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Throughout history, perhaps the most widely talked about philosophical pair has been that of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke. Due to their stark philosophical viewpoints, these men have been used as discussion points throughout classrooms to implement discussions on a variety of topics. Hobbes and Locke both had their own, greatly differing, viewpoints on a number of discussions ranging from society, the role of the state, and even basic human nature. However, perhaps there greatest contribution was their greatly differing viewpoints on how one should view the law. Both Hobbes and Locke are important to any discussion about the law as they provide the progression by which we understand the modern social contract.
While both of these men adhere to the idea of a social contract, governing what rights and privileges we give up for the good of society, they greatly disagree on what exactly this contract pertains. For Thomas Hobbes, in order to gain the advantages of society people must give up their own rights and liberties to a supreme sovereign. Thus, they maintain no individual rights but instead completely subject themselves to the whims of their ruler; according to Hobbes this creates the ideal society. In addition, according to Hobbes to rebel against the actions of your sovereign ruler would be to violate one’s social contract as a person forfeits all of their civil liberties in order to become a part of this system. According to Hobbes, this system of rights is one by which the giving up of one’s rights in totality ensures a society by which the maximum overall good is reached.
Though John Locke also believes people within a society have agreed upon a social contract, his idea of said contract greatly differs from that of Hobbes in that it allows for the retention of some basic human rights or principles. Locke states for example that when we accept the social contract we retain the right to life and liberty, and in addition gain the right to just, impartial protection of our property. This means to say, that under Locke’s philosophy, people are not only able to retain many of the rights and liberties they would have possessed before society, but due to their accepting of society’s social contract have actually received added liberties which would not have been available to them otherwise. The main liberty which Locke feels has been added by one’s adherence to the social contract is the right to impartial protection of one’s property. That is to say, under a pre-society system, one’s property could only be protected by one’s self; thereby creating a huge discrepancy in justice as those with more power could protect their property better. According to Locke, by adhering to the social contract people agree to a system of law in which all people’s property is equally protected.
While this pair of philosophers is often utilized in debates to provide two polar arguments, both John Locke and Thomas Hobbes subscribe to some version of social contract theory. In fact in many ways the ideas of John Locke, which many still interpret as the basis of modern government, are merely a progression of the more basic ideas of Thomas Hobbes. While Hobbes thought the social contract worked best when abolishing all pre-existing rights in favor of a sovereign authority, John Locke much more progressively realized that there are certain individual rights and liberties which should hold ultimate protection under a society’s legal system. For this reason, both Locke and Hobbes should hold a place in philosophical history as the precursors to the modern legal system.
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