Last Updated 06 Jul 2020

Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau and Wollstonecraft

Category Justice, Rousseau
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Looking to the science of the day, Hobbes determined that there was no soul and attempted to describe human nature as pure mechanics. Human nature was therefore driven by the need to satisfy the physical demands of the body and based on basic passions in life. These are to satisfy physical appetites, to seek power to maintain their wealth and to be superior to others by seeking glory. Hobbes saw the state nature as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. " The state of nature is anarchy, with constant violence (or potential violence) by amoral leaders terrorizing the population.

Reason is the answer that will lead to a social contract and government. Individuals will give up their individual rights and freedoms to secure peace. Morality and property can then be dictated by the state, since human nature is not equipped to handle those concepts without conflict. This will allow each person to then pursue their own self-interests without fear of violence. The sovereign authority is the office or institution of government that is contracted by the people. It is the artificial construct onto which the powers are conveyed by the social contract.

The only limits to the sovereign’s powers are self-imposed, since it must exist outside of the population; although it should always strive for the good of the people to remain legitimate. Civil law is dictated by the sovereign. Civil law should be designed to promote well-being and progress for society with appropriate punishments for law breakers. Hobbes believed in an absolute monarchy. By making one man in charge, it would make it easy for the people to understand their roles and obey laws.

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With no confusing dissension or contrary views, people do not have to waste time and effort making political decisions; after all, that’s why they entered the social contract in the first place. He did not, however, believe in the ‘divine right’ or hereditary kings; the contract was conveyed upon an ancestor, which has no bearing on the legitimacy of the heir to rule. Although Locke’s views are similar to Hobbes’, they are not quite as grim and fearful. Similar to Hobbes, he believes that people are naturally free and equal. Locke believes that man is social by nature and is naturally moral, rational and egoistic.

In a state of nature, man will generally act with a mutual trust and respect and honor their commitments and obligations to other. Although he emphasizes these positive traits of humanity, he recognizes that since that is not always the case, people will need to form a type of social contract to preserve their rights and liberties. For Hobbes, natural law is a selfish state where people do not recognize the rights of others’ property and liberty. Locke believes that, although they don’t always act in accordance with it, man inherently knows right from wrong and are capable of acting in a lawful manner.

The goal of government is to preserve the rights to life, liberty, health and property of its society and to pursue the public good even where this may conflict with the rights of individuals. It is also to punish wrongdoers and transgressors of the laws it sets for the common good. Since ones path to salvation and religious preferences fall outside those boundaries, government should not enforce or espouse any one form of religion over another. Class and hierarchy is a natural outgrowth of Locke’s views on property.

Credited as the founder of the “Protestant work ethic”, Locke believed that those who worked hard will possess more. By agreeing to have money be an equalizing factor for trade, this will naturally contribute to some having more wealth than others. This is fine and natural, as long as the producers are working without injustice or injury to others. In retrospect, Locke may be considered the father of feminism. Although he still believed women should be subordinate to men, he also noted that women were capable of rationality and equally shared in the paternal power of raising children.

Most notably, he claimed that marriage was a contract entered into by both parties and that both should be able to dissolve the contract at will; it took almost 300 years for society to catch up and instigate no fault divorces. Locke believed government should be formed with both an executive and legislative branches. The legislative determines the laws and may assign judicial, or magistrates, to exercise it. The executive is responsible for enforcing the laws and conducting foreign affairs. There should be a system of checks and balances between the two branches, to avoid despotism and illegitimate governments.

Since a monarchy puts the power of both branches into one person, Locke believed all monarchies to be illegitimate forms of government. By advocating some form of representative or democratic government, society can insure that there representatives are working in their best interests. Despotism occurs when either of the two branches of government exceed their authority and begin acting against the benefit of the people. Civil society can then remove the offenders from office through their electoral process or agree to set up a new form of government.

When the people are denied these means to choose their government, violent revolution may be the answer. Rousseau believes that the state of nature is solitary existence guided by two principles – self-preservation and compassion. Social interactions were driven by the necessity to satisfy their own needs; war and aggression would be unlikely, since primitive man’s compassion drove him to avoid suffering of others. Civilization and establishment of nuclear families led to the beginnings of society, which corrupted the state of nature and led to human nature.

Human nature is based on oppression and inequality, the haves dominating over the have nots. Society and governments were established to protect the rights and properties of the few landowners without regard to the rights of the laborers. His path to liberation is paved with a just, moral civil society that works for the benefit of all of its members. People must draw on their compassion and work towards the good of society, rather than selfish goals. In this manner, a social contract can be formed that will benefit all of society.

Rousseau’s social contract involves an overhaul of civilization and a community that is willing to that is willing to forfeit all of their rights. Although not necessarily a violent revolution, he suggests that liberated people form a new community and create a government. This moral body of citizens would only consider the greater good and not selfish, private interests. He does not envision this to be without economic inequality, however, as long as it does not interfere with political equality; there should not be a situation where one man is able to buy or sell a vote.

The basis of legislative power is the general will of the people. Although entrance into the community must be unanimous, voting is done by majority. All citizens must participate in open discussion before voting. Votes should only be counted from those expressing the general will; those voting based on selfish interests should be discounted, although no practical way of knowing or enforcing this is described. Since authority and freedoms all reside within the general will, transgressors against the general will can be coerced or forced to liberate themselves.

There are underlying conditions necessary for the formation of the social contract. There must be a legislator, a divinely enlightened man who will lead the community into an understanding of its true public interest. He initiates the contract and then retires before he can be corrupted. A civil religion is necessary, one that does not divide the community’s loyalties. The civil religion is founded on the way of life of the citizens, including customs and traditions. It must include belief in God, immortality of the soul and the social contract.

The society must be small, modeled after the polis, and agricultural in nature, rather than founded on commerce or industry. The executive institutions are the bureaucracy of the sovereign. The magistrate lays down the laws and is supported by policeman and jailors. The censor is in charge of compliance with the civil religion, using education to guide people. The censor monitors the arts and sciences to insure people are not whiling away their time and distraction themselves from the common good.

Two other offices may be used in exigent circumstances to allow for checks on the government. A tribunate can be used to limit the magistrate or a dictator can be used as supreme commander in war or natural disasters. Government should take the form of a republic, with full participation in the legislature and delegation of authority for the executive. Depending on the wealth and size of the state, monarchy, non-hereditary aristocracy or democracy could be acceptable forms of executive. Rousseau was adamant that men and women were vastly different and should be educated appropriately.

Men should learn a trade and how to become an enlightened citizen. Women should learn how to raise children, tend house and be a good wife. He did not consider women rational enough to be citizens. Education is not to be done by rote memorization, but is instead to take the form of exploration and learning through experience. In direct response to Rousseau, Wollstonecraft argues that educating women in the same fashion as men makes them better able to function in the roles of wife, mother and daughter.

She argues that virtues are not gender specific, but without equal education, women cannot achieve virtues founded on knowledge. Since education begins in the home and mothers were to raise the children, women must be educated to be better mothers and provide their children with necessary education. Wollstonecraft sees human nature as truly equal, including equality between the sexes. The basic capacities of all humans are the same for reason and knowledge and the difference between the sexes has arisen out of the societal constructs that separate them.

She supported the concept of a social contract, albeit with the inclusion of women as fully realized citizens. She did not believe that either a monarchy or aristocracy could be a legitimate form of government since it perpetuates the subordination of women. She considers property to be as one of the ills of society because it gives rise to the societal problems, which contribute to keeping women ignorant and subordinate. Civil society must be founded on reason, which women are as capable of as men given the proper opportunities and education.

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