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John Locke's Social Contract Theory

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Philosophy
Wordcount: 1650 words Published: 28th Apr 2017

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The agreement of the society to surrender its rights partially or entirely to the ruling government or authority is a social contract. The social contract is the basis of society’s moral values today because it gives government the liberty to decide what is right and wrong depending on each society’s socialization structure, all in the name of the rule of law. The social contract theory has been in existence for a very long time, right from the days of Plato (380BC) to John Rawls of the 20th century. The social contract bears the responsibility of both citizen and government and is introduced to protect an already peaceful society, or to form one. It is associated with modern political theory. Idealists and liberalist such as Thomas Hobbes, Jean Jacques-Rousseau and John Locke have influenced constitutions around the world a great deal especially the West with their theories.

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The social contract is generally supposed to provide justice and security to citizens within its boundaries. The state of nature is a place envisioned by a philosopher, prior to the existence of the social contract. The social contract is preceded after a philosopher has given his view of the state of nature. The state of nature does not have any moral or physical structures in place. It has to be envisioned. In the state of nature, there are no laws in place and no civilization. Man is either described as one who lives in harmony with his fellow men or fights for his survival. Idealist philosophers such as Immanuel Kant and Jean Jacques Rousseau argue that, since man is rational, in his state of nature there would be co-operation in existence and therefore his social contract must embody laws that are rational. On the other hand, realist philosophers such as Niccolo Machiavelli and Thomas Hobbes disagree with the optimistic notion of human beings. They argue that human beings are self-centred and would promote their interest first in all situations; therefore their state of nature would be chaotic and disorganised. The survivors of such a place would be only the strong or swift ones, therefore his social contract should allow irrational decisions to be taken by the head of state for the greater good of the people. The social contract simply implies that the people give up some rights to a government and/or other authority in order to accept or jointly preserve social order.

John Locke, a liberal philosopher of the 18th century and the author of the famous and influential book, ‘The Second Treatise of Government’ pioneered the need for the respect of human rights. Locke begins his theory by visualizing a state of nature that human beings live in before agreeing to the social contract. In Locke’s state of nature, there is freedom, but not entirely because he claims that the law of nature governing this estate is from God. Rights and liberties are respected because he views human beings as rational. In the event where human beings react irrationally to negative human behavior, Locke suggests the need for a social contract, an agreement between the people of the state of nature to have an authority that would ensure justice and equality. One may react irrationally when meting out a punishment to an offender; another person may also intervene and punish the offender. To prevent a biased form of justice being carried out, Locke suggests an agreement among the people to form a government that would make laws that would ensure equal justice for all and protection of rights found in the state of nature.

In the state of nature there is no political authority in existence, however, moral values do exist. “The Law of Nature, which is on Locke’s view the basis of all morality, and given to us by God, commands that we not harm others with regards to their “life, health, liberty, or possessions” (par. 6).” [i] Life, health and liberty are some of the fundamental rights that are found in the state of nature. The social contract which Locke suggests, must respect these basic human rights which are found in the state of nature

John Locke’s State and Law of Nature

A state also of equality, wherein all the power of jurisdiction is reciprocal, no one having more than another …should also be amongst one another, without subordination or subjection, unless the lord and master of them all should, by any manifest declaration of his will, set one above another, and confer on him, by an evident and clear appointment, an undoubted right to dominion and sovereignty. [ii] 

-Second Treatise of Government, Locke

To understand the state of nature, society must be viewed without any present authority, ruling monarch or government. It contains no houses, buildings, farmlands, culture or social amenities. John Locke’s state of nature assures equality for all men. He believes that we will not entirely be free in the state of nature because we will be bound by the laws of nature. The law of nature which “compels every and reason, which is that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life health, liberty or possessions for men being all the workmanship of one omnipotent and infinitely wise Maker.” [iii] This law of nature enables the perceptive that, since we are all God’s creation, automatically we are all equal; therefore we have no right to take to take another’s life or possessions.

In the state of nature, when no man’s rights are being invaded then the law of nature is being observed. However, the law of nature allows an offender to be punished for the offence he committed. Everyone bound by the laws of nature have the right to punish transgressors of the law. This is because the law ensures equality and therefore it cannot appoint one person who would obtain a senior role to carry out justice. The problem with allowing everyone to be an executioner of the law is that a biased sentence could be carried out since emotions could come in the way. John Locke identifies that “self-love will make men partial to themselves and their friends” which will not reflect a true and just system and “ill nature and revenge will carry them too far in punishing others and hence nothing but confusion…” To solve this problem, Locke proposes a social contract.

The Social Contract

The social contract he proposes is an agreement between the citizens and the ruling government. It is a solution to the problems of the state of nature. The government in power must be concerned with the well-being of the citizen. It must preserve his rights and punish the transgressors of the law. Such a government can be described as a legitimate government. An illegitimate government would be the one that would fail to protect the natural rights of its citizens and violate the rights of its subjects. Locke states that “when a civil society is popularly entered into, it cannot become a dictatorship” because “power must come from above but legitimacy must come from below.” [iv] 

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This explains the reason why Locke argues that a society has the right to do away with a government that is not obeying the laws of the land by being involved in negative practices such as cheating, corruption, torture and nepotism. This provides the grounds for a legitimate rebellion. The government can be removed from power through the legitimate processes such as elections. “Locke’s arguments for the social contract and for the right of citizens to revolt against their king were enormously influential on the democratic revolutions that followed, especially on Thomas Jefferson, and the founders of the United States” [v] look for more on the tacit consent

Flaws of the Social Contract

One of Locke’s flaws is his contradiction of how exactly we are obliged to be a part of the social contract. He first discusses how the first citizens become a part of the contract by individual consent and how subsequent generations become a part of it by tacit consent. It does not hold because then it would be unconsciously forced unto the subsequent generations if they are not asked their opinion. For a society that is supposed to ensure freedom and equality, it is violating the rights of its citizens. “Locke’s view that permanent citizenship depends wholly on the individual’s consent -and even express consent- is both unhistorical and contrary to all legal doctrine as any instructed modern reader will easily perceive.” [vi] This is how Frederick Pollock views Locke’s flaw of the consent in his book.

Locke does not talk about what the ruling government must do if the citizens relegate their side of the contract.

It cannot be applicable in the pursuit of happiness because it does not defend the minority or those living out of it.

Generations’ tacit consent: agreeing to the unknown.

Describe contract.;authority,rights of the people.what rights are they giving up? What will keep the contract binding?



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