John Locke’s Social Contract Theory Notes

John Locke (1632-1704) was a philosopher who played a major role as one of the most prominent and influential Enlightenment philosophers. His writings on social contract theory and natural rights were the most influential ideas in modern political theory, and they changed the course of the development of liberal democracy. Locke is often labeled as the “Father of Liberalism” for his ground-breaking role in the American and French revolutions and for the development of constitutional governance worldwide. His political philosophy, which is known as the theory of government by consent of the governed, individual liberties, private property rights, and limited governmental powers, has had a significant impact on the development of these concepts.

The idea of social contract is at the center of Locke’s political philosophy. It is a voluntary agreement made between free individuals to form a political society and establish a government. The social contract is the fundamental of legal political authority and establishes a limit to government power. Locke put forward his theory that people dwell in a state of nature initially free from any government. To preserve their natural rights, they agree to surrender some of their individual freedoms and become part of a social contract that governs society. This theory questioned the divine right of kings and altered the views on monarchical authority. The theory paved the way for the emergence of modern democratic self-governance. The essence of Locke’s political philosophy is understood through the social contract, and thus, it is essential to appreciate this philosophy.

What is Social Contract Theory?

Simply put, the Social Contract Theory is an idea that explains how societies are formed and how they function. It suggests that people agree to live together under rules and laws in exchange for protection and security. Imagine it as a big agreement where everyone promises to behave and follow the rules to keep the community safe and fair for everyone.

Key Thinkers of The Social Contract Theory

Social contract theory is based on the fundamental belief that an agreement exists between individuals and the state, which they have voluntarily entered into.

Thomas Hobbes: According to Hobbes, man is inherently inclined to self-interest, ambition, and competition. He believed that without laws and a government in place, there would be no order and life would be a savage affair. In his view, people were required to give up some of their liberty to a powerful ruler or government in return for peace and stability.

John Locke: Locke was more of an optimist and he thought of humans differently. He held the view that people are endowed with natural rights such as the right to life, liberty, and property at birth. As Locke said, the primary role of the government is to ensure the preservation of these rights. He advocated for a government with a limited scope of authority and the right of the people to change it if it does not fulfill its duty of protecting their rights.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Rousseau, in his opinion, thought that society at large corrupts people. He believed that if left unaffected by society, people are inherently good, but they become self-serving and unequal as a result of societal influence. Rousseau declared that the only legitimate government is the one that expresses the “general will” of the people. It means that society should be governed by the voice of the majority, which is a principle of democracy.

Definition of Social Contract Theory According to Key Thinkers

Social Contract Theory is described as the theory of the social contract. The main thinkers are considered as the source of it.

Thomas Hobbes: The social contract is an agreement where people bargain some of their freedom to a strong government to have peace and security.

John Locke: The social contract implies a commitment among people to form a government so that they can enjoy their natural rights.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau: The social contract is an agreement between citizens to form a government based on the common good and will lead to equality and freedom.

Origin of Social Contract Theory

The idea of the social contract emerged during the 17th and 18th centuries, a time of great political and social change. Thinkers like Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau were inspired by the tumultuous events of their time, such as revolutions and conflicts, to explore how societies are organized and governed.

John Locke’s Social Contract theory

Locke strove to revise the concept of the social contract developed earlier by Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679). The English political philosopher, and liberalism from the ideology of absolutism. This theory views the state as the result of the mutual consent of men, its formation being an arrangement, with a certain purpose, to satisfy the particular needs of its creators. It means, in the beginning, there was a time when men were or would have been living without a civil law, and the state’s authority. This phase or kind of life of men is termed the ‘state of nature’. At this stage of imagination, men lived and behaved as per their native nature. This last stage became unbearable for many reasons, and so men decided to create a civil society or a state by voluntary agreement of all the members. Various adherents of the social contract – Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau (1712-78) have laid out different descriptions of the ‘state of nature’, the terms of the contract’ and the character of the sovereignty that emerged as a result of the formation of the state. It is worth to mention that the social contract is a theory based on only speculation. It is an attempt to trace the birth of the state through logic, rather than historical or scientific evidence. Locke refers to a historical fact to illustrate his point: the Mayflower Compact (1620), an agreement drafted by the passengers of the ‘Mayflower’ (the ship), aimed at the unification of the settlers who planned to colonize the American Continent. The purpose of this agreement was to establish a provisional majority government. This historical event was recalled for illustration, but illustration is no historical evidence of the incidence of the conclusion of the social contract at the primitive stage of human civilization.


Hobbes argued about the single contract where the state and society arise together. It meant that if the state is dissolved, society is also dissolved and men are thrown back to the state of nature, that is, a state of total anarchy and insecurity. This being said, Hobbes had considered absolute sovereignty as a way to avoid these problems. Locke attempts to solve this problem by hypothesizing the stages of the contract. As Jeremy Waldron has elucidated: The three stages of contract and consent in Locke’s description are: men must unanimously agree to come together and form a community for the sake of upholding their rights; the members of this community must agree by a majority vote to establish legislative and other institutions; the owners of property in this society must agree, either personally or through their representatives, to whatever taxes are imposed on the people. This theory of the several stages of the contract stands for a sharp difference from Hobbes’s viewpoint. Hobbes holds that society and state come into being simultaneously; they are dissolved together. On the contrary, Locke believes that society and state were created in different steps: government formation is not the primary concern; society is the primary concern. Consequently, if the government is dissolved, it does not mean that society disintegrates. Order will be restored by setting up another government in place of the one that was there.

John Locke On Government and Natural Rights

In Locke’s view, the nature of government is ‘like a ‘trust’. Taking this into account, a government, like a trust, is bound to act within the terms of its constitution. He makes a difference between the formation of society and state and thus gives government to the society. This also means no space for absolutism. As Waldron has significantly observed: “Absolute government of the kind that Thomas Hobbes imagined is out of the question since people hold their natural rights to life and liberty as a sort of trust from God and therefore cannot transfer them to the arbitrary power of another. Since the government is created to protect property and other rights, not to undermine them, the government may not redistribute property without consent!” .

While Hobbes develops absolute sovereignty, Locke works out a constitutional government. In his system of thought, Hobbes sees natural liberty as a source of perpetual conflict and, therefore, anarchy. According to him, natural liberty should be surrendered to the sovereign unconditionally, because in his system of thought natural liberty is the source of conflict and consequent anarchy. Locke distinguishes conditional and partial renunciation of natural rights because some natural rights are absolute; they cannot be alienated because they are the basis of human freedom. In Locke’s view, people have the natural right to ‘judge of and punish’ those who violate the natural law in their case or the case of others. This right is now conferred on the community, the ‘common power” or the administration which assumes the role of ‘umpire’. However, this right is given up on the premise that their rights to ‘life, liberty and property’ will remain protected and undisturbed. The society remains with the power to control whether the government is using the powers in a way that is restricted to the terms of the contract or not. This implies: (a) first, that the government must govern with ‘the consent of the people’ in the first place. It is the man who is reasoned, conscientious, moral, and has the knowledge of the right and the wrong. The government is created by the people themselves, but as a man-made device it cannot embody ‘superior reason’; and (a) secondly, if the government fails to fulfill its duty, the people have the right to overthrow that government and establish a new government in its place. So, Locke acknowledges the people’s right to revolt or resist. The whole logic of the Glorious or the Bloodless Revolution of 1688, which had resulted in the flight of James II and the installation of William and Mary on the throne, is based on this (1688).

The State of Nature According to John Locke

Locke said that men become the state by endowing their faculty of reason. In the new state being created, the faculty of reason is not transferred to the state but remains with the men themselves. This is the faculty that they must keep using all the time to ensure that the device they created is working perfectly. The relation between a man and the state is like the relation between a mechanic and a machine. This is also true of men who are similar to a householder who engages a watchman at night to protect his house. He remains constantly on guard himself to see that the nightwatchman does not neglect his duty, although he does not cheat the householder. The state of nature is a hypothetical situation commonly utilized by political philosophers to explore what people may have had to deal with before an organized government or state structure was established. To Locke, the state of nature was not a state of absolute chaos, war, and anarchy as philosophers had made it seem before. Instead, Locke put forward the idea that a state of nature was a state of perfect freedom and equality. In the state of nature, people were free to live side by side, using their reason, without any common supervisors. The natural state in which people existed was characterized by certain natural rights, among them the rights to life, liberty, and property. Locke claimed that the law and order of the state of nature was based on a natural law, which aimed to safeguard and protect the natural rights of life, liberty, and estate. People can use their natural rights to defend themselves and punish those who violate those rights. On the other hand, the absence of any government and law created a condition of unrest and insecurity. People in the state of nature were forced to be the judge, jury, and executioner of their own case. Such bias usually leads to unfair and disproportionate awards. Additionally, no particular government in place meant that contract enforcement was not guaranteed, no authority to resolve disputes, and no power or strength to punish private violence. In contrast to Locke who saw the state of nature as perfect in terms of freedom and equality, he, however, noted that it was also inconvenient, and dangerous. As a result of this, he formulated the social contract theory, in which the consent of people would be given to create a government to get more stability, structure, and protection of their natural rights.

Critiques and Interpretations

John Locke’s social contract theory, as outlined in his seminal works such as Two Treatises of Government, has been highly influential but also heavily critiqued. A philosophical theory as monumental as Locke’s was always bound to garner criticism and dissent. Here we will examine some of the key critiques leveled against Locke’s social contract theory, analyze how other thinkers have offered alternative interpretations of his ideas, and evaluate both the strengths and weaknesses of Locke’s overall political philosophy.
One major criticism of Locke’s theory is that his state of nature hypothesis is ahistorical and unrealistic. Locke imagines a pre-political society where individuals exist in perfect freedom and equality. But there is little anthropological evidence that such a state ever existed. Locke’s social contract narrative has been criticized as a mere philosophical fiction rather than grounded in actual human history.
Relatedly, Locke’s notion of natural rights has been targeted as lacking justification. Locke claimed individuals have inalienable natural rights prior to entering civil society. However, critics point out Locke does not offer an adequate explanation of where these rights originate from or why they should be considered moral absolutes. The idea of natural rights seems to be assumed rather than demonstrated.
Additionally, Locke’s theory of private property has faced scrutiny. His labor theory of property has been accused of justifying the unlimited acquisition of property with little regard for need. Critics argue this theory validates economic inequality and ignores any communal claims to land or resources.
Alternative interpretations have been offered to amend perceived weaknesses in Locke’s original theory. For instance, rather than positing a hypothetical state of nature, some theorists conceptualize the social contract as an ongoing process of rational discourse and moral progress. In this view, the social contract is revised constantly through public deliberation.

There have also been feminist critiques of Locke, arguing his notion of individual rights and the social contract excludes women and ignores power imbalances in gender relations. Feminist revisions emphasize issues of justice regarding gender, sexuality, family structure, and reproductive rights.

Evaluating Locke’s immense contribution, there is no doubt his writings fundamentally shaped liberal political theory and notions of modern democracy. The idea of government based on the consent of the governed remains one of Locke’s vital legacies. However, modern sensibilities may find some of Locke’s specific assumptions about human nature or gender relations dated or limited. Perspectives on property rights and the origins of inequality have also evolved considerably since Locke’s era. Though Locke’s ideas were radical in his time, modern philosophers continue to revise and rethink his seminal theories.


John Locke made a great contribution to the philosophy of modern politics when he came up with the idea of the social contract. State of nature, social contract, consent, rights, and government being the main focal points of his works, these ideas exercise a paramount impact on the development of liberal democratic thought as we know it today. Locke envisioned individuals in a baseline situation who would harmoniously relinquish some of their inherent freedom for an institution of government that guarantees a civil society as well as fair rules. Because of this, he is among the most prominent precursors of today’s world’s view on political legitimacy and authorization. His and the natural rights theory it is based on which criticism of the divine rights he referred to did not agree with the prevailing ideas of the time are historically famous. Locke’s statements which claim that people have inherent rights to life property, and liberty which preceded the government is what was envisaged during the Enlightenment and the American Revolution. And this is what inspires the liberty and human rights activists today. While his warnings against untrammeled power by the State formed the basis for the limitation which the law should stick to and the protection of the rights and freedoms of the individuals, it also paved the way for the modern democratic constitutions. Although some elements in Locke’s philosophical theory cannot be considered as universally accepted, it was his core ideas that toppled over the direction of political thought. Although Locke had written a lot, contract theory is still an open subject in his works. Dale, while confronting the complicated monarchical structures of his own era, can serve as a role model for contemporary government and law development, contenting with the intricate social and historical conditions and using the abstract principles he developed into practice. Locke’s mindset – rational, ground-breaking, and characterized by devotion to liberty – reminisces an exemplary lesson also applicable to political theories or reforms.