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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.


Ruusa ndeshy nanyeni on June 06, 2015:

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Ruusa ndeshy nanyeni on June 06, 2015:

I'm strugling with my assignment, anyone to help me please.

Explain the social contract as a way to end the state of nature as described by Hobbes.

2. John locke defined the concept of the separation of powers. Using his arguments, analyze the current state of governance in Namibia.

Felix Anim-Appau on February 16, 2015:

I agree with Locke on his view of overthrowing the political authority when they infringe on the liberty of the masses. This is because, if that is not done, certain people would hold on to power and compromise the rights and freedom of the citizenry for their greedy parochial and selfish interests. They will become despots and the people would not have the power to effect changes that would foster development.

Now, on the critics of Locke, I totally disagree with them if their claim is that the determinant of an authority's confinement would be problematic thereby causing mayhem in their overthrow. In every polity,there is a constitution and even those without a codified constitution has a values and decrees. This will clearly spell out the boundaries of the individual liberties which would not need one's personal judgement to determine. Hence, the laws of the land spells out the power ration. Moreover, the fact that Hobbes talked about overthrow did not imply violence but diplomacy since their authority was not attained through violence especially in the context of Social Contract. However, when diplomacy and persuation fails, coercion becomes the alternative.

Finally, my little psychology convinces me intrinsically that, where individual freedom and peace prevails, security becomes a by-product. Though deviants (in terms of capitalising on societal liberty to threaten peace) are not peculiar with one society, we should also know that, most people become deviants as a result of how they view society.

John Mueller (author) on February 20, 2012:

I share the same political viewpoint personally. I think a government should be limited and should operate in a way that results in the least infringement on individual rights as possible.

veritorogue from Arizona on February 20, 2012:

Good points. The factor that I think is all to often overlooked in analyzing how people formulate their political ideologies is the environment that they live in. It is not simply a reasoned process that some people get right and others don't. Liberty is my supreme value when making political considerations but I understand why this might not be so for everyone. Keeping these people from decreasing my liberty is my goal.

John Mueller (author) on February 19, 2012:

Veritoro, many of the points you stated are correct. On further review of my hub, I wish I had stated more background information about the men so as to better state why they formed their opinions on the social contract, but besides those points, it must be remembered that Locke was not immune from the effects of discord himself. Locke was heavily involved in Whig politics, and he himself was forced into exile in the Netherlands from 1683-89 because of these political activities, not to mention along with other things as well. But I think the Glorious Revolution that took place in 1688 and resulted in the rule of William and Mary (A revolution that took place with no widespread civil conflict) convinced Locke that a "necessary" overthrow of a sovereign power could be achieved in an "orderly" fashion and without much bloodshed, so this may be one reason why Locke was more idealistic in his outlook than Hobbes.

Deforest from USA on February 19, 2012:

Nowadays people pay their taxes and in exchange their governments don't contribute to a betterment of their standard of life, in that perspective, why to pay our taxes? For the government to drag us to their personal interests (wars promoting the armament industry, the oil cartels...)?

veritorogue from Arizona on February 19, 2012:

The conditions that Locke and Hobbes lived in had a lot to do with the formulation of their philosophies. Hobbes was brought up among the slaughter of civil war and saw a powerful, autoritarian government as the only way to avoid lawlessness and society breaking down into anarchy and violence. He valued security above liberty. Saddam Hussein was an Hobbessian. Locke lived a rather priveleged and peaceful life and was able to be more idealistic in his vision of how society should be. He valued liberty above security as our founding fathers did. In America today urbanites are more Hobbesian while the rest of the nation is more likely to value liberty to a degree that they are willing to risk insecurity for it. This is why the founding fathers guaranteed the right to bear arms; to defend their life and property in the absence of governement protection and to enable revolution if it comes to that. This is part of the reason that there is such a wide political chasm between libertarians and statists in the US today.

John Mueller (author) on February 19, 2012:

Well I will say, you have raised an interesting point. As you have said, as time has progressed, the people and their respective governments have become increasingly antagonistic towards each other, and the "forcing" of taxes has become,(correct me if I am wrong) more prevelant due to more efficient ways of collecting them. But I will say this. Over the past two centuries especially, society in general has demanded more services from the government than was traditionaly performed (services such as sanitation, animal-control, health care, poverty reforms, etc.) As long as these services are generally demanded from the population, then the population should pay taxes for these services or else demand that they be abandoned by the existing government. In my opinion, if the population generally demands the services but refuses to pay for them, then the government has the right to collect taxes, forcebly if may be. (Don't think of me as authoritarian, I personally oppose most aspects of government and forced taxes but if the populace demands services from government, then they must pay taxes for these services.)

Deforest from USA on February 19, 2012:

The 17th century view of the relationship between the government and the people appears to the eye of the XXIst century reader as obsolete. In their analysis, government and people have an interdependent "partnership". As we are moving towards the future, those two "individuals" will tend to separate because of antagonistic interests. When the people are forced to pay taxes, what is the government duty?