John Locke and the Inadequacies of Social Contract Theory

 
 

John Locke is an illustration of how social contract theory distorts sound political reasoning.

In a June 27th article posted on the First Things website titled “Taking Locke Seriously,” the Locke scholar Greg Forster takes issue with my recent Public Discourse critique of social contract theory and, more particularly, my interpretation of John Locke. I thank Dr. Forster for his criticisms, and am grateful for this opportunity to respond to his most salient remarks.

Let me begin with Forster’s qualified defense of the usefulness of the idea of social contract. While Forster rightly regards Rawlsian social contract theory as deeply flawed, he is willing to defend the concept of social contract as a useful thought experiment for thinking through the important issue of why we are obliged to obey our rulers.

Thought experiments may indeed be occasionally helpful in illustrating particular points, but they are an inadequate basis for building theories of political order. And I remain unconvinced that the idea of social contract has always or even mostly functioned as a type of thought experiment.

We use the expression social contract theory for a reason—to describe the reasoning operative within a particular conception of political society. Whether it is Hobbes, Rawls, or Locke, their use of the social contract device goes beyond thought experiments; it is an integral building block of their arguments. Take away the social contract dimension of their reasoning and their respective political theories start to look conceptually hollow.

A second criticism advanced by Forster concerns my argument that the fictitious character of social contracts weakens their saliency as reference points for reasonable discussions of political order. Forster claims that earlier social contract theorists (unlike, say, Rousseau) never regarded social contracts as historical events and maintains that their “argument never depended on its being historical.”

I, however, would suggest that Locke, for instance, does appear to have regarded his version of a social compact as some sort of historical event. He also seemed to think that its historicity was more than incidental to his argument.

One piece of evidence for this suggestion is that Locke himself raised the objection that there appear to be no historical cases of humans meeting together in the state of nature and then agreeing to form a political society. Locke goes on, as Frederick Copleston points out, to claim that such instances actually can be found (the foundations of ancient Rome, Venice, and particular American communities).

Then, as if to acknowledge the thinness of this evidence, Locke effectively claims that the paucity of proof of historical consent does not prove that social compacts never existed. So if Locke considered such matters to be unimportant when it came to the validity of social contract, then why would he seek to defend their apparent historicity?

One reason may be that the search for historicity reflects Locke’s unease (hardly unique to Locke) with the fifteenth-century legal scholar Sir John Fortesque’s observation in De Laudibus Legum Angliae (1470) that “amongst nearly all peoples, realms have come into being by usurpation.”

Locke himself supported King James II’s overthrow in the 1688 Glorious Revolution and the subsequent passing of the Bill of Rights in 1689. There were many reasons for James II’s removal from the throne, but we should not pretend that his eviction was based on some type of contract violation. It proceeded from the refusal by significant segments of Britain’s political elites to accept his political authority any longer.

Which brings me to another point that I think demonstrates the problems of social contract theory: political authority in itself does not require a contract or some form of transmission process for its legitimacy.

Contra Locke, the rational foundation for civil government is not, in fact, consent. As Aquinas wrote, “it is natural for man, more than any other animal, to be a social and political animal, to live in a group” [emphasis added].

Put another way, political society, and therefore political authority, arises from an immediate demand of practical reason: any given human society needs someone to make decisions that bind every member of that society. Humans thus have always had some form of such political authority. Such authority finds its foundation not in social contract or some other transmission theory, but from the sheer fact that it is reasonable (and frankly inescapable) to have a ruler or rulers who can make certain types of coordinating decisions for a society and whose decisions are considered authoritative by the citizens.

If, then, political society is a natural society, the purpose served by social contract theory or devices is unclear. Why do we need this intermediate step of a social compact that takes us from a fictional state of nature into political society?

In some instances, social contract theories, related thought experiments, and other imaginary devices such as veils of ignorance, original positions, and pre-political states of natures have served to rationalize pre-existing preferences. By setting the parameters for political debate through these concepts, their authors can preclude conclusions they happen to dislike.

A good recent example is President Obama’s invocation of the “social compact” in April 2011 as one reason for his opposition to budget proposals advanced by the House of Representatives. In this case, President Obama’s conception of the social compact functioned to absolve him from the necessity of even discussing the merits of particular details of the House’s proposals.

Another reason for the prevalence of social contract theories is that they often allow us to rationalize philosophically and legally the emergence of new sets of political arrangements. A number of authors, for example, have speculated that Locke’s social compact arguments, with their particular emphasis on consent, flow from his desire to legitimize the particular political order instituted in Britain by and after the Glorious Revolution.

One weakness of such interpretations is that Locke appears to have worked out the basic principles of his political theory some years before 1688. Hence Locke’s treatises deserve to be treated, as Copleston writes, as more than just another Whig pamphlet. Nevertheless, it’s not clear that Locke’s political theory—either before or after 1688—can be entirely separated from his opposition to the Stuart dynasty, his disputation of the divine right of kings (which obviously opposes any notion of consent from the governed), and his personal beliefs as a longtime Whig.

Of course, nobody can completely escape the influence of context when developing his or her ideas, but this does not mean Locke could not have formulated a more robust account of political order to explain why James II needed to be removed from power. Pre-existing classical natural law arguments about the legitimacy of removing rulers who become tyrants would have been perfectly adequate.

Finally, I would like to address Forster’s suggestion that my portrayal of Locke reflects the widespread influence of a secularist understanding of Locke that dominated twentieth-century thinking about Locke—an interpretation that Forster and others have done much to challenge.

As it happens, it is not a background of secularist interpretation that gives rise to my doubts about Locke. Rather it is my view that Locke—like Hobbes, Kant, Hume, Bentham, Mill, and the consequentialism that distorts much contemporary reasoning—has an inadequate grasp of the workings of intentionality, practical reason, and the will, and therefore of human freedom and human flourishing.

These insufficiencies might owe something to Locke’s metaphysics of the person, which essentially locates human identity in consciousness. As for Locke’s conception of the will, Locke specifies that “the will in truth signifies nothing but a power, or ability, to prefer or choose.” Taken together with his tendency to treat freedom as absence of constraint, these constitute a potent combination of dualism, voluntarism, and perhaps even nominalism.

This philosophical mixture suggests that Locke, like Hobbes, believes that our passions are what direct us to one end rather than another. Indeed a concept of goods that give us intelligent reasons for action—and thus sets us on the path to human flourishing—cannot be found in Locke’s thought. Though Locke does consider morality’s demands to be a matter of conformity to rational nature, he never really explains how we know this nature or why it is normative.

And this leads us to a better understanding of Locke’s own answer to the question that Forster suggests social contract thought experiments can help us answer. In Locke’s view, we do not obey our rulers because a concern for human flourishing, justice, and the common good tells us that it is reasonable to do so. Instead, we obey because our rulers have a superior will. “Law’s formal definition,” Locke wrote, “is the declaration of a superior will.” How different this is from Aquinas’s understanding of law as “an ordinance of reason for the common good, promulgated by him who has the care of the community.”

In the end, this difference may well reflect varying conceptions of God. The notion of divine wisdom (logos) is integral to the classical natural law understanding of why the commands of God create concrete responsibilities in conscience for human beings.

By contrast, Locke joins some of his contemporaries, such as Grotius and Pufendorf, in explaining this obligation in terms of a God who exercises raw, perhaps even willful, power. “For who will deny,” Locke writes, “that clay is subject to the potter’s will and that the pot can be destroyed by the same hand that shaped it.”

The above arguments explain, I hope, why I am less confident than Forster that Locke and social contract devices in general have much to contribute to a contemporary public discourse concerned with truth. Forster is surely right to insist that Locke needs to be taken seriously (not least because of his influence upon the American founding and the significance of his Letter Concerning Toleration). My contention is that in doing so we must also acknowledge the inadequacies of Locke’s reliance upon the device of social compact and the problems characterizing Locke’s conceptions of human anthropology, human flourishing, and ultimately, God.

Samuel Gregg is Research Director at the Acton Institute. He has authored several books including On Ordered Liberty, his prize-winning The Commercial Society, and Wilhelm Röpke’s Political Economy.

 

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