Posted: March 18th, 2023

Parental Authority by Hobbes and Locke

Parental authority is something Hobbes believes is based on a contract. Parents take care of children in exchange for the obedience of the child. Locke believes parental authority relies on biological inheritance and the natural rights bestowed on a parent to take care of a needy creature they bring into the world. He also states, children are bound by honor to obey the parent until they reach ‘an age of reason’. Such a convoluted and complex interpretation of parental authority is why Locke’s perspective is wrong and Hobbes’ perspective is right. Hobbes’ interpretation of parental authority is simple and linear, introducing the concept of choice and obligation onto the parent and child. By providing an understanding that both parties are responsible and if lacking, have no rights in that respect, it makes parental authority appear more of a responsibility rather than a right. This makes Hobbes’ perspective more convincing. This essay argues that Hobbes’ idea of parental authority is more convincing and sound than Locke’s.


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Hobbes’ sees parental authority based on the need of the child. In a way, Hobbes states children enter a sort of servitude in exchange for protection and care from the parent. Hobbes examines servitude and slavery and distinguishes one from the other. He does this to remove the notion of slavery within the child and parent relationship. Although his line mentioning ‘dominion over the child’ can be used in a slavery context, Hobbes states the child chooses to enter servitude in exchange for care and safety. Whenever these are not met, then the child does not have to obey the parent. This can be confusing at first because history shows people legitimized dominance via claiming ownership of the ones dominated. If parents dominate their children, this might mean they own the children. Hobbes’ idea of ‘servants’ can be interpreted as slavery because the person’s rights are controlled by the owner. However, because the child or the servant can gain back freedom from the owner not meeting their needs, this is where servitude and slavery differ. There is a choice behind servitude and no choice behind slavery. He does confuse the two in Leviathan, when he introduces servants as slaves. ” . . . there be two sorts of Servants; that sort, which is of those that are absolutely in the power of their Masters, as Slaves taken in war, and their Issue, whose bodies are not in their own power, and that are bought and sold as beasts” (405).[footnoteRef:1] [1: Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (Tustin: Xist Publishing, 2015), 405.]


Like Hobbes, Locke believes there is a contract between parent and child regarding parental authority until the ‘age of reason’ is met. However, his interpretation can be confusing. Especially because he believes contracts can be used for marriage, and within politics. “Wives may have the right of ‘last determination’ themselves, if this is agreed on, or the mates may decide conflicts by lottery or by taking turns, and so on. The authority of husbands is neither natural or necessary” (174).[footnoteRef:2] If he believes there are options and that agreements can be made in relationships, what then makes him also believe in the biological right of a parent to dominate a child? This goes hand in hand with Locke’s belief that the state is entitled to kill murderers and potentially enslaves them. It seems there is an inherent right that is supposed to be a contractual and optional interaction. However, he rejects the option and the contract by making it appear that biological rights trump everything, thus giving biological parents rights to their biological children. ” . . . it appears that Locke wants to ground parental rights simply in the biological relation of parents to children. He refers to the ground of these rights as ‘nature’ and calls their basis ‘the right of generation’ or the ‘right of fatherhood'” (180).[footnoteRef:3] Then he goes back on his thinking and suggests parents are not creators, rather, they are procreators and thus parental rights are not inherent, but earned. Therefore, his interpretation suggests inability to form a clear and cohesive perspective. [2: A. John Simmons, The Lockean Theory of Rights (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1992), 174.] [3: Simmons, The Lockean Theory, 180.]


Perspectives are what Locke and Hobbes stress regarding parental authority. While they seem different, there are some similar elements to their arguments. The first is the age of reason. Both believe children are obligated to honor their parents through obedience until they reach an age of reason. This means to Hobbes the child no longer needs the care and protection of the parent. To Locke, it means the age of criminal responsibility. When a child becomes an adult, that person is responsible for what happens to him or her and thus becomes an autonomous rational person. While he had different ideas of marriage and voting concerning his notion of the age of reason, the similarity in ‘age of reason’ lies in the child becoming independent and taking responsibility for him or herself. Another similarity is both associating parental authority in some way to authority of the government. Hobbes via sovereignty by acquisition and Locke via father taking the place of the ruler and the government becoming the substitute of the father. The main difference lies in how Hobbes interprets parental power. In Leviathan, without the existence of a contract, the Dominion falls to the Mother. He associates Meer Nature with Mother and that the Mother declares who the Father is, therefore having the primary authority over the child and right of Dominion. He then continues by adding, because the Mother nourishes the infant, she possess the primary parental right.


Hobbes belief lay in the notion that domination of others is the desire of many, either for its own sake or for instrumental reasons. Locke believed dominion should not be forced, except within the family. “The authority parents wield over their children seems both justifiable and in no way to depend on the consent of the governed children” (167).[footnoteRef:4] When comparing this phrase to Hobbe’s claims, it seems to fall in line with the theme of desired dominion. However, desire does not come into play here, instead it is forced dominion because the rights of the parents are to control the lives of their children. Should they desire to control their children or not, it is there right to do so. Forced dominion, is something Locke discusses as a form of potential social disruption. When Locke wrote Two Treatises he mentions that government cannot rule without the people’s consent, and if that were to happen, the likely possibility of being overthrown would occur. Why then is family dominion and the complexity of family rights different from general or special rights according to Locke? It lacks cohesion. Therefore, his ideas on parental authority seem lacking. He negates himself in how he interprets dominion by superimposing a layer of authority into parenting that is meant to seem natural via morality, yet suggests if the same were to happen with general or special rights, a government would be overthrown. What then creates the level of authority in parenting that is natural, but can also be applied to general rights? Locke tries to place the authority of the government within the context of family via patriarchy. For a government to be patriarchal, there must be some moral obligation to force dominion on others like parents’ force dominion on their children. But then it negates what Locke said about general or special rights. This way of thinking falls more in line with slavery. In fact, Hobbes equates slavery with parental authority in what he deems as ‘sovereignty by acquisition’, basing both on contract. If a child is a slave, what rights, including general, does the child have? Locke’s idea of slavery differs from Hobbes and further complicates his notion of dominion. For example, Locke believes no one can agree to be another’s slave because an owner can kill a slave. Since suicide is not a right, the transfer to another for the right to be killed cannot be made. But even that seems contradictory to the text in Two Treatises. ” . . . the hardship of his Slavery out-weight the value of his Life, ’tis in his Power, by resisting the Will of his Master, to draw on himself the Death desires” (334).[footnoteRef:5] Therefore, this view seems bad. [4: A. J. Simmons, The Lockean theory of rights (Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press, 1994), 167.] [5: John Locke, Ian Shapiro, and John Locke, Two Treatises of Government: And a Letter Concerning Toleration (New Haven, Conn: Yale University Press, 2003), 334]


According to Filmer, the grounds for parental authority lies in the biological relationship the parent has, to the child. Locke rejects this in First Treatise even though he believes that if one creates something, that person has ownership to it. If a parent creates a child via copulation, then if one were to follow this line of thinking, the parent owns the child. He makes ad hominem point when he states the Father and Mother create the child and then jumps to God creating the child. So, if God created the child, does God own the child? None of this makes sense. Especially when he continues expanding parental authority in the Second Treatise stating parents lose their authority over the child should they cease to take care of it. This interpretation negates what he previously stated concerning biologically-based parental authority. Locke’s interpretation of parental authority is shaky at best. Hobbes, has a different perspective. According to Hobbes, the authority parents have over children comes in the form of a contract. A child obeys the parent because the parent agrees to take care of the child until the child can become independent. That lack of independence, Hobbes interprets as servitude. “He that hath dominion over the child hath dominion also over the children of the child, and over their children’s children” (124).[footnoteRef:6] The child becomes the parents’ servant because he or she needs care and protection. This carries over to slavery and government in that if the person owns the parent, then that person also owns the child. This seems more linear than Locke’s interpretation and thus becomes the winning perspective. This perspective makes good points because it gives choice to the child and the parent in that if the parent wants authority over the child, the parent must take care of the child and protect it. My own interpretation of parental authority is like Hobbes. Meaning, there is an exchange that occurs between the parent and the child. If the needs of the child are met, then the parents have authority. Should the parents not hold up their end of the contract, the child does not have to obey the parent. The only thing that I would remove from my modified version of Hobbes’ parental authority is the concept of owning the children’s children. Unless the person provides care and safety then it does not fall in line with the contract reasoning. [6: Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (Tustin: Xist Publishing, 2015), 124.]


In conclusion, Locke’s perspective on parental authority is confusing at best and delivers contradictions upon contradictions. Hobbes offers a clear and easy to understand look at parental authority. While both believe in contracts between the parent and the child, Hobbes delivers a consistent interpretation of said contract stating children obey because their life depends on it. Social contract theory is an archaic view on relationships that uses contracts to explain the bonds and duties people have with each other. It is often used by the likes of Locke and Hobbes to explain a patriarchal society and government. “The social contract replaces the law of the father with impartial, public laws. However, the unconscious law remains patriarchal” (207).[footnoteRef:7] This suggests that socialisation dictates perceived responsibilities. Children for example, perceive the need to obey because they are at the mercy of their parents. Parental authority thus becomes a natural right to those like Locke because children cannot fend for themselves, and thus must rely on the parents. Overall, does socialisation dictate a person’s responsibilities to others, in the bigger scheme, will social constructs define personal and interpersonal duties? [7: David Boucher and Paul Kelly, The Social Contract from Hobbes to Rawls (Routledge, 2003), 207.]

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