Summit Learning Outcome Addressed:

1. Recognize, analyze and evaluate arguments


Political Science Learning Outcomes Addressed:

1. Understand the way political science works as a discipline: how it structures its research about political issues, and how it works with and among contested explanations about politics;

2. be not only familiar but also competent in working with the major broad approaches used in the discipline, including behavioralism, critical theory, comparative analysis, and discourse analysis


As early as the 18th century, political philosophers have spoken of a social contract, through which we have come to understand the origins of society, and the legitimacy of the state’s authority over the individual. The two philosophers addressed in this paper, Jean- Jacques Rousseau and John Locke, each concede to the notion that the state must have the consent of the people they govern to exchange some of their rights for protection. Further, each of them use similar terminology in their conceptualization of very different ideologies. For example, they have conflicting ideas on private property, government forms, the state of nature, and the “common good,” each of which serve as the determinants of the social contact’s terms. Because of this, we must reflect and ask ourselves which of them had the most compelling argument? This paper will submit that Locke’s theory, though flawed in some respects, is more sound in reason than Rousseau’s. It will be formatted as a comparative analysis, in which section one will discuss their views on the state of nature, section two will compare their preferred governmental forms, and section three will discuss their understanding of property rights. After describing both views, I will conclude with a final analysis on how each philosopher’s views on the state of nature, the government, and property rights, as well as a brief discussion of further research.


Locke’s State of Nature is one of the first in modern history to diverge from the notion that people should be ruled by a sovereign. Rather, he suggests that in their natural condition, human beings live in a state of true, complete, unblemished liberty, with autonomy over their own lives (Rousseau, 5). In this state, no man’s life is severely interfered with by others. However, he recognizes that in our nature, there is a tendency toward chaos, and ultimately a desire to be heard by a common judge who can interfere when others cross their natural boundaries and/or stand in the way of their humanistic freedoms. Further, human morality prevails in this state, preventing man from living in a state of license, wherein their transgressions against their fellow beings (even when in what they perceive to be their best interests) are ignored.

Rousseau argues that prior to the introduction of government, the state of nature was a peaceful and solitary one, in which the human experience was uncluttered by curiosity regarding one’s neighbor (Rousseau, 6). Aside from basic needs that man had that had to be satisfied by interaction, he believed that human beings were uninterested in even so much as seeing one another. Because of this, he felt as though we were innocent, pure beings with no need for competition or fear of one another. He credits much of the corruption and shifting morality of humanity to the growth of our population, which forced us to interact with one another (Rousseau, 8). To him, this is the only reason why we began to live in small families, divide labor, and deal with the corruption that came with no longer being isolated (Rousseau, 8).

Locke’s view of the state of nature, though also flawed, rings as the more compelling argument of the two. It allows room for flawed judgement on the part of some, without faulting all of humanity as his predecessors did, which in turn paints humanity as an overall morally sound race, capable of using their compassion and intelligent social thought when interacting with others. Rousseau’s idea that human beings had no interest in one another and only created families out of necessity (Rousseau, Footnote 22, Page 60)  is  far more idealistic and simplistic than the former. Moreover, his natural state does not recognize pride, selfishness, envy, or shame as natural tendencies of mankind; rather, he believes them only to appear as unnatural reactions to forced interaction. This can be directly refuted by Locke’s understanding that “to love our neighbor as ourselves is such a basic human truth and truth for regulating human society, that by that alone one might determine all the cases in social morality.” (Locke Essay, 354)   In Locke’s view, there is room for corruption among some without a complete denial of the innate goodness of mankind as social creatures, which serves as a more sober and less simplistic reading of our nature.


The preferred government form of each philosopher is largely determined by their ideas on humankind’s natural state. Because Locke did not see humanity pre-politics as pre-moral, his government type is very optimistic. It leans more on the idea that human beings should retain as much freedom as possible, only seeking protection in times of need. Although his state of nature does not reflect the fear of a natural state of war like Hobbes, he still concedes that humanity can fall into a similar state when regarding their right to property. For example, if one diverges from the natural social code that states human beings shall not interfere in the affairs of others regarding their life, liberty, or property, it is important in Locke’s view to have a common judge to appeal to (Locke, 113). This is Locke’s strongest justification of our need to at least partially abandon the state of nature in favor of civil government. He states that “government has no other end but the preservation of property” (Locke, 94), which included the property of oneself. Property serves as the “linchpin” of Locke’s argument for the social contract and civil government, because it is the protection of property, including autonomy over one’s own bodies, that human beings seek protection for. He stresses that a limited government is 1) given by consent of the majority, and 2) restricted by subjugation of power (Locke, 11). Without the second tenant, government in his view could become a corrupt, overbearing body that creates subjects rather than citizens. This subjugation comes primarily in the forms of 1) limiting the initial powers of the state, and 2) reserving the right to revolution against the government should it become corrupt as a basic human right (Locke, 144).

Rousseau’s view that the development of society led to the corruption of its people lends itself to a very pessimistic reading of the government. In his Second Discourse, he submits that government was established as an extension of newfound human selfishness and self-preservation as a means to protect the property of wealthy citizens. He sees a claim that the highest governmental concern is protecting the natural rights of all as ingenuine. To him, this is the only reason why a social contract had to be drawn; in order to reverse the ills that society brought about naturally, a normative social contract became a necessity. According to Rousseau, “man was born free, and [now] he is everywhere in chains” (Rousseau, 3), with those chains being society and self-serving governmental rule. However, since a return to the state of nature is neither feasible nor desirable due to population increases and the corruption of man, the purpose of politics became to restore freedom to us, building a bridge between our nature and how we are ‘forced’ to live. He advocates for a small collection of individuals to act as a sovereign head, who will use the collective renunciation of our individual freedoms to protect us. This act, where individual persons become a people under the rule of a sovereign is “the real foundation of society” (Rousseau, 63). It is understood that through this act, people renounce their individuality, and can no longer be the simple, pure, isolated beings Rousseau believes they once were. Further, society is ruled by a general will (or majority consensus), which is dependent on citizens coming together periodically to decide collectively on their common law and how to live together.

It is difficult to asses which of the two proposed the more sound form of government, so in this instance, we shall both examine the government types themselves and how compelling each justification was. When assessed in that light, Lockean theory once again prevails as the most sound. Locke’s theory acknowledges the corruption that can come from granting too much power to sovereign parties, and therefore incorporates failsafes such as the right to revolution and limiting the initial powers of the state. This way, people can live as close to their natural state of individual freedom as possible. Rousseau’s theory assumes a sort of all-or-nothing posture, through which the individual is entirely broken in favor of a new “forced freedom” as determined by the general will. It implies the incapability of man to live in a mostly morally just society without the incorporation of a sovereign, making his justification shaky, at best.


Property plays a major part of both theorists justification of abandoning the state of nature. But how is it defined? Lockean theory states that property is a mixture of the materials man finds in nature and labor. An example of this is the ownership of land that one has claimed, tended to, and grown crops from. His ideas of property are contingent upon the usage principle, which states that if those who lay claim to something are not properly utilizing it, it is no longer their property. This leads to the idea that people must own a limited amount of property, based on how efficiently they can use it, as well as the needs of others. This also serves as a justification for limited government, to ensure that a common judge can stop the greed of a corrupt few from impeding the progress of a society as a whole. This way, no one man takes more than what he can use from nature.

In Rousseau’s view, to have private property is not a natural desire for humankind. Rather, it was an invention which resulted in humanity becoming greedy, vain, competitive, covetous, and self-serving. In his definitions section (beginning on page 13), Rousseau discusses how property is used as a tool to create communities, and is not actually an initial concern in nature (Rousseau, 13-19). Rather than being a part of the state of nature, he believes that it is what forces us to live amongst each other, and to categorize each other by social class. Further, he believes that the sole purpose of the natural government was initially to protect the property of some under the rouse of helping all, which would be impossible in this system built on greed and vanity. To him, this is the root of suffering, competition, strife, and conflict in humankind today.

While I will concede that the right to property can corrupt some, to insinuate that the right to have autonomy over private property is somehow unnatural is unjustified. Rousseau bases much of his argument on the idea that human beings are akin to animals, which leads him to use a lot of selective reasoning in his positions. For example, he believes that the state of nature without property is virtually entirely peaceful, because in his view “where there is no property, there is no injury” (Rousseau, 71). But even in the animal kingdom, there is known killing and violence when hunting for food, or seeking out resources that are unclaimed and/or unprivitized. People, like animals, naturally desire resources and have always attempted to instate some form of privatization to ensure both preservation of self and of the family. So while Lockean philosophy is flawed in that it argues that a group of self interested people can still act with compassion and not take more than their share, it’s more rooted in reasoning that is derived from the human experience.


After analyzing the three major components of the social contract, I conclude that John Locke’s philosophy ultimately reads as the more compelling of the two. While I acknowledge that neither theory is perfect, as each is rooted in some level of idealistic thought, it was important to me throughout my reading to examine which of the two 1) used the least selective reasoning, and 2) which was more rooted in the human experience. Rousseau’s idea that property is an unnatural desire (Rousseau, 15), and that the government should have a hand in the even distribution thereof insinuates that human beings do not have a natural need to lay claim to land or have autonomy over their own lives. Through this paper, I have come to find that humans, much like animals, desire to feel that they have individual rights even when being governed, a point that one would think Rousseau would agree with considering the fact that his ideal state of nature features a very individualistic version of humanity. Because of this desire, and the natural tendency for some human beings to diverge from the moral code, both parties acknowledge that there must be some forfeiture of rights in exchange for protection. However, I find that Rousseau’s proposal of what that forfeiture should look like is disproportionate to potential action, and is too extreme of a shift from his state of nature. It is very all-or-nothing, meaning that either human beings are individualistic and anti-social, or they must work entirely together and forfeit most of their general control to the sovereign body. This also lends itself to potentially creating a tyranny of the majority, which can be viewed as an oppressive tool for many in society.  Lockean theory allows for more of a compromise than a complete stripping of natural rights to property. It acknowledges the human desire for self-preservation while still allowing man to be a dynamic, social creature. Because of this, his theory sets up a common judge whose primary focus is to mitigate disputes, so that man can continue to go about their pursuit of property and production. In this system, people are able to live at least semi-organically, while acknowledging the need to ensure no one person has more than their fair share. In contemporary politics today, we find a mixture of both theories present in much of modern society, so it is important to acknowledge that neither is entirely right or wrong. But, if one were to be used as our sole system of social understanding/ governmental structure, Locke’s philosophy ultimately rings more true with the state of nature both philosophers proposed, making it the comparatively more sound proposition.


Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan. Cambridge University Press, Original Print, 1651, Reprint, 1996.

Locke, John. Two Treatises of Government, Etc. Reprinted by J. Whiston, 1772.

Locke, John. Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Vol. 2, Nabu Press, 2012.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques, and Charles Frankel. The Social Contract. Hafner Pub. Co., 1947.


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