Social Contract and the Theories of the State of Nature by Hobbes, Rousseau and Locke
Social Contract- Meaning
Social Contract is a voluntary agreement by which people enter into or belong to a civil society. It addresses the genesis of societies in the current world regimes. Individuals must surrender their own freedom as per the theory of nature and must submit to ruling organizations or authorities as well as the majority’s decisions. In social contract, both legal and natural rights are critical aspects. Before the organization of the societies, men lived with exclusive freedom without rights. However, later in human lives, governance came and bought up obligations and rights that control people. This contract joins people into existing communities for mutual preservations (Keeley, 1988).
Outspoken philosophers who studied how the societies lived before political contracts include Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The three had various views on the theory of nature as the paper discusses. These theorists relied on the state of nature, human without political associations, to study on the justifications and limits of the social contract, and the legitimacy of the societies. These philosophers’ opinions vary sharply; however, most of their researches associate it with lack of state of sovereignty.
Hobbes’ Theory of the State of Nature
According to Hobbes, lives of people before the social contract are characterized by war. Every man fought against every man. In the same state, constant and violent circumstances occur, where every individual has a right to all sorts of things, notwithstanding the interests of others. In the views of Hobbes, the state of nature is poor, nasty, brutish, solitary and short. He adds that the only laws that exist in the state of nature are not only agreements forged between individuals but also principles relying on self-preservations. What Hobbes refers to as the law of nature, for example, is that every man must strive for peace as far as he has desires of obtaining it, however, when he cannot achieve it, he may use or seek all that helps, including the advantages of war.
Hobbes also says that without societies and higher authorities to resolve disputes, every individual fears and lacks trust in everyone else, consequently, there can neither be justice, commerce, nor culture. His works state that all the unsustainable conditions would only come to an end when people agree to sacrifice their natural rights to all things and issue their self-sovereignty to a Leviathan, or a supreme civil authority. For Hobbes, the higher authority’s will is in the law, it is absolute and no other authority is above its sovereignty. However, it does not imply that the power of the authority is all encompassing because in cases that the government is silent, the ruled remain open to act as they are pleased. Hobbes further states that the social contract allows people to set aside their state of nature, and join the civil society. Nevertheless, the state of nature remains a threat and automatically returns when the societal powers collapse. Since the government power is unchallenged, its fall is unlikely and may only occur at instances when it is not able to provide protection to its subjects anymore.
According to Hobbes’ argument, politics, society, morality and all that encompasses them, commodious living, are exclusively conventional. Prior to the basic social contract establishment, before men agree to stay in a contract embodiment of sovereignty, anything goes by. However, after the establishment of these contracts, societies become and mankind can keep their promises. Therefore, he views social contract as the major source of all good that people depend on to live well. Hobbes argues that no reasonable person would prefer living in the state of nature.
Locke’s Theory of the State of Nature
In contrast with Hobbes theory, Locke states that the state of nature is only attributed to the nonexistence of control, but not by lack of mutual obligations. He says that the state of nature is much beyond self-preservation, but through reasoning, it teaches people who seek it that to be independent and equal, no person ought to injure one another in possessions, life or liberty. He believed that people naturally possess the rights of liberty, property and life and the state of nature could be comparatively peaceful. Individual however agree to form authorities and leave the natural state for the impartial institution of power that is capable of adjudicating their disputes as well as redressing injuries. The argument of Locke about the right of liberty, life and property being the natural rights precede the establishment of the civil society and influenced the revolution in America and modern liberalism in a more general way (Macpherson, 1962).
The natural conditions of mankind are perfect and individuals have a complete liberty over their lives without the interference from others. However, according to Locke, it is not a license of entirely every conduct. A person is not just free to do everything as he or she pleases. However not involving the authority, it does not mean it is a state with no morals. He believes that this state is pre-societies but not pre-moral. In such a state, people are equal one another, and hence equally bound by the natural laws. In the view of Locke, the law of nature is the basis of all morals and was given by God, and guides that we ought not to harm others by being sensitive to their health, life, possessions and liberty. Since we are God’s and we cannot remove what is His, we are obliged to harm none. Therefore, in the state of nature, a person is free to see his or her own plans and interest, free from harming others and it is relatively peaceful.
As opposed to Hobbes, the state of nature was meant not to bring harm to anyone. But because this state has no civil authority, law of nature allows people to defend themselves, their properties and liberty. Therefore, if a person initiates a war by trying to make one a slave or stealing from them, people will fight back as a self-defense. In this case, the war is likely to continue infinitely and for that reason, men abandoned the state of nature.
Rousseau’s Theory of the State of Nature
According to Rousseau there is a historical process of change where man began in living in a state of nature before progressively entering into a civil society. The state of nature according to him was a peaceful and idealistic period. People stayed in unity and uncomplicated lives. The people’s needs were satisfied by nature. Since there were nature in abundance and small population sizes, competitions did not occur, people rarely met each other, and had less reasons for fear or conflict. People were naturally filled with the capacity of pity, and hence were not oriented to harm one another.
Time passed by and humanity faced changes as population increased and the media to satisfy people’s needs had to change. People began to cluster into small families, followed by small communities. Divisions of labor, inventions and discoveries made lives easier and gave rise to leisure. These brought comparisons among people, resulting in shame, envy, public values, contempt and pride. Most importantly, the originations of private properties, according to Rousseau, constituted simple states which was the onset of vanity, inequality, completion, and vice. For him, property invention constituted humanity’s fall from the beauty of the state of nature. According to Rousseau, the law of social contract purports to issue equality while in essence it solidifies the very inequalities that the private property initiations produced. It is the reason as to why the modern societies suffer conflicts and completions (Macpherson, 1962).
Human were essentially free during the periods of the Law of Nature. However, the progress into civilization substituted that freedom to few through dependence, social and economic inequalities and men judge themselves more through comparisons with one another. For that reason, politics is meant to restore the state of nature to us by fostering peace, unity, and love in the societies. As opposed to both Locke and Hobbes, according to Rousseau, all men were made equal and none has a natural right to control others. Therefore, the only acceptable authority to govern is that which is constituted out of covenants or agreement.
According to Rousseau, social contract implies a direct and strong form of democracy. An individual cannot allocate one’s will to another, and to use as he or she sees fit. However, the general will is based on coming as one to form an entirely democratic body, where every nationalist decides collectively and unanimously on laws to enact and how to live together.
Since social contract is constituted by individual wills, few individuals assigned the mandate must regularly assemble if the general will of people is to continue. Therefore, an implication of the form of control is efficiently applicable in comparatively small states. The people must identify with each other and know other members are. They must be in a geographic enrichment where they can be united by common laws (Rousseau, 1920).
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Rousseau, J.J., 1920. The Social Contract: & Discourses (No. 660). JM Dent & Sons.