Written by Chris Stockdale
An Analysis of the Contractualism of Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean-Jacque Rousseau
Firstly, I would like to define the word “contractualism”, describing the “contractualist theories of John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and summarizing, comparing and contrasting the ways in which these three men would implement their “contractualist” ideals. To begin, let us define the word “Contractualism”, as this essay centers around the idea of the “social contract” and the men that are at the core of contractualist ideology. “Contractualism” as defined by John Rawls in A Theory of Justice, is “…the principles of justice for the basic structure of society are the object of the original agreement. They are the principles that free and rational persons concerned to further their own interests would accept in an initial position of equality as defining the fundamental terms of their association.” (Rawls, 1971, p. 3) Therefore, contractualism is the theory that the social contract “exists” as an agreement between individuals associated in some way with one another, in order to promote self-interested justice within society.
The first contractualist we will observe is John Locke. Locke, unlike our other two selected proponents of the social contract, held a more individualistic view on the social contract than either Rousseau or Hobbes. This Individualism is evidenced in his second treatise of government where he says; “And that all men may be restrained from invading others rights, and from doing hurt to one another, and the law of nature be observed, which willeth the peace and preservation of all mankind, the execution of the law of nature is, in that state, put into every man’s hands, whereby every one has a right to punish the transgressors of that law to such a degree, as may hinder its violation: for the law of nature would, as all other laws that concern men in this world ‘be in vain, if there were no body that in the state of nature had a power to execute that law, and thereby preserve the innocent and restrain offenders. And if any one in the state of nature may punish another for any evil he has done, every one may do so: for in that state of perfect equality, where naturally there is no superiority or jurisdiction of one over another, what any may do in prosecution of that law, every one must needs have a right to do.” (Locke, Two Treatise of Government, 1689. Chap. 2, Section 7.)
It is important to note that along with his near, at the time, radical views on individualism, Locke’s view on private property was a major wedge between his and Hobbes’ contractualist ideals. And so, to summarize Locke’s theory of contractualism, to enter into this world is to be bound by the unwritten agreement that you are to respect and defend the rights of yourself, as well as of those around you. As for Thomas Hobbes, his view is both more classically conservative and more widely accepted -in a moderate fashion- in today’s world. To the woe of the Lockean libertarians of today’s political field, Hobbes view of the social contract has been an influence, however indirectly, on both modern liberal and conservative agendas. Hobbes’ saw a world without authority as chaotic. He described this world as such; “…no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain; and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by Sea; no commodious Building; no Instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force; no Knowledge of the face of the Earth; no account of Time; no Arts; no Letters; and which is worst of all, continuall feare, and danger of violent death; And the life of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short.” A “statist”, or absolute authoritarian, Hobbes argued the necessity of subjugation for the protection of life, property, and industry. If Locke’s spontaneous formation of government would have arisen out of need for protection, Hobbes’ government was one of protection from fear, no matter how poorly based.Therefore, the social contract when taken from the viewpoint of Thomas Hobbes is the silent agreement to participate peacefully within society, obeying those that are “above” you, and protecting those “beneath” you.
Though full of differences, Locke and Hobbes would seem near identical when compared to the Contractualism offered by Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Rousseau, born in Geneva Switzerland, was the most radical of the three. If Locke can be related to Libertarians, and Hobbes to Authoritarians, then to what can Rousseau by paired? Though a staunch advocate for Natural Rights, he also was vehemently opposed to the idea of private property; not so, in the same way as Marx. Rousseau saw the natural state of man as perfect; unbound and limitless. Rousseau argued against the will of government in favour of the “will of the people”. By entering society, you are trading your natural rights for equal subjugation to the will of everyone, so as to be protected against the tyranny of one.
Unfortunately, a tyranny by the many can, at times, be much worse than the tyranny of one.
Idealistically, Rousseau refers to private property in this way; “The first man who, having fenced in a piece of land, said “This is mine,” and found people naïve enough to believe him, that man was the true founder of civil society. From how many crimes, wars, and murders, from how many horrors and misfortunes might not any one have saved mankind, by pulling up the stakes, or filling up the ditch, and crying to his fellows: Beware of listening to this impostor; you are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody.” (Rousseau, Discourse on Inequality, 1754) When applied “practically”, Rousseau’s egalitarian and “natural” state of man is unobtainable. Though it has been sought, the result is often totalitarianism. Rousseau’s view of the social contract is simultaneously the most peaceful and the most dangerous. As with the idea of communism, absolute equality in all things is impractical and impossible.
In closing, the most basic of the three contractualist theories comes to this; Locke argued for a free and independent society; respectful of natural rights, and opposed to government tyranny; therefore vying for a minarchist form of governance. Hobbes, on the other hand, was of the opinion that government was generally benevolent and necessary. To dwell within its claims was to silently agree to the social contract of its subjects. Lastly, while mindful of natural rights and in favour of equality, Rousseau tended towards a society free from everything, even property. Though not at all practical, his ideas have had a large amount of influence within France, as well as the world at large. Rousseau, being colloquially known as the “father of modern despotism”, sought equality that contended with humanity’s invariable nature towards the recognition of property.