When Can We Justifiably Rebel against the State?


By David K. Johnson, Ph.D.King’s College

What must a government do to deserve to be toppled? When is it justified for one to rebel against the state? When is one no longer obligated to obey its laws? These questions are notions philosophers often appeal to explain how the government is justified and why we are morally obligated to obey its laws.

A person crossing a red and white line.
A question philosophers have tried to tackle is when should people stop obeying laws others have been imposing on them. (Image: mantinov/Shutterstock)

State of Nature

It is argued that the government is justified by the services and protections it provides. As long as it provides them, and you are sticking around to enjoy them, you are obligated to obey. Thomas Hobbes put it more precisely. 

Because we would rather not live in a state of complete liberty (of anarchy)—what Hobbes called ‘the state of nature’—we implicitly agree to give up a measure of our liberty (of our ability to govern ourselves) to a governing body, as long as everyone else does the same. This agreement has come to be known as ‘the social contract’.

According to Hobbes, we want to avoid the state of nature because it makes life ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. It was so bad, Hobbes said, that rebellion against the government is never justified. 

No matter how badly the government mistreats you, the state of nature is worse—so just deal with it. This didn’t resonate with everyone, however, and philosophers started thinking about the obligations of government and when they deserved to be overthrown—which brings us to the philosopher John Locke.

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Natural Rights We Have to Protect

Portrait of John Locke.
John Locke agreed with Hobbes about ‘the state of nature’. (Image: Everett Collection/Shutterstock)

John Locke thought Hobbes exaggerated the state of nature’s brutality, but did admit that it threatened one’s life, liberty, and property. For Hobbes, you had no natural right to such things, so you had to take what you could get. 

But Locke disagreed, saying that we have a right to such things even in the state of nature—and that it’s to protect such natural rights that we all enter into the social contract. Thus, simply put, when a government fails to protect our natural rights to life, liberty, and property, rebellion against that government is justified. But it’s actually a bit more complicated than that. 

By entering the social contract, you necessarily give up a portion of your rights. For example, to ensure social stability, you agree to obey the laws. So, by definition, a government will always be violating your liberty to some degree. So the question is really this: How do you distinguish between legitimate limits on your rights and grounds for the rebellion?

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People Choose When to Rebel against the State

Well, Locke argued, since you enter the social contract with the government to protect your rights, you implicitly agree to whatever is necessary to enable the government to protect your rights. 

The government needs money to function; the government must defend the country from invasion. So, even though taxation would take your property, and drafting you into military service would hinder your freedom and endanger your life—rebellion wouldn’t necessarily be justified in those cases.

But how do you determine what is necessary? How much of your money does the government need? When is the threat of invasion legitimate enough to warrant a draft? Locke’s answer: the people decide. Although, even that’s putting it a bit simply. Actually, the government decides, and the people decide on who’s in the government. But even that isn’t entirely accurate.

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Locke’s Philosophical Contradictions 

Locke was fine with voting rights being restricted to landed white non-Catholic gentry and was even okay with the government containing non-elected members. So it’s not like ‘the majority” elected their representatives. 

An American revolutionary war soldier with a flag of colonies and saber
America’s founders were inspired by John Locke, and, like him, they held contradicting ideals. (Image: Fotokvadrat/Shutterstock)

Indeed, the fact that Locke objected to the government without consent but also restricted voting rights to such a small group of people is one of the most glaring contradictions in his political philosophy. The same is true for America’s founders, who, inspired by Locke, held similar ideas.

Another clarification that needs to be made is that Locke didn’t think political rebellion was justified by any violation of natural rights—like an unlawful arrest or taxes being too high. It has to be systematic violations where the very reason for the government’s existence is negated. 

To give you an idea of what he means, other instances in which Locke thought a government could rightly be replaced is if society is destroyed by foreign invasion, or if the executive hinders, corrupts, or abolishes the legislator; governs arbitrarily (without the consistency of law); refuses to enforce the laws; refuses to submit to the rule of law; turns overrule to a foreign power or dissolves the courts.

Common Questions about When We Can Justifiably Rebel against the State

Q: What did Thomas Hobbes mean by ‘the state of nature’?

According to Thomas Hobbes, living without a ‘social contract’, or in other words, a state of complete liberty, wasn’t appealing because living in ‘the state of nature‘ would be nasty, brutish, and short. The pros outweigh the cons, leading him to believe rebelling against the state is never justified.

Q: What did John Locke and Thomas Hobbes disagree on?

John Locke thought that Thomas Hobbes was mistaken in thinking people didn’t have any rights in nature and that they had to take what they could. He also thought Hobbes was exaggerating living in ‘the state of nature‘. Also, Locke imagined certain circumstances in which rebelling against the state could be justified.

Q: When did John Locke believe rebelling against the government was justified?

John Locke thought the people could decide on this matter. The people would have to decide when systematic violations were occurring, which neglected the very purpose the government had to fulfill. Although he didn’t think a violation of natural rights would justify someone rebelling against the state.

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