Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Locke and the State of Nature

In Search of the Republic--25

Locke begins his Second Treatise with a transition from his First Treatise. In that introductory essay, he replied to Robert Filmer's claim in Patriarcha that monarchs possessed a divine right to rule that derived for the paternal or parental authority given by God to Adam. One of Locke's arguments distinguished paternal power from political power. In Chapter One of his Second Treatise, he begins his discussion of the origins of political power. He defines political power as the following:

POLITICAL POWER, then, I take to be a RIGHT of making laws with penalties of death, and consequently all less penalties, for the regulating and preserving of property, and of employing the force of the community, in the execution of such laws, and in the defense of the common-wealth from foreign injury; and all this only for the public good.”

In this definition, Locke differs little from the traditional conceptions of government. Locke's allusion to “the public good” echoes republican political philosophy going back even beyond Aristotle, who defined legitimate governments as those who make laws for “the common good.”

In the next chapter, Locke explores the origins of political power. To do this, he argues that one must consider the state of man before government. He calls this the state of nature. The state of nature is a condition of complete freedom:

TO understand political power right, and derive it from its original, we must consider, what state all men are naturally in, and that is, a state of perfect freedom to order their actions, and dispose of their possessions and persons, as they think fit, within the bounds of the law of nature, without asking leave, or depending upon the will of any other man.”

Moreover, this state of nature is a condition of complete equality

wherein all the power and jurisdiction is reciprocal, no one having more than another; there being nothing more evident, than that creatures of the same species and rank, promiscuously born to all the same advantages of nature, and the use of the same faculties, should also be equal one amongst another without subordination or subjection, unless the lord and master of them all should, by any manifest declaration of his will, set one above another, and confer on him, by an evident and clear appointment, an undoubted right to dominion and sovereignty.”

Locke see all humans equal in the state of nature in that they possess the same faculties or species specific properties, especially reason, and they have common used of nature for their benefit. Most importantly, in this state of nature everyone is equal politically in that no one has a right to subordination any other.

Although the state of nature is without political authority, it is not without law. The next post will look at just what is that law.

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