The Role of Equality in the Formation of Government According to Hobbes and Locke

Comments on this assignment by the professor (including its weaknesses) are at the bottom of the post. Note that this was written using only the text in Leviathan chapters 4, 13-18, 21 and The Second Treatise on Civil Government chapters 1-9, 19. And, not necessarily all of those chapters. That was just the assigned reading.

Both Hobbes and Locke use the equality of men in a state of nature as a starting point for their theories of the rise of government. Equality plays an important role in how they conceive of government as arising and the form that government takes, but Hobbes and Locke see men’s equality in the state of nature in different ways. Hobbes’ view of equality is essentially negative. He argues that no value judgments can be placed on equality, or men in a state of nature, because there can be no such things as justice and injustice before a government exists to legislate what is right and wrong, but Hobbes’ view of equality is one in which men have no restraint and are prone to violence. All men exist in a state of equality, where every man is looking after himself to the detriment of all of other men. His conception of government then is as a force that compels restraint for the common benefit of all. Locke, on the other hand, conceives of man in a state of nature as being essentially good, and interested in the well-being of their fellow men. All men are at liberty to do what they want, when they want, but because they are equally the property of the creator, they do not have the authority to damage one another, and when they do, justice must be dispensed. Government arises when men, in the interests of preserving the universal rights of life, liberty, and health, as dictated by God, require a method of meting out justice that is fair and balanced.

Hobbes believes that all men are essentially equal, not necessarily as individuals, but as a whole. Even when two men are of unequal strength, the weaker man can still kill the stronger, either through planning or by allying himself with others to accomplish the task. Because of this, Hobbes believes that men cannot claim that they have any inherent benefit that is not also possessed by every other man. No matter your physical or mental ability, you have an equal opportunity to succeed, and that equal opportunity for success is what Hobbes views as an equality of men.

Because men are equal, Hobbes also believes that men in a state of nature have equal desires, which would inevitably lead them into conflict with each other (Hobbes, 55). Wherever a man possesses something of value, he can be reasonably sure that another man wants what he possesses and will attempt to take it from him. The only way a man can attempt to prevent this is through competition, by building up forces of his own until he is in a position where he cannot be threatened by others. This is a social structure that cannot be avoided (Hobbes, 55). Even if a man were to be satisfied with what he has and not engage in conflict to gain what others have, other men would still come to gain what he has. Similarly, Hobbes also says that men would engage in conflict over issues of status or reputation (Hobbes, 56).

So, in addition to an equality of potential, Hobbes posits that men in a state of nature are also equally in a state of perpetual conflict with one another, which Hobbes calls the state of war. This state of constant conflict is not desirable, because man cannot live his life with any certainty or security. Each man relies on his own strength and intellect and competes with other men on an even footing, but the only guiding principle that men in this state live by is “The Right of Nature,” which claims that each man has the freedom to do whatever is required of him to preserve his own life, up to and including the use of other peoples’ lives (Hobbes, 57-58).

Because men in a state of equality would be most concerned with fear of death and a desire for comfortable living, Hobbes says there is a “general rule of reason” that states that every man should work for peace and only engage in war when he has no hope of obtaining it (Hobbes, 58). To work for peace, Hobbes says that man should give up his natural right to everything and be content with having limits to what activities he can engage in against his neighbors. In exchange, man can reasonably expect that his neighbors will also surrender their rights (Hobbes, 58). In that way, man gains security against premature death and the ability to enjoy the result of his labor while remaining on an equal footing with other men. Men remain equal because the natural right to all things that a man gives up to gain security does not disappear or become abandoned. It is transferred to his fellow man. This mutual transfer of the natural right is what creates the limitations that allow men to live in peace. Hobbes calls this transfer of rights a contract, which is the basis of government (Hobbes, 59).

Because Hobbes supposes that men are naturally interested in self-advancement at the expense of their fellow men, enforcing a contract requires the existence of something that is capable of compelling men to fulfil their obligations. When man exists outside of government, there are only two forces that pressure him to honor his obligations: God and fear of retribution by the men he offends by breaking his contract. Outside of government, Hobbes says that the more powerful of the two is man’s fear of his fellow men, because though God is more powerful, other men and the consequences they might impose are more immediate (Hobbes, 63). But, given the opportunity, a man might decide that he is powerful enough to overcome those he has contracted with and re-enter a state of war. The only method of compelling peace is by creating a civil government that can impose a penalty harsher than any expected gain on people who violate their contracts (Hobbes, 64).

Throughout this process, men remain equal. In a state of perpetual warfare, men have equal and unlimited rights against each other for their own preservation or gain. When men enter into contracts, they both agree to give up a certain amount of rights against each other so they can be secure in their lives and property. When entering into a civil government men agree to give up more rights, including their right to break their covenants, without facing repercussions from the civil government, but still remain equal to one another in their rights and new obligations.

John Locke’s theory of government also involves the idea that men are equal when in a state of nature, where they are in “a state of perfect freedom to order their actions, and dispose of their possessions and persons, as they think fit, within the bounds of the law of nature, without asking leave, or depending upon the will of any other man” (Locke, Kindle eBook location 454). However, where Hobbes believes that men in a state of nature are essentially evil and remain in a state of constant aggression against one another, Locke believes that men are essentially good and that men in a state of nature would not generally be inclined to inhibiting the rights of other men, as all men are equal before God and therefor equal to each other. This feeling of equality is described as that of creations before their creator, who do not have the authority to bring harm to others who, like themselves, were created. Locke calls this a rule of “reason and common equity,” established by God for man’s mutual security (Locke, Kindle eBook location 493).

This rule of reason and common equity states that men have a responsibility before God to not take away or impair another man’s life, liberty, health, or goods (Locke, Kindle eBook location 482). When men do violate God’s rule of reason and common equity, Locke says that every man has an equal right to punish the transgressor, because there is no superior authority among men (Locke, Kindle eBook location 502). Every man possesses executive power and can act as a judge, inflicting punishments up to and including the penalty of death, if that is what is required to prevent the commission of a particular type of crime (Locke, Kindle eBook location 532).

Where this state of nature fails is in man’s inability to be the judge in his own case, since man cannot reasonably be expected to find against himself when judging. To overcome this problem of partiality, man creates political society, where men equally surrender their natural rights to the community, which is assumed to be capable of judging disputes fairly and impartially (Locke, Kindle eBook location 1214). So, the equality of the state of nature gives rise to the need for every man to be responsible for punishing offenses, and because man cannot be impartial in his own case, that in turn causes man to relinquish his rights to the community, which forms a government that punishes crimes impartially. Equality is still maintained, as every man equally gives up his right to executive power.

Equality plays a major role in both Hobbes’ and Locke’s theories of man in the state of nature and their reasoning regarding the formation of governing institutions. Hobbes’ sees this equality as man’s equal right to everything, which necessarily must be regulated to create any sort of security, so that man can live comfortably. In Locke’s view, man is equal in the sense that every man is equally responsible for not harming his fellow men and for passing judgment on those who do. This equality of responsibility creates a need for impartial adjudication, which requires an equal passing of rights to the larger community. For both Hobbes and Locke, the process and result are essentially the same, where man begins with complete freedom of action and progresses to a state of being governed, but the problem that presents the need for change are of two opposing visions of man in his natural state: one good and one bad.



Hobbes, Thomas. 2004. Leviathan [with Biographical Introduction] [Kindle Edition]. Amazon Digital Services, Inc.:

Locke, John, and C. B. Macpherson. 2011. Second Treatise of Government (Annotated) [Kindle Edition]. Amazon Digital Services, Inc.: Hackett Publishing Co.

“[Professor’s] Comments: This paper is well-written and well-organized. It’s focused and does a good job working through the relevant dimensions of the text. One element lacking in the Hobbes’ discussion, however, is the determining role that scarcity plays in the conditioning of behavior (and as such, it is scarcity not some inherent evilness that causes man’s behavior). Likewise, in Locke’s nature, initial equality is replaced by scarcity and in inequality, which then requires the creation of government (as a result of currency). Since these dimensions of their thought impact some of the main assertions of the paper, they really needed to be tackled, But even without them, this is a very strong paper. Good work.”

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