Category: legitimate

We read Chapter 6 of Rousseau’s The Social Contract and saw how he thought that in the state of nature people would be naturally compassionate towards one another; that they would have a natural aversion to seeing others suffer. 

However, despite this positive disposition towards their fellow beings, Rousseau thought that it would only be through facing difficulties that people would begin to form associations with each other. 

In other words although people wished no harm on others they were quite happy getting along as fairly solitary ‘noble savages’ until they faced problems like paucity of resources (not enough or not good enough food, shelter, defence etc.), then they to get together.  He puts it like this:

I SUPPOSE men to have reached the point at which the obstacles in the way of their preservation in the state of nature show their power of resistance to be greater than the resources at the disposal of each individual for his maintenance in that state. That primitive condition can then subsist no longer; and the human race would perish unless it changed its manner of existence. 

Now, Rousseau believed that no-one has natural authority over any one else, and that Legitimate authority comes only from agreed conventions. So he needed to come up with a form of social contract that seemed to embody the idea of no-on having more authority than anyone else while still establishing an authority that could tell people what to do! He writes;

“The problem is to find a form of association which will defend and protect with the whole common force the person and goods of each associate, and in which each, while uniting himself with all, may still obey himself alone, and remain as free as before.” This is the fundamental problem of which the Social Contract provides the solution.


Hopefully you can see his solution: he thinks that if everyone gives up all their individual rights to everyone else then each man, in giving himself to all, gives himself to nobody; and as there is no associate over whom he does not acquire the same right as he yields others over himself,’.

Rousseau thinks that this will mean that the conditions and laws of the society constructed on this principle will be fair and reasonable because no-one has any interest in making them harsh. (Because you’d only be making things harsh for yourself.) (This is a little reminiscent of Rawls).

This coming together and mutual pooling of rights creates what he calls the general will, which is like the sum total of everybody’s interests:

Each of us puts his person and all his power in common under the supreme direction of the general will, and, in our corporate capacity, we receive each member as an indivisible part of the whole.

Thus forged together in through this social contract the people form a state or republic and collectively as the ‘body politic’ they are their own sovereign power. 

This sounds all very well, but it does have some drawbacks. For example in Chapter 7 ‘The Sovereign’ Rousseau points out that ‘The Sovereign, being formed wholly of the individuals who compose it, neither has nor can have any interest contrary to theirs;’ this means that whatever the Sovereign thinks is good for you is good for you because really it’s you that thinks it’s good for you! 

This leads to Rousseau’s rather worrying conclusion that, 

whoever re-fuses to obey the general will shall be compelled to do so by the whole body. This means nothing less than that he will be forced to be free’.

Another justification for this is that Rousseau believes that human beings, although basically good, are weak: we have desires and instincts that can lead us to do things that are not good for us.  By getting together and becoming part of the ‘general will’ we are made to do the things that are good for us, so we are able to properly develop our potential as human beings in a way that we could not in the state of nature, or in a society where we were forced to accept the will of a tyrant.   


We read the first four chapters of Locke’s ‘Second Treatise on Government’ and saw that his view of the way people would behave in ‘the state of nature’ was a little different to Hobbes’.  Locke’s ideas are informed by his view of human beings as having a capacity for reason and his belief in God, which is perhaps a little surprising after studying his empiricist epistemology. 

Locke believed that ; 

The state of Nature has a law of Nature to govern it, which obliges every one, and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty or possessions;

So Locke thinks that being rational creatures we should come to recognise the ‘law of nature’ that we all share basic equality and rights. He believes that these ‘natural laws’ are universal and apply to all people regardless of place or circumstance.  His view is bound up with the belief that; 

men being all the workmanship of one omnipotent and infinitely wise Maker; … sent into the world by His order and about His business; they are His property, whose workmanship they are made to last during His, not one anothers pleasure.

It’s as if because God made us he owns all the rights to us and therefore we have no right to interfere with each other. This principle of owning things because you have worked to produce them is important to Locke, and we’ll come back to it below. 

For Locke the big problem of living in the state of nature is the lack of someone unbiased and independent to help you preserve and exercise your these natural rights. The answer to this problem is to trade your right to judge and punish those that break the natural laws through a contract with others that establishes a government to act as a defender of your rights and judge any disputes that may occur. 

Locke says, ‘in the state of Nature every one has the executive power of the law of Nature’ but that it is unreasonable for men to be judges in their own cases [because] self-love will make men partial to themselves and their friends.’ Therefore ‘civil government is the proper remedy for the in- conveniences of the state of Nature, which must certainly be great where men may be judges in their own case’.

It is in the act of contracting with others that – agreeing the social contract – that we show our consent to be governed.  And it is through our consent that the government can claim legitimate authority.

As ever things aren’t really that simple because the initial agreeing of the contract is a largely hypothetical idea, certainly it is pretty irrelevant to us that a ‘contract’ was made way back when. Of course there have been thousands of real contracts, real laws agreed between people and government over the hundreds of years since what we recognise as government came into being, and many of those laws still shape our lives. But what Locke and other ‘social contract’ theorists are interested in is the original justification of the very idea of having a system of government and law enforcement at all, and what must be the case for that government to claim to be legitimate.

Of course Locke realised that the legitimacy of a government’s authority could not rest on this original act of consent, but he believed that by living in a society and accepting the advantages that it gave us we were in effect giving our consent. This kind of consent he called ‘tacit consent’ and it is very important concept in political philosophy. The extent to which we might agree that we have given our consent to a government depends on the extent to which we feel we have any choice about participating in the facilities it provides. After all we don’t really individually opt to take advantage of the schools or healthcare the government provides, our parents make that decision for us; and the possibility of opting out, of abandoning the society of our birth is not very easy. 

Hume mocked the idea of tacit consent, he compares it to the situation of someone ‘press-ganged’ into the crew of a ship, he says,

Can we seriously say, that a poor peasant or artizan has a free choice to leave his country, when he knows no foreign language or manners, and lives from day to day, by the small wages which he acquires? We may as well assert, that a man, by remaining in a vessel, freely consents to the dominion of the master; though he was carried on board while asleep, and must leap into the ocean, and perish, the moment he leaves her.

Hume’s basic point is still relevant even in contemporary societies where ‘peasants’ often have more economic power and opportunity for travel than he envisaged. 

Anyway, getting back to the point, Locke’s view differs from Hobbes’ in that he sees humankind as capable of recognising the ‘natural’ rights of others. He sees the point of making a social contract as being a way of mutually defending and preserving these rights.  Hobbes sees the contract as a means of basic protection from other people – a way of ensuring that we are free to build our lives and our communities free from the state of war that would exist without it. 

A Note about Locke and Property

As we saw above, Locke makes a lot of the idea that we are God’s ‘workmanship’, suggesting that the ‘work’ of creating us establishes his right of ownership of us. Locke seems to extend this principle of owning things because you have worked to produce to people, claiming that; 

As much land as a man tills, plants, improves, cultivates, and can use the product of, so much is his property. He by his labour does, as it were, inclose it from the common. 

Locke places three conditions on property rights, he suggests that;

1) one may only appropriate as much as one can use before it spoils (Two Treatises 2.31)

2) one must leave “enough and as good” for others (the sufficiency restriction) (2.27)

3) one may (supposedly) only appropriate property through one’s own labor (2.27).

These ideas are highly contentious (people are still arguing about what he really meant), they’re not too important for us yet, but I just thought I’d mention them.