social contract theory

Compare and contrast social contract theory of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke Rousseau

Definition of Social Contract Theory

Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau develop a Social contract theory on how mankind governs themselves and human nature. But in order to understand Social contract theory, we must have the knowledge of the state of nature.

All three philosophers agreed that before there was society, man lived in a state of nature. But they had different beliefs on what state of nature is and how it was created.

Hobbes on state of nature:


Hobbes believed that the state of nature is a state of war. Ceaselessly pursuing their desire, with no agreement on good or bad human beings comes in conflicts with each other.

State of nature is a state of freedom or equality with everyone having the right to do as they wish, and no one being naturally inferior to anyone else, it adds to the level of hostility, because no one draws back from pursuing which they desire.

This creates a situation of ever-present hostility in which human life becomes poor, solitary, nasty, brutish and short.

Thus Hobbes explains a very gloomy picture of the state of nature. He said it was a state of constant warfare. It was a war of every man against every man.

There was constant fear and danger of violent death. According to him in the state of nature might was the only right. The two factors that dominated men in the state of nature were fear and self-interest.

In such a condition, there is no point in undertaking long term projects like cultivating a firm as there is no surety that one will get to enjoy the fruits of their agricultural labor.

Consequently, there was no place for industry, no culture, no navigation, no knowledge, no culture, and worst of all continual fear and danger of violent death.

Locke on state of nature:

Locke, on the other hand, believed that the state of nature is not a state of war. Locke’s view on the state of nature is not as miserable as that of Hobbes. According to him, the state of nature is a state of perfect freedom as well as perfect equality.

However, it is not a state of license because the state of nature has the law of nature to govern in it. Locke argued that the state of nature is a state of peace because human beings are rational there, who are capable of discovering moral truth and obeying them.

Locke argued, though in the state of nature, there was no positive law to constrain people, they knew that they have an obligation not to hurt or destroy others’ life, liberty, property, and health. Thus he considered the state of nature as a golden age.

In that state of nature, the man had all the rights, that nature could give them. It was free from the interference of others. In the state of nature, all were equal and independent.

Rousseau on State of nature:


Rousseau believed that the state of nature is neither social nor moral. It was neither a state of plenty nor scarcity.

Nature gives no sanctions for legitimate authority or rule. It is a condition in which no one has the right to rule over others. There are no justices and no injustice and a man is portrayed as solitary and self-sufficient.

He argues that in a state of nature people do not have the capacity to reason but there are two principles that human exhibit before developing reason.

These are self Preservation and sympathy or pity. The first principle, that is self-preservation is shared with Hobbes.

Humans pursue their own interests and have the capacity for self-preservation but there is no natural right to everything merely because people have certain needs.

Rousseau argues that pity is the source from which all the rest of human virtue flaws. In the state of nature, pity takes the place of law, virtue, and morals with the advantage that no one can disobey its sweet voice.

So according to him, the state of nature was peaceful because men are naturally good in the sense that they have a natural empathy for their fellow-creature.

Social Contract Theory:

Like the state of nature, they have provided different social contract theory to show how and why the social contract was created.

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Definition of Social Contract Theory By Hobbes:

After presenting a gloomy or dismal picture of the state of nature, Hobbes argues that since human life was miserable in the state of nature, so to escape from the state of nature men enter into a contract. Through this contact people voluntarily or willingly surrendered all their rights and freedom to some authority, in the hope of getting security, peace, and protection.

This led to the emergence of the Institutions of the ruler or monarch, who is the absolute head. Thus where all were equal before the contract after the contract out of equal one superior was created who commands obedience.

For Hobbes, social contract transforms a multitude into one person, which he called the State. The state can’t exist unless people lay down their right to governing themselves and turning it over to a common or sovereign power.

Hobbes’s social contract theory the right of rebellion against the monarchy and did not support the separations of power. According to him separation of power was an invitation of unnecessary conflict or war.

Definition of Social Contract Theory By Locke:

Locke’s social contract theory is different from Hobbes. According to Locke men in the state of nature entered into a contract due to some inconvenience such as the absence of common law-making, law interpreting, and law enforcement agencies, which are capable of protecting human rights and liberty.

Locke offered a two stages contract. The first stage is a social contract that created the society and the second stage is the political contract, which created a common authority or government. According to him by this contract people surrendered their rights, not to any person or group but the society as a whole.

Hence society became Superior and the government is situated only as a trustee of society. Society gave the government a certain power to protect the rights of the people. It had to work under certain limitations. If the government crosses its limitations, society had the power to dissolve it.

According to Locke, the purpose of the government is to protect the rights, life, liberty, and property of the citizen. It is based on the consent of the people thus it can’t be absolute. The two-stage theory means that even if an illegitimate government is temporary eliminated society remains intact.

Definition of Social Contract Theory By Rousseau:

According to Rousseau in the State of nature, the human was happy and there was equality among them. However, as time passed humanity faced certain changes. People slowly began to live together in a small family and then in small communities.

Divisions of labor were introduced both within and between families. However, according to him, the most important invention was private property which leads to inequality and competition among people.

So to escape this situation, the men entered into a social contract by surrendering their light, not to a single individual but a community as a whole. Through the social contract a new social organization “the state” was created to assure and guarantee freedom and equality.

According to Rousseau social contract is an agreement through which a person enters into civil society. Civil society is the opposite of the state of nature. In the state of nature, peoples were free to do whatever they want to do but people’s desire and impulses were not tempered by reason, therefore though people have physical freedom, they lack morality and rationality.

The social contract binds people into a community that exists for mutual preservation through which people gain civil freedom of being able to think and act rationally. Rousseau believes that only by entering into social contract people become fully human.

So that sums up the Social contract theory. Hope you like it.

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