Section 2.4: Hobbes versus Locke

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Thomas Hobbes and John Locke stand as towering figures in the pantheon of Western political thought, particularly in their development of social contract theory. Both philosophers delved deeply into the nature of human society and governance, yet arrived at markedly different conclusions that have profoundly influenced modern political and legal discourse.

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Hobbes, writing in the turbulent context of 17th-century England, presented a somewhat pessimistic view of human nature. In his seminal work, “Leviathan,” Hobbes depicted the state of nature as a brutal and violent realm where life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” He theorized that to escape this anarchic state, individuals collectively agree to surrender some freedoms to a sovereign authority—a social contract. For Hobbes, the absolute power of a monarch was essential to maintain order and prevent a return to the chaos of the natural state.

Locke, a contemporary of Hobbes, offered a more optimistic vision in works like “Two Treatises of Government.” He saw the state of nature as a generally peaceful environment where people are governed by natural law. Locke’s social contract emphasized the protection of individual rights and the idea that governmental power should be derived from the consent of the governed. His thoughts laid the groundwork for modern democratic theory, highlighting the rights to life, liberty, and property.

The contrasting views of Hobbes and Locke on the state of nature and the social contract continue to resonate, offering essential frameworks for understanding the dynamics of power, authority, and rights in modern societies.

Hobbes and the Social Contract

Thomas Hobbes’ view of the state of nature is starkly grim and pessimistic. He envisioned it as a state of perpetual war, where human life was solitary and anarchic, dominated by a constant fear of death and conflict. In his seminal work, “Leviathan,” Hobbes describes this natural state as one where there are no established social structures or government, leading to a life that is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” According to Hobbes, in the state of nature, there is an absence of moral values or recognized authority, leading individuals to act solely based on self-interest and survival.

This relentless struggle, driven by basic human desires and the natural equality of men in terms of strength and intellect, leads to an environment rife with mistrust and hostility. Hobbes believed that in such a state, without a common power to keep people in awe, they are in a condition of war of everyone against everyone. His portrayal of the state of nature is fundamental in understanding his justification for a strong, centralized authority as a necessity for civil society.

The Necessity of a Monarch in Hobbes’ Theory

For Hobbes, the chaotic and violent conditions of the state of nature necessitate the establishment of a strong, central authority to ensure peace and stability. He argued that to escape the state of nature, individuals collectively enter into a social contract, agreeing to surrender some of their freedoms to a sovereign authority. This sovereign, ideally a monarch, wields absolute power to maintain order and prevent the return to the anarchy of the natural state.

Hobbes’ justification for a monarchial system stems from his belief that a strong, undivided government is essential to enforce laws and prevent civil strife. He posited that only a sovereign with absolute authority could effectively uphold the social contract and ensure the protection of citizens from both external aggression and internal conflicts. This idea of an absolute sovereign – a Leviathan – serves as a metaphor for a powerful state that holds the ultimate authority over its subjects, keeping the natural human instincts for conflict and chaos in check.

Hobbes’ Influence on Legal and Political Thought

Thomas Hobbes’ ideas, particularly his social contract theory and views on sovereignty, have had a profound impact on modern legal and political thought. His conceptualization of the social contract laid the groundwork for later political theories about the origin and purpose of the state and the nature of political authority.

Hobbes’ emphasis on a strong central authority influenced the development of modern nation-states and their legal systems. His ideas helped to justify the existence of powerful sovereign states with centralized control over their territories and populations. In legal theory, Hobbes’ work contributed to the understanding of the foundations of law and the necessity of a legal system to maintain social order.

Moreover, Hobbes’ theories have influenced the fields of political science and international relations, particularly in understanding the dynamics of power and governance. His portrayal of the state of nature as a state of war has parallels in the realpolitik view of international relations, where states operate in a self-interested, power-seeking manner.

In summary, Thomas Hobbes’ contribution to the concept of the social contract and his views on sovereignty continue to be influential in shaping the discourse on governance, law, and the role of the state in society.

Locke’s Interpretation of Natural Law 

John Locke’s interpretation of natural law and the state of nature starkly contrasts Hobbes’s view. For Locke, the state of nature is a condition of perfect freedom and equality, where individuals are free to act and dispose of their possessions and persons as they see fit, within the bounds of natural law. This natural law, according to Locke, is grounded in reason and morality, and it inherently forbids harm to another’s life, health, liberty, or possessions.

In this state, human beings are guided by rational self-interest and a fundamental recognition of the equality and rights of others. Locke argued that people are naturally inclined to live according to reason, which entails respecting the rights and freedoms of others. This perspective sets the stage for Locke’s conception of the social contract, which is not a surrender to fear and violence but an agreement to form a society that respects and upholds the inherent rights of all individuals.

Locke on Rights and the Role of the State

Locke’s vision of natural rights forms the foundation of his political theory. He posited that individuals possess certain inalienable rights, notably the right to life, liberty, and property. The state does not grant these rights but are inherent and must be respected and protected by the state. The role of the state, therefore, is not to bestow rights upon its citizens but to safeguard the natural rights they already possess.

According to Locke, the formation of governments is a deliberate act by the people to create an entity that protects their natural rights more effectively than they could in the state of nature. The legitimacy of a government, in Locke’s view, stems from the consent of the governed. If a government fails to protect these rights or becomes tyrannical, the people have the right to alter or abolish it. This concept of consensual governance and the right to revolt against unjust rulers were revolutionary and have profoundly influenced modern democratic thought.

Locke’s Contribution to Modern Legal and Political Systems

John Locke’s theories have had a significant and lasting impact on modern legal and political systems. His articulation of natural rights laid the groundwork for the development of liberal democracy and the concept of individual liberty as a fundamental political value. The idea that legitimate government is based on the consent of the governed and must respect individual rights has become a cornerstone of modern democratic theory.

Locke’s influence is particularly evident in the formation of constitutional democracies, where the protection of individual rights is enshrined in law. His ideas on the right to private property and the role of government in protecting individual liberties have shaped economic and political systems around the world.

Furthermore, Locke’s philosophy has played a crucial role in the development of human rights discourse. His concept of natural rights provided a moral basis for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other human rights treaties. Locke’s legacy in legal and political thought remains profound, underpinning many of the principles and institutions that define democratic societies today.

Contrasting Hobbes and Locke on Social Contract

The contrasting views of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke on human nature and government form the crux of their differing social contract theories. Hobbes viewed human nature in a state of nature as brutish, selfish, and driven by fear and survival instincts. He believed that in such a state, without a powerful governing authority, life would be filled with constant fear and danger. Consequently, Hobbes advocated for an absolute sovereign, a Leviathan, to whom individuals surrender their rights to ensure peace and security. This central authority, in Hobbes’ view, was necessary to prevent the chaos and violence inherent in human nature.

In stark contrast, Locke viewed human nature as characterized by reason and tolerance. Locke’s state of nature is a state of equality and freedom, where natural law governs and guides human interactions. Unlike Hobbes, Locke believed that humans are capable of self-governance and maintaining order. For Locke, the formation of governments is a social contract aimed at preserving the natural rights of life, liberty, and property. Government, according to Locke, is a collective agreement to protect these rights, and its legitimacy comes from the consent of the governed. If a government fails to protect these rights, the people have the right to overthrow it.

These fundamental differences in their view of human nature lead to divergent theories of the social contract and the role and scope of government. Hobbes’ view justifies a more authoritarian government to control human nature’s destructive aspects, while Locke’s perspective supports a democratic government that safeguards individual rights.

Theoretical and Practical Implications

The theoretical differences between Hobbes and Locke have practical implications in modern legal and political contexts. Hobbes’ theory, with its emphasis on the necessity of a strong, centralized power, can be seen influencing modern forms of governance where stability and security are prioritized, sometimes at the expense of individual freedoms. In political systems where Hobbesian views are prevalent, there is often a strong focus on law and order, with extensive state control and regulation.

On the other hand, Locke’s ideas have profoundly influenced democratic governments, where individual rights and freedoms are paramount. His theories underpin many modern constitutional democracies, where the government’s role is primarily to protect individual liberties and ensure justice. Locke’s influence is evident in the formation of systems of checks and balances, the rule of law, and the principle of consensual governance.

In the realm of legal theory, Locke’s views have contributed to the development of human rights law and the concept of property rights, while Hobbes’ perspective echoes in legal frameworks that prioritize state sovereignty and public order. In contemporary political discourse, debates on the balance between individual freedom and state authority often reflect the philosophical legacies of Hobbes and Locke, demonstrating the enduring relevance of their ideas in shaping modern governance and legal systems.

In summary, the contrasting views of Hobbes and Locke on the social contract continue to influence modern political and legal thought, reflecting in the varied approaches to governance, the role of the state, and the protection of individual rights in contemporary societies.

Hobbes vs. Locke: Influence on Criminological Theory

Thomas Hobbes’ perspectives on authority and social order have significantly influenced various criminological theories, particularly those centered around control and deterrence. Hobbes’ depiction of human nature as innately self-serving and his advocacy for a strong central authority to manage this nature resonate in the control theory of criminology. Control theories, such as Travis Hirschi’s Social Bond Theory, reflect Hobbesian thought by suggesting that external restraints, like laws and social norms, are necessary to prevent individuals from engaging in criminal behavior.

Hobbes’ ideas also find expression in deterrence theory, which posits that the fear of punishment can prevent crime. This theory aligns with Hobbes’ view that a powerful sovereign is necessary to instill fear and maintain order. The concept that the certainty, severity, and swiftness of punishment can deter individuals from committing crimes echoes Hobbes’ emphasis on the need for an awe-inspiring authority to prevent the natural state of chaos and conflict.

Moreover, Hobbes’ influence extends to the realm of legal and penal systems, where his ideas support the use of punitive measures and strict law enforcement as means to maintain social order and discourage criminal activity. The Hobbesian view justifies the establishment of robust legal frameworks and enforcement mechanisms to control the inherently self-interested tendencies of individuals.

Locke’s Impact on Criminological Thought

In contrast, John Locke’s emphasis on individual rights and justice has shaped contemporary criminological approaches in a different direction. Locke’s ideas have contributed significantly to the development of theories that emphasize the rehabilitation and reintegration of offenders, rather than merely deterring or punishing them. His focus on natural rights and the social contract as a means of protecting these rights has informed criminological theories that advocate for fair and equitable treatment of individuals within the criminal justice system.

Locke’s impact is particularly evident in restorative justice theories, which seek to repair the harm caused by criminal behavior rather than solely punishing the offender. This approach aligns with Locke’s emphasis on the preservation of life, liberty, and property and the idea that justice should aim to restore, as much as possible, the status quo ante. Restorative justice emphasizes dialogue, reconciliation, and the involvement of victims, offenders, and the community in the justice process, reflecting Locke’s vision of a society based on mutual respect and the protection of individual rights.

Furthermore, Locke’s theories have influenced the development of human rights legislation and policies aimed at ensuring fair treatment of offenders, victims, and the general public. His advocacy for the rule of law and government accountability has promoted legal systems that focus on the rights of the accused, due process, and the proportionality of punishment, echoing his views on the limitations of government power and the protection of individual liberties.

In summary, the philosophical legacies of Hobbes and Locke have distinctly shaped criminological thought. Hobbes’ views have influenced theories of control and deterrence, emphasizing the role of authority and punishment, while Locke’s focus on individual rights has informed more restorative and rights-based approaches in criminology.

Sowell’s “Conflict of Visions” 

In “A Conflict of Visions,” Thomas Sowell presents a compelling framework for understanding ideological differences in political and social thought. His concepts of the “constrained” and “unconstrained” visions of humanity offer insights that resonate with the ideas of Hobbes and Locke discussed earlier in this chapter. These visions help contextualize their impact on modern lawmaking and criminological thought.

The “constrained” vision, akin to Hobbes’ perspective, perceives human nature as inherently flawed and self-interested, necessitating robust governance structures to maintain societal order. This view aligns with Sowell’s interpretation of humanity’s limitations and the need for external constraints to manage these inherent tendencies. In modern lawmaking, this vision underscores the importance of stringent legal frameworks and law enforcement mechanisms, similar to Hobbes’ advocacy for a strong, central authority to control natural human inclinations.

Conversely, Sowell’s “unconstrained” vision mirrors Locke’s optimistic view of human nature. It suggests that given the right conditions, individuals can make rational, moral choices beneficial to society. This vision influences criminological theories that emphasize rehabilitation and the potential for moral improvement, reflecting Locke’s belief in protecting individual rights and freedoms.

In contemporary legal systems, a synthesis of these visions is often observed. There is a balance between implementing laws that manage human imperfections (constrained vision) and those that promote individual rights and moral development (unconstrained vision).

Sowell’s framework in “A Conflict of Visions” provides a modern perspective on how the philosophical legacies of Hobbes and Locke continue to influence the fields of law and criminology. These visions illustrate the complex interplay between human nature, societal structures, and justice, shaping contemporary approaches to lawmaking and criminal justice.

Summary and Conclusion

Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, two seminal thinkers in the realm of political philosophy, have made enduring contributions to social contract theory, each proposing distinct viewpoints that continue to influence contemporary thought in criminology, law, and political science.

Hobbes, with his bleak view of human nature, posited that in the state of nature, life is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short, necessitating the establishment of an absolute sovereign to maintain peace and order. His ideas underscore the importance of a strong central authority to prevent societal descent into chaos and conflict, reflected in criminological theories that emphasize control, deterrence, and the role of state power in maintaining social order.

In contrast, Locke’s more optimistic view presents the state of nature as a condition of equality and freedom governed by natural law. He advocated for a government formed by the consent of the governed, aimed at protecting the natural rights of individuals. Locke’s theories have profoundly influenced democratic principles and human rights, emphasizing the importance of individual liberties, the rule of law, and the accountability of governments. His ideas resonate in criminological theories that focus on restorative justice, the fair treatment of individuals within the criminal justice system, and the protection of rights.

Understanding the philosophical underpinnings of Hobbes and Locke is crucial for criminology, law, and political science students. Their contrasting views on human nature, the role of government, and the social contract provide foundational frameworks for analyzing contemporary legal and political systems. These perspectives offer valuable insights into the dynamics of power, authority, individual rights, and the role of the state in society.

The enduring relevance of Hobbes’ and Locke’s ideas is evident in ongoing debates on law, governance, and criminal justice. Contemporary discussions on the balance between state authority and individual freedom, the nature of justice, and the role of law in society continue to draw upon their theories. Their contributions remain pivotal in exploring and understanding the complex interplay between human nature, societal structures, and the principles of justice and governance.

In conclusion, the legacies of Hobbes and Locke in social contract theory not only enrich our understanding of historical developments in political thought but also provide essential perspectives for navigating the challenges and debates in the modern legal and political arena.

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File Created:  08/04/2018

Last Modified:  01/21/2024

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