The importance of a government that is appointed for the protection of our natural rights bound by the law of nature is what John Locke speaks about in his social contract theory.
A theory in political philosophy.
A Social Contract is not an official contract, but a fiction; that of mutual understanding.
No man in this world is free. We are all governed by the societies we live in. The natural rights we were born with are protected by a government we choose to govern us. A big question that intrigued the theorists of the social contract theory was, that how can people give away their freedom to a sovereignty in trade for some benefits? John Locke’s social contract theory is what we are living today. The American Constitution and all Western political systems today are based on this theory.
A short summary of ‘social contract theory’
You know what it is to sign a contract. It means you abide with all the rules and regulations of that contract and agree to follow them, discontinuity of which would cause serious punishable consequences. A social contract is what we all sign as a part of the society we live in, in order to enjoy its social benefits. It is not an official contract, but a fiction; that of mutual understanding.
To understand John Locke’s Social Contract Theory, we need to first understand these two concepts:
◆ State of nature
◆ Law of nature
State of nature
State of nature is equivalent to anarchy. It is based on a hypothetical situation that when years ago there were no societies, what it would have been like. What was it to be completely free, without anyone to judge or punish, and how societies came into existence. Philosophers have different views and theories on this concept. State of nature suggests that people have complete freedom to anything and everything, which was indeed the natural condition of the human race.
According to Thomas Hobbes, an English philosopher of the 17th century, the rights people have in a state of nature, to their possessions, including property, and their will to do anything they wanted to, created a menace without a political hand to control the injustice one could do to the other in power of his rights. This created a state of war between every individual, if a person posed a threat to another in order to gain access to his belongings. This would cause invasion and insult of others rights, instigating them to take necessary actions to protect themselves against the harm a person having ill intentions can cause to them. To seek just protection and insure stability in their lives, people surrendered their freedom to a sovereignty.
Law of nature
Law of nature according to John Locke states that every individual is bound by a social responsibility towards the other. As it is said, ‘The rights of swinging my fist ends where your nose starts’, Locke claims that every person should realize his responsibility and understand the limitations of his rights and respect that of others. As he stated, law of nature is the groundwork of morality, and is given to us by God, which summons that we should not harm anything related to anyone be it life, possessions, liberty or health. We are all created equally by God, and so the thought of harming each other shouldn’t even cross our minds, since it is not our right to harm someone who rightfully belongs to God. This is a mutual understanding between every human being that to be a part of such immoral things is a disgrace to their existence, and it should be in the best of their interest to be away from such things.
John Locke’s Social Contract Theory
John Locke in his theory, applied the methodological device of Thomas Hobbes’ state of nature, but in a very different way. According to Locke, a state of nature is a condition, where humans are free to do anything that pleases them, with complete liberty, but also morality. Freedom doesn’t mean being inhumane towards others. Freedom is to be free within oneself, and to do anything regarding to self. Others should not be a part of your freedom, meaning, their life, property, or liberty is not a part of your freedom. This is what the law of nature states.
State of nature is that in which humans are free but bound by the rules of morality. This creates a peaceful atmosphere, as opposed to what Hobbes enunciates in his theory that a state of war emerges in state of nature. The difference here is due to the application of law of nature. However, Locke also says in his theory, that if there is threat to life by another person, breaking the law of nature, then in self-defense complete right to save one’s life by killing the other is considered right, and a state of war will emerge only when a person decides to revolt and involve in criminal activities. But since there is no rule other than that of morality, which has already been breached, the war will continue to go on, and bitter occurrences will arise giving birth to even worse ones. This is where the need for a political community comes in scene.
A government made by the people, with rules and regulations formed with the consent of people, to be acted upon those who violate the law of nature, comes in force in such situations. This benefits the people in the state of nature in many ways, providing them security against those that can be potential threats and the protection of their rights. Since the government is now a mutual head of the society, people contribute funds for their own conveniences like roads, institutes, industries and other social amenities, to be used by all those living in that area.
Governments are formed to be beneficial to its people. They are given the authority to judge right from wrong, and impose restrictions and punishments for offenses that are made to the people of the state of nature. If however, people feel that the government is being unjust, or partial, or imposing its own rules, the right to bring down the current government and elect for a new one, remains intact with the people in the state of nature.
The fact that Locke considered the state of nature to be a positive condition of living if bounded by the law of nature, made him extend his thoughts towards bringing down a built governance, going back to the being in the state of nature, to form a new and better one. This political theory of social contract is being followed almost in all the countries today, and its significance can be seen in a just and humane culture we live in.