Locke vs. Hume

According to social contract theorists like Hobbes and Locke, the obligation to obey the state’s laws stems from consent to, yes, a social contract. In today’s readings, Locke described how that might work while Hume argued that no social contract could possibly be valid.

There are two ways that people might consent to obey the state, according to Locke.

  1. Explicit consent could be given as a condition for inheriting (or buying) property (Locke, §116). (As Samuel noted, this would not cover people who do not have any property.)

  2. Tacit consent is given by using land that is under the government’s jurisdiction: walking on the roads, for instance.

The difference between the two is that tacit consent is revocable while explicit consent is not (Locke, §121).

Hume’s arguments

We focused on two arguments on p. 475. In both cases, Hume asserted that an expression of consent has to meet a certain condition in order to establish an obligation. Then he argued that the conditions cannot be met.

In his first argument, he maintained that consent is valid only if the person giving it believes she has a choice in the matter. In the second argument, he maintained that expressions of consent are valid only if those giving them have a genuine option to refuse their consent which, in this case, means leaving the country.

We spent some time talking about whether having options really is a necessary condition on giving valid consent.

What about Hobbes?

We did not talk much about Hobbes. Many people think it’s just obvious that his theory will fail Hume’s tests. After all, he insists that the social contract is motivated by fear and, in the case of the commonwealth by acquisition, those agreeing to the social contract do so with a sword at their throats. Talk about not having a genuine alternative!

Here is one thing to be said for Hobbes, though. Hobbes is trying to show how people who are at war with one another can end the war. His commonwealth by acquisition is, in essence, an agreement to surrender. If Hobbes’s social contract is not valid, how could any army’s agreement to surrender after being defeated, but before being literally annihilated, be valid?1

Key concepts

  1. How Locke thought tacit and express consent could work.
  2. Hume’s arguments that consent could not be valid.


Deigh, John. 2002. “Promises Under Fire.” Ethics 112: 483–506.

Hume, David. 1987. “Of the Original Contract.” In Essays, Moral, Political, and Literary, edited by Eugene F. Miller, Revised edition, 466–87. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund.

Locke, John. 1995. “Two Treatises of Government.” In The Philosophical Works and Selected Correspondence of John Locke, edited by Mark C. Rooks. Charlottesville, VA: InteLex Corporation.

  1. I got halfway to seeing this on my own last year. But I did not appreciate the connection with an army trying to surrender until I re-read a great article about promising by John Deigh (Deigh 2002). I have Patrick and the Hume reading group to thank for getting me to re-read that. Thanks guys!