John Locke and Thomas Hobbes
Locke and Hobbes are constitutional influencers in the KTB Prep American Government and Civics series designed to acquaint users with the origins, concepts, organizations, and policies of the United States government and political system. The goal is greater familiarization with the rights and obligations of citizenship at the local, state, national, and global levels and the history of our nation as a democracy.
Locke and Hobbes
John Locke (1632-1704) and Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) were two prominent English political philosophers who profoundly impacted modern political science. Sharing similar views on where power lies in a society, they both favored a popular contract or constitution, where the authority to rule resting with the people is granted to government. This does not necessarily mean a democracy, but can be something as simple as a tribe or as complex as the fictional government described by Plato in The Republic, which is more like an aristocracy or communism than a true Republic. Of the two, Locke has probably been the most influential in shaping modern politics, our view of human nature, the nature of individual rights and the shape of popular constitutions that exist today; on the other hand, Hobbes has influenced how the people can change government when they are dissatisfied.
Locke and Hobbes: Motivation
Hobbes and Locke both break human motivation down to a basic state of nature or a ‘what if’ scenario where people are placed to understand their actions, reactions and motivations. Their constructed states of nature are; however, polar opposites.
Hobbes establishes a science that explains humanity at a physics like level of motion. In fact, this motion in humanity leads to “a perpetual and restless desire for power after power, that ceases only in death”(Deutsch, p. 235). Hobbes argues that so strong is this desire for power that “man is a wolf to his fellow man,” and that the true state of nature for man is at war (Deutsch, p. 237-238). Based off of this argument, in nature when two men come face to face on a narrow path, one will bash the other in the head to make way for his path, or perhaps enslave him to carry his burden and do work for him.
Locke takes a very different approach. His ideas of human nature are formed with a deist philosophy, meaning that he recognizes that there is a God but does not espouse any particular religion or dogma behind this being or beings. Rather than having human nature rooted in individualism, it’s governed by natural laws which are set by this creator.
The individual who focuses on his self interest with an eye to the community is the center of Locke’s view of human nature (Deutsch p. 274) Unlike Hobbes, Locke sees that man is not only interested in self survival, but also the survival of his society. This may be the reason why a man or woman will rush into a burning building or plunge into an icy, fast moving river to save another person or child’s life. This idea of altruism, of risking ones life to save another is somewhat unique to humanity with the exception of a mother animal defending its children.
Locke and Hobbes both believe there has to be a choice of forming alliances and creating or joining societies. Free will and intelligence are necessary or else, under an extreme Hobbesian philosophy, we would be battling brutes and under an extreme Lockeian philosophy, we would all be the equivalent of ants.
Locke and Hobbes: Rights and Equality
For Hobbes, there is little defining right or wrong except for what the state or individual, in the state of nature, decides. There is only one natural right, and that is the right of self preservation (Deutsch, p. 263).
In Hobbes’ state of nature, all men are equal in physical and mental faculties. While there are some who are stronger than others, the weak are capable of forming confederacies to kill the stronger and so be strong themselves (Hobbes, p. 74). This equality makes it so that each individual has the ability to consent to be governed and does for the sake of survival. This theory makes Hobbes the originator of the modern social contract theory (Deutsch, p. 238).
Locke, believing we are governed by natural laws that come from a creator, posited rights coming from this being as well. These rights are called inalienable rights and we now often refer to them as human rights. Sadly there is some ambiguity about the definition of these rights, but there are at least three that are well known: life, liberty and property ownership (or in the words of Thomas Jefferson, the pursuit of happiness).
While Hobbes’ views humanity as individualistic and Locke views it as communal, it is Locke’s idea of inalienable rights that has helped to forward the idea of individual rights in society. With respect to equality, we all owe our lives and rights to God and since we are not God (subject to death), this makes all of us equal. This equality is not based off alliances nor physical or mental prowess. It’s based on the idea that we are, in a sense, all children of a god. No matter what, this means any alliance, government or ruler is subject to the law; rather than being above it, solely because they are author of the law. He who violates the inalienable rights is the enemy of mankind according to Locke.
Locke and Hobbes both believe in the necessity of government, but they differ in the means of recourse said government’s citizens have when the government has become abusive to their rights. Hobbes’ view of government is as jaded as his view of human nature. The reason man forms government is for self preservation and this government is perpetuated by fear. Man creates the government because they fear for their lives, for “while men’s mutual fear of each other characterizes life in the state of nature, the fear of government characterizes civil society” (Deutsch, p. 247).
Hobbes rejected the idea of limited government (key concept in the history of liberalism where government starts from a point of having no power and is empowered and restricted by law which is written in its constitution) and pushed the need for absolute sovereignty because he believed limited government failed to protect the individual’s right to self preservation. This returns us back to nature and basically destroys society. This absolute sovereignty is achieved when people give all their power to one individual or to an assembly of individuals through a contract or covenant (Deutsch, p. 247). Once made, the sovereign has absolute power in waging war, declaring peace, levying taxes and so forth.
If the government were to become oppressive, Hobbes sees no necessity for justification or solution believing going back to the state of nature is worse than being subject to such a government. He hopes the sovereign will do what is right for his people if nothing more than for fear of violent death, and yet, the people are supposed to do as they are told for the same reasons. In fact, Hobbes’ sovereign is above natural law and can use it at will on subjects.
Locke’s government is at the consent of the people and does not preclude the legislative branch of the government from making laws without needing to constantly ask permission of its people. This is not absolute sovereignty because the government is limited in two ways:
- The sovereign’s power can’t run afoul of natural laws nor inalienable rights.
- The legislative branch (or law making) and the executive branch (or law enforcing) are separated so as to prevent abuses and a sense of immunity from these laws (Deutsch, p. 292).
If at any point the government does exceed its bounds and will not self correct, Locke declares that the people have one, clearly defined, final inalienable right being the ability to revolt and establish a government which honors natural laws and human rights (Deutsch, p. 294).
Thomas Jefferson exercised Locke’s final inalienable right in for the Declaration of Independence was a clear statement that since the colonies had attempted to resolve the wrong done to them through all means possible and that these attempts had no affect, colonists were correct in “abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed” and to, “throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security” (Jefferson). This is the final check and ultimate limit to government in preserving the liberties that come from natural rights.
Of the two, John Locke has a more direct lineage to our founding fathers. Jefferson channeled him in the Declaration of Independence and the separation of powers doctrine included in the Constitution can be traced to Locke as well. However, there are two problems Locke would have with the Constitution:
- The lack of recognition of, or allowing for, rebellion in the event of a tyrannical government.
- The limitations of power upon the executive, especially since that individual would not be a monarch. Locke was in favor of monarchy when balanced with a law making legislature like the Parliament.
It seems that Hobbes’ opposition to revolution has also endured as this right was excluded from the Constitution.
Next Constitutional Influencer: Charles Louis-de Secondat, Barron de la Brede et de Montesquieu
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