Locke’s Social Contract

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 describes how that might work while Hume argues that no social contract could possibly be valid.

Hume’s arguments

We focused on two of Hume’s arguments (Hume [1748] 1987, 475). They have the same structure:

  1. A necessary condition on valid consent.
  2. A reason why the condition cannot be met by the state.
  3. Conclusion that political obligation is not based on consent.

Hume’s first argument maintains 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. We talked about a variety of cases. In some of them, it seemed to us that the absence of a realistic alternative does undermine the validity of an expression of consent. In other cases, it did not seem that way. The trick will be to see which of these cases is more like the state than the others.

Hume said what?

One of the cases we discussed comes from none other than David Hume! (In a different book.)

“We may draw the same conclusion concerning the origin of promises, from the force which is supposed to invalidate all contracts, and to free us from their obligation. Such a principle is a proof that promises have no natural obligation, and are mere artificial contrivances for the convenience and advantage of society. If we consider aright of the matter, force is not essentially different from any other motive of hope or fear, which may induce us to engage our word, and lay ourselves under any obligation. A man, dangerously wounded, who promises a competent sum to a surgeon to cure him, would certainly be bound to performance; though the case be not so much different from that of one who promises a sum to a robber, as to produce so great a difference in our sentiments of morality, if these sentiments were not built entirely on public interest and convenience.” (Hume [1740] 1995, Book 3, Part 2, Sect. 5, Par. 15)

The relevant part is the sentence about the doctor: “A man, dangerously wounded, who promises a competent sum to a surgeon to cure him, would certainly be bound to performance.” That does not exactly square with his second argument.

The rest of it gives you a taste of something that Hume had said in the chapter on property that we read earlier in the week, namely, that the rules governing promises and contracts are conventional in the same way that the rules governing property are. If so, it’s conventions all the way down and we can dispense with the social contract.

Key concepts

  1. How Locke thought consent could work in a settled state.
  2. Hume’s arguments that consent could not be valid.


Hume, David. (1748) 1987. “Of the Original Contract.” In Essays, Moral, Political, and Literary, edited by Eugene F. Miller, Revised edition, 466–87. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund.

———. (1740) 1995. A Treatise of Human Nature. Edited by Mark C. Rooks. The Complete Works and Correspondence of David Hume. Charlottesville, VA: InteLex Corporation.

Locke, John. (1680) 1995. Two Treatises of Government. Edited by Mark C. Rooks. The Philosophical Works and Selected Correspondence of John Locke. Charlottesville, VA: InteLex Corporation.