A feminist analysis of any major thinker or school of thought within the historical canon of political theory is bound to find many problems. This is surely the case when considering the social contract tradition and the most prominent modern thinkers within this tradition: Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean-Jacque Rousseau. To a certain extent these thinkers make many of the same mistakes that classical and other modern moral and political theorists made. First, women are often ignored as significant moral and political actors. Second, when given attention, women are often either disparaged or solely acknowledged for their reproductive function. Third, descriptions of human nature are often limited to “male” nature and fail to take into account elements of care as part of human nature.
Within the canon of political theory, only Plato and John Stuart Mill give due consideration to women and Mill’s writings are likely to only ones considered to be “feminist.” However, this should not lead us to dismiss all other thought between Plato and Mill. Instead, we must ask ourselves whether the theories proposed by theorists, such as Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau, can be adapted or corrected. Can the theories of these men be salvaged despite the sexism of their day? I am not one to give a free pass to any theorist because of their place and time. These are thinkers who sought to view the world and the state in different ways. Yet when it came to women, far too often they accepted the world around them.
In looking at the modern social contract theorists, we will see that they all have elements which a feminist can appreciate and draw from. Hobbes’ description of fear can be useful in understanding the actions of those living in a war-like domestic situation. Locke shows a certain respect for the natural rights of women. Rousseau’s account of pity in human nature shows an early appreciation for what contemporary feminists will call an element of care.
However, despite some of the strengths in these respective theories, the social contract approach itself makes it difficult to accept the weaknesses which they contain. All of these theories place a heavy emphasis on their description of human nature and it is in their description of human nature that we often find problems. Can any description of human nature that fails to take into account the fact that women are fully human be used as the basis of a moral and political theory? I do not think so, particularly when we consider that these thinkers have given such a central significance to their account of human nature. For this reason, we have to look elsewhere to find the best conception of political theory.
Before I continue, I should define what I mean by feminist analysis. My feminist analysis looks at two areas. First, how does the given work deal with women? What type of role do women play in the state of nature and in political society? Do they appear at all? Like Susan Moller Okin, I believe that in order for us to understand the role of women, we also must look at the role of the family in any given theory.[i] Second, to what extent does a given theories description of human nature include elements of care? This question ultimately asks whether human nature is really human nature or whether it is just males’ nature. Inherent in this question is the concern that general descriptions of a unitary “human” nature may be impossible.
In looking at social contract theory, it is also important to take into account the feminist concern about abstraction in moral and political philosophy. The concern is that overly abstract ways of approaching morality and politics are unable to deal, or even acknowledge, the real-life inequalities and harms faced by women. I feel that it is possible for abstract theory to account for female injustice. Yet, the challenge and burden to abstract theories are relevant and need to be addressed.
A primary source for this study is the respective critiques of the modern social contract theorist made by Carole Pateman and Susan Moller Okin. Both of these contemporary theorists have made a significant and distinct contribution to my views regarding the cannon of political theory.
From here I want to look at the three prominent modern social contract theorists individually. In each subsection I will briefly sketch the main arguments of the respective theorist with particular attention on their argument about the state of nature. Each sketch will primarily serve as background for the feminist analysis that will follow in each section.
Fear is the defining element of the political theory of Thomas Hobbes. For Hobbes, fear is the defining element of human existence. Fear of harm, fear of war, and fear of death. In the state of nature, man is driven by the need to avoid those things which he fears. For Hobbes, this drive translates into a form of self-interest. This self-interest leads us to do anything necessary to provide for our own perpetual motion or continued existence. It is our natural right to do those things which will protect our continued existence, even if this means doing harm to others. This uninhibited self-interest leads to a state of war. This state of war is marked with brutality and blood shed. Such a state of being does not allow for creation, innovation, or even the most basic of simple and comfortable living.
The goal of political society for Hobbes is to avoid the horrors of the state of nature. Man wants peace, stability, and order. For Hobbes, the existence of, or even the prospect of, such a war-like existence would lead those in such a state of nature to choose whatever it takes to bring about and maintain peace and order. In order to have peace and order, the people would choose an absolute sovereign that would have the unlimited ability to do all that it takes to promote order and peace. It is in this state of order and peace that we would have the liberty to lead the peaceable and comfortable live that we desire.
In the state of nature, women are equal with men. Of course, we need to remember that this means that they have the equal ability to kill and be killed. It is not political equality or equality of moral standing, for the issues are not of concern to Hobbes. In the state of nature women are equally as likely as men to have dominion over their children. More precisely, children are just as likely to contract with there mothers as they are with there fathers for protection.[ii] Furthermore, given the lack of a modern family structure, it is unlikely that a child would know the exact identification of her father. Carole Pateman points out that under these conditions of nature, it would seem unlikely that women would agree to have children.[iii] They have the same primary drive for survival and perpetual existence that men do according to Hobbes. Why then would they put themselves at greater risk by caring for children? Eva Kittay makes a convincing argument about the increased vulnerability to attack and physical harm that could come to those who provide care for dependents, including ones own children.[iv]
The absolutism of Hobbes’ sovereign is also found in his description of the home and family. The family, like the state, is merely a contractual agreement with the purpose of protection for individual members. Hobbes “does not draw any distinction between relations within families and those within commonwealths; both institutions are founded on consent, motivated be fear.”[v] Contemporary Hobbesian philosopher David Gauthier points out that the Western legal conception of marriage and divorce invokes the image of a Hobbes-like contractual agreement.[vi] Hobbes conception of the family is completely void of “affection and love,” both between husband and wife and parent (mother or father) and child.[vii] In the Hobbesian family husband and wife bond together for protection, supposedly because the wife, now vulnerable because of her small dependents who lack natural equality. Children bond together with parent for the protection of the child. Given the lack of affection, it again seems puzzling as to how a parent-child relationship could be viewed as a mutual agreement for mutual benefit.
The family in Hobbes shows a primary weakness in his account of human nature; an account which dominates his depiction of the state of nature and political society. To find the Hobbesian account of human nature as unsatisfactory is not unusual and it clearly not limited to feminist critique.[viii] Hobbes’ heavy emphasis on self-preservation and fear seem to cloud his total understanding of human existence to the point that is robs his account of any accuracy and completeness. Not all action can be explained from the perspective of fear. We often act for other reasons, whether it is out of pity as Rousseau would explain it, or out of such odd emotions as faith and love.
It must be noted that fear is not an idea foreign to the realm of family and the lives of woman. Fear, in fact, is a prevalent aspect of family life. I worked for two years as a domestic violence shelter for women and their children. These women lived in constant fear of harm with an ever lingering fear of death. This fear of harm was also mixed with a fear or concern about how they would provide for their children and themselves without the support of their husband. Yet, even with the prevalence of fear, these women still clung to sentiments of love and affection. They often fled out of a concern for their children rather than themselves. They also often continued to have feelings of love and care for their husband, the very man who was also her abuser. When such bounds of affection can continue without the promise of peace and stability we can see that Hobbes’ account of human nature fails to fully describe the complexity of human nature and only describes one aspect of that nature.
Now it might be said that we can acknowledge that Hobbes is partially correct because his description of self-interest and fear does resonate somewhat with our own observations of our lives and the lives of others. However, this is not enough for the type of social contract theory set forth by Hobbes. His theory rests on the assumption that people are as he describes. All people, all the time. Not some people, some of the time. Now this problem rests with any conception of political or moral theory that uses a unitary description of human nature as its foundation. Clearly, this problem is not limited to Hobbes or even social contract theory. However, it is not only his view of the family that is “characteristically one-sided and narrow,” but also his view of human nature.
Feminists have reminded us that women, and often men, care for others, not because of the requirements of justice but because of a natural inclination towards caring and having compassion for those close to them. This sense of care is even more distinct when we consider relationships between mothers and those that are directly dependent on them. In this instance, justice refers to abstract and universal principles or moral or political theory. Yet, when it comes to Hobbes the problem is not that his depiction of human nature is too abstract but that it is too limited in scope. He completely fails to take into account relationships as he sets up humans as being naturally hyper-individualistic. As a liberal, I am in a way very individualistic. Yet, Hobbes’ account of family relationships fails to account for what makes family different from political and economic existence: care and affection. Hobbes’ depiction leaves one wondering why anyone would enter into the family contract, other than the reproduction of the species. It seems that for Hobbes the primary purpose of having children, a primary function of family, is to have allies in the war of all versus all. Yet his human nature does not give much justification for why such allegiances would hold given other factors. Under such conditions of contract, we would ally with those that best provide protection and there it no reason for choosing family over any other alliance.
The role of women in his family is of note as well. Susan Okin points out that women, while mentioned as part of the familial relation in nature are left out of Hobbes’ account as people enter political society.[ix] Hobbes writes that the primary characteristic of society if the relationship between a father and his children. Mother is no longer to be found. Carole Patman reminds us that the troubling aspect of the Hobbessian family may not be it contractual form but its absolutism. While in his political contract we give absolute rule to the sovereign (likely a monarch), in the family contract we also turn power over to an absolute ruler. This absolute ruler is the “master” of the family.[x] While Hobbes leaves open the possibility that the mother could be the master of the household, it is with the introduction of the master that the mother and women fall out of the discussion of the family.
John Locke presents a differing conception of the state of nature and the social contract from that of Hobbes, though in style and presentation they have much in common. In the state of nature, according to Locke, humans are guided by reason. This reason leads them to recognize that others have God-given rights and that they should respect those rights. With reason governing the state of nature, it is a peaceful state and quite different than the brutal nature of Hobbes.
Central to Locke’s theory is his conception of rights which focuses on the unalienable right of life, liberty, and property. His development of the right to property is quite odd to me because he recognized that the idea of private property is contrary to his belief in the earth as a creation of the Christian God. Yet, he reconciles this by arguing that the property right comes from using the ability to work and cultivate that comes from God. By using these gifts from god to toil with a plot of land one is taking it out of nature and it goes from being a common gift to private property.
Despite being relatively peaceful, Locke’s state of nature is not an ideal state of human existence. With the natural right to life, liberty, and property come the right, or responsibility, to protect ones own life, liberty, and property. When reason reins such a right is not a burden because all recognize the divine-nature of rights. However, there will come a time and place when elements within society will seek to deprive others of their respective rights. While these criminal or deviant elements would not lead us to a Hobbesian-like state of war, they would make the state of nature inconvenient because more and more of our time would be spent defending ourselves, our families, and our property..
To protect our rights and to avoid the inconveniences of the state of nature, we would enter into a social contract. This contract would establish a political society with the purpose of protecting our rights. To achieve this goal, we turn our right to protect by force and punish violators of our right. Such functions become solely the functions of the state (with the exception of cases of self-defense). The social contract would allow for a government where the legislature is the primary branch of governed. Locke, like Hobbes, says that this government would govern on the basis of consent. However, Locke does not allow the sovereign absolute control and allows for the removal of governments when the social contract is not upheld. So, the government is not only established by consent, but it also continues to govern only with that consent.
The family in Locke’s treatise on government is far more familiar to us than that of Hobbes. The reason for this is that Locke describes the family very much in tradition terms. For Locke, the nuclear family is social unit which immediately precedes political society. The family, which he also refers to a “conjugal society,” is a “voluntary compact” between man and woman.[xi] The primary purpose of this compact is twofold: 1. to procreation and 2. to provide for those children that result from procreation.
Locke explains that the long-term monogamous relationships of humans is “because the female is capable of conceiving” and is soon with “child again, and brings forth too a new birth, long before the former is out of a dependency for support on his parents help.”[xii] As a result of the continual presence of dependents “the father, who is bound to take care for those he hath begot, is under an obligation to continue in conjugal society with the same woman longer than other creatures.”[xiii]
The relationship between husband and wife is more purposeful in the theory of Locke than it is in the theory of Hobbes. Here rather than focusing on personal protection, Locke depicts the family as centered on the raising of children. Yet, it still seems to lack love and affection, particularly between husband and wife. The family and particularly the role of the mother with the family are mostly still functional. That function: raise and protect children, replenish the earth.
While Locke depicts the husband and wife as being united in their purpose, he recognizes that they will at times have “different wills.” When such disagreement arises the “last determination, i.e. the rule, should be placed somewhere; it naturally falls to the man’s share, as the abler and the stronger.”[xiv] Locke does not offer an argument for why we should consider the male as more able than the female to make decisions in the family.
Locke does give the women certain rights, which Okin points out are far ahead of the law of his day.[xv] He allows “the wife in the full and free possession of what by contract is her peculiar right,” meaning that she can contract as an individual and hold rights and property according to principles of contract.[xvi] Locke also places limits on the dominion which husbands can maintain over their wives because the husband has “no more power over her life than she has over his.”[xvii] Of course, this prohibits killings ones spouse and does not explicitly prohibit less forms of domination or force. Yet, Locke does grant an early version of what we would now refer to as the freedom to exit when he states “that the wife has in many cases a liberty to separate from him.”[xviii] This liberty to exit is not absolute and Locke seems t rely much on the kindness of husbands.
The concern from a feminist perspective with Locke’s conception of the family is that he delegates the women to a functionary role centered on procreation and submission to the rule of the husband. The protections and rights that he grants to women seem insufficient given his deep commitment to natural rights.
As to the issue of care in Locke’s theory, we do see mention of the care and affection in his discussion of paternal power. Locke argues that reason will lead us to respect the liberty of others and gives us the ability to govern ourselves. Locke sees evidence of this in how parent govern there children. For parents, God has made “it their business to employ this care on their offspring, and hath placed in them suitable inclinations of tenderness and concern to temper this power, to apply it, as his wisdom designed it, to the children’s good as long as they should need to be under it.”[xix] Clearly this shows some appreciation for the element of care, particularly in the relationship between parents and children.
Elsewhere Locke alludes to the element of care when he says that the “nourishment and education of their children is a charge so incumbent on parents for their children’s good, that nothing can absolve them from taking care of it” because “God hath woven into the principles of human nature such a tenderness for their offspring.”[xx] For Locke, we respect the rights of others because our reason leads us to respect their God-given rights. To describe our obligation to our child in the same terms would constitute the type of philosophical abstraction that feminists find troubling, if not ridiculous. Locke does not do so. Instead he attributes the tenderness between parents and children as something which comes to us naturally. It is part of who we are.
Jean Jacques Rousseau’s conception of the social contract turns many of the assumptions made by Hobbes and Locke on their heads. Rousseau criticizes the way in which Hobbes and Locke present that state of nature as one that contains many elements of the civilized world. In the states of nature of two theorists above, men has many traits or capabilities that Rousseau believes would be foreign to man in nature. One of the primary things which Hobbes and Locke ignore is animals, something which we would likely associate with nature. Rousseau argues that humans in nature are free and equal. Yet in nature they are strong because they do not commune with other humans and must have the strength to defend themselves from animals. Men lived in trees and ate off the land. Hobbes and Locke associate social traits and modern dwellings with the state of nature. Rousseau feels that such constructs are elements of civilized society and not nature.
Rousseau’s state of nature does not set up a dichotomy between nature and society, but instead offers a description of how humans went from living free in nature to living in a society marked by inequality. Language plays a central role in the exit from nature. As interactions between humans increase, they begin to communicate in basic ways. The initial and most influential communication between humans is that which takes place between infants and dependent children and their mothers. The relationship between mother and child provides for the development of language because it is only here the humans have reason to communicate on a regular basis. The simple cry for food develops gradually into more complex and nuanced forms of communication which eventually develops into words. Here women, and more particularly nursing mothers, play a rather large role in Rousseau’s narrative.
Language leads to the development of more complex ideas and thoughts. For Rousseau, we do not have thoughts about things which we do not have a vocabulary for. As our thoughts and discussions increase, our language will inevitably increase. With language will come the invitations that will lead humans out of the state of nature. Some of these innovations, such as cooperation between people and improved comforts, are positive. Others are negative. Among the negative traits that come with human evolution is the introduction of individuality and the egocentrism which lead to the great evil of property.
Rousseau, unlike Hobbes, does not see egocentrism as leading to war, chaos and misery. Instead, Rousseau sees human egocentrism as being balanced by the natural virtues of pity. Pity is the trait in human that despises suffering in others. Human pity, for Rousseau, causes us to feel bad when we see others suffer. It also leads us to avoid actions which will lead to such suffering. This is in direct response to Hobbes, because Hobbes views man as willing to cause suffering if it is in ones interest of self-preservation. While Locke pictures humans as peaceful and respectful of others, his respect is based in reason and recognition of rights granted by God. For Rousseau, Lockes conception is too abstract. Such abstraction is the result of language and philosophy and would not be found in nature. Pity, on the other hand, is natural in that it is found in man and animal. It is there not because of complex mental exercise, but resides in humans as part of there natural make-up and does not require reason of a recognition of God or a creator.
Accoding to Jean Bethke Elshtain, Rousseau is a “vexing thinker” for feminists because on one level it seems that “he insistently, even obsessively, concentrates on dilemmas identical to, or closely linked with, those that lie at the heart of her own enterprise.”[xxi] An example of the overlap between Rousseau and feminists concerns is his discussion of pity and egocentrism. Feminists, as I have already mentioned, are concerned about conceptions of human nature which ignore a basic sense of caring for other people. They are also concerned about over abstraction in the way in which theorists describe human obligation. Rousseau sees humans as having a natural innate concern for other people that does not need to be described in terms of complex philosophy. Rousseau even attributes a central role in the development of language to the nurturing relationship between mother and child. This is different from Hobbes and Locke who both mention the relationship between parents or fathers and their children but largely ignore the specific relationship between mother and child. It appears that there is potential for great hope in Rousseau’s project on the part of feminists. But it is not to be so.
Rousseau of these three theorists has the most negative disposition towards women. At least, he has the most negative written disposition. Hobbes seems to almost completely ignore them in his view of human nature. Locke, while granting them some status, still designates them with secondary status. Rousseau goes more than a step further then both of his predecessors in the social contract order.
He views them as a disorder which causes harm to men and the republic.[xxii] The reason for this seems to be that there domestic-oriented nature. In On the Social Contract, Rousseau places emphasis on the public nature of his democratic republic.[xxiii] In the republic, we are to live and act according to the general will and put off private or personal interests when they conflict with the public interest. Rousseau views women as being domestic creatures who are best suited for tending the home and the children. While this is where woman belong, according to Rousseau, it is also the root of their disorder. Women at home distract citizens (men) from the common good and push them toward personal interests. Pateman points out that Rousseau focuses heavily on women as an element detrimental to the common good, but he gives the institution of the family a free pass on the matter.[xxiv] In The Republic, Plato does away with the nuclear family because it distracted from the pursuit of philosophy and because it encouraged private interests and division amongst the people.[xxv] Yet, Rousseau feels that the family, as “the oldest of all societies and the only natural one” is just.[xxvi] Instead, it is women that cause division within society. The problem with his critique of women is that he, like some many others within the cannon of political theory, fails to consider the justice of the family. This particularly problematic because of his disdain for women, the argument for which largely rests on convention and the lack of critical examination of the issues of women and the family.
In his acceptance of the family as natural, Rousseau seems to make the mistake that he finds in the work of Locke and Hobbes: he is associating with nature an institution that could likely be considered a creation of society. While procreation and some form of child-rearing must have been present in nature, it does not stand that the family, as envisioned by the traditional western world, would have been present in a similar form in nature.
Rousseau, in his discussion of liberty and slavery, criticizes Aristotle for taking the “effect for the cause.”[xxvii] Rousseau means by this that the slave had a slave-like disposition because of slavery and its impact on a human. They were not born with this disposition but it was imposed on them by chains. Likewise, women in the eighteenth century where the product of a patriarchal family structure. Their “nature” was not the product of birth but of chains.
While we might forgive or “let slide” Rousseau’s short comings when it comes to women and the family because of his place and time, it does not seem that he would do so. He was critical of those that took tradition and convention at face value. Why then accept the convention of the family and the traditional role of women?
In looking at the political theories of Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean Jacque Rousseau, we see three of the most dynamic and powerful arguments about human nature and political society. Yet, if we look more closely we can see that these three thinkers come up short when it comes to their account of human nature, particularly when it comes to the role of women and the family.
Why is this a problem? Well, the problem rests in consent, a concept important to all three of the social contract theorists discussed in this paper. Would women consent to a form of government based on male-biased assumptions? Not likely. These man have developed theories based on men and for men.
Susan Moller Okin argues that the term “human nature” in much of the cannon of political thought “is intended to refer only to male human nature.”[xxviii] Can these social contract theories be corrected by expanding their definitions of equality, liberty, and right to include women? This may be tried, but the dilemma is not only that they has established a literature defending and articulating male human nature, but they have also established a literature which justifies and defends male political society. I conclude that when it comes to Hobbes, Rousseau, and Locke, the problems are too central to their key arguments. We must look elsewhere.
[i] Okin 1989.
[ii] Hobbes 1651, 618.
[iii] Pateman 1989 “God hath”
[iv] Kittay, 1990.
[v] Okin 1992, 66.
[vi] Gauthier 1977, 136.
[vii] Ibid., 66.
[viii] MacPherson 1962.
[ix] Okin 1982, 67.
[x] Pateman 1989, 459
[xi] Locke 1689, 705.
[xii] Ibid., 705.
[xiii] Ibid., 705.
[xiv] Ibid., 706.
[xv] Okin 1982, 71
[xvi] Locke 1689, 706
[xvii] Ibid., 706.
[xviii] Ibid., 706.
[xix] Ibid., 701.
[xx] Ibid., 701.
[xxi] Elshtain 1981, 148
[xxii] Pateman 1980, 22
[xxiii] Rousseau 1762.
[xxiv] Ibid., 23
[xxv] Plato 2006.
[xxvi] Pateman 1980.
[xxvii] Rousseau 1762, 832.
[xxviii] Okin 1979, 6.
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