John Locke (1632-1704) was, like Hobbes, a British empiricist, but published his treatises titled, On Civil Government, four decades after Hobbes. His worldview is more optimistic; societies exist, not to avoid a violent death, but in order to remedy the inconveniences of the natural state. One advantage of that state is that each person is the final judge of his own acts. According to Locke, societies exist by virtue of a contract where individuals trade self-judgement and their selfish means of survival for a civil society empowered to judge individuals and obligated to defend natural rights. Thus government exists for the regulation and preservation of property including body, life, and the estate one gains from one’s work. An additional purpose of the community is its own perpetuation. When a government violates this contract, the people then have the right to dissolve that government.2 It is clear the American colonists needed to take only a small step from Locke’s conclusions when they declared independence from Britain under the pretext that its government violated the colonists’ natural rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
Seventy years later, Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) published The Social Contract where he agrees with Hobbes and Locke on the contractual nature of the state with its role to safeguard the welfare of each member and of the collective. But Rousseau is more careful; power remains in the hands of the contractors via a democratic assembly. The state becomes a social creature with a social conscience – a collective person with a general will and a single goal. Its governing body cannot pursue evil ends as long as it looks after the interests of all the citizens. Humans, in his opinion, have a basic need to be social and are transformed by society from instinct-driven to rational and from self-centered to concerned about the interest of others. Rousseau tells us a person is not a true citizen as long as he or she accepts society from prudence alone, but only after developing a genuine concern for the welfare of all.3
Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) followed Rousseau by three decades and developed the principle of utility which states that every person is morally obliged to promote the greatest happiness of the greatest number. Happiness for Bentham translates into maximum pleasure and minimal pain. Intent is not defining; only the outcome of greater pleasure and less pain determine the ethics of action. Society and governments exist to achieve this form of outcome (i.e. maximal pleasure and minimal pain of the citizenry).4
John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) accepts Bentham’s ethics and definition of happiness. He defends various criticisms and asserts, “Society between equals can only exist on the understanding that the interests of all are to be regarded equally.”5 This in turn depends on proper education and social arrangements. Justice is the process by which the general (utilitarian) good is realized, that is, justice and the binding rules of obligation result in the greatest happiness for the greatest number.6
2Magill, Frank, Masterpieces of World Philosophy in Summary Form. Harper & Row Publishers, 1961, pages 436-441.
3Ibid., pages 512-518.
4Ibid., pages 551-556.
5Ibid., pages 657.
6Ibid., pages 654-659.