Thomas Hobbes “law”

Thomas Hobbes “law”

As discussed in this week’s lecture notes, for Thomas Hobbes “law” carries with it the hope of making social life “bearable;” while, for John Locke “law” has the potential to make individuals “better off” than they had been in a community without positive law and legal institutions.

Using the course lecture notes and Michael White’s readings on Hobbes and Locke (found on Blackboard), comment on Hobbes’ and Locke’s different approaches to the role law plays in society.
LAW 210: Law, Culture and Community
Lecture notes forWeeks 6-7ppt: Introduction to the Social Contract Tradition –Hobbes and Locke –

Slide 2
This is a slide from the first week of class. The questions are very important to Thomas Hobbes and John Locke. They are part of a group of political thinkers from the “Social Contract Tradition” — “Tradition” here means that there are a number of thinkers loosely held together because they are all trying to figure out why law should command our respect, and they differ with each other over central issues involving the role of the state on the issue of how to best pursue individual flourishing – should the individual’s atavistic desires – her particular self-oriented desires – be prioritized over the needs of the community? Is that the point of law and political authority – some people become “more free” than others. Hobbes and Locke are focused on the rights of the individual, but more communitarian-inspired thinkers – like Jean Jacques Rousseau (“Man is Free, but everywhere he is in Chains”) and Karl Marx – have concerns about whether the exercise of legal authority premised on the individualized concept of the “social contract” in a political society can have the consequences of creating “Haves” and “Have nots” – is the legal system set up to serve certain groups of individuals, but not others. Does the “rule of law” really create a level playing field — and remember, the Rule of Law is an ideal we’re constantly shooting for.
Slide 3
1. Introduce Social Contract idea –

A particular approach to asking a fundamental question about law:

Why does law “command” our respect? Where does law get its power (or authority) over us? Why are some statements addressed to us, and received by us, understood by us as imperative, requiring our acquiescence to one degree or another, and other statements we may take as good advice, or as a suggestion for how we ought to behave?

Antigone –what is the source of law’s authority for her?

Creon – what is the source of law’s authority for him? Did natural law have a role in his understanding of the authority of positive law?

Haemon – was he making a case for the Social Contract in legitimating Creon’s rule?

2. How is the Social Contract idea related to The Crito?

And, now Socrates argument on behalf of the “Laws of Athens” –

We are first introduced to the notion of an individual having a ‘social contract’ with the laws of her state in Socrates discussion with the ‘laws of Athens’ in The Crito.

Why does Socrates believe he must accept the punishment for a law he feels he did not violate – he believes he was wrongly convicted, yet he believes he must accept the punishment? Why? Why is Socrates in favor such an authoritarian view of law?
3. “Our Focus: Thomas Hobbes and John Locke”

We are spending this week with two titans in the History of Ideas on the question of the role of law in society – Why we have law? What is the source of the political legitimacy of law – another way to ask this question is Why does “law” have any moral authority over us (as opposed to it just being a suggestion we can take or leave).

Two 17th British century thinkers — Thomas Hobbes, author of the Leviathan, and John Locke, author of the Second Treatise on Government – employ the analytic device of thinking about what society would be like if there were no Positive Law, if individuals existed in a “State of Nature”. Hobbes and Locke offer stark contrasts about what this “State of Nature” is like to live in. But in both circumstances, the authors agree that individual’s would rationally choose – that they would see it in their individual interest – to create positive law and governance structures that create enforceable rules that would bring more certainty and definition to their world – in terms of certainty of private property ownership, certainty in terms of punishment for individuals who violated the agreed rules for social behavior.

Hobbes and Locke are the two modern foundational thinkers in the “Social Contract” tradition of thought

We are looking at political theory as it developed in the early Enlightenment period. This is a time of secular state building – English Civil Wars (1642-1648) against the Monarchy – the “Roundheads” versus the “Royalists”, King Charles I beheaded Oliver Cromwell became “Lord Protector of the Commonwealth”. Cromwell has short-lived rule – “warts and all,” harsh ruler, controversial figure. Cromwell buried in Westminster Abbey, but after Royalists return to power in 1658, Cromwell’s corpse is dug up, hung in chains and beheaded … Hobbes living through all of this and Leviathan is published in 1651 (!) – which is an argument for a strong authoritarian ruler.

The charge against Charles I at his trial was that he claimed “unlimited and tyrannical power to rule according to HIS will and to overthrow the rights and liberties of the people of England (Magna Carta history).

So, from this historical period we begin to see shaping our modern ideas about the relationship between democratic government and the people are grounded in our evolving understanding of what “Human Dignity” requires:

Respect for the individual,
Equality of opportunity,
Justice – Procedural Justice (ROL on dignity grounds and respect for individual freedom), Distributive Justice, perhaps Social Justice, and,
Representative Democracy (Locke) with the Separation of Powers, – with an independent judiciary —


Slide 4

OK, remember this from week 1 – our Founders felt as though their ‘social contract’ with England had been breached by the British. The Declaration of Independence is a type of manifesto identifying – calling out, so to speak — the source of this breach.

We’re going to be discussing the ‘social contract’ as a type of evaluative standard for our experience with government. Stop and think about it. We don’t really as individuals have a social contract with our elected officials – where we’ve entered into some transaction and agreed exchange of promises that we can see in a document we’ve signed.

Now, the founding generation of the US didn’t enter into a written contract with the King of England, either. But, you get the sense with the Declaration of Independence that Jefferson, Adams and et al certainly believed they had an implied contract with the British government – and that the Brits had breached their promises vis a vis the Colonists (no taxation without representation, etc.). So, the founding fathers issued this contractual notice – a Declaration of Independence.

Very similar to the Southern States secession effort leading to the Civil War …

Slide 5

Let’s think for a minute about the power of a “social contract” as a basis for political authority. Remember, the debates – and battles – during the times of Hobbes and Locke shaped our modern ideas about the relationship between democratic government and the people are grounded in our evolving understanding of what “Human Dignity” requires:

We were moving away from law and political authority based on the “divine right of Kings…” ( a la Creon) and towards political and legal authority in the state based more on Enlightenment principles like —

Respect for the individual, and acknowledgement of the individual’s capacity for rational thought;

Modern ideas of Justice – Procedural Justice (ROL on dignity grounds and respect for individual freedom), Distributive Justice, perhaps Social Justice, and,
Representative Democracy (Locke) with the Separation of Powers, – with an independent judiciary —

All of these ideas and issues assume that government is done by CONSENT, and in a way that satisfies the majority of the people.

And, all of these ideas, issues find their origins in the 17th century debates between “Contractarians” over the legitimate role of government in the exercise of its political authority.


With a “contract” there is the element of consent, individual choice, negotiation, being able to reject or accept, being able to collect damages (payment, some form of relief) if your contracting party violates her terms of the agreement.

Do we really get all this from our “social contract” with our political authorities????
A closer look at the Purpose of the Social Contract:
Some terms we are working with:

Power is the ability to do something.

(Legitimate) Authorityrequires that power is acknowledged by the general consent of the people.

Take note: For Contractarians, the State is not something separate from and in charge of those who are subject to its laws. The State is – or should be – the collective agent of the citizens, who decide what the laws should be.

Think about it: The “social contract” provides a democratic moment in the creation of a political and legal system. At its core, democracy has to do with the people as a whole having the power to make decisions about the rules under which they are going to live. The thought goes here, that if the group of people responsible for making the rules is the same group that’s going to have to live under them, then it’s not likely that you’ll end up with unfair, capricious, vindictive rules. The Social Contract views citizens as political equals here.
So how does Consent work, then: What work is the idea of “consent” really doing in our understanding of what the “social contract” is doing in our political and legal system? Do we really give our consent to those who have official power over us? – Can we really take it or leave it when we get pulled over by a cop? Can we really say that we didn’t personally agree to pay taxes?

The political leaders of America’s founding generation took the concept of “consent” literally – that’s what the Declaration of Independence is all about: you broke your promise, King of England, so we’re out of here.
But what about us, what about in our time? Putting Texas aside, is it likely that we’ll pick up our muskets and declare independence from the state when we disagree with its policies, or believe it is gravely overstepping its bounds in our lives? Unlikely, that we’ll “declare independence”. So, what’s the point of thinking about a “social contract” then … use of the device as an evaluative standard with which to judge the legitimacy of our political and legal institutions.

Think about the Tea Party movement – it’s very connected to the concept of using a social contract idea as an evaluative standard for whether gov’t is doing its job, fulfilling its proper (limited) role.
Slide 6

You should read the White book, ch 8, for more on this topic.

Slide 7

Again, I’m summarizing the major aspects of Hobbes’ assumptions and theory. You should read White here as well.

Slide 8

Notice the distinctions Hobbes makes between Natural Right, Natural Law, and Positive Law.

Important: for Hobbes, Law has the possibility of making life bearable.

If you can somehow manage to escape the State of Nature and set up a Leviathan, then you don’t want to go back. Goal of law: is Order, Stability, Predictability

Slide 9-12

I’m summarizing Locke’s assumptions and theory. Read White ch. 8.

John Locke a fascinating thinker. His insights have been deployed by all types of “liberal theorists” –

classical liberal thinkers like Adam Smith,

modern liberals responsible for aligning law with the creation of the “Welfare State,” stretching the concept of equality and fairness to include ideas about what count as “basic human needs” (like food, shelter, medicine, education, a job?); and

libertarians that argue Lockean property theory provides support for minimal law and government that would protect our “pre-political property rights and freedoms”


Slide 13

Discussed in class.


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