John Locke was an English philosopher, widely regarded as one of the greatest political thinkers of the modern period. Commonly known as the ‘Father of Liberalism’, Locke’s work majorly impacted social contract theory. Social contract theory originated during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and concerned the legitimacy of a state over its subjects. Some of Locke’s most significant works include Essays on the Law of Nature, Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Two Treatises of Government, A Letter Concerning Toleration, etc. These works reflect Locke’s views and theories on religious tolerance, patriarchalism, natural rights, empiricism, etc.

Political Beliefs

Though this essay will aim to dive into John Locke’s contribution to the social contract theory, it is imperative to observe certain beliefs that Locke held regarding the following matters.

Human Rights

Locke was among the first to claim that humans are by nature free and equal. In Two Treatises of Government, he contradicted the popular claims of God making all people naturally subject to a monarch. He believed that regardless of the laws of a society, all humans have certain fundamental rights such as the right to life, liberty, and property.


Locke defended his belief that people in the state of nature conditionally transfer some of their rights to the government to ensure stability in their lives by his claim that humans are naturally free and equal. He also advocated the resistance and replacements of governments that fail to perform their duties. He argued that since governments exist by the consent of the people to protect their rights and promote the public good, governments failing to do so can be replaced with new governments. Therefore, Locke is a strong proponent of the right to revolution.

Legitimacy of Church

In A Letter Concerning Toleration, Locke adamantly opposed the coercion that the Church performed on its members. He also questioned the legitimacy of a ruler to coerce people into following and believing in the ‘true religion’; the ‘truthness’ of which is decided by the ruler itself. He has further elaborated on this topic in his other political writings, namely the Second Letter on Toleration and Third Letter on Toleration.

Majority Rule

Locke also supports the principle of majority rule, arguing that for practical reasons, the governing factor in civil society must be the majority. By entering into civil society, the individual submits themself to the majority and agrees to abide by the majority’s rules and decisions. His main argument is that some decision-making procedure must be binding on every member of civil society. Locke’s argument is corroborated by the general belief that simple majority rule is the default rule humans tend to revert to in cases where everyone in a group is considered equal.

Social Contract Theory

The social contract is not a meticulously defined tangible document. It does not simply have a single interpretation that all philosophers concur with. Therefore, before delving into John Locke’s interpretation of social contract alone, this essay will take other interpretations into account as well. This will not only provide background while the essay examines Locke’s contributions to the social contract but will also present a much more accurate and methodical conclusion.

Thomas Hobbes

To comprehend Locke’s idea of the social contract, briefly analysing Thomas Hobbes’ idea of the same is crucial. Thomas Hobbes, like Locke, was an English philosopher and was considered to be one of the founders of modern political philosophy. Hobbes was the first modern philosopher to articulate a detailed contract theory. He presented his views through his well-known book Leviathan in 1651.

Since Hobbes believed in the fact that the true doctrine of the laws of nature is the true moral philosophy, there are various interpretations of Hobbes’s philosophical views and theories. This is because the laws of nature themselves are debated upon, and Hobbes’ understanding of these laws differ from others’ understanding of the same.

In Hobbes’ social contract, individuals would give up their rights, resulting in the establishment of a state. Thus, Hobbes is infamous for having used the social contract method to arrive at the rather bewildering conclusion that humans should cede their rights to the authority of undivided and unlimited sovereign power; the state.

John Locke

John Locke’s social contract also has many interpretations. In terms of Locke’s and Hobbes’ similarity in views, scholars are supporting both ends of the spectrum. Many scholars claim that the theories that Locke and Hobbes produced regarding matters such as ‘natural law’ and ‘natural rights’ often overlap in terms of ideology, while others adamantly oppose this claim.

However, it's a common consensus among scholars while comparing Locke’s and Hobbes’ social contract theories to agree that Locke's conception of the social contract differed from Hobbes' in several fundamental ways. Though both philosophers agree on the central notion that people in a state of nature would willingly come together to form a state, Locke’s idea of social contract differs from Hobbes’ in numerous other ways.

Locke believed that naturally, humans would be morally bound, by the law of nature, to not cause harm to one another or one another’s possessions. Locke also believed that without a state or a governing entity that defends its subjects against those who threaten their liberty and justice, people would live in fear of their rights not being secured. According to Locke, individuals would only agree to form a state that would act as a "neutral judge". The only incentive that humans have to establish a state to whom they willingly give power is that they require an organized and systematic governing entity. This entity will in return act to protect the individuals’ lives, liberty, and property.

One of the many major differences between Locke’s and Hobbes’ conceptions of the social contract is the belief in near-absolute authority. While Hobbes argued in favour of it, Locke argued for inviolate freedom under the law in his Second Treatise of Government. One will be able to grasp Locke’s idea of a government’s legitimacy more clearly by a further investigation of the Second Treatise of Government.

Second Treatise of Government

Locke’s Second Treatise encapsulates most of what Locke interpreted from the social contract. The Treatise begins with a discussion of the state of nature that is aforementioned in the essay. However, the essay will focus more on its views on the legitimacy of governments.

In the Treatise, Locke states that a civil government is established when the people consent to be governed. They cannot be coerced into pledging allegiance to a government. Locke does not demand a republic or a democracy but opposes absolute monarchies as the ruler in this form of government has limitless power. The civil government is based on the bond of trust between the citizens and the state. The people give up their freedom and in turn, they expect the authority to act with the public good always in their mind. The citizens have the right to overthrow and replace the government in case the bond is breached.

Locke advocates for legislative and executive power. The legislative power is the supreme law of the land; laws formulated and drafted by it must be known and followed by all citizens. The executive power enforces the laws of the legislature and has the power to use the means necessary to enforce the public good. This can be achieved by the bureaucracy, military, etc. (all of whom are under the executive’s control). If the legislative or executive powers are inactive or uncooperative, they are violating the bond of trust with the people. This delegitimizes their powers, and the citizen is not under the obligation to abide by the laws of the legislature or the executive.

If the people’s trust is being breached to an extreme extent due to the tyrannical actions of their government, the people have the right to dissolve it. They can choose to restore the government with new leadership, change the governing entity or create an entirely new system of government. Since a government only exists when it has the consent of the people, it can be dissolved when the government has failed them.


Locke’s social contract adamantly advocates for a consensual relationship between the government and the governed. It recognizes certain fundamental laws applicable to all humans that cannot be challenged by mere laws legislated by some governing entity of a region. Locke’s social contract is relevant to date and is still deliberated upon among scholars. His contribution to social contract theory shapes the sociopolitical structures of nations around the globe, and one can rightly assume that it will continue to do so.

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