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The social contract theory is the perspective that an individual's political obligations and morals depend upon a contract between the individuals to establish a given society in which they live. Thomas Hobbes and Jean Jacques Rousseau present their perspectives on the social contract. Although Hobbes and Rousseau both agree and contribute significantly on the theory of social contract, there are similarities and differences when it comes to the way in which they interpret the state of nature and the characteristic of a sovereign entity. Their views pertaining state of nature and formation of government via social contract have some fundamental differences. I think Rousseau's interpretation is more desirable and better be to be pursued. The reason is that he asserts that we, on the natural level, have a kind of emotion through which we are inclined to understand and appreciate others and prevent us from becoming egocentric.
Thomas Hobbes lived between 1588 and 1679. It was a vital time in the history of modern England. During this period, there were civil wars in England that waged from 1642 to 1648. The war was between the king and his supporters; monarchists and parliamentarians. Hobbes' opinions were both conservative and radical. They were conservative because he supports the idea that it is mandatory to accord authority to the monarch who is the sovereign for the survival of the society. He is radical for the reason that he argues that basis of political obligations and authority are the personal interests of members of the society who are regarded as equal with no one having the necessary authority to rule over others (Wilson 256). Hobbes approach to human psychology is mechanistic. He argues that people tend to do what they think is beneficial to them. For instance, even the action of parents caring for their children is for their own benefit as they will be regarded as noble people by the society for taking care of their child. The core argument of Hobbes is that human beings are exclusively self-interested.
Rousseau lived between 1712 and 1778. This was a period of enlightenment in the intellectual history of France. He stated that human beings the state of nature is where the human population was small and could be comfortably sustained by nature. However, with the growth of human population, there was an evolution of the state of nature (Rousseau 67). Resources became scarce leading to competition, hence personalization of property. The concept of personal property led more inequality and greed. Those who had personal property felt the need for a government to protect their property. Rousseau says that nature gives us freedom and equality. However, contingent social history has corrupted our nature. We can overcome this corruption, however, by invoking our free will to reconstitute ourselves politically, along strongly democratic principles, which is good for us, both individually and collectively. A similarity between the views of Hobbes and Rousseau is that people cede their natural rights to the authority to protect the people from abuse, and living peacefully under the legal rights of that authority. There are several differences in their opinions. According to Hobbes, the entity of sovereign authority is separate and independent whereas Rousseau says that it is communal and dependent on the people's will. Another difference between the views of the two is the idea of the commonwealth and general will. By definition, the general will is always right. The general will is the overriding good to which each person is willing to sacrifice all other goods, including all particular private wills. In Rousseau's idea, pity makes people benevolent to each other, so that general will is always right. Therefore, individual will is the same as common will or general will. Collectivism a key to thinking in this way is the presence of emotion.
The difference between the views of Hobbes and Rousseau on the state of nature can be attributed to several factors. The scientific revolution that it is possible to predict and describw the universe in accordance with the laws of nature heavily influenced Hobbes' views of the state of nature and human nature. Hobbes' interpretation of the state of nature and human nature in itself is that humans are "poor, nasty, brutish, solitary, and short." Hobbes infers that humans are wicked and selfish from his mechanistic theory of nature of humans. He says that humans pursue that which they think is in their best interest. They are driven mechanistically and are drawn towards that which they desire and repelled from the things they do not desire. The tendency for human beings to do only that which is beneficial to them applies in all situation within and outside the society. Everything humans do is solely motivated by the need to better their own selves. Human beings are infinitely appetitive, and their only genuine concern is themselves. Humans are solely focused on self-preservation through reason. Hobbes argues that the only reason why people are rational is for their own gain. People are rational to pursue the things that they desire more effectively and optimally. For human beings, rationality is totally instrumental. We analyze by adding, subtracting and comparison to enable us to devise the best means of achieving our desired ends. Competition, diffidence, and glory are the causes of quarrel. The reason for this according to Hobbes is people's desire to achieve that which is beneficial to them, regardless of how it affects others. According to Hobbes, the state of war can be explained by the clash of individual's desires. Rousseau's interpretation of the state of nature and human nature is that although humans are selfish, their actions are not solely influenced by selfishness, but also by emotions. His views are sharply aware that men are selfish and cause a series of conflicts for self-preservation. The recognition of human's natural sentiment "emotion" pity, in his word, whichexists in a state of nature.
Two different views on the state of nature bring out not only the notion of how necessary social contract is but also the entirely different structure of the social contract. The possible reason why they drew different results is their personal background and periodic situation. Hobbes lived at a time when there were civil wars across England due to differences regarding which form of government is preferred. The king's supporters, that is, monarchists and parliamentarians were fighting. The war and the reasons behind it possibly influenced Hobbes to come to his conclusions regarding the state of nature and the notion of how necessary social contract is for the proper functioning of the society. The events that led to the war were possible for the benefit of some individuals at the expense of others. The tendency of people to do that which is for their individual betterment is portrayed in war. Also, the scientific revolution at the time influenced Hobbes' views. The claim by science that the universe is predictable as long as the rules of nature are adhered to had a role in the manner of thinking of Hobbes. Hobbes' view of human psychology, that is, the motivations for people's actions are mechanistic. In his view, human actions are driven entirely by personal desires for self-gain (Wilson 209). He fails to take into consideration the fact that sometimes human actions are motivated by their emotions. For instance, pity could motivate humans to do things that are not for their own benefit but for the benefit of others. Rousseau view on the state of nature is that, in this conditions, human beings were of a lesser population and had minimal interactions. For this reason, there were enough in nature to satisfy the needs of all comfortably. However, with an increase in population, the resources became scarce hence the need for property personalization. Rousseau lived at a time when the enlightenment of France was ongoing. The period of enlightenment preceded the French revolution. In his views, he recognizes that human beings are selfish but also appreciate the fact that human actions are sometimes influenced by their emotions. The views of Rousseau were influenced by the activities going on during the period of enlightenment. There was the questioning of the motivations of human actions and the ideal form of government.
Rousseau's particular mention of pity is of importance play out in the formation of his ideal government. According to Hobbes, people are naturally endowed with the potential to be pitiful toward others (Jennings 119). The reason this is the case is that when people feel pity towards others, they will not do any actions to harm them. Pity leads to benevolence. A government whose basis is benevolence will be an ideal government as the welfare of every person is considered.
In conclusion, the explanations of Thomas Hobbes and Jean Jacques Rousseau on social contract have some differences. The only similarity between them is that people cede their natural rights to the authority to protect the people from abuse, and living peacefully under the legal rights of that authority. Hobbes says that the sovereign authority is separate and independent whereas Rousseau says that it is communal and dependent. The difference can be due to the difference in their views of on the state of nature. Hobbes' interpretation is that human beings are selfish and driven by their desire for personal gain. Rousseau's interpretation is that although human beings are selfish, their action s are not entirely influenced by the desire for self-gain but are also influenced by emotions such as pity. Personal background and periodic situation contributed to the difference in the views of the two philosophers. Rousseau's particular mention of pity I important in the formation of his ideal government as benevolence is the basis of a universally acceptable government. Rousseau's views are more acceptable because he considers both reason and emotion as motivating factors for human actions. Rousseau explains that in human nature, human emotion co-exists with human reason. For this reason, I believe Rousseau's interpretation is more desirable to be pursued.
Jennings, Jeremy. "Rousseau, social contract and the modern Leviathan." The Social Contract from Hobbes to Rawls, pp. 115-131.
Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. "21. A Discourse on the Origin of Inequality." Democracy, 2016.
Wilson, Catherine. "Thomas Hobbes' Leviathan." Oxford Handbooks Online, 2013.
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