Criminology | Section 2.4

Fundamentals of Criminology by Adam J. McKee

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Hobbes versus Locke

Hobbes and the Social Contract

While Aristotle took a shockingly modern evolutionary view of the development of political society, Hobbes considered it more revolution than evolution.  This social revolution took place when men entered into what has come to be called the social contract.

For Hobbes, the natural state of man is nothing less than an ongoing war with every man against every other man.  All of the benefits of society are lost within this warlike state, simply because men are not willing to engage in industry when the outcome is uncertain.  Why grow crops and build buildings when marauders will just burn them?

The life of such men is nasty, brutish, and short.  To abate this disastrous state of affairs, men must be provided one who can “over-awe them all.”  A monarch best serves this necessary function.  In other words, Hobbes believed people needed a strong king to keep them out of trouble.

Hobbes offers two general laws as coming from Nature.  First, every man is to strive for peace. Second, when peace cannot be achieved, every man has the right to defend himself by all available means.  It follows from this that if men, taken together, are willing to give up personal rights that each possesses in a state of nature and claim only those rights that do not harm others, then and only then can a political society be formed.

What, in essence, Hobbes is suggesting is that political societies are based on a mutual agreement to adhere to the Golden Rule: “Whatsoever you require that others do to you, that do ye to them.”

Hobbes defines injustice as the failed performance of covenants.  While man may have within him knowledge of what is right and wrong, he cannot be expected to overcome his natural passions and self-interests for the sake of right.  There must be a coercive force whose wrath is far more terrible than anything to be gained by the breach of the covenant.

Without such a force, the concept of property is impossible; in a state of nature, every man has a right to everything.  From this the nature of the state is defined by the presence of a social contract and a power to enforce it, these things being necessary to achieve and preserve peace among men.  Hobbes also believed that it was the duty of the state to protect a man from not only wrongs done by others, but also wrongs done to himself.

For Hobbes, men are for the most part little better than sheep.  It is the exceptional man that gains sovereignty over the masses.  This man-as-follower doctrine is the key to understanding Hobbes’s philosophy of human nature.  He did not hold the nature of man to be evil as might be supposed by only a summary review of his writings.

Hobbes suggested that men were selfish, not necessarily evil or malicious.  The danger of anarchy that caused Hobbes to support a strong state did not come from the lawlessness of the populace in general, but rather from the rare strongly ambitious and antagonistic individual.

Such individuals could easily instigate revolutionary sentiments within certain factions of the people and endanger the peace and serenity of the state.  A strong state was not necessary to quell the lawless tendencies of the average person, but the powerful political influence of the exceptional person.

The nature of the social contract is that each member of the body politic gives up all natural freedoms for the sake of peace.  This is realized by a promise to obey the commands of the monarch.  Under this system, justice is reduced to obedience to the law, and the law is understood to be the will of the monarch.

Thus, the Absolute Justice of Aristotle was merely a philosophical construct with no real substance.  This doctrine could not exist in reality because before the sovereign’s rule there is no justice, only war.  While the ultimate end for which Hobbes established the social contract was never well received among his contemporary legal thinkers, the notion of the contract would become a first principle in the philosophies of many of them.


Locke fully agreed with Hobbes in that man was naturally free.  He did not, however, agree that there was no natural law.  On the contrary, the natural law played a key role in the development of Locke’s legal philosophy.  This natural law forbade every man from infringement on the life, health, liberty, and property of another.

Nature also gives every person the right to “punish the transgressors of that law by such a degree as may hinder its violation.”  Thus, there is a popular right to “bring such evil” on transgressors of the law as may deter them and, by example, deter others from lawbreaking.

Locke held that there was a vast difference between a state of nature and a state of war.  The primary difference between his view and the view of Hobbes was simply the presence of the Natural Law, which bound men to right action even in a perfect state of nature.  The state of nature is understood to be a state of absolute freedom from obligation to the arbitrary will of another man.

Locke makes a clear distinction between the state of nature and the political state, this being the concessions made under the social contract.  One of the primary rights surrendered to the state upon entering into the social contract is the natural right of retribution.  Locke held it necessary to the survival of the state that men give this right over to the state in the name of peace.

It follows that if the state is to have the right of punishment for infractions of the law, then the state also has the right to promulgate law.  It also follows that no member of the state be exempt from the laws, as this would be a violation of the tenets of the social contract.  If a man, (i.e., the monarch) is above the law, then he remains in a state of nature not a member of the state.

Thus, a truly civil society is one where every individual is equal under the law, and the laws are promulgated by a majority consensus.  It is also included in the social contract that even if an individual disagrees with the will of the majority, there remains an obligation to obey it.  Without such an obligation to follow the will of the majority, the social contract would be invalidated at every turn.

Locke offers three primary reasons why individuals would give up perfect freedom for the limited freedom of civil society.  First, the state of nature has no settled law agreed upon by all.  Second, the state of nature lacks impartial judges to settle disputes between individuals in an equitable manner according to established laws.  Third, men in a state of nature lack the power to support sentences when right.  When we agree to the social contract, we agree to be bound by these conditions so that they bind others as well.

Modification History

File Created:  08/04/2018

Last Modified:  08/04/2018

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