Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau: these three Enlightenment thinkers set the stage for how we think about state power in the modern world. Their competing ideas for how human society should be organized are still very much alive, and they continue to inform debates about the uses and abuses of political power.
Social Contract Theory
States use their power to protect us. But who gives the state its power? Why would we call some state behavior legitimate? And are there any limits on what states should have the power to do?
Some find it helpful to think that there is an agreement between states and people through which people give the state a monopoly on the use of force, under the condition that the state then uses that power in certain ways. This way of thinking of state power is called social contract theory, and historically, Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau were important political philosophers who were closely associated with this thinking.
Rousseau’s State of Nature
Jean-Jacques Rousseau began with a very different view of human nature than either Thomas Hobbes or John Locke. While Hobbes and Locke saw humans as naturally selfish—and in need of government to keep us from killing each other—Rousseau saw human beings as naturally good: filled with pity and compassion for one another, and a natural propensity to cooperate.
And Rousseau wasn’t just making this up.
Born in 1712, almost a century after Locke, Rousseau was much more aware—or, he thought he was much more aware—of what life was like for indigenous people before the West came and conquered them. To Rousseau, far from being selfish and fearful and violent, people in the state of nature were content and amicable.
Moreover, they didn’t need anything. In the state of nature, people had everything they needed, and so they never developed notions of property or ownership. Rousseau’s view was that humans not only didn’t have a right to private property in the state of nature, they didn’t even have a concept of private property!
To Rousseau, humans were naturally good and cooperative, and it’s modern society that messed things up.
This article comes directly from content in the video series Democracy and Its Alternatives. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Rousseau’s Radical Views
Let’s take a second to think about just how radical this philosophy was. Rousseau really turned Hobbes and Locke on their heads, and with them much of the Enlightenment.
The prevailing view in Locke’s day was that human society was on a steady march of reason and progress. Locke was a contemporary of Isaac Newton. And the two men even shared ideas and corresponded with one another. For them, human society was constantly getting better, constantly improving. And with the help of human ingenuity and invention, that progress was just going to continue.
So, in Locke’s view, one can think of government as just another one of those inventions. Government was going to save us from our primitive selves, where we were constantly in conflict, and bring us into the modern day, where things would be better.
But to Rousseau, the modern day wasn’t better; it was worse. Humans, in their natural state, were equal and free. It’s modern society that created inequality and corrupted us. And government, according to Rousseau, had become a tool used by the rich and powerful to solidify their claims to private property, which didn’t even exist in the state of nature.
We went from Locke saying that property was a right that existed in the state of nature to Rousseau saying that property rights were not only not natural, but a tool used to justify the completely unnatural process of laying claim to land and using it for our own selfish ends.
But to Rousseau, government could also be part of the solution to the problems of modern life. Now that human nature had been corrupted—now that we were selfish and fearful of one another—there was no going back to the state of nature. But just as government had been used to justify inequality and oppression, so too could the right kind of government be used to make us free.
What kind of government is that?
Well, if government decisions reflected what Rousseau called the general will—the will of the people taken as a whole—then even though it would never get us back to where we were, we could at least reverse some of the damage. If government would rule on behalf of everyone, and not just the rich and the powerful, then it would make decisions that would help us recover some of the freedom and equality that we’d had in the state of nature.
The problem is that Rousseau wasn’t very clear on what this looks like in practice. Just what he means by the general will, and exactly what kind of government would help us ascertain it—these are things he leaves for later generations to fight about.
Common Questions about the Social Contract Theory
Some people find it helpful to think that there is an agreement between states and people through which people give the state a monopoly on the use of force, under the condition that the state then uses that power in certain ways. This way of thinking of state power is called social contract theory.
Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau were closely associated with the social contract theory.
While Hobbes and Locke saw humans as naturally selfish—and in need of government to keep us from killing each other—Rousseau saw human beings as naturally good: filled with pity and compassion for one another, and a natural propensity to cooperate.