- Politics and Social Issues»
- Politics & Political Science
Locke or Hobbes? The Social Contract Theories
The Social Contract
The idea of a social contract is one of conflicting and differentiating viewpoints. The Social Contract itself is the idea that society forms a basic compact with a government or an established power and both operate in conjunction with that established compact of governance. However, the operating principles of a social contract are expressed in a varied difference in opinion between two political philosophers: Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, the two basic proponents of differentiating viewpoints of the social contract. While both agree that societies and governments exist in a basic state of existence with each other, their opinions on how the two operate in conjunction with this existence differ on many important points, and have influenced the way governments and societies have conducted their political affairs since the 17th century.
Hobbes' Social Contract
Thomas Hobbes devised and stated his theory of the social contract in his book on political statecraft, Leviathan. In this political work, Hobbes stated the theory of a social contract, and the principle that society and government have an established "social contract" in regards to political functions and that of the state and the citizens that make up that state. Hobbes' social contract was one based on a firmly established relationship between the state and society, a relationship that placed the state as the higher power in the contract between society and government. In Hobbes' opinion, an absolute or near absolute sovereign was the preferable holder of political power and rights in a social contract, and as long as this power was able to keep society in a state of general order, then society in most measures must follow this power in full compliance and goodwill. However, there are multiple problems that come with this theory. For example, if the sovereign power proved to be tyrant and oppressed society in most general ways, but still managed to keep that society in a state of general order, then the populace would have no right to overthrow this tyranny. Also, if the sovereign power proved to be inept or weak in economic or foreign affairs, but still kept general order and peace, then once again there would be no basis for society to replace or overthrow the existing power.
Locke's Social Contract
Locke's social contract is formulated and stated in his work on political theory, Two Treatises of Government. In this particular book, Locke states that society and government are bound in a social contract that maintains an orderly and balanced system of life and general order, which shares many contrasting features with Hobbes' theory of the social contract. However, Locke's theory differs in many important points and factors with Hobbes' theory of the social contract. In Locke's work, society is bound to accept and follow the decisions of a governing sovereign as long as that sovereign does not stray from the basic confines and structures that make up the social contract between society and government.But unlike Hobbes, if that sovereign repeatedly violates or/and fails to follow the basic guidelines of a social contract that makes up the agreed form of governance, than society itself has a right to replace that particular form of governance, and to agree to either a new social contract with a differing power, or have a differing sovereign agree to follow the dictations of the old one.But as in Hobbes' theory of the social contract, there are problems with Locke's theory as well. For example, the idea of what exactly constitutes a violation of the social contract is difficult to define and percieve to differing sections of society. What may be tyrannical and despotic to one section of society may not be percieved to be as so by another section of society, and an attempt by one section of society to overthrow a particular sovereign may be opposed by another section of society, which would eventually result in civil conflict between different sections of society if the differing problems between sovereign and society were not resolved.
In conclusion, both Hobbes' and Locke's theories on the social contract both have their respective appeals to differing sections of society and governments, with Hobbes being more prone to accept an absolute power, while Locke is more supportive of a limited power and greater freedom as a whole for society in general. While both may have their merits, the theory of a social contract as defined by John Locke has proven to be the more proactive in establishing liberty for society in general, and while it is quick to write off Hobbes' theory, let it be reminded that his theory of the social contract has found wide appeal by many in authority and in large sections of society as well, and that many social contracts have been devised with Hobbes' ideas in mind.