The Social Contract

The 4th of July gives us time to reflect on the age-old question, do people have the right to self-determination? Many have opposed this idea, and continue to do so even today. But liberal thinkers such as Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau give us cause to think that perhaps we do. Indeed, Locke, Rousseau and other such contemporary thinkers were influential for the American founding fathers when they drafted the American Declaration of Independence in 1776. A reading of Locke in particular suggests that there is in fact a right for all peoples to be able to self-determine their government which entails the right to secede from a pre-established order.

From as far back as Plato and Aristotle, humankind has continually asked how to organise itself. For Aristotle, this question was fundamental to human existence – hence he defined humans as ‘political animals’ and so, according to Aristotle, it is within our nature as humans to organise ourselves into political communities. Writing much later but in constant reference to Plato and Aristotle, Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau also attempted to answer these same questions by using a philosophical construct known as the social contract. This has been a radically persuasive argument ever since, and the foundation for much of our modern political discourse.

The State of Nature

The social contract describes how humans move from the state of nature to form the political community. The state of nature is outside the political community. Hobbes illustrates this as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” It’s a state of war against all, where humans have absolute license to do as they wish. The expression ‘nothing is forbidden, everything is permitted’ would aptly describe the state of nature to Hobbes. Everyone in the state of nature is equal.

Locke’s state of nature is different. Whereas Hobbes thinks it is a state of war against all, Locke thinks that because all are equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in their “life, health, liberty, or possessions”. For Locke, it is a law of nature that calls for the preservation of one’s “life, liberty health or goods” and when someone violates this natural law then there is a natural right in the state of nature to execute the law of nature and seek retribution, like for like. By violating the law of nature even in the state of nature the offender declares themself outside the bounds of reason and common equity,


Liberal thinkers all believe that humans are equal. This is an important departure from Plato and Aristotle who both agreed (but particularly the latter) that some are intended for slavery and others for freedom. Hobbes writes in chapter 13 of Leviathan that “nature hath made men so equal, in the faculties of body”. We also have an equal desire to attain the same things, which due to scarcity they cannot all enjoy. This creates conflict; and from conflict war. As equals all power and jurisdiction is reciprocal, no one has more power than another.

Freedom and Liberty in the State of Nature

In the state of nature, humankind is free to the greatest possible extent. Liberty in this sense is “the absence of external impediments […] to do what he would” (Leviathan, Chapter 14). It is a natural law that humans are free to do as their reasons determines because in the state of nature there is no one to stop us from doing so.

Locke describes the state of nature as follows: “the perfect freedom to order their actins and dispose of their possessions and persons as they think fit, within the bounds of the law of nature without asking leave or depending on the will of any other man”. In the state of nature, humankind is isolated from each other – a real Robinson Crusoe (as Rousseau put it), looking on the other in hostility. Locke adds though that the state of nature has some constraints. One is not free to dispose of their body (i.e. to commit suicide). The state of nature has a law of nature that governs it and obliges everyone (The Second Treatise of Government, Chapter 2).

Leaving the State of Nature

The state of nature is governed by certain rules of nature. The first law of nature for Hobbes is that humans naturally seek peace. The second, “that a man be willing, when others are so too, as far-forth as for peace and defence of himself he shall think it necessary […] and to be contented with so much liberty against other men, as he would all ow other men against himself. In this way, Hobbes is saying that reaching a state of peace requires reciprocity from all parties.

Leaving the state of nature is to set aside certain rights for the sake of peace. Agreeing to seek peace equally between parties is the initial contract. Importantly, it is a voluntary act. One cannot be compelled by force to give up their rights. Rousseau notes (On the Social Contract, Book I, chapter 3) that “force is a physical power [without] moral effect. To yield to force is an act of necessity, not of will…let us then that force does not create right.”

And so for the sake of peace humankind agrees one among another equally that they shall lay down their rights to pursue war. This forms the basis of the social contract. As Rousseau (On the Social Contract Book I chapter 6) formulates it:

“These clauses, properly understood, may be reduced to one – the total alienation of each associate, together with all his rights to the whole community, for, in the first place, as each gives himself absolutely, the conditions are the same for all; and, this being so, no one has any interest in making them burdensome to others”

Creating the Political Community

Hobbes say that the end or purpose of the political community is the preservation of the self and to exit the state of nature. It cannot be a state where the individuals would be worse off than if they had stayed in the state of nature, otherwise the parties would not agree to leave the state of nature. As noted above, the conditions of the contract are to apply universally and to not favour one over another, and I only give up only so much of my power as I would have another have over me.

In the state of nature, we each are executors of the law of nature. But since none of us are omnipotent, and all of us have a subjective reality one of the most important aspects of the social contract is that disputes between parties should be adjudicated by a third party who can apply the collectively agreed upon laws. Thus, by entering the political community, we give up our right to seek retribution when another violate the law of nature.

This alienation of one’s rights to the other parties in the form of the political community creates political power. Political power is the “right of making laws with penalties of death, and consequently all less penalties, for the regulating and preserving of property, and of employing the force of the community in the execution of the laws, and in the defence of the commonwealth from foreign injury and all this only for the public good” (The Second Treatise of Government, Chapter 1).

Hobbes writes that “covenants, without the sword, are but words, and of no strength to secure a man at all.” This is an important distinction between Hobbes and other liberal thinkers because Hobbes believes that humankind is naturally vicious (in the sense that they will always tend towards vice if left alone) and therefore, for the sake of peace, the community needs a superior being, a Leviathan, to enforce the peace in the community. Hobbes observed, as Aristotle had before him, that some animals such as ants and bees live in societies without a coercive power. The difference between these animals however is that humans are, firstly, in constant competition for honour and dignity and thus, inversely, envious and hateful towards others, and secondly, the common good is identical to private good whereas for humans, the two are distinct from one another.

The political community therefore is for the sake of preserving the life, liberty, property and health of its members. Each of the members agrees to give up some of the liberty in order to live in peace with one another. Investing the community with political power arises from the transference of that natural right to seek retribution on those who violate the law of nature. The aggregation of this right is in turn executed by the community on those who seek to harm it, whether these be foreign powers, or members of the community who act outside of the laws of nature.

The Right to Self-Determination

From the above account it follows that individual have the right to self-determine their choice of government. This can be done peacefully, qua ritualistically, via free and fair elections, or they may do so violently, by overthrowing the government if the government is deemed to have acted in violation of the natural law.

It is notable that, all but Hobbes agreed that democracy was the best form of government for this reason. The fact that one voluntarily gives up their rights in order to join the political community suggests that one is free to also retract the transference of those rights and thereby return to the state of nature.

It remains to be seen then, if once agreed, a social contract can be dissolved. On this point, Locke and Rousseau are silent. Hobbes’ answer is as outlined above. That once transferred is cannot be given back and the sovereign has the right to enforce the peace of the commonwealth. Locke and Rousseau, who were both more liberal in their beliefs do not account for situations when a group of a society wishes to secede from a commonwealth.

The American Experiment

With that said we do know that the founding father of the United States were heavily influenced by the likes of Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau. The founding fathers used language directly taken from Locke’s Second Treatise of Government to justify their secession from England. It is no mistake that the opening phrase of the American Declaration of Independence reads as if Locke had written it himself,

“we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

The founding fathers then go to list of the grievances against King George and reason why they were to wage war against him. It is perhaps the most famous case for the self-determination of a group of people. The Founding Fathers clearly saw that the social contract had been violated by King George, just as the English Parliament had in 1649 when they cut the head off Charles I.

The power of American experiment on political discourse ever since cannot be understated enough. It has determined the course of history ever since its inception and helped to inspire other revolutions around the world at the time, and afterwards, most notably the French Revolution.

Modern Times

In the 21st century, despite its enduring influence, the social contract and the right to determination do not maintain the same ideological place it once had. This has been due in part to the rise of Communism beginning in the 19th century which offered an alternative to liberal principles. Since the American revolution we have seen the rise and fall of fascism and communism and growth of modern capitalism on the back of four industrial revolutions. This is a different world to the one of Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau. But this shouldn’t mean that the power of their ideas should have any less relevance for us.

Reading List

(the links will take you to pdfs of the texts)


Aristotle, The Politics

Jean=Jacques Rousseau, On the Social Contract

Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan

John Locke, The Second Treatise of Government

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