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Aspect Analysis of John Locke’s Social Contract Theory

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John Locke argues that we should study our place in the natural world to shape our system of ethics and politics. The most natural of human behaviors is avoiding pain and seeking pleasure which means that people are naturally selfish sometimes. He also asserts that we have a natural law giving us the right to life, liberty and the fruits of our labor (property) just by virtue of being born. He says, “Being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions.” There are people who would do awful things to us in the name of self-interest, whether we like it or not, therefore, developing a commonwealth to use reason to make and govern laws for public good and giving an executive power the right to enforce those laws to protect us benefits everyone. With a civil society we are given established laws, a judge and enforcement. The most important reason people choose to consent to civil society is because in a civil society, you have an enforcer of the laws. Additionally, in order to join a civil society, you must consent by giving up your right to do anything you wish and punish others. It is most difficult to give up your right to do as you please in favor of the majority rule. Liberty isn’t gone, but you are expected to follow many rules in most civil societies.

The idea of a social contract was not unheard of before John Locke, but his belief differed from others at the time because he believed that natural rights were different than social contracts in that we had a right to them by being born and a social contract is just an agreement we enter to help us maintain those rights. Despite what you believe about the state of nature, it’s a pretty agreed upon statement that there will always be foul people who will do things that harm you in the interest of their own gain. John Locke’s core beliefs about all humans being reasonable and tolerant can result in people doing things at the expense of others that are more vulnerable. Locke compares the state of nature to a state of true equality as he believes everyone is a blank slate, but true equality cannot be reached. Some people are built better for some things and that leaves the most vulnerable group powerless against the strongest in the state of nature. Consequently, even if we all had the right to get retribution, we don’t all have the same ability to exercise that right. People who are less physically powerful would be at the will of those who were able to overpower them and their rights would not be protected. The core reason that I disagree with Locke is that even in situations where people are raised in the same households and same environment as others, they can still develop talents and abilities that allow them to succeed. Locke also says that humans are selfish sometimes and if left to their own devices, State of War would be inevitable. Locke and Hobbes disagree directly on this topic, too. Hobbes stated about the State of Nature that, “No arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death: and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” Clearly Hobbes would argue that many would be killed or taken advantage of, even when Locke believes that every human has a duty to uphold certain truths. Ideally, forfeiting your right to enforce laws would mean that a fair governing body would do so. Laws with no enforcement, like natural laws, are pointless since no one can guarantee that your rights will be protected. Without civil society, we would constantly be responsible for maintaining our property and setting up individual contracts with others and making sure we have the ability to enforce those contracts. It seems this is the biggest pull factor in civil society because the other two aspects would be useless if there was no enforcer. Making laws and sentencing people is useless unless we have prisons to carry out actions.

Additionally, participating in civil society gives you less to worry about. In the state of nature, we are forced to constantly be protecting ourselves and forming our own contracts. There is not a way in the State of Nature for you to specialize in one specific skill and develop your expertise if you are being expected to provide everything for yourself and punish anyone who breaks the contract. Even in civil societies we still lock our houses and cars because we know that something could happen. Without a working enforcer of laws, we would be made to do a great deal more than that to protect ourselves. Along with joining a civil society, you also forfeit your right to act as you choose. Some commonwealths enforce laws based on their morality or the majority’s beliefs. For example, in the US, you can’t smoke marijuana or drive without a license. These laws were chosen by a commonwealth that was supposed to vote based on reason, but not everyone believes those laws are reasonable. In civil society, you are putting yourself and your rights at the mercy of the majority. Civil Society isn’t perfect and corruption and bias shapes the status quo in a way the Locke would hope wouldn’t be the case. Many government protections draw the line past defending our natural rights and fighting against foreign threats. Locke would probably support the rights of people to choose to do several behaviors that are banned in developed countries. He would view things like smoking cigarettes, owning a gun, and gay marriage as your free right to exercise your natural right to liberty and property.

It’s no secret that Locke and Hobbes’ theory of social contract had a deep-rooted impact on the founding of the United States. The most crucial aspect of a successful civil society that Locke gave America is that our Bill of Rights is much like Locke’s writings in that the restrictions in the Bill of Rights are on the government, not the citizens. Our constitution gives the government a framework on which they can punish us, but also gives them many limitations based on our civil rights. All 10 amendments are structured to protect us as individuals with natural rights, not tell us what we aren’t allowed to do here. We entrusted commonwealth of adults at the time to scribe a document to build a nation on, and the constitution works differently than many others by being focused on Locke’s ideas of liberty. In the contemporary world, the idea of living in a state of nature seems like a pipe dream. Now that we have almost unanimously, as a species, decided to live in civil society, I don’t believe that we can ever achieve being under no social contract, regardless of how big or small the group is. Trying to live off the grid is possible, but by doing so you lose all of the modern amenities provided to us by society. To truly leave the social contract in this age, you’d lose running water, public infrastructure and access to modern medicine. Choosing to leave the state of nature takes some from us, but gives much more to us. We benefit and thrive from the entire workforce. Many amenities provided to us by living in civil society would be impossible for us in a society where there isn’t an overarching legal/moral code. As we work together to progress, we gain what we could not do as easily as an individual who is concerned with obstacles (like contract making, and punishment).

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