The Social Contract According to Hobbes, Hume & Locke

The Social Contract According to Hobbes, Hume & Locke
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  • 0:10 What Makes a…
  • 0:51 Hobbes' State of Nature
  • 2:22 Locke's State of Nature
  • 4:00 Hume's Critique
  • 4:55 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christine Serva

Christine is an instructional designer, educator, and writer with a particular interest in the social sciences and American studies.

Have you ever wondered why human beings are willing to live by the laws of a governmental system? In this lesson, consider questions about what life would be like without government and how human beings may have come to agree to live in a society of rules.

What Makes a Government Legitimate?

Would you rather live with the threat of death around every corner or live under the rule of a terrible tyrant?

Early social contract theorists debated these and other topics related to politics. They concerned themselves with why human beings have chosen to live in governmental systems and what makes a government legitimate. They also imagined what life would be like without government.

In this lesson, we'll look at two major thinkers in social contract theory: Thomas Hobbes and John Locke. We'll also look at a key critic of their ideas: David Hume.

Hobbes' State of Nature

A social contract is the agreement among people to live under a system of government, and social contract theory involves how and why this agreement emerged. Social contract theorists also discussed which forms of government are legitimate.

Let's start with the perspective of Thomas Hobbes and what he believed the world was like before a social contract existed. Warning: It's not pretty. Hobbes described a hypothetical world before recorded human history that was an 'every man for himself' type of environment. In his own words, life was 'solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short'.

If you're familiar with the comic strip, Calvin and Hobbes, think of how the character of Hobbes was a tiger. This can help you remember that the state of nature for Hobbes was brutal, with individuals struggling to survive alone against fears like tigers and other people coming to attack them. This society without civil government is described as a state of nature.

Human beings are rational, according to Hobbes, so it only makes sense that they would want to escape this nightmare. Since human beings are primarily self-interested as well, Hobbes believed only a strong ruler, like a king, was a good solution to moving beyond the state of nature. Due to how horrible this life was for human beings, even a brutal dictator would be better than life where you fear death around every corner.

Locke's State of Nature

John Locke disagreed with this view of the State of Nature and why we agree to be governed. He did agree with Hobbes that humans chose to create a social contract, but didn't agree with the details of how or why.

According to Locke's hypothesis, life without government in the state of nature probably wasn't quite so bad. In some ways, it was an ideal state of personal freedom where one could choose to do what they want to do. The state of nature was not so brutal in his view and instead was relatively peaceful. There were even families, and not just individuals surviving on their own. But good things don't always last. Locke envisioned a time when two or more people would begin to fight over something they both desired. This put them into conflict with others and ultimately, war.

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