Natural Altruism and Anarchy — A Blog Journal on John Locke (Chapter 2e)

(Part VI of this series)

By the point at which the reader has gone past Locke’s last proposition (pertaining to capital punishment, discussed here), the concept of the state of nature that he is considering has grown far more clear. One might have found it perplexing that we established from the outset that the state of nature is anarchy, yet Locke also wrote of the “law of nature,” which would seem to require some government. It turns out Locke was referring quite literally to a “state” of nature, suggesting that even without formal government, it is default for humans to react to actions against their purposes with retaliation, which most reasonable people deliver to a degree proportional to the offense. So far as we know from common experience with people’s behavior in situations where the threat of punishment looms very small, this is mostly accurate, and not so hopeful as to lead us to think Locke is advocating anarchism.

Such is clear as Locke continues:

“I easily grant, that civil government is the proper remedy for the [inconveniences] of the state of nature, which must certainly be great, where men may be judges in their own case, since it is easy to be imagined, that he who was so unjust as to do his brother an injury, will scarce be so just as to condemn himself for it: but I shall desire those who make this objection, to remember, that absolute monarchs are but men … [Compared to a state] where one man, commanding a multitude, has the liberty to be judge in his own case, and may do to all his subjects whatever he pleases, without the least liberty to any one to question or [control] those who execute his pleasure … and in [which] whatsoever he doth, whether led by reason, mistake or passion, must be submitted to … much better it is in the state of nature, wherein men are not bound to submit to the unjust will of another: and if he that judges, judges amiss in his own, or any other case, he is answerable for it to the rest of mankind.”
— John Locke, Second Treatise on Civil Government, Chapter 2 (for the sake of transparency I must say I took some liberties of clarification with this quote; though Locke’s point is preserved in all its accuracy, I had to make some edits seen in most of the bracketed terms because parts of this passage are incomprehensibly phrased — should you find while reading the original that I have improperly abridged Locke’s words, feel free to correct me in the comments)

So Locke’s intention is not to promote full-blown anarchism, but to concede that given the choice between anarchy and absolute monarchy, he would gladly choose the former. After all, though in practice rebellions tend to replace one tyranny for another (exhibit A: the French Reign of Terror), the freedom most people retain in natural anarchy outweighs, while it lasts, the lack of monarchy’s false “security.”

Does this sound familiar? From “Give me liberty or give me death” to “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety” (this lesser-known nugget comes from Benjamin Franklin), the idea that concentrated power steals more freedom than it offers in protection (which can be arbitrarily withheld without checks on this power) is fundamental to modern constitutional democracy. This is a useful rule of thumb for keeping our government on a short leash, but someday we’ll have to come to the crucial questions of when it’s necessary to extend that leash to achieve what we truly value as a society.

In the following paragraph, Locke clarifies that the state of nature yields to a different state when people contractually agree to coexist in one community under one government — not all agreements of cooperation and compromise are mutually exclusive with the state of nature. This is evidently Locke’s attempt to use a particular term for the sake of explaining this: there are some social, collaborative efforts people can make, forgoing narrow self-interests, to work together for a common purpose without government. Considering Locke wouldn’t say “all” in place of “some” here, this may seem a trivially true point, but in context, Locke was distancing his view from Hobbes’s that human nature is essentially (that is, sans government) parasitic and hostile.

Let’s keep this in mind for future considerations, because the debate over the defaults and malleability of human nature, with and without law, is one worth having for our goals.

Locke ends the chapter (“finally,” you surely sigh) with a provocative statement, namely that all people are born into the state of nature until by their consent they enter a political contract. We’ll give him his say to make his case next chapter, but for now I want to hear your reactions to this. Does the idea that we are not truly bound by the governments we’re born into, until we agree, strike you as as unintuitive as to me?


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.

The Anti-Absolutist Thesis — A Blog Journal on John Locke (Chapter 1)

(Part I of this series)

Locke sets up the necessity of the Second Treatise’s argument by summarizing the conclusions of the First Treatise. The latter was a refutation of the belief in the divine right of kings, which Locke found untenable even from the perspective of a devout Christian. He explains that if the theory of government instituted as the God-given authority of certain arbitrary monarchs fails, we must then determine what the true best form of plausible government is. In so doing, he notably criticizes a view of human nature and the origin of authority that reminds one of Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan, which essentially contended that absolutism (of the sort Locke evidently scorns) is the ideal governor of humans in an otherwise savage “state of nature.” Let me know if this is inaccurate on my part; I have not read Leviathan itself, but I am familiar with its main concepts from a lay philosophical understanding of Hobbes.

He proceeds to emphasize the distinction between political power and other authoritarian structures of his time, principally that of parent over child — such was the patriarchal vision of the role of the state prevalent in the 1600s. The last section of Chapter 1 is an overture of sorts, stating the idea Locke seeks to establish in the subsequent chapters: government ought to exist for the protection of individuals’ and the community’s property (this word used in a broad sense, meaning all that a person “owns” including his/her life and liberties) via laws decided upon by the people according to truths of nature.

None of which is difficult to accept. Although we have yet to see the details of how Locke would execute this philosophy given the chance, his notions of what the state should be and shouldn’t be are common sense. What seems obvious in hindsight was fairly revolutionary in Locke’s era, however, not necessarily because people were either just too stupid to see this or power-hungry sadists. History is more nuanced than that, as societies fall prey to pressures and dogmas. In saying this, I do not mean to excuse the atrocities of the past so much as to warn that we are not above comparable atrocities, most of which we probably aren’t aware are worthy of consideration.

I apologize for the brevity of today’s update. Tomorrow will see more depth, ideally covering the next three chapters.

What Are Rights? — A Blog Journal on John Locke (Intro)

In my post Questions on My Mind, I asked whether commonly accepted legal theory has room for the rights of nonhuman animals (henceforth called “animal rights” as shorthand, even though I personally consider the colloquialism of “animal” to exclude humans indirectly unethical, as it carries the implication that we occupy a special status purely by virtue of our species). But how can we think through a proper answer without establishing what standard legal theory is?

Knowing that the answer is “we can’t,” I chose to start this series because John Locke is to modern constitutional government as Francis Bacon is to contemporary science. I tracked down his magnum opus relevant to the foundations of law and the protection of rights, and what I found was this:


To be sure, Second Treatise on Civil Government is not the exhaustive compendium of rights theory, but it is certainly a worthy introduction considering its historical influence. Reading this is likely (based on common background knowledge) to remind one of a certain Thomas Jefferson and his ideas in the Declaration of Independence. Further, most important, examining this text will be our starting point to the critical analysis of a variety of surrounding issues: What exactly was the original basis upon which early constitutional thinkers developed the laws of the United States (and other democratic republics)? How essential is this basis to the application of legal philosophy to current questions of social justice? Where do rights come from, and why does this matter? If rights apply to persons or citizens, what makes a person/citizen?

While one would be in an awkward position to argue that law is the sum force for the common good, it’s a non-negligible force. Since we the people are (in theory) those who shape the law, if we find it wanting in protection of persons’ basic interests through rights, we have the power to do something about that. Understanding some of the earliest thought on legally sanctioned rights of individuals is, then, imperative.

In each subsequent post of this series, I’ll summarize and comment on a few chapters from this book, which I encourage you to read as well to follow along. It’s free in the iBooks store for those with Apple e-readers, and on this site available to anyone with an Internet connection — as its author is some 300 years long deceased, this work is in the public domain. You could find a physical printed version in a library too, of course.