Contractarianism and John Locke

Locke’s Empiricism/ Tabula Rasa

John Locke was, like Aristotle, an empiricist. A central idea of Lockean thought was his notion of the Tabula Rasa: the “Blank Slate.” John Locke believed that all human beings are born with a barren, empty, malleable mind; every facet of one’s character is something observed, perceived, and learned via the senses while living in a society.

Biologically, the Tabula Rasa favours nurturein the “nature versus nurture” debate. Philosophically, it allows for the concept of free will. This idea of Locke corresponds with his ideas of natural rights. Though we are not born with any innate ideas, learned behaviour can be applied to our natural rights to obtain optimal outcomes for ourselves.

Natural rights/ inalienable rights.

Fundamentally, Locke observed that the human right to property is rooted in that one’s property begins with oneself. A person has the right to govern themselves; their essence is their property, and nothing and nobody can take that away.

This is the introspective right of an individual; their ownership over their soul. Externally, an individual’s right to property is concerned with the world around them. The Earth provides humankind with bounty, shared throughout the world. This bounty is a gift to humankind, according to Locke, from God: we all have access in common to God’s bounty.

If this bounty is commonly accessible, it is, therefore, ripe for the taking by any individual who sees fit. For Locke, mixing one’s labour with God’s bounty provided to our results in that bounty becoming one’s property.

Imagine for a moment walking through the woods and finding an apple tree. By climbing the tree and plucking an apple, you are mixing your efforts and labour with the bounty of God, therefore justifying that the apple you’ve picked is now your property. Additionally, John Locke postulated that simply building a fence around a field was an effective means of claiming property.

Locke based the foundation of his political theory on the idea of inalienable rights. Locke said that these rights came from God as the creator of human beings. Human beings were the property of God, and Locke claimed that denying the rights of human beings that God had given them was an affront to God.

Locke believed in the notions of individual governance and liberties hence he Added the concept of the natural right to the social contract that the state is there to protect the natural right of citizens. Three natural rights as per John Locke:

  • Right to life,
  • Right to liberty and
  • Property right.

That’s why he is known as the “classical liberal”.

The American Declaration of Independence copied the three rights from John Locke but with a slight modification:

  • Right to life
  • Right to liberty
  • Pursuit of happiness

Locke on Toleration

His ideas on tolerance are based on his experience of observing the English Civil War in his youth.  Invoking the Tabula Rasa, his experiences, perceptions, and observations in his youth formulated his opinions on toleration. John Locke defined toleration as a fundamental and axiomatic disagreement with something, be it another faith, race, sexual orientation, or favourite soccer team, while still allowing it to exist.

Seeing as Locke offered that the soul is the property of the individual, and nobody has the right to govern it except that same individual, everybody has the right to choose their path.

Locke did not dismiss the act of being strongly opposed to something; one can still disagree and take issue with something, but true toleration simply allows it to exist.

Locke on Religion

John Locke was born a Puritan, converted to a Socinian, and grew up through the religiously ambiguous English Civil War. As a result, he firmly believed that no political authority had the right to decide the religion of their people.

To Locke, our bodies are the property of God. It is therefore a natural right and a natural law not to kill—murder was to be considered as directly harming the property of God.

John Locke’s Social Contract Theory (limited government)

In Locke’s era, the political norm was a feudal social hierarchy dominated by an overarching political entity in which all power was vested in one individual: a monarch.

In contrast to the massive political Leviathan (monarchy), He advocated a modest governmental structure of limited size and scope.

Locke argues that without a governmental body of some form, these states would devolve into violence rooted in fear and lack of confidence in their protection. The Social Contract, therefore, becomes a mutual agreement that the people of a state surrender some (not all) of their rights to government, in exchange for the protection and peaceful social existence that the law provides.

Govt as a neutral judge

The difference between right and desire – is a grey area and must be decided by the government by law. For Locke, the government must be a “neutral judge” of law with no right to interfere in the lives of the individual.

Responsible Govt

The most radical idea to come from Locke’s pen was the idea of governmental legitimacy. He argued that all legitimate social authority needs people’s legitimacy and consent to govern; Hence, concluded that a government should be beholden to the people rather than vice-versa.

Right to revolution

He became the first person in history to suggest that if people disapprove of their government, they should possess the power to change it as they see fit. This idea came to be known as the right to revolution.

Relevance of Locke

  • The Lockean ideal consists of a small government with limited scope and limited power, acting as a mere support beam for the people.
  • He provided a moral foundation for a liberal state.
  • He made people an ultimate authority where the state is to serve them


He considered the preservation of self as the main goal of human life that supports psychological egoism, which is a negative concept.

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