preservation. Thus the unlimited right of
nature proves contradictory in its use; the man who
exercises his right in order to preserve himself con
tributes thereby to the war of all against all, which
tends to his own destruction. And so it is necessary to
give up some part of the unlimited natural right. …
The fundamental law of nature is “that every man
ought to endeavor peace, as far as he has hope of
obtaining it.” The law is the most general conclusion
man derives from his experience of the war of all
against all. Clearly it depends on that experience,
whether real or imagined. Although hypothetically a
man might conclude that it was necessarily inimical
to human life, only an analysis of the human condi
tion with all social bonds removed shows that peace
is the primary requisite for preservation (Gauthier,
The salvation of mankind, for Hobbes, depends on the fact that
although nature has placed him in an unpleasant condition, it has
also endowed him with the possibility of removing himself from it,
as revealed through the use of reason i.e., the rational desire to pursue
those avenues in which the hope of attaining peaceful existence is
real! To argue that the state of nature, for Hobbes, is purely brutish
and warlike, devoid of rationality or reason, is to miss the point: it is
a necessary ingredient to lead man out of the state of nature and into
a civil society. Hobbes’ visionofnaturernightbe but a limited guide;
yet, to borrow the words of Gauthier, “it is a truth which we must
endeavor to overcome-but we shall not overcome it if we misunder
stand it, deny it, or ignore it (Gauthier, p. 180).
9 HOBBES, LOCKE AND THE STATE OF NATURE THEORIES
IV. Locke and Political Motivation
What follows are several arguments which independently sug
gest that the Lockean state of nature implicitly admits of a Hobbesian
condition of war, for Locke himself views conflict as the primary
motivating factor that necessarily compels man to leave the state of
nature and enter civil society.
Initially, it is important to establish a fundamental point of
difference between these two theories: Locke’s state of nature is pre
political (Le., prior to common authority). whereas, for Hobbes, it is
pre-social. Locke refers to a situation in which a collection of human
beings are not subject to political authority, not a situation in which
there exists no form of rudimentary organization, much less an
organized society (Lemos, p. 89). Hobbes uses the expression “state
of nature” to denote a situation in which men do not live in any form
of society at all, regardless of how fundamental. Furthermore, his
definition tells us w hat people would be like if they could be divested
of “all their learned responses or culturally induced behavior pat
terns, especially those such as loyalty patriotism, religious fervor or
class honor” that frequently could override the “fear” that Hobbes
speaks of so dramatically in pre;-civil society (Hinchman, p. 10).
If we were to assume man as existing pre-socially as Hobbes does
(a condition without, trade, without the arts, without knowledge,
without any account of time, without society itself), it seems a rather
intuitive implication that he might be motivated by only self-cen
tered drives, for that would be the extent of his learned behavior
within this condition. Locke, on the other hand, takes social and
cultural bonds for granted and argues purely from a pre-political
position. Even a hypothetical Lockean might act a bit more selfishly
in a Hobbesian state of nature; once semantic discrepancies are taken
into account, these definitions already begin to appear closer to
Secondly, Locke’s position seems tobe a normative prescription,
as opposed to a theoretical description. For example: in chapter II,
section 6 of the Second Treatise, Locke argues that through reason,
those who consult the law of nature will learn that no one “ought” to
harm another’s life, liberty or possessions. This phrasing seems to
suggest a normative position, prescribing how man should live in a
state of nature, versus the account that Hobbes constructs upon his
10 MICHAEL P. GREESON
theoretical premises. These positions are not mutually exclusive: one
can observe pre-civil man in a Hobbesian state of nature and morally
prescribe a Lockean state of nature as a more “civil” alternative.
Thirdly, Locke seems to provide evidence for the Hobbesian
assumption that man often acts out of selfishness and criminal intent.
Initially Locke seems somewhat ambiguous about precisely what
motivates the man of nature to move to civil society: he states that
God has instilled a “strong obligation of necessity, convenience and
inclination to drive him into society.” But why would man leave a
state of nature that, at least according to Locke, provides him the
ultimate liberty and power over his destiny, a condition that he likens
to “a state of peace , good-will, mutual assistance and preservation”?
If the man in the state of nature be so free, as has been
said, if he be absolute lord of his own person and
possessions, equal to the greatest, and subject to
nobody, why will he part with his freedom, why will
he give up his empire and subject himself to the
domin.bn and control of any other power? To which
it is obvious to answer that though in the state of
nature he has such a right, yet the enjoyment of it is
very uncertain and constantly exposed to the invasion of
others .., This makes him willing to quit a condition
which, however free, is full offeal’ and continual dangers
(Locke, p. 71),
were it not for the corruption and viciousness of degen
erate men, there would be no need of any other law,
no necessity that men should separate from this great
and natural community” (Locke, p. 72).
If Locke ‘sstate of nature is truly as “rational” and “concerned” as
he suggests, why is the only motivating factor powerful enough to
move men out of this condition that which he so vehemently denies
exists: a Hobbesian condition of “war”?
Locke clearly states in the Second Treatise that one of the natural
rights that must be granted to all men in the state of nature, equally,
is that man should interpret natural law for himself and decide upon
11 HOBBES, LOCKE AND THE STATE OF NATURE THEORIES
appropriate punishment for offenders since there exists no common
judge to settle controversies between men. It is precisely this intui
tive and pre-political knowledge of the natural law that is said to
enlighten man to the burdens of civil SOciety.
Yet Locke argues persuasively that any knowledge of a natural
law is more often than not hindered due to mankind’s inherent
epistemic limitations. Man’s own unquenchable and boundless cu
riosi ty itself becomes a hindrance. Richard Aaron uses the words of
Locke’s Essay to demonstrate this point:
Thus men, extending their inquiries beyond their
capacities and letting their thoughts wander into
these depths where they can find no sure footing, ’tis
no wonder they raise questions and multiply dis
putes, which never coming to any clear resolution,
are proper only to continue and increase their doubts
and to confirm them at last in perfect skepticism
(Aaron, p. 77).
Even if one accepted that a natural law existed, Locke’s clear
rejection of man’s ability to know this law with any degree of
certainty, combined with his suggestion that foreknowledge of such
a law does not guarantee moral action, would seem to suggest a
condition of skepticism and disagreement. This position is strikingly
similar to Hobbes’ argument that although human reason is capable
of discerning the laws of nature, mankind is unable to consistently
follow the dictates of such reason (Lamprecht, De Cive, p. xxix). In
fact, one of the strongest arguments that Locke proposes to reject in
the First Treatise is the divine right theory of Sir Robert Filmer, which
is based upon the notion that even if a right of succession had been
determined by a law of nature, our knowledge of natural law is
limited to such a degree that there remains no compelling reason to
accept one explanation over another.
Furthermore, such subjective interpretations of the natural law
would logically imply an unfairly administered and inconsistent
justice. Locke continues:
for everyone in the state of nature being both judge
and executioner, of the laws of nature, men being
12 MICHAEL P. GREESON
partial to themselves, passion and revenge is very apt to
carry them too far with too much heat in their own
cases, as well as negligence and unconcernedness to
make them remiss in other men’s (Locke, p. 71).
This seems contradictory to an environment of peace and fellowship,
and Locke strongly suggests that a state of war would exist if justice
could not be fairly administered.
Consider this: For Locke, in the absence of a neutral judge, no one
can accurately know truthfully whether his cause is right or wrong.
Thus, everyone is at liberty to believe himself right. Patrick Colby
IT one person fears his neighbor, whether with cause
or without (for only an individual can judge), by this
partial and subjective determination the neighbor
becomes a wild beast and is lawfully destroyed. But
when the neighbor, now the target of attack, might
understandably conclude thathis assailant is the wild
beast and so endeavor to execute the law of nature
against him (Colby, p. 3).
But this means that Locke’s state of nature will not divide neatly
into groups of “upright law-abiders and selfish malefactors.” And if
a distinction cannot be made between such individuals, it would
seem impossible for justice to be administered effectively. Locke
himself deduces suell a conclusion:
The inconveniences that they are therein exposed by
the irregular and uncertain exercise of the power
every man has of punishing the transgressions of
others make them take sanctuary under the law of
government (Locke, p. 71). .
Locke makes it clear from the beginning of his argument and increas
ingly so ashe progresses, that because judgment and punishmen tare
in the hands of everyman, the state of nature works very poorly
(Godwin, pp. 126-127). And in the state of nature, conflict (or a
willingness to contend by conflict), once begun, and once unable to
achieve a satisfactory resolution, would tend to continue to a harsh
13 HOBBES, LOCKE AND THE STATE OF NATURE THEORIES
ending, because there exists no authority to subject bothparties to the
fair determination of the law (Godwin, p. 127).
This potential inconsistency in the application of natural law
seems, for Locke, to create significant enough hardships to motivate
man to civil sOciety:
I easily grant that civil government is the proper
remedy for the inconveniences of the state of nature,
which must certainly be great where men may be
judges in their own case; since it is easy to be imag
ined that he who was to be unjust as to do his brother
an injury will scarce be so just as to condemn himself
for it (Locke, p. 9).
Clearly, Locke’s original state of nature, if not absolutely equiva
lent to Hobbes’ state of nature, is at the very least a place of extreme
anxieties, inconveniences, inequality and fear of the potential out
break of war. Locke provides convincing evidence that the state of
nature would be so dangerous and unhappy, and the preservation of
one’s right to life so precarious, that the law of nature demands that
the state of nature be abandoned for civil society (Locke, p. 18).
Though Locke suggests that his state of nature is not a Hobbesian
condition of “war,” a closer examination of this argument would
tend to suggest that without the failure of the state of nature to
guarantee a secure peace, mankind would never voluntarily choose
to forfeit his absolute freedom. Jean Faurot provides support:
But (Locke’s) state of nature also includes a condition
scarcely distinguishable from that which Hobbes
describes as a state of war-all that is needed is for
some man to act contrary to reason, because in the
state of nature every man is obligated to punish
evildoers. In this way, war begins, with the right on
the side of the innocent to destroy the evildoer, or, if
he prefers, to enslave him. Nor is there any end to this
condition in the state of nature, where every man is
both judge and executioner. The slightest disagree
mentis enough to set men fighting, and the victory of
the righteous is never secure. Therefore, men have the
strongest reasons for leaving the state of nature and
14 MICHAEL P. GREESON
entering civil society (Faurot, p. 75).
Hence, not only do I argue that Locke’s state of nature corre
sponds to Hobbes’ notion of a condition of perpetual fear, or the
“state of war,” but it actually becomes the identical catalyst by which
Lockean man justifies movement to civil society.
The point of this presentation is clear: the common conception of
Locke as the political propounder of the polite school of positive,
optimistic descriptive psychology is an inaccurate characterization.
Furthermore, the also-common contrasting of Locke’s view of man
in the state of nature with Hobbes’ theoretical consideration of
natural man has been misunderstood. Hobbes did not concern
himself with a “plain, historical method”: his concerns were with
devising a system of government (albeit monarchial) that would best
serve mankind’s inherent drive for both self-preservation and peace.
Men enter civil society because the state of nature tends to
deteriorate into a condition of unrest and insecurity. If all men were
rational and virtuous, apprehending and obeying a natural law,
th.::.re would be no problem. The presence of a few men acting in
opposition to reason, combined with an environment lacking a
common authority to arbih’ate disputes, creates a condition of insta
bility and provides the necessary impetus for, in Locke’s words,
“reasonable part of positive agreement”: a social contract (Faurot, p.
Whether one accepts a reinterpretation of Hobbes’ state of nature
construct, or a closer examination of Locke’s arguments, it is clear
that, although not identical, their analyses offer many striking simi
1arities. And, more importantly. without the instability and fear
within the state of nature, neither philosopher could logically infer
movement from nature to civil society: it becomes the necessary,
perhaps sufficient cause for any social contract.
Therefore, the classical juxtaposition of Hobbes’ and Locke’s
state of nature theories is at best questionable and far from convinc
15 HOBBES, LOCKE AND’THE STATE OF NATURE THEORIES
Aaron, R. John Locke. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1967.
Colby, P. “‘The Law of Nature in Locke’s Second Treatise,” The Review
of Politics, Vol. 49, Winter 1987.
Ewin, R.E. Virtues & Rights: 171e Moral Philosophy of Thomas Hobbes.
Boulder: Westview Press, 1991.
Faurot, J.H. Problems of Political Philosophy. Scranton: Chandler
Publishing Co., 1970
Gauthier, D. P. The Logic ofLeviathan. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1969.
Godwin, R. “Locke’s State of Nature in Political Societies,” Westem
Political Quarterly. Vol. 29, March 1976.
Hinchman, L. P. “The Origin of Human Rights: A Hegelian
Perspective,” Western Political Quarterly. Vol. 37, March 1984.
Hobbes, T. De Civc. ed. Sterling P. Lamprecht. New York: Appleton
Century-Crofts, Inc., 1949.
–. Leviathan. New York: MacMillan, 1962.
Lasco, J. and L. Williams. Political Theoly: Classic Writings, Contemp01’a1Y
Views, New York: st. Martins, 1992.
Lemos, R. M. Hobbes and Locke. Atlanta: University of Georgia Press,
Locke, J. The Second Treatise ofGovernment. ed. Thomas P. Reardon.
New York: Bobbs-Merill Company, Inc., 1952.
Kavka, G. S. “Hobbes’s War Against AU,” Ethics. Vol. 93, Issue 2,
Simmons, A J. “Locke’s State of Nature,” Political Theory. Vol. 17,
Taylor, A.E. Thomas I-Iobbes. Port Washington: Kennikat Press, 1970.
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