PHIL 41150: Political Philosophy
Dr. Robert Lane
Lecture Notes: Monday March 10, 2003

[2.] The Natural Moral Condition of Human Beings (Second Treatise ch.1-6).


[2.1.] The Law of Nature.[i]


Locke holds that morality exists before the formation of a state, and human beings have certain natural rights and obligations -- none of which are based on the existence of a civil society. (Note how Locke differs from Hobbes on this point.)


These pre-governmental rights and obligations are based on the law of nature. On Locke's view, the law of nature

·         is not a scientific, descriptive law; rather, it is a normative law -- it says how people ought to behave (which is how it's possible for someone to violate them-- if they said how people actually do behave, violating them would be impossible).

·         is not dependent on civil laws (the laws established by a state) or on social convention (so it's possible for civil laws and social convention to deviate from natural law)

·         is accessible by reason -- humans can come to know what the laws are by reasoning

·         reflects God's will -- thus they are revealed in Scripture, as well as by man's own reason

·         is universal -- they apply to everyone, all the time.


But this doesn't indicate anything about the content of the law of nature -- what the law actually directs us to do. Locke reveals what he thinks is part of that content when he describes the fundamental law of nature: the fundamental law of nature, man being to be preserved as much as possible... (III:16, p.465)


...the first and fundamental natural law, which is to govern even the legislative itself, is the preservation of the society, and (as far as will consist with the public good) of every person in it. (XI:134, pp.485-6)


The fundamental law of nature being that all, as much as may be, should be preserved... (XVI:183; not in Cahn)


This fundamental law is rationally justified by the fact that we are God's creations, "made to last during his, not one another's, pleasure." (II:6, p.462) Since we were created by God (a theological claim that is taken for granted by Locke), it's reasonable to assume that He wishes us to remain in existence for as long as He allows us to do so.


This is a fundamental claim for Locke's political philosophy: it's why Locke believes that humans do not have the right to destroy themselves and thus that we can't turn such a right over to a sovereign power.


From this fundamental law, humans can rationally infer other laws: e.g., from the law that all should be preserved as much as possible (plus the fact that humans need certain things to survive), it follows that each individual has the natural right to access what he needs for his own sustenance.






[2.2.] The State of Nature.


In the state of nature (society before the institution of government), men are:

·         free to pursue their own ends, and

·         equal in power


But this does not result in a war of all against all. Locke does not accept Hobbes' psychological egoism -- instead, he believes that rational beings will, by reason, come to know the law of nature that commands us to preserve the life, well-being and property of others so long as doing so does not put themselves at risk:


The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which obliges every one: And reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind, who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty or possessions. (II:6, p.462)


So because men in the state of nature are free and equal, they are

·         obligated to act so as to "preserve" (not harm) others and the property of others (just as they are obligated to preserve themselves and their own property)...

·         except in order to punish others for violating the law of nature (not in a passionate or "extravagant" manner, but only in a way that's proportionate to the transgression)(II:7-8, pp.462-463)... and

·         every man has the right so to punish violators of that law: "...every man hath a right to punish the offender, and be executioner of the law of nature." [I:8, p.463]

·         The main justification for punishment is deterrence: to deter the violator, as well as others, from violating the law in the future; and the point of deterrence is to "preserve" mankind. Since all men have a right to preserve mankind, all men have a right to punish violators of the natural law in order to deter further violations. (I:11, p.463)

·         In addition, an injured party has the right to punish a violator so as to receive reparations from a violator.


So in Locke's state of nature (unlike Hobbes'), if everyone were rational, they would all obey the law of nature and peace would reign and there would be no need for anyone to exercise his right to punish those who violate the law of nature.


But not everyone will be rational:


In transgressing the law of nature, the offender declares himself to live by another rule than that of reason and common equity, which is that measure God has set to the actions of men, for their mutual security; and so he becomes dangerous to mankind, the tye, which is to secure them from injury and violence, being slighted and broken by him. (II:8, p.463)


So in the state of nature, the law of nature (a normative law) dictates that people should respect each other's natural rights. But of course, sometimes people will in fact violate each other's natural rights.


[2.3.] Executive Power of the Law of Nature.


The "right to punish" described above is called by Locke the executive power of the law of nature (EPLN) [e.g., VII:89, p.480] This "power" actually consists of three rights:

·         to judge for yourself whether an action is or is not a violation of the law of nature

·         to attempt to stop others, by force if necessary, from violating the law of nature

·         to judge for yourself (based on careful and conscientious thought) what would be an appropriate punishment for the violator and to try to impose that punishment


It's crucially important to Locke's account of the authority­N of a civil government that individuals in a state of nature would have had something like the EPLN, including the right to punish: this is because, on Locke's view, the authorityN of the government must derive from the authorityN that individuals would have had in a pre-civil society. So if individuals in a pre-civil society don't have, individually, the right to punish others, then there's no way that they can transfer that right to a sovereign political authority.



[i] This section is indebted to D. A. Lloyd Thomas, Routledge Philosophy Guidebook to Locke on Government, 1995, pp.15-19.

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