Objections to Hobbes’ Political Notions as per Locke’s Writings
John Locke and Thomas Hobbes both presented their political theories to the public. As near-contemporaries, the social ongoings of their time played a principal role in their resulting political positions. Being on two different sides of opposition within the same country, their theories tend to overlap as well as crucially contrast. At the basis of their political differences was a disagreement upon the inherent qualities of man. John Locke’s political theory offers a more satisfactory position than Thomas Hobbes’ as Locke’s interpretation of both the social contract and the state of nature are more realistic whilst containing less contradictions. In this essay I will examine Hobbes’ positions, explicating the core beliefs that support his theories. Then I will explore the opposing views of Locke’s, defining how his beliefs on a social contract and the state of nature refute Hobbes’ overarching premise.
Having many connections to royal and wealthy families, Thomas Hobbes’ would be identified as a Royalist. Having witnessed England in disarray prior to the civil war, Hobbes’ royal connections and life of wealth had a noticeable influence on his political theories. Hobbes’ view of the disarray in England is reflected by his view of human nature being that of “psychological egoism”. This term refers to the self-centered nature in which Hobbes believes to be at the root of every human. This self-centered nature is reflected by humans continually desiring additional power even after obtaining an increment of it, a cycle that seemingly perpetuates till death (60). Additionally, the notion of every human being equal in competition when it comes to obtaining something desired reflects a self-centered perpetual status of human nature for Hobbes’ (61). These two attributes reflect the hunger for that which solely fulfills self-interest, self-preservation or some form of self-gain. It is from this view of human nature that Hobbes’ view of the state of nature can be understood.
The matter in which Hobbes’ views human nature is exemplified by his imagined scenario of humans existing in a state of nature without political authority. The idea that a human in a state of nature would be slaves to their self-centered desires reflects the fear Hobbes’ has of the state of nature, as once two individuals desire the same thing, they are immediate enemies in competition (61). Hobbes’ attributes this conflict to the lack of a ruling authority and suggests that in a status of continuous competition and fear, “there is no way for any man to lecture himself” (61). Without the reflection required to restrain from one’s desires, self governance is shown to be unachievable. As such, Hobbes’ reflects on the state of nature as living a life of constant fear, as self-interested motivations and constant competition culminate in the violent threat of other humans.
Within his state of nature, Hobbes makes a distinction between the liberties that would be present to humans as opposed to the liberties people maintained in his time. According to Hobbes, within the state of nature each person retains the right to, “use his own power, as he wills himself, for the preservation of his own Nature; that is to say, of his own life” (64). In a state of nature, the means by which an individual can use his own power is not limited by any external rights. As such, Hobbes asserts that humans have the natural right to everything, as in a state of nature any tangible object could be a form of one’s self-interest (64). The notion of humans having a right to everything reflects the danger of a state of nature as there is no way to guarantee that another’s interests will not coincide with your misfortune or endangerment. Although recognizing the ultimate liberty as a right for human beings, Hobbes iterates the important distinction present to his time, that laws supersede this right. Herein lies Hobbes’ discussed avoidance of the dangers of the state of nature, subjection to a sovereign ruler (64). Hobbes describes the forfeiting of one’s “natural” rights to an authoritarian figure as a logical move of survival as you are able to ensure that your life is protected, thereby eliminating the fear and danger induced by the state of nature (64). This is furthered by Hobbes’ notion that in a state of self-interest and competition there is no property or moral good or bad, as there is no authority to dictate whose property is whose and which actions are deemed good (61,65). This notion of meaning arising from the dictation of a sovereign is central to Hobbes’ argument and reflects his epistemology.
Hobbes’ discussion of forfeiting some of your rights to a sovereign in order to reserve others is represented as a form of a social contract. As an individual you agree to subject yourself to the state and to do the sovereign’s bidding, and on the other end of the contract the sovereign agrees to preserve your life (66). Hobbes’ notion of a social contract follows his belief that humans at their very nature seek self-preservation. The way in which the terms of this contrast allow for the conflict within the state of nature to be avoided is through ensuring a form of reciprocal restraint in which self-centered actions of spite or sin against others is not undertaken (66). In this instance, the contract is a necessary step towards this avoidance as human’s inherent qualities of self-gain prevent them from maintaining reciprocal restraint without it being enforced (67).
The signing of this contrast for Hobbes means becoming one with the state, offering your actions and judgements to the sovereign. The sovereign is able to dictate society to their choosing and is able to maintain this power through the devotion of their subjects (182). As a subject within the state, the word of the sovereign has to be entirely trusted in order for the state to continue to function. It is the role of the sovereign, having supreme judicial authority (ability to act as judge, jury and executioner), to ensure the needs of the commonwealth are met (with the needs being decided by the sovereign), and to decide when war or peace is formed (182). As the sole decision maker of laws for the state, it is up to the sovereign to decide what is a “good” or “bad” law for the subjects (181). This relates to Hobbes’ evaluation of there being a complete absence of moral values in a state of nature, Hobbes asserts that moral value can only have meaning when assigned by a sovereign. A law can be bad in so much as it can fail to be necessary for either the sovereign or the subjects (182). Laws that benefit the sovereign are still considered good laws for the overall state as the commonwealth ties both the subject to the sovereign and vice versa. According to Hobbes, “ the good of the sovereign and people, cannot be separated” (182).
Thomas Hobbes’ explanation for all phenomena consisted of a mechanistic approach, using the biology of the human body to explain his beliefs. Hobbes’ describes human’s actions as being part of motion (23). Relevant to this idea is Hobbes’ belief that everything from god to human’s thoughts are of the human body, or tangible facets in motion. Within this, Hobbes describes human action as being split between voluntary and involuntary action but with both stemming from human senses. Essentially, this view supports the idea of humans being a slave to their senses. This idea is further reflected through Hobbes’ equivalating of hunger and desire to motion towards and aversion as “motion from-which” (movement away from) (23). This argument supports Hobbes’ view of humans in a state of nature as it asserts that human action is ultimately decided by the faculties of their body, something they are not in control of. Since humans are not in control of their desires which culminate in their actions, how they could not self-govern or mutually adhere to reciprocal restraint is conveyed.
The role of absolute authority is often thought of as easily corrupting someone, leading to a sovereign acting in the good of themselves at all times rather than considering the subjects. Hobbes does not consider this idea to prove his argument null and his reasoning is represented through his support of a Monarchy over other systems of government. Hobbes evaluates how a Monarch as an individual influenced by human nature has interests that are very similar to the average subject (98). Additionally, it is stated that the idea of a Monarchy supports the notion of a commonwealth as it supports the idea of the subject and sovereign sharing a mind (98). Furthermore, Hobbes rejects the notion of a system of government that utilizes counsel as it undermines his principle of sovereignty, that a definitive ruler that doesn’t doubt themselves serves as the best leader (98). Finally, it is asserted by Hobbes’ that a Monarch uses reason when considering their decisions, a system that would dictate that they should care for their subjects, as they know they would have no power or monetary wealth without the devotion of them (99).
There are two primary attributes of John Locke’s political beliefs that largely contrast with the political theories of Thomas Hobbes that I have just explored, I will express these contrasts as potential objections that Locke (as per his political writings) would make to Hobbes’ writings. The first of these objections is regarding an element crucial to Hobbes’s theories, the hypothetical state of nature. Locke asserts the opinion that civil society exists and existed before the inception of a state (106). Locke applies this idea through both moral and historical attributes. This idea serves as an objection to Hobbes’, as Hobbes states that order is formulated out of adherence to a single authoritative figure who dictates the morals of the state, giving order to humans who would otherwise succumb to violent, competitive methods. Rather, Locke asserts that humans by nature are social animals who will naturally develop a society among peers (106). Locke provides the example of the settlement of the new world as an instance in which humans were in a state of nature. This case serves as justification for a human nature opposed to what Hobbes described, as settlers mostly kept their promises and honoured their obligations (106). The societies formed in these contexts reflect Locke’s belief in human nature, a belief in the presence of (and establishment of as rights) freedom, equality and reason. Locke leaves room for the exception of humans acting on sin with invalid precedence or desires as an outlier, rather than a representative case of humans in nature (as Hobbes suggests) (106). His point is furthered when the different parts of the world throughout history become recognizable as humans forming societies in nature prior to the formation of a state. This historical approach allows for any instance in which humans exist in nature who punish others equally for wrongdoings done to them to be viewed as instances of states of nature. The cumulative point of Locke’s moral and historical analysis of instances of states of nature is the fact that humans have lived peaceful, pleasant lives, and in some instances continue to do so without the intervention of a sovereign (107).
Within Locke’s distinction from Hobbes’ views on human nature and the state of nature additionally arises several contradictions in Hobbes’ views that Locke would identify (as per his political writings). These contradictions largely arise from the inherent human nature of a sovereign themselves, with the same attributes fueling the darkside of Hobbes’ state of nature seemingly not applying to the sovereign. Firstly, Hobbes states that there is no moral good or bad without dictation from a sovereign, as such, how could a sovereign ensure that their personal interests do not culminate in a destructive process for the state. As such, how could their moral imperative be the be-all-end-all. Furthermore, if humans are destined to succumb to violent measures to obtain what they desire, which Hobbes defines as a bad thing because of the fear it imposes, how can this fear be entirely avoided when a sovereign may succumb to their human nature of violent measures against subjects in order to obtain their desires (say if their desires were sadistic towards subjects).
Locke’s second potential objection to Hobbes’ political theories comes from a distinction in the supposed “social contract” that humans subject themselves to either directly or indirectly through being a part of a state (138). Locke agrees with Hobbes’ belief of the state of nature not being ideal, describing fear of potential violence (an attribute hard to fully avoid without enforcement of state) as a present “insecurity” (75). Locke however states that the joining of such a contract has to be an entirely consensual act and that no one can strip an individual of their natural liberties without this (138). This differs from Hobbes’ position as Locke additionally states that in consensually joining a state, one gains impartial protection of their property and a more impartial form of justice than described in Hobbes’ blind leadership theories (142). The retaining of human liberties within society can be seen as more realistic or accurate as most humans retain the right to life and liberty within a state whilst additionally benefitting from a universal system of justice. This presents state societies in a much more optimistic approach than Hobbes’ and would reflect the discourse present in almost all societies. In this sense, Locke’s view appears to be based in a more reasonable way, as Hobbes’ approach falls to articulate why humans rebel against the state if not for a lack of reason (as Hobbes’ would dictate that their ultimate blind faith in the sovereign is what gives the sovereign/state its power.
Finally, Locke’s approach proves itself to be more realistic and less contradictory through his disagreement with justice being dictated by a single sovereign. Hobbes states that people do not have the right to respond to offensive incursions of unjust leadership as a sovereign’s actions can not be unjust (167). Locke disagrees that humans are so base and primitive that trusting their own senses of justice would result in a state of nature (167). As such, Locke asserts that offensive incursions by unjust leadership can and should be refuted as per human’s natural rights.
When considering their respective doctrines, Hobbes and Locke presented extremely varied approaches towards political science. It is because of the similar time period of their writings, and the social turmoil to which they both belonged to that their theories can be easily presented alongside each other. Locke’s ideology reflects a greater connectivity with the average human living in a state, giving justification for their feelings of injustice and thoughts of potential change in social order in order to enact new liberties for the population. Locke’s more realistic and less contradictory approach is reflected through his potential objections to Hobbes on what lies at the root of human thought. John Locke’s political theory offers a more satisfactory position than Thomas Hobbes’ as Locke’s interpretation of both the social contract and the state of nature are more realistic whilst containing less contradictions.
Hobbes, Thomas, 1588-1679. Leviathan. Baltimore :Penguin Books, 1968.
Locke, John. The Second Treatise of Government. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1952. Print.