The State of Nature — A Blog Journal on John Locke (Chapter 2a)

(Part II of this series)

Contra Hobbes, Locke’s starting analysis of the state of nature — that is, the behavior and conditions of humanity in a hypothetical pre-government state of anarchy — is rather optimistic. He writes:

“A state also of 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.”
— John Locke, Second Treatise on Civil Government, Chapter 2

Taken as a declaration of an ideal derived from reason, rather than a description of the way sociology actually works, this makes sense. When people are alike in all respects relevant to civil rights, the most just and empathic course of action for a government is to protect those rights equally, barring reasonable exceptions such as the withholding of liberties from those who commit serious crimes.

But is it anthropologically accurate to say humanity started out egalitarian? Suffice it to say, the inferences we can make are at best educated guesses, based on indirect clues since Paleolithic humanity did not keep written records. The answer either way is mostly irrelevant to the success of Locke’s point, as even if we assume prehistoric society had equality (not necessarily a lack of leadership, as leaders of small Paleolithic bands may have balanced their power with responsibility for the protection of the band), what does this prove? That adopting the hunter-gatherer way of life would restore this idyllic golden age? Locke never proposed as much, as the very purpose of this treatise was to argue for a legal structure quite different from that of the Stone Age — distinct from absolutist monarchies, yes, but that is neither here nor there.

That Locke proceeds with the following quote seems to show that the latter interpretation would be an exercise in futility:

“The like natural inducement hath brought men to know that it is no less their duty, to love others than themselves; for seeing those things which are equal, must needs all have one measure; if I cannot but wish to receive good, even as much at every man’s hands, as any man can wish unto his own soul, how should I look to have any part of my desire herein satisfied, unless myself be careful to satisfy the like desire, which is undoubtedly in other men, being of one and the same nature?”
— Richard Hooker quoted by John Locke, Second Treatise on Civil Government, Chapter 2

This basically amounts to the golden rule, which, though it is a noble appeal to the conscience provided the reader has altruistic interests, the cynic in me must admit would do little to persuade the very sorts of tyrants Locke wanted to challenge. Provided the kings and queens who ruled with the proverbial iron fist were already seduced by the promise of power and wealth, enough to override the compassion that would have motivated them to institute fairer legislatures, what would Locke’s line of thought here do to restore that compassion? Either Locke believed tyrants truly did want the greatest good of the people, and they simply thought (in error) that their “divine right” gave them the means to best sustain their societies, or he supposed his argument carried some undeniable logical force.

If it’s the latter, Locke would have done well to survive up to David Hume’s famous utterance, “‘Tis not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger.” No rational sentiment, however intuitive it may seem to us in the context of our desires as an ideally equal society, can be expected to change the mind of the absolute ruler without appealing to some value that ruler would like to pursue. If, for instance, Locke argued that betraying the equal treatment of persons before the law would cultivate unstable rebellion or damage to moral integrity for the monarch, he would have a convincing case, but the argument he advances here is little more than a way to invigorate action among those subject to the monarch. By this same reasoning, the former possibility in the preceding paragraph has its own flaws: it’s doubtful every (or even the common) absolute ruler had only faulty exegetical motives for such rule. History is not so kind to the Rousseau-esque assumption that all people across all epochs are fundamentally altruistic, for money talks to slave-owners. Monarchs are no exception.

Locke continues along the same thread, asserting that reason tells all people that the equality of humans in the state of nature implies a normative obligation to afford all the right to property. Here Locke is, again, either making a non sequitir argument from some vague pre-Humean conception of reason, or he is assuming (understandably) that his readers will take as a premise the value of all people as ends unto themselves. In which case, his presentation of this idea as if it is obvious is dubious, not only because politics is fraught with incentives to flout our consciences, but also as Locke was hardly the model equal rights advocate — for reasons of sheer social inertia, societies of his time discriminated unapologetically against women, ethnic minorities, sexual minorities, and other common targets. Locke may not have supported all such prejudices, but he did not publicly challenge them as far as I can ascertain.

As you can see, this is taking longer than I’d anticipated. This isn’t a disadvantage; if anything, it’s allowed us a more thorough look into such a crucial subject. Expect me to inject digressions into other topics when appropriate, rather than keep this series going uninterrupted. With hope, I can make more progress on the “Giving Peace a Chance — For Real This Time” thread.

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One thought on “The State of Nature — A Blog Journal on John Locke (Chapter 2a)

  1. I think the nature of humans may be very egalitarian in times of plenty, but may become aggressive and selfish when drought, flood, fire, or even overpopulation has exhausted the food supply. When there is only one apple left Cain kills Abel to survive. The subtleties of cooperation for the common good may be lost when your stomach aches and all you can think of is food.

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