What Are John Locke’s Theories on the State of Nature and Social Contract Theory?


Martha Robinson

John Locke, an influential philosopher and political theorist of the 17th century, developed key theories on the state of nature and social contract. These theories continue to shape our understanding of government and society. In this article, we will explore Locke’s ideas in depth.

The State of Nature Theory

Locke’s state of nature theory posits that humans exist in a pre-political and pre-social condition where they have natural rights but lack a formal system of governance. In this state, individuals are free and equal, with the right to life, liberty, and property.

Key Points:

  • The state of nature is a hypothetical concept used to understand human behavior before the establishment of government.
  • According to Locke, in the state of nature, humans have natural rights which include the right to life, liberty, and property.
  • The absence of a central authority in the state of nature leads to potential conflicts over limited resources.

Social Contract Theory

Locke’s social contract theory builds upon the state of nature by proposing that individuals willingly enter into a social contract with one another to establish a legitimate government. This contract is based on mutual consent and aims to protect natural rights and promote common welfare.

Key Points:

  • The social contract is an agreement between individuals to form a society governed by rules and laws.
  • In exchange for protection and security provided by the government, individuals agree to give up some freedoms.
  • A legitimate government derives its power from the consent of the governed.


The theories put forth by John Locke have significant implications for our understanding of government and the relationship between individuals and the state.

Protection of Natural Rights:

The primary purpose of government, according to Locke, is to protect the natural rights of individuals. These rights include life, liberty, and property. A legitimate government should uphold these rights and intervene only when necessary to prevent their violation.

Limitations on Government:

Locke believed that government power should be limited and restrained. It should operate within the confines of the social contract and respect the individual’s right to freedom and property. If a government oversteps its boundaries or violates natural rights, individuals have the right to alter or abolish it.

Importance of Consent:

Locke emphasized that a legitimate government derives its power from the consent of the governed. This means that individuals have the right to participate in decision-making processes through voting and other democratic means. The importance of consent in governance ensures that governments are accountable to their citizens.

In Conclusion

John Locke’s theories on the state of nature and social contract continue to influence political philosophy today. His ideas highlight the importance of protecting natural rights, limiting government power, and ensuring consent-based governance. Understanding these theories helps us analyze different forms of government and evaluate their adherence to principles such as individual freedom and equality.

By studying Locke’s ideas, we can gain insights into how societies can be organized in a just and fair manner, promoting both individual liberty and collective well-being.