Locke and Hume the Enlightenment

To achieve his ends man gives up, in favour of the state, a certain amount of his personal power and freedom Pre-social man as a moral being, and as an individual, contracted out “into civil society by surrendering personal power to the ruler and magistrates, and did so as “a method of securing natural morality more efficiently.” To Locke, natural justice exists and this is so whether the state exists, or not, it is just that the state might better guard natural justice Locke in his works dwelt with and expanded upon the concept of government power: it is not, nor can it possibly be, absolutely arbitrary over the lives and fortunes of the people. For it being but the joint power of every member of the society given up to the legislative assembly, the power vested in the assembly can be no greater than that which the people had in a state of Nature before they entered into society, and gave it up to the community. For nobody can transfer, to another, more power than he possesses himself, and nobody has an absolute arbitrary power over any other, to destroy, or take away, the life or property of another. In Chapter 11 of the Second Treatise in Two Treatises of Government (1680-1690), he notes that the power of legislators]… is limited to the public good of the society. It is a power that hath no other end but preservation, and therefore can never have a right to destroy, enslave, or designedly to impoverish the subjects… To this end it is that men give up all their natural power to the society they enter into, and the community put the legislative power into such hands as they think fit, with this trust, that they shall be governed by declared laws, or else their peace, quiet, and property will still be at the same uncertainty as it was in the state of Nature.

Hume rejects not only Hobbes particular account of the role of the Sovereign, but also the whole social contract tradition. The concept of the social contract cannot, by itself, explain the binding force of our moral obligations because it relies on the obligation that we have to keep our promises. In a classic essay, “Of the Original Contract,” Hume argues that the social contract tradition relies on the thought that one ought to obey the Sovereign because one had promised to do so; h However, Hume writes, theorists in this tradition find [themselves] embarrassed when it is asked, why are we bound to keep our word? (Hume, 1985). Hume puts far less emphasis on the role of the Sovereign. The reason for this can be traced back to Humes more optimistic view of human nature. Given that we all have experience of the benefits of co-operation and agreement (in interactions with those we care about), Hume conceives of the problem of trust not as the problem of having to convince mutually antagonistic egoists to co-operate. Rather, it is the problem of reassuring persons who know of the benefits of co-operation that, if they co-operate, they will not be vulnerable to those who would take advantage of them. The solution, then, lies in each person seeing the advantages made possible by such artifices as rules of property and justice. These conventions – these restraints on the unrestricted pursuit of self-interest – find approval, as Hume puts it, in the judgement and understanding because of the great advantages that they make possible.

The Role of Government

The question of whether man would voluntarily put himself under government is but the first question: there then follows along the next, “What form of government is best.” Hobbes, not surprisingly, given his view of the nature of man, preferred that there should be one supreme authority, a monarchy. While Hobbes could tolerate government by legislative assembly alone, as opposed to a monarch, he thought that power in the assembly should be absolute and not to be shared.

. Lockes view, more consistent with the social contract theory, was that there was no need for government to have great powers, which, in the final analysis, would only be needed to keep people down; at any rate, Locke recognized the real danger of leaving absolute power to any one individual, or group of individuals nd thought that governments power was best limited by dividing government up into branches, with each branch having only as much power as is needed for its proper function.:for Locke, the rights given up by individuals in the social contract are limited. There is no way that an invidual, even if they had the power so to do, coul give another individual or governemental entitity an absolute arbitrary power over their persons and estates. To do so would put themselves into a worse condition than the state of Nature, where, at least, they had a liberty to defend their right against the injuries of others, and were able to defend their rights.

Humes ideas of the role of government is along the lines of laissez-fair capitalism. The role of government is the impartial administration or justice; without which there can be no peace among men, nor safety, nor mutual trade. Order in society, we find, is much better maintained by means of government; and our duty to the magistrate is more strictly guarded by the principles of human nature, than our duty to our fellow-citizens. Hume was in favor of a government based on checks and balances. He saw the need for some type of chief magistrate, be it a doge, prince, or king, that will act as check on the legislature, Humes contributions were many an varied, but most importantly his assertion that fundamental rules of human behavior would overwhelm attempts to restrict or regulate them. One example of this is in his disparging of the mercantile states project of accumulating more gold and silver as leading to more wealth. He argued instead that prices were related to the quantity of money, and therefore this would only generate inflation


Lockes arguments for the social contract, and for the right of citizens to revolt against their king were enormously influential on the democratic revolutions that followed, especially on Thomas Jefferson, and the founders of the United States. The Declaration of Independence reflects many of the ideas of John Locke. For example, the notion of certain unalienable rights, among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. is derived from Lockes concept that the individuals can not, even they desired to, give up willing all of their rights. Humes influence is seen in the ideas of checks and balances between thevarious branches of government. His empirical argument against British mercantilism formed a building block for classical economicsand his essays on money and international trade published in Political Discourses strongly influenced his friend and fellow countryman Adam Smith who, in 1776, the year of Humes death, published the first explanation of the workings of capitalism in Wealth of Nations.


Declaration of Independence.” Retrieved December 19, 2004 from http://www.archives.gov/national_archives_experience/charters/declaration_transcript.html

Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan. C.B Macpherson (Editor). London: Penguin Books (1985) [1651]

Hume, David a Treatise of Human Nature. Edited by L.A. Selby-Bigge and P.H. Nidditch. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975 [1737].

Hume, David. Essays, Moral, Political and Literary. Edited by E.F. Miller. Indianapolis. in.: Liberty Classics, 1985.

Locke, John. Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690). Retrieved December 19, 2004 at http://oregonstate.edu/instruct/phl302/texts/locke/locke1/Essay_contents.html

Locke, John. Two Treatises of Government (1680-1690) Retrieved December 19, 2004 at http://www.lonang.com/exlibris/locke/

Plato. The Republic. Translated by G.M.A. Grube. Hacket: Indianapolis, in. 1974.