John Locke represents a major shift in terms of rights talk.  I write this while thinking about the American Experiment.  While Locke is important, let us not make too much out of him in terms of his influence on the American Founders.  Locke was an influence, but he was not the influence.  Neither was he read by the American Founders as an Hobbesean. Not to delay, let’s get to it.

The State of Nature

If you are looking for our origins has human beings, then look no further than nature.  And for our moderns, the state of nature.  Locke seems to have similar arguments when comparing to Hobbes:

  • both believe in a state of nature
  • both appeal to nature as a source of man’s equality
  • both have a sense of compact theory that arises out of our natural equality

However, there are some significant differences:

  • the state of nature is not as harsh in Locke
  • Locke seems to retain a sense of obligation and duty that Hobbes does not
  • in that vein, Hobbes’ view of man is quite pessimistic–more so than Locke
  • Locke does not contend for a monarchical/despotic government
  • Locke retains the classical view of the sociability of man, while Hobbes does not

We could make more comparisons and expand both lists.  It is quite interesting that Locke and Hobbes come to different conclusions about the structure of the best regime–Locke’s retains the right to revolution, for example, and his is more republican.  Perhaps this is because Hobbes’ view of the state of nature is more violent that he constructs a unlimited form of government?

Locke & Nature

Locke has a rational view of our origins.  Though he certainly nods toward the authority of the Bible, his proof is entirely reasonable.  He includes biblical references, and appeals to theologians (like Hooker!) only as a crescendo to his rational proof.  Now, we must not confuse Lockean rationalism with Hobbesean rationalism.  [An aside:  Hobbes believed politics could be a scientifically drawn endeavor–that is is like geometry for example.   Locke does not have that view of things.  He seems more dialectical, and he is more political]. However, Locke has a faith in the ability of human reason, and he has a particular view of reason that seems to place revelation at the foot of its court.  This does not necessarily mean that Locke was an atheist, or did not believe in God, but it does suggest that he believed which was the controlling authority.

Locke’s argument regarding nature underscores this rational approach.  He begins chapter 2 on the state of nature by appealing to our perfect freedom and equality we have in nature as a species.  We are all equally the same species and hence we are equally human.  We should also note that in this chapter, Locke is quite moderate when compared to Hobbes, for he places our actions within the bounds of the “law of nature.”  In other words, not all of our actions may be considered moral in the state of nature because there is a law of nature which ought to control our actions.  Nature is at once the source of our equality and morality.  Of course, while in the state of nature, there are some (many?) who will not obey their reason and contravene the law of nature.

All of this is self-evident.  Now when we speak of self-evident is does not mean obvious.  It means that the terms in question must be understood before the definition of the thing may be understood.  For example, when I say human I mean a class of things that have the capability to reason.  So human = rational human being.  We only understand what a human is, once we understand that such is rational, or has the capability of rationality.

As Locke contends in §6 of chapter 2, the law of nature may be known by our rational inquiry.  Via our reaon, we are able to know not only why we are equal, but also what the moral law should be.  With that, there is much to ponder.  How do we know nature exists?  How do we know what is reasonable?  These are all questions that Locke does not address, but suffice to say at the moment, that he asserts it as true and because we can know things we can know, for example, that slavery is immoral.

Up Next:  More state of nature, and the beginning of political societies.