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Life, Liberty and…(insert natural belief here): Hobbes vs. Locke

October 28, 2010

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”

In penning the Declaration of Independence in 1776, American patriot Thomas Jefferson famously stated the above as a means to provide both a cause and an explanation for the colonial break away from Great Britain. The key evidence that he uses to support the American claim is a popular political theory, which follows the belief of natural rights (i.e. life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness). Although somewhat unique (if you consider changing one out of three examples unique), Jefferson modeled this declaration of natural rights closely after philosopher John Locke’s ideas on the subject. The only difference between the two is that Locke stated that the natural (god-given) rights were life, liberty, and property rather than life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. When looking at natural rights theories, the theories of John Locke and Thomas Hobbes have withstood the test of time and still remain two leading political philosophies.

Thomas Hobbes’ crowning achievement in political philosophy was his novel, Leviathan, published in 1651. This novel chronicled Hobbes’ views on the structure of society and more specifically his description of the social contract. Hobbes’ state of nature revolved around the human right “to use his own power, as he will himself, for the preservation of his own Nature; that is to say, of his own Life; and consequently, of doing any thing, which in his own judgment, and Reason, he shall conceive to be the aptest means thereunto.” (Leviathan. 1,XIV). In essence, Hobbes believed that humans were evil by nature, so the only way that a society could actually function would be if people gave up their natural rights and followed a set of guidelines that showed them how to live (a.k.a laws). Furthermore, this form of government is what Hobbes describes as “the social contract”. In summation, Hobbes used his view of a naturally evil society to justify the submission to a sovereign ruler.

John Locke took the opposite stance, in that he felt that it would overall be better for people to live in Hobbes’ “state of nature” as opposed to living under a sovereign or monarch who possessed total control. His main reason behind this idea was that the state of nature would provide a semblance of tolerance, under which society would flourish and the people would be happy. In addition, people would be equal under these natural rules, thus providing an environment that people could live without having to abide by laws or follow the arbitrary rules of a government. In his formulation of natural rights, Locke included the rights of life, liberty and property. He determined that all three of these were god-given and would provide the basis for people to live their lives separately and in peace.

Although both philosophers took completely different stances on the idea of nature and how people should utilize their own natural rights, both ideas have been incorporated into many modern governments worldwide. A perfect example of the meshing of beliefs is the United States. As stated in the Declaration of Independence, we covet our unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, but we also abide by the rule of a government. Our government isn’t under the control of a monarch like Hobbes believed was the expected form, but we still follow the lead of another, in addition to following laws which constitute how we live. Hobbes and Locke were both extremely important, and despite their differences, are still seen as leading political theorists.






One Comment
  1. greguff permalink
    November 2, 2010 7:28 PM

    Hobbes and Locke are still talked about because of the impression they had on the world, specifically our government. You mentioned that Hobbes believed that people are naturally evil in the state of nature and that is why there is a social contract. However, I believe that Hobbes was saying that there is too much competition to live, and it was a struggle for survival. Thus, the sovereign was initiated because it guaranteed protection for everyone. Hobbes and Locke never be forgotten because of their contributions to the development of our American government.

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