In his brief preamble to the Second Treatise, John Locke wishes that his well-articulated text can help to justify the governance of King William. He criticizes Sir Robert Filmer’s texts for their moral and intellectual inadequacies.
Locke outlines his theory of the state and the social contract incomprehensible writing that defines the relationship between the state and its citizens. This paper looks at the concept of the social contract as outlined in the first four chapters of Locke’s Second Treatise.
Locke’s View of the State
In the Second Treatise, Locke seems to reject Filmer’s concept of a divine claim to sovereignty and distinguishes between political, paternal, and familial authorities. John Locke explains the political authority as the mandate to establish rules that guarantee the protection of people and proper management of the private property. The laws developed by the state must be founded on the interests of the community for which the laws are created to serve.
Locke opens his conceptualization of the state by outlining a ‘state of nature’ where no form of government exists. Under the state of nature as conceived by Locke, individuals possess rights and responsibilities governed by natural law. However, Locke’s state of nature introduces a problem regarding the lack of any clear authority to adjudicate during disputes and enforce duties.
The void created by the lack of a defined central authority inspires citizens to enter into a form of the social contract to protect their property. Consequently, Locke’s social contract depicts the state as being founded on the consent of the governed.
The social contract implies that, since the government is inspired by the need to protect rights and property, these rights predate the formation of the government. Therefore, a state that cannot perform these functions is a failed state.
Though some philosophers have criticized Locke’s postulation of the state of nature for being archaic, his basic principles about the social contract are sound. Locke’s state of nature is governed by the instincts of members of the community.
The state of nature is portrayed as a community governed by impartiality and absolute freedom. Each person has a mandate to implement natural laws. Natural law simply denotes meting out punishment befitting the crime. Human beings in the state of nature must protect each other and punish anyone who goes against the laws of nature.
In chapter four and chapter three, Locke makes an effort to distinguish between the state of nature and the state of war. While people in the state of nature live in harmony with each other in a community governed by reason, the state of war comprises constant conflicts that arise when people’s fundamental rights are compromised.
Therefore, people enter into a social contract or commonwealth to avoid the state of war and protect private possessions and personal rights.
Certain problems are evident in Locke’s postulation of the state of nature. For instance, in the state of nature, members of the community live in a constant state of conflict with each other. However, Locke supposes the capability of people to exercise rationality by choosing a moral path to guide interactions. He asserts that human beings possess the necessary rationality to decide what is in their best interest and what is not.
This rationality appears to inform the formulation of the civil government, which can provide certain services that are absent in the state of nature, such as permanence and protection. Governments must, therefore, uphold the individual liberty of their citizens, and must protect private property.
In the first four chapters of the Second Treatise, Locke certainly does a good job of explaining the origin of government as well as the place of the citizen in the state. Locke’s conception of the social government informs the constitution of many governments and human rights activist groups.