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The Social Contracts of Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau

Social contract theory indicates that we acquiesce to the demands of a society in order to benefit from membership within that society (Chafee, 2009; Solomon & Higgins, 2010). Some of these demands allow the formation of a power structure to guide the formation and growth of the society, while other demands cause the individual to relent to the values stipulated by the society. These values make up the morality of the society. Social contract theory was influenced, particularly, by Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau (Solomon & Higgins, 2010, p. 291). Their theories are telling of the individual’s motivation for creating and belonging to a society, but I will explore how these theories relate to some of the constructs of society, namely morality and the roles and responsibilities of citizens within a society.

Before discussing societal constructs, it might be best to consider the ultimate nature of society and the power it holds over its citizens. The arguments appear to be two-sided: a) social contract, and b) entitled sovereignty (Chafee, 2009, p. 567). I argue that society is truly a social contract and any authority within society stems directly from this contract. Considering that the alternative is a rule by force, fear, and intimidation, one can only conclude that such a society is passively agreed with until a revolution is possible, which undermines the overreaching authority and replaces it.

This conflict arises between the populace (society) and government (a construct of society). Where there is no society, there can be no government, but in every society, there is a government (even an anarchist society has a form of governance, natural law). Hence, government is a by-product of society, which, by definition, is solely reliant on the social agreements of individuals indicating an equality within the creation of the contract, but not necessarily the execution of the contract. This is ideal in that it not only explains why uprisings and revolts occur when governments fail to work for the people, but it also explains why they should occur in these cases.

Tyranny is the unilateral enforcement of values placed upon a society. Morality is the cumulative set of values of a society, and it adapts to the constant change in these societal values. Justice, the governmental means of regulating morality, must have the participation of the society, lest tyranny takes hold. It is the responsibility of the individuals within a society to participate in every process of government to ensure that morality is even and that justice prevails. This participation need not be direct. Voting, military service, holding public office, or simply criticizing governmental policy are all ways in which individuals can participate. Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau would agree that enforcing the social contract is the responsibility of every individual within a society, not only to ensure the status quo, but to ensure positive growth and continuity.

As a libertarian, I can appreciate the social contract theories of Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau. In my view, do what you will so long as you do not infringe on the rights of others. Though many aspects of this philosophy can be argued against, it remains as good as any starting point to maintain freedom and equality within a society while still demanding responsibility for the outcome.


Chafee, J. (2009). The philosopher’s way: Thinking critically about profound ideas (2nd ed.). Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Pearson Prentice Hall.

Solomon, R. C., & Higgins, K. M. (2010). The big questions: A short introduction to philosophy (8th ed.). Belmont, C.A.: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning.