welcome covers

Your complimentary articles

You’ve read one of your four complimentary articles for this month.

You can read four articles free per month. To have complete access to the thousands of philosophy articles on this site, please

Political Philosophy

‘The Lottery’ & Locke’s Politics

John P. Irish considers social contract theory through an infamous lottery.

On June 26 1948 Shirley Jackson (1916-65) published what may be the most infamous short story in American literature. Called ‘The Lottery’, it was featured in The New Yorker, and at the time became one of the most controversial pieces ever printed, resulting in the magazine receiving more hate mail and subscription non-renewals than anything else up to that point in its history. Even Jackson’s mother shared her dislike for the story with her daughter, claiming that the younger generation was too obsessed with violence.

Shirley Jackson
Shirley Jackson
Shirley Jackson uploaded to Creative Commons by Armen 2020

The story is about a fictional small town in America which conducts an annual ritual known as ‘the lottery’, whose purpose is to choose a human sacrifice to be stoned to death to ensure the community’s well-being and continued prosperity. I have used the story many times in my American Studies classes – I typically use it as a way of introducing post-WWII American society – but it only recently struck me that this story can also be used to teach certain aspects of Locke’s social contract theory, as found in his Two Treatises of Government.

John Locke (1632-1704) was an English philosopher and physician, and is considered to be one of the most influential thinkers of the Enlightenment. In fact, in 1689 he published two classic works which have each had a profound effect on the history of philosophy: An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, which outlined his empiricist philosophy, and Two Treatises of Government, which outlined his political theory. The Two Treatises is considered today to be one of the foundational texts of political liberalism. It describes his ideas on topics such as natural law, the evolution of political society, the social contract, majority rule, and the dissolution of governments. In this article, I want to show how Jackson’s story can be used to illustrate aspects of Locke’s social contract theory.

The Natural State v. the Political State

Locke begins the Two Treatises by articulating the difference between what he calls the ‘natural state’ and the ‘political state’. The differentiation of these concepts had been well established before Locke and was rooted in the ‘natural law’ political tradition. For Locke, though, juxtaposing these ideas was critical for laying the foundations of his political philosophy, particularly for establishing his view of human nature.

The state of nature, or natural society – the condition in which we find ourselves before the establishment of political society – consists of two essential conditions: freedom and equality. Both of these are fundamental principles for humanity for Locke. “To understand Political Power right” he writes, “and derive it from its Original, we must consider what State all Men are naturally in… a State of perfect Freedom to order their Actions, and dispose of their Possessions, and Persons, as they think fit… [without] depending upon the Will of any other Man… [It is] A State also of Equality, wherein all the Power and Jurisdiction is reciprocal, no one having more than another” (Two Treatises, Book II. Chapter II. Paragraph 4). For Locke, the central point is not whether the natural state ever actually existed, (although he believes that it did). The idea’s more of a device to allow him to make observations about human nature.

As opposed to his fellow Englishman Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), who viewed the state of nature as one in which people constantly war against each other in a nightmarish existence in which life is ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short’, Locke believed the state of nature to be one of relatively peaceful co-existence among individuals. It was not the utopian paradise outlined by Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-78); but it was also not the living hell described by Hobbes. It was however a state where individuals found themselves in competition with others for resources. A rational response to this would be to set up a system where conflicts can be mediated and resolved based on accepted rules and regulations. This transition constitutes the move from the ‘natural state’ to the ‘political state’.

The primary goal of political society is to maintain a safe environment and relieve humanity of the inconveniences of the state of nature: “I easily grant, that Civil Government is the proper Remedy for the Inconveniences of the State of Nature, which must certainly be Great” (TT, II.II.13). This transition is an important concept for Locke, as it provides the theoretical foundation upon which the rest of his political philosophy will be built. The transition must be voluntary, and be done for the good of everyone who enters into it, since Locke believes we would not willingly enter into an agreement which we would consider worse for us. The political condition is also governed by the principle of majority rule: “When any number of Men have so consented to make one Community or Government, they are thereby presently incorporated, and make one Body Politick, wherein the Majority have a Right to act and conclude the rest” (II.VII.95). This transformation takes place through individuals entering into what Locke and others termed ‘the social contract’. As he says, “this is done… [by] agreeing to unite into one Political Society, which is all the Compact that is, or needs be, between the Individuals, that enter into, or make up a Common-wealth” (II.VII.99). This ‘social contract’ is the foundation for the legitimacy of political power and authority in political society.

The Lottery
Collecting stones. Scene from the graphic novel of The Lottery by Miles Hyman, Suntup Editions
The Lottery Graphic Novel Illustration © 2019 by Miles Hyman. From The Limited Edition Published by Suntup Editions.

The Social Contract in ‘The Lottery’

Jackson’s story ‘The Lottery’ opens on the clear sunny morning of June 27, which in 1948, the year it was published, was a Sunday. The small community of roughly three hundred clearly constitutes an example of a Lockean political society, as Jackson notes that it has a post office and a bank, implying coordinated collaborative institutions that would not exist within the state of nature.

The children are the first on the scene, as they are already on summer break. Little Bobby Martin is already in the process of collecting stones for the anticipated stoning. Once the adults begin arriving, they exchange pleasantries as they laugh and smile. Nothing would indicate that something nefarious was about to happen.

There exists a basic hierarchy of power within the community, as Mr Summers not only organizes the lottery but also coordinates local dances, the teen club, and the Halloween events. The lottery is itself a very structured social ritual. For each family in the community there is a slip of paper inside the old wooden black box, which itself has been around as far as anyone can remember. One slip of paper has a black dot on it; the family which draws the slip with the black dot advances to the next round of the lottery.

Jackson explores the juxtaposition of the old and the new in the ritual of the lottery. The lottery itself is as old as the community (it is also a ceremony which is shared with other communities), but there are several things about it which have evolved as the society has grown, such as replacing wood chips with the slips of paper. The reader is kept in the dark as to why the community continues the lottery, since there are rumors that other communities have done away with the archaic ritual.

One character in the story, Old Man Warner, explains what he believes is important about the ritual: that some in the community believe the tradition keeps them in a state of prosperity. Old Man Warner is the voice of the traditionalists, expressing the perspective that the lottery must continue to happen because it always has happened. What’s the point of doing something that’s not grounded in tradition or history? “Pack of crazy fools… Listening to the young folks, nothing’s good enough for them… Next thing you know, they’ll be wanting to go back in caves.” Old Man Warner also gives another reason for continuing the lottery: “Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon.” The implication is that if the lottery stops their economic prosperity will also dry up. There are no other justifications or explanations for the lottery in the story, but everyone seems willing to accept it as part of their social duty. Neither are there any discussions before the lottery begins about the morality or unfairness of the ritual; all participants seem perfectly willing to engage in it. Indeed, there is only one person who seems to feel very strongly about it at all – Old Man Warner: this is his 77th lottery! But since the majority seems to embrace the ritual, it continues. There is talk, as some communities have already quit lotteries; but Old Man Warner continues to chime in with his opposition to even entertaining the idea of finishing. However, the people in the community continue to have freedom. Any members strongly opposed to the lottery would be free to leave that community and join one which has banned it. Locke himself believed that individuals never give up their freedom even when they enter into the social contract and form a political society, yet society nevertheless has the right to implement rules and regulations on the members of that society, even if some of them object to those rules. Not everyone is going to like all the rules implemented in their society, but because of the insecurity of the state of nature, most consent to the rules, and the will of the majority must always prevail. The community willingly comes together each year to perform the ritual of the lottery, and this universal action symbolizes the actualization of their Lockean social contract. Locke believed that the social contract obligations could be imposed on individuals by their tacit agreement to the community’s rules and regulations. So when I benefit or take advantage of the conveniences of the political state, I have, according to Locke, agreed to the terms of the social contract. In Jackson’s community, these individuals actively participate (almost enthusiastically) in the lottery, thus accepting the consequences of the event. By freely participating in the ritual, they actively consent to its consequences.

The Principle of Self-Preservation

Another important concept in Two Treatises of Government is the notion of self-preservation as a fundamental moral principle. Self-preservation is derived from reason even while in the state of nature, and according to Locke the idea constitutes a fundamental part of human nature. He says that there are two laws that all humanity must follow while in the state of nature: preserve oneself, and preserve others when one’s own preservation is not at risk: “Every one as he is bound to preserve himself, and not to quit his Station wilfully; so by the like reason when his own Preservation comes not in competition, ought he, as much as he can, to preserve the rest of Mankind” (II.II.6). This principle is not given up when one enters into political society. There are some things which individuals have as a matter of right within the state of nature, which they give up once they enter into political society (for example, the right to punish those that have wronged them), but self-preservation cannot be abandoned, even though the power for its implementation passes hands, into the hands of the society: “He that is Master of himself, and his own Life, has a right too to the means of preserving it” (II.XV.172).

The Lottery
The Lottery Graphic Novel Illustration © 2019 by Miles Hyman. From The Limited Edition Published by Suntup Editions.

The Lottery Winner

As the lottery begins, Mr Summers explains the rules. All the family names are called alphabetically, beginning with Adams and ending with Zanini. When their family name is called each head of the house approaches the black box and draws out a slip of folded paper, keeping it hidden in their closed fist until the last slip of paper is removed. Once the drawing is finished, Mr Summers asks each family head to hold up their slip so that everyone can see who has the slip with the black dot. Bill Hutchinson is the one holding the slip with the dot. His wife Tessie begins questioning the fairness of the ritual: “You didn’t give him time enough to take any paper he wanted. I saw you. It wasn’t fair!” The crowd tells her to be quiet and accept the consequences: “Be a good sport, Tessie… All of us took the same chance.” Even Tessie’s husband is embarrassed by her behavior and orders her to shut up.

The next phase of the lottery now begins: they place a slip of paper back in the black box for each Hutchinson family member, one of the slips having the black dot. One by one, the Hutchinsons approach the box and draw out a slip of paper. Once all are done, they reveal to the crowd who now holds the dot. Tessie draws her slip, but refuses to show her paper to the crowd, so her husband opens it up for her. Tessie has won the lottery! Mr Summers orders the crowd to finish the ritual. As the mob falls on Tessie, throwing the stones they’d gathered, she pleads with the crowd, she shouts, “It isn’t fair!”, but to no avail. Even her youngest child is handed a stone to throw at his mother. As more and more stones fall upon her, Tessie eventually grows silent. In Tessie’s defiance of the lottery she was reverting to the principle of self-preservation. She knows what drawing the slip with the dot means; it means death – and not a quick and painless death either. Old Man Warner comments about Tessie’s reaction: “It’s not the way it used to be… People ain’t the way they used to be.’ Recent winners like Tessie, Old Man Warner seems to be implying, are refusing to accept the consequences of the lottery. They entered freely into it, but now that they are negatively affected, they question its legitimacy.

For Locke, under the social contract, society can legitimately pass laws which would result in harm to individuals within that community. Tessie’s complaint about the unfairness of the lottery is a little puzzling. She may not like the outcome, and she has the right to defend herself, but none of these facts make the ritual ‘unfair’. In fact, individual self-interests cannot be the standard of what is just and unjust. “You have certainly no reason for holding that each person’s own interest is the standard of what is just and right” (Essays on the Law of Nature 207). After all, she willingly engaged in it, which implied her acceptance of the consequences. Indeed, the drawing might have been unfair, but on this particular instance, it seems that every­one recognized its fairness (everyone except Tessie!). All the proper protocols seem to have been followed.

Tessie’s complaint about the unfairness of the lottery does not stand the scrutiny of analysis, given Lockean guidelines. For instance, for Locke, the legislative authority wielding power within a society has rules and guidelines it must obey. First, its actions cannot be arbitrary and must be limited to the public good. But there are strict rules that have been established and which are adhered to within the ritual of the lottery. The community also accepts the lottery as they believe it ensures their economic prosperity. Second, for Locke, the authorities must dispense justice according to accepted and known laws and rules. Again, the lottery satisfies this condition. “These are the Bounds which the trust that is put in them by the Society, and the Law of God and Nature, have set to the Legislative Power of every Commonwealth, in all Forms of Government” (II.XI.142).

By agreeing to the lottery, Tessie willingly gives up her right to protest on the grounds of unfairness – assuming that all the rules and proper procedures were implemented during the drawing. She then shifted into self-preservation mode, trying to defend her life; but the rules of the ritual are clear and have been accepted by all individuals within the community. Individuals are free to leave if they object to them. As noted, some communities have already given up the lottery. So there were options for Tessie and her family if she felt the lottery to be unfair or unjust. Instead, she agreed to remain and continue to be a member of the community. We also must assume she’s participated in the lottery in previous years, in which she’s also engaged in the final act of state-sanctioned murder.

The Final Analysis

Jackson’s story was written to demonstrate the dangers of conformity and mob rule. It is a warning about how easy it would be for us to regress to the kind of poisonous atmosphere which plagued Germany during the lead up to the war which had only recently ended when ‘The Lottery’ was first published. However, by 1950, Joseph McCarthy’s ‘witch hunts’ had begun in America as he pursued and persecuted individuals he believed to be Communist sympathizers. Jackson’s indictment spreads a wide net. She herself condemned the social, political, and economic institutions which created that condemnation culture (and are still creating such a culture). But her story is also a critique of human nature. Indeed, it allows several interesting philosophical perspectives and potential interpretations. Reading her story through a Lockean social contract lens allows us to contemplate some of the fundamental ideas Locke outlined in his Two Treatises of Government.

© Dr John P. Irish 2022

John P. Irish teaches American Studies at Carroll Sr. High School in Southlake, Texas. He received a Doctorate in Humanities from Southern Methodist University. He hopes that no one will throw any rocks at him for his interpretation of Locke.

This site uses cookies to recognize users and allow us to analyse site usage. By continuing to browse the site with cookies enabled in your browser, you consent to the use of cookies in accordance with our privacy policy. X