Consent and the social contract

Notes for March 11

Main points

The topic for today’s class is consent. Both Hobbes and Locke thought that the relationship between the government and those it governs has to be established by a social contract. The social contract establishes two things:

  1. Political authority: the leaders get the right to govern only those who agree to give them this right in a social contract.
  2. Political obligation: people are obliged to obey the state’s orders only if they agreed to do so in a social contract.

Hume did not think this sort of story could hold up: he thought the conditions for a valid contract could not be met for a society. Consequently, he believed, political authority and political obligations must have a different basis.

Locke’s social contract

According to Locke, people consent to obey the state as a condition of inheriting property within the state’s borders (§§116–117).

We talked about whether this is a fair deal or not and about problems posed by foreigners who are inside a society but not a member of it.

Hume’s arguments

We spent a lot of time on two arguments on p. 475 of Hume’s essay. In both cases, Hume does the following:

  1. Proposes a necessary condition on voluntary consent to any contract.
  2. Argues that this condition cannot be met in the case of a social contract.
  3. Draws a conclusion that the state must have a conventional foundation rather than one based on consent.

Strictly speaking, he could have drawn the anarchist’s conclusion that there is no such thing as justified political authority or justified political obligation. Hume did not draw that conclusion because he did not think that voluntary consent was necessary for either of those things. But if he had thought it is necessary, he would have been committed to the anarchist’s conclusion.

We spent most of our discussion on the second argument. Hume maintained that most people do not have a genuine alternative to consenting (and that having a genuine alternative is a necessary condition of giving valid consent). Adam denied both of his premises. He thought you could voluntarily accept a contract even if there is no alternative. Say there is only one bank in town and you take out a loan from it; you’re still obliged to pay it back. He also thought the fact that people do leave their native country shows that they have alternatives to consenting.

Dixie conceded that some people can leave but noted that this won’t be true of everyone. Since everyone is obliged to obey the state, by hypothesis, that is a problem.

Hobbes again

I closed by bringing Hobbes back into the discussion. Hobbes directly disagreed with Hume’s necessary conditions on valid consent. He thought consent could be valid if given at the point of a sword, after all (see Leviathan, ch. 20).

Locke, Hume, and almost everyone else would have said that Hobbes is mistaken here. You can’t have a valid contract made under duress. I think it’s fair to say that most people find Hobbes’s view extremely eccentric.

However, there is something to be said for Hobbes here. He thought that the state of nature would be filled with war. So how do people end the war? He said they could do so by making an agreement. If all agreements made under violent conditions are invalid, this won’t be possible: the war has to keep going until one side is dead or controlled solely by force.

I do not find Hobbes’s attempt to solve the problem of ending violent conflict completely persuasive. But that is the problem that he was genuinely trying to solve: how do people at war end it? Locke and Hume, by contrast, do not have much to say about this. Locke allows the good side in a war to enslave the aggressor but he does not have much to say about how the two sides might end their hostility and have normal relations with one another. Hume just seems to think it will work out eventually: one side will win and the other will gradually come to accept it.

Key concepts

  1. How Locke thinks consent and property are connected.
  2. Hume’s arguments that consent to a social contract is impossible.
  3. The advantages of allowing consent under duress, as Hobbes did.
This page was written by Michael Green for Social and Political Philosophy, Philosophy 33, Spring 2014. It was posted March 24, 2014.
Social and Political Philosophy