Locke on the Social Contract Theory

Social Contract Theory is a philosophy, which states that political and moral obligations of a person are rendered to him, upon an agreement between the ruler and the society. This agreement governs both the ruler and the ruled society to act in accordance with one another. John Locke, along with Thomas Hobbes and Jean Jacques Rousseau, is one of the best known proponents of this theory, which emerged as one of the most influential political theories in the history of the Modern West. Social Contract Theory was an answer to reject the Divine Right Theory, which was used by kings and queens as their basis for their right to rule.

Locke’s most important and influential writings are in his book, Two Treatises on Government. The first treatise in his writing is geared towards the rejection of Divine Right theory; and the second treatise states Locke’s own views on the justification for the civil government, which he entitled An Essay Concerning the True Original Extent and End of Civil Government.

John Locke’s Social Contract Theory held a positive view about human nature. He argued that humans have a gift of reason, and man’s natural condition is a state of perfect and complete liberty wherein, humans live their lives at its best without interference from other people. People are assumed to be in equal footing with one another and are bound by the Law of Nature. This Law of Nature however is according to Locke’s view is the basis of all morality, and thus must not extend to harm other people’s rights with regards to their life, health, liberty or possessions (Locke 2003).

Further more, as his concept of State of Nature lacks civil power amongst men and an appeal to the Law of Nature allowing people to defend themselves. Because of this lack of authority, a war is likely to break out, thus prompting the reason to abandon the State of Nature and recognize a contract that shall in turn form a government.

This, as a result to man’s having the ability to think rationally, humans submit themselves to a higher authority for the protection of their rights. However, in Locke’s Social Contract Theory, a rational individual will only agree to a government, with minimal and limited control, and a government that is controlled by the citizens. Because for Locke, the government can be easily lured to become restrictive, corrupt and abusive of powers, thus prompting the individuals to always retain some power over the government for the sake of freedom and equality.

This issue concerning freedom has always been central to Locke’s market government. Government must always employ the right blend of freedom and restrictions with it. For the people, their property and lives are their rational interests; and their concept to form a government is geared towards the protection of these interests. Therefore, the people, although putting the security of their rights in the government, are still fearful of the government’s potential power (The Social Contract).

Thus, according to Locke, should the government cease to become responsive to its citizens, the government should be overthrown. They still hold the right to revolt against their ruler if they realize that their ruler is no longer able to cater to their needs and has been abusive and oppressive to the rights of man.

Locke also supported the idea of laissez-faire, wherein there will be limited government intervention for the market to be able to generate a prosperous civil society based on individual’s rational competition.

Locke’s version of the theory has played a great role in the development of the Western politics, particularly in America. His social contract plus laissez faire, has also became the basis for market institutions.

Locke’s theory has been influential to the current criminal justice system, with property playing an essential role in the society’s government and contract that establishes it. With the State of Nature being itself chaotic when no one is bound to control the state of liberty for men, hence bringing about the State of War, and eventually creating the need to establish a contract between the ruler and the ruled society to enable people to rightfully defend their life and liberty. Thus, the need to protect their properties has prompted the people to abandon the State of Nature and form the social contract between the civil society and the government.

Given the great influence that John Locke has posed through his political theories, his philosophies have continued to live until the present time, especially in American politics. The criminal justice system and world politics in general have exhibited strong influential heritage from Locke’s philosophies; in particular pertaining to the way the government must handle its affairs, so as to please the civil society who placed them in power. The Democratic form of government and criminal system, wherein the civil society is always left with a choice to whom must be put into power is an example of a social contract. And in turn, the overthrow or government leaders who did not much perform for the benefit of the people is an illustration of Locke’s theory.


Locke, John. (2003) Two Treatises of Government and A Letter Concerning Toleration. Yale University Press.

The Social Contract. Retrieved October 25, 2007 from http://www.sagepub.com/upm-data/2769_Swri01.pdf