Should Stupid People Be Allowed to Vote? Locke, pt. 1

Should Stupid People Be Allowed to Vote? Locke, pt. 1

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.


—–John Locke



Without a doubt, John Locke had more influence on the American Revolution than any other political thinker. If Plato represents the beginning of Western political philosophy, John Locke represents the cutting edge of political thought in the early Enlightenment. And like Plato, Locke was a product of his time and schooled by the tumultuous events of his day. To understand Locke, it is helpful to first understand his background.

John Locke’s father was a captain in the Parliamentarian army during the English Civil War. For my American readers who didn’t know England HAD a civil war, here’s the short version: After the death of Queen Elizabeth I, the throne of England passed to her nearest relative, King James of Scotland, who thus became James I of England (and sponsored the King James translation of the Bible, which you may have heard about). As king of two separate but related kingdoms, he had a divided constituency to balance: Anglicans in England with their bishops and cardinals, Presbyterians in Scotland with elected church leaders, the two nations with a long history of warfare between them and religious minorities among them. King James managed to balance the two thrones pretty well, although not completely without dissent. It was during his reign that the first British colony in North America was founded in Virginia, primarily by economic adventurers; later, conservative Christians who objected to England’s overly lax religious climate founded the colony at Plymouth, Massachusetts. James I thus oversaw not only the union of England and Scotland, but also the beginnings of the transoceanic British Empire. His son, King Charles I, did not fare as well. Charles attempted to enforce religious conformity, and attempted to rule as an absolute monarch without the advise and consent of the elected Parliament. The English people revolted, with armies loyal to the king fighting against troops loyal to Parliament. The Parliamentarians included religious minorities such as the Presbyterians and Puritans, and even smaller factions such as the Levelers and other religious and political radicals. John Locke’s father fought for Parliament in the early part of this war, which eventually led to the capture and execution of the king, eleven years of control by the Puritans, the return of the dead king’s son as Charles II, his overthrow in another revolution and finally a new royal family, led by King William of Orange (of William and Mary fame). John Locke’s most important political essay, his Second Treatise of Government, was written to justify and support William’s claim to the throne of England. Thus John Locke is very much a child of the English Civil War; his father fought at its start, and he wrote its declaration of victory for liberty over the forces of absolute monarchy.

Locke’s First Treatise of Civil Government was written to refute the theory of the divine right kings. Since God commands everything, the argument went, God also commands who should be king; therefore, the king is God’s agent and to oppose the king in any way is to oppose God. Locke refutes this argument and insists that there be another, less mysterious foundation for political authority. In his Second Treatise on Civil Government he seems to focus on the social contract theory of Thomas Hobbes. Hobbes famously argued that in the “state of Nature,” outside of all government, human life would be intolerable, since human nature is greedy, selfish and utterly irrational; therefore, each person tacitly agrees to give up some of his natural rights in exchange for each other person in the community doing the same, and all agree to live under the rule of a king or other sovereign.[1] This sovereign has nearly absolute power to act as he (possibly she or they) sees fit, so long as he enforces order, protects the lives of his subjects, and does not arbitrarily kill or imprison them. Anyone who finds the sovereign unsuitable may leave the country; but having renounced the sovereign’s rule, one has also renounced his protection, and may be killed or enslaved by anyone who is able (until the refugee finds the protection of a new sovereign). Likewise, a sovereign which is unable or unwilling to establish a safe and orderly society has failed the citizens, placing them back into a state of anarchy where life is a war of every one against every one, and life is “solitary, nasty, brutish and short.”

It is in his second treatise that Locke lays out more of his own theories, rather than simply refuting the arguments of others, and for this reason his second treatise is more widely read and influential than the first. Still, it shows some influences from both the theories he is transcending. While Locke does not accept the absolute divine right of kings, he does continue to use religious language, referring to the laws of Nature as being given by God and so on. But Locke’s vision of God, and of God’s creation, is first of all rational. Thus, in the Second Treatise chapter II, section 8, Locke equates the law of Nature and reason with the will of God; to him there is no further knowledge of God than what is discoverable through God’s creation properly understood. Understanding the rational basis of government as also being God’s will may give it extra authority and motivational force, but for Locke it does not add any content; what we need to know of government must be learned through sound reasoning. This puts his theory closer to that of Hobbes. However, Locke’s view of human nature is considerably more optimistic than Hobbes’, and thus his view of how much force is required or justified to control human behavior is also very different.

In Locke’s view, outside of all government, in the hypothetical “state of Nature,” human life would still be governed by rules of reason. Human beings are emotional, but are also rational beings, and their behavior ought to be directed by their reason. We know that no one has the right to injure another, either by assault or by gathering up so much of the resources of nature that there is nothing left for anyone else. I may have a right to all the apples I find growing on a wild tree in the forest, but I don’t have a right to more than I can eat or use before they spoil; the rest must be left for others. And if there are disputes, or someone violates these rational laws of nature, then anyone and everyone has a right to step in and punish the malefactor.

Thus, our need for government is actually rather limited. Fundamentally, we need a neutral arbiter when someone violates our natural inalienable rights. Left to ourselves to punish the wrongs done us, we would be likely to go too far; so we designate a magistrate to create laws and judge violations. All other government basically flows from that beginning.

But what are those “inalienable” rights? This phrase, which appears earlier in Hobbes, is expanded and clarified in Locke. First and most fundamentally is the right to life. I have a right to live and to protect my life. I join a society largely to protect my life; therefore, I can never be understood as having renounced my right to life by becoming or remaining a citizen.[2] Second, I join a society to preserve my basic liberty. In nature each individual is completely free from all outside control, subject only to the laws of nature revealed through reason. As a citizen in a society, I may give up some of my freedoms, but I do so only to preserve my basic liberty against the threat of enslavement or oppression. Finally, I join a society to protect my property, and to adjudicate when there is a legitimate dispute as to what my property is.

How is property a natural (or what for Locke is the same thing, a divine) right? The basic property of each person is his or her own body. That, clearly, Nature gave you. Even in a state of nature, I may find all sorts of resources that would make my life better, including food and materials for making tools. Nuts lying on the forest floor belong to no one. However, when I start picking them up, I am adding something: my own effort. This effort is a part of my own body, which works on these natural products and changes them, by gathering or shaping them in some way. Thus, the nuts I gathered from the untamed forest are now nuts plus a little of me, and therefore become my property.

I always tell my students that this is intuitively true, or at least psychologically true. Legally, the goods in the shopping cart still belong to the store; but if you doubt that the person who gathered them considers them his or hers, try going through someone’s grocery cart to help yourself to a can of soup. You will hear something like, “Go get your own! I found that, now it’s mine.”

Thus, we don’t depend on the State to tell us what we can or can’t own, according to Locke. God’s own will, as revealed in the laws of nature, designates that whatever you shape or gather or improve by your own work is your natural property. The State may create laws to control or define this property-making, allowing a person to stake a claim to a particular piece of farmland or mining rights or whatever; and it may create currency and other economic structures to allow us to trade and transfer the fruits of our labors. We may even agree to be taxed, each of us contributing some portion of the fruits of our labors to accomplish some task for the good of us all. But in the final analysis, the government is there to ensure that we preserve our lives, our basic freedom and our own property. These are our inalienable rights, and the basis of the social contract. Society agrees to protect these rights, and we as citizens agree to support the society as necessary by obeying its laws and reasonable demands.

To be continued…..

[1] I say “he” deliberately; Hobbes generally treats women as one of those goods that men would fight and murder each other over, rather than as independent persons themselves.

[2] This is a rejection of the view laid out in Plato’s Crito, for example.

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

28 Responses to “Should Stupid People Be Allowed to Vote? Locke, pt. 1”

  1. Nemo Says:

    The Declaration of Independence says that the rights to life and liberty are self evident. In other words, they are assumed, not proven by reason. I’m having trouble seeing the role reason plays in this.

    • philosophicalscraps Says:

      To start, Jefferson was channeling Locke. Locke wrote that the inalienable rights were life, liberty and property; Jefferson (who read Locke) modified that to “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.” Saying these are “self-evident” does not really contradict this: “self-evident” to what? To reason, surely. These truths are not apprehended by the senses and they aren’t innately known at birth; they are known through thought. Really, there’s something odd about the claim that we “hold” these truths to be “self-evident.” If they were self-evident in the way that the sensory experience I am having right now is self-evident, we wouldn’t have to “hold” or “claim” them to be so. I don’t declare that I think I am having the sensation of pressure on my fingertips; I feel it. I may “hold” that this is evidence of an external world and not a computer simulation, because it is not “self-evident” why I have these sensations.

      What Jefferson is saying is that these are basic, fundamental claims. In his political reasoning, which is social-contract theory, all government is based on the free compact of equal individuals in a state of Nature, to voluntarily give up some of those rights and that functional equality, and to live as “ruler” and “subject” or “citizen.” In nature, there is no inequality; by definition there are no nobles, kings, slaves, freemen, because where there is no society there can be no social roles. However, even Hobbes felt some need to argue this point and to try to demonstrate that there is no real meaningful difference between individuals in a state of nature. The whole reason Hobbes thinks we have conflicts in a state of nature is that we are basically equal; if someone really was obviously superior, the rest would just follow along and there would be no conflicts. Ants know who is in charge, and thus anthills do not fall into civil war or even have thieves among them. Humans have to work it out. Locke does not argue for this equality as much as Hobbes does, I think partly because he’s building on Hobbes and can somewhat assume it, and partly because his different psychology (humans as basically rational) assumes a different sort of equality, one based more on self-reflection and projection than does Hobbes. For Hobbes, human equality is something we know from observation. We can observe that anyone can be killed, and that even the strongest can be overcome by stratagem or numbers, and even the cleverest is not so much smarter than he can’t be caught in a mistake or simply bludgeoned to death; so in the state of nature and “war of every one against every one,” all are pretty much equal. Locke’s view of human nature, and human equality, is much more optimistic.

      In think the background reasoning is something like this: Like Locke, Jefferson is an empiricist. Our minds are a blank slate until experience writes on them; our experiences gives us content to think. Our experience of ourselves, first, is that we are alive and free, and we have no sense of inequality until the idea is forced upon us by some ruler and his troops. All people appear to be pretty much the same as us, and in fact the only things we really know about any other person are by analogy to what we know about ourselves. I have an experience, when I introspect, of feeling alive and free to do what I want to do, of deliberating between options and choosing, of sometimes thinking things through and sometimes reacting emotionally or even unconsciously; I observe you and conclude from your actions and words that you have the same sorts of experiences. I couldn’t know anything about you if I didn’t believe we were essentially the same. I think this sort of reasoning is in the back of Jefferson’s mind as he writes these words, but I don’t think he’s getting all metaphysical and declaring anything about the “problem of mind” when he writes them. But Locke’s writings are informing his world-view, and that world-view is that the only sane and stable and just foundation for government is the will of the people, and all government is a contract or covenant between the leaders and the led, that the leaders will act to preserve the inalienable rights of the people and the people will live according to the justly-made laws. That is why “no taxation without representation” was so galling to them. Taxation with representation would have been fine, or at least it would have been no grounds for revolt, because then their voices would have been represented and the decisions of Parliament would have been their decisions as well, an expression of the collective will of which they were part. To take money from someone without that person’s consent is, in their words and in Locke’s, slavery and tyranny. This foundational belief that all people are equal, because I have no experience that could really contradict it and my very experience of you as a person assumes our basic sameness, leads inevitably to the conclusion that because the Crown has breached the social contract in these various ways, we colonists are free to break away and form a new nation. But I digress.

      • Nemo Says:

        A person may observe that s/he is alive and free at a point in time, but it doesn’t follow that s/he has a right to life an freedom. I don’t follow the reasoning here.

        How does Lock define “right”?

      • philosophicalscraps Says:

        In this case, just limited to the question of the foundation of civil society, the starting point is the “state of nature,” what the individual would have if living outside of all human society. Those are your natural endowments, not given to you by any society. You could say they are your birthright as a human being. Even without a society, you have life, obviously. You also have liberty to do what you want. And, Locke argues, you have property, first of your own body and then of whatever you shape or acquire by the use of your own effort, effectively making that property at least partly a production of your own body. Now, why would anyone freely join a society? Not to make his or her condition worse, certainly. You would want to live in a society rather than outside of one because living in a civil society was somehow better than not doing so. You might give up some of your rights, but only so that you could belong to a society that does a better job of protecting the other, more fundamental rights. Granted, most people are born into a society, rather than forming one as free and rational adults; but even so, social contract thinkers like Locke argue that a good society is one that a person would voluntarily choose over the anarchy of a state of nature.

      • Nemo Says:

        I’d say that nature recognizes no rights of life, because a man can die of natural causes at any point in time.

        I don’t have an issue with the concept of social contract.

      • philosophicalscraps Says:

        “Recognizes” is the wrong word. You have the right to life, in that you are alive already. Locke’s point is that you do not give up your right to be alive simply because you choose to be a citizen of a civil society. The life is yours already; the State does not grant you your life. (This differs from Plato’s Crito.) Any society a person would voluntarily consent to live in, and which might be described as “just,” must be one that is better than no society at all; so society must be better at helping a person preserve his or her life than living in a state of nature would be.

        I’d also say that a “right to life” does not necessarily mean “a right to immortality.” Or, perhaps Nature recognizes the right to life but is poor at protecting it; so we live in societies that will do a better job.

      • Nemo Says:

        I guess I’m not getting my point across.

        The state of nature varies. A person may be dead, half-dead, or fully alive, but it doesn’t follow that he has a right to be in a particular state, just as he may be white or black, but it doesn’t mean that he has a right to be white.

        I’m having trouble grasping Locke’s conception of rights.

      • philosophicalscraps Says:

        This seems to be a terminological confusion. For Locke, as for most social contract theorists, the “state of nature” refers to life outside of civil society: that is, in nature. In one of Hobbes’ examples, he asks us to imagine men as having sprung full-grown from the ground like mushrooms, without even family relationships, just as independent persons who are now alive and must decide how best to remain that way. In that situation, there are no laws or even social customs or training to constrain each one from doing whatever he wants. In this entirely unhistorical case, what would induce a person to want to live in a society, rather than remain as a free individual? What would make government better than no government?

        Locke’s version doesn’t rely quite so much on an impossible origin myth, but basically the problem is the same. If you or anyone were living as a totally free individual, out in the wilderness somewhere beyond all government or law or even social pressure, what would your life be like? How would living in a civil society with government and laws be better than the complete freedom you would have? And what would make a society so much worse that we would say that even living in the wilderness was better?

      • Nemo Says:

        If you or anyone were living as a totally free individual, out in the wilderness somewhere beyond all government or law or even social pressure, what would your life be like?

        I think he would probably learn soon enough that nature recognizes no right to life. 🙂 that he could die from hunger or infection any day, or become food for wild animals. That there is no rational ground for him to demand from society what he can’t demand from nature.

      • philosophicalscraps Says:

        That’s not the point. You are alive, and you can say that is a “natural” right in that you didn’t get your life from some law or legal proclamation. You got it just by being. If you were living outside all social control and all social protection, you would still be alive. That is your starting point. Maybe that is the best way to think about it: what is your theoretical (if not actual) starting point? What would you be if you were not a citizen of some society? Yes, as Hobbes points out and you are saying, life would be “solitary, nasty, brutish and short.” One reason we join together in larger groups is that they provide more security and a better standard of living; if the didn’t we would flee, or try to. No one would say a society was just or even functioning if its members had lives that were either more miserable or less safe than living in the woods would be. Locke thinks that even in this starting point, you would still be guided by your reasoning ability. You would know, even if you didn’t want to admit it, that some things were just wrong because they violated rational behavior—for example, grabbing up more food than you could eat before it spoils, which wouldn’t help you at all but might harm others. Nature doesn’t “recognize” your right to life; that seems to be anthropomorphizing “Mother Nature.” Nature doesn’t proclaim “thou shalt have the right to exist.” The state of nature is simply the state you are in if you are not a member of a governed society. Today we might use the term “off the grid.”

      • Nemo Says:

        You are alive, and you can say that is a “natural” right in that you didn’t get your life from some law or legal proclamation. You got it just by being.

        But being and right are two different categories. As I said earlier, being white or black doesn’t mean one has the right to be white or black, why would being alive give one the right to life?

        Choice and right are also two different categories. You might choose a high standard of living by joining a state that provides it, but it does’t mean you have the right to a high standard of living.

        I don’t know how to make my point any clearer, so maybe we should agree to disagree.

      • philosophicalscraps Says:

        I think you’re overthinking this definition. The “right to life” in a state of nature means simply that you are alive and you have a right to do everything in your power to continue to be alive. I know that some philosophers would say that your right means my obligation, but that isn’t the case here; the fact that I have the right to try to survive in the state of nature does not mean there is anyone else who is obligated to help me. In fact, in Hobbes’ formulation, you have a right to every thing in a state of nature, since there is no law to stop you, and that includes having a right to try to kill me. My right to life only means I have a right to resist you and try to live, even if I have to kill you first. Having the right to do something in the state of nature means I have the right to try to do it, not that I am guaranteed success. And in Hobbes’ view, I have a right to do anything I want. In Locke’s view, even in the state of nature where there is no lawgiver or punisher, I still am bound by laws of reason that reveal to me that my actions have some rational limits. Whether one accepts that claim depends on whether one believes, like Hobbes, that people are essentially irrational appetitive creatures driven by their fear and greed, or believes like Locke that humans have an innate capacity for rationality which shows them limits to their legitimate desires and which gives them the ability to act according to reason rather than appetite.

        The debate on whether or not humans are in fact rational is a more substantive one, and I can’t resolve that. But the debate as to whether there is an inalienable right to life in a state of nature is only a little more than a definitional argument. If you define “right” as meaning something other than “one has the right to try to do x,” that’s between you and Locke. But if you don’t at least understand what Locke means, you won’t be able to understand his philosophy at all. And given what a profound effect he had on American history, to not understand Locke’s political philosophy is not to understand much of the last 300 years of political history. No Locke, no Jefferson or the other American revolutionaries; they wouldn’t have had the ideology that united them, and they certainly wouldn’t have had the intellectual foundation to set up this republic. Most likely, even if they had revolted for some reason and won, they would have set up a monarchy.

      • Nemo Says:

        I think you’re overthinking this definition.

        I blame Plato and Aristotle for that. 🙂 They made me believe definition is foundational to philosophy.

        The “right to life” in a state of nature means simply that you are alive and you have a right to do everything in your power to continue to be alive

        That is a tautology, not a valid definition. It doesn’t really tell us what “right” is: how the concept of right can be constructed from simpler concepts, and how it relates to other concepts.

        Man doesn’t need reason to tell him “to do everything in your power to stay alive”, instinct alone can manage well enough, to paraphrase Kant.

        I know that some philosophers would say that your right means my obligation, but that isn’t the case here;

        I think they have a point.

        When everything is viewed from the pov of rights and not obligations, nobody is obligated to safeguard another person’s right, consequently, no rights are safeguarded. It harkens back to the age-old argument, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

        If the state has no obligation to safeguard the right of its citizens, doesn’t Locke’s political philosophy break down?

        Finally, I should confess that I haven’t read Hobbes or Locke, but I’m far from the only one who doesn’t understand the founding principles of American and its political history. The current state of America is clear proof of that.

      • philosophicalscraps Says:

        Plato’s Crito does not think the citizen has the right to life. Socrates, in prison and awaiting execution, is offered the chance to escape, a plot arranged by his friend Crito. Instead, Socrates chooses to obey the law and stay in prison and eventually drink the hemlock as ordered. Part of his argument is that the citizen owes his very life to the State, which established the society and the laws of marriage which brought his parents together, so it can be said to be his own parent too. Thus, Socrates thinks that he owes the State his life if it asks for it back. Hobbes would say that one is a citizen of a State in order to safeguard his life, so if the State wants to kill you then you have every right to flee. Locke goes even further and says you have a right to fight back against an unjust execution, and even to get others to join with you in revolt.

        The State does have an obligation to safeguard the citizens’ inalienable rights, according to these founders of English social contract theory, because the basic contract is “the State shall protect the citizens’ inalienable rights, and in return the citizens shall obey the laws of the State and support its overall wellbeing as needed.” The idea that the king owes his subjects some sort of service, even if it is just the basic one of protecting them from marauders and not torturing them for sport, was not a universally accepted notion at the time; the idea of the divine right of kings suggests that God alone establishes the throne and thereby gives the king all his lands and subjects, to rule as he sees fit, and anyone who rebels for any reason is a criminal and a sinner, deserving the worst tortures in this world and the next.

        As to the ignorance of Locke, if I had my way every high-school educated person in America would be acquainted with the basics of Locke’s Second Treatise on Government, including at least some hints of where these ideas might be criticized. If that is too ambitious, at least we should require a basic working knowledge of the Constitution, which seems beyond the reach even of some of our highest elected officials. Most “real ‘Mericans” couldn’t pass the citizenship test required of every immigrant, and their ignorance of what this nation is often leaves them open to treasonous or just plain stupid ideas such as the “sovereign citizens” movement or other elements of the alt-right. But again, I digress.

      • philosophicalscraps Says:

        Yes, definitions are important. But in some cases, they are important because they are axiomatic. If you don’t let the argument even start because it is using a word differently than you are, you may never find out what the other person was trying to say. Locke never said you needed reason to tell you that you have a right to live, although perhaps he thinks that kings need to be reminded that even the lowliest peasant still has a right to live, to be free of random violence and so on. But the point is that for his political theory, the living, autonomous and thinking person is the starting point; humans form civil governments to safeguard these qualities, accepting some restraints on their actions in exchange for safety, for an arbiter of disputes and for a voice in determining the policies and actions of the government through some sort of democratic representation.

      • Nemo Says:

        Plato’s Crito does not think the citizen has the right to life.

        The idea of “social contract” actually originated with Plato’s Crito. I can’t explain it any better than in my post, so pardon the shameless self-promotion:

        I would add one more relevant point: If I understand it correctly, Locke’s conception of private property is that one can claim something as property by labouring for its formation.
        A similar argument can be made that Socrates is a property of Athens, because Athens contributed a great deal to the coming into existence of Socrates, his education and formation as a human being.

      • Nemo Says:

        P.S. I don’t mind Locke using the word “right”, I just want to know what exactly he means by that word. Obviously, one can’t accept anything as axiom if he doesn’t understand its meaning. It is far from self-evident to me.

      • philosophicalscraps Says:

        Maybe that’s why English social contract thinkers like Hobbes and Locke start with adult individuals, rather than ask where they come from. Virginia Held has made some very good criticisms of that move, from the feminist perspective.

      • Nemo Says:

        English social contract thinkers like Hobbes and Locke start with adult individuals, rather than ask where they come from.

        The “starting point” of Locke’s political theory seems to me quite arbitrary, if not imaginary. (If one has to imagine being alone in the wilderness to understand freedom, something is terribly amiss.)

        He hasn’t given a reason why particular qualities of “state of nature” should be safeguarded, not others. For instance, both life and death happen to an individual in a state of nature, why should life be safeguarded?

        Did Locke start with “the state of nature” and derive his notion of life and freedom from it, or did he start with some notions of life and freedom, and conferred them on the “state of nature” to make those ideas seem “self-evident”? I have a sneaking suspicion that it is the latter.

        Anyway, thank you again for a stimulating discussion. It has piqued my interest in Locke and I’ll definitely read his second treatise on government.

      • philosophicalscraps Says:

        Historically speaking, it’s not an arbitrary starting point. He’s starting with Hobbes. Before Hobbes, the justification for monarchy was the idea that God chose the king. Hobbes tried to put government on a more rational basis. He was a supporter of absolute monarchy; he feared anarchy and violence more than anything. As he himself pointed out, he was born the day England faced off against the Spanish Armada. He observed “fear and I were born together.” If anything, he may have proposed his theory of the commonwealth because it gave the king even more power than a supposed divine right did; if God chooses the king, then God (or His representatives, the Church) could decide who should be king, limit the king’s powers or even depose him. Leviathan puts the sovereign in charge of everything. He (or possibly they) determine what counts as good and evil for the State, handing out rewards and punishments. The sovereign is the true mediator between Heaven and Earth, putting the king in charge even of the Church (Hobbes was born while England was still resolving Henry VIII’s takeover of the English church).

        So, if government is not based on the direct revealed will of God, where does it come from? The English social contract thinkers ask us to imagine a world with no government. At one point, they say, this was reality; but we humans chose to live in civil society, that is, a commonwealth. What was so bad about anarchy? What advantages do people seek from living in a commonwealth, instead of living as outlaws in a state of nature (or to use another phrase, living in anarchy)? Whatever you would be able to do while living outside of all civil society are your “natural rights.” Those are the rights you have in a “state of nature.” And in a state of nature, Hobbes thinks, you can take whatever you want, even to the point of killing or enslaving others, if you have the ability. There is no noble and peasant; all are equal. There is no natural way to resolve who should obey and who should command, so we have to fight it out constantly. The stronger will rule the weaker, until the weaker catches the stronger asleep or sick. There is either actual violence or preparation for violence, cold war or hot, and it is impossible to accomplish anything since anyone could take one’s house, tools, crops, even one’s family and one’s life at any moment. It is fear, Hobbes says, that drives us to band together and accept one single strong force to rule over us, enforcing peace between the rest of us.

        Locke disagrees with this bleak view of the state of nature. He says that even if there were no political laws, no sovereign, there would still be one’s own reason. You would know, even in the wilderness, that some things are yours and some are mine. We would be able to talk things through, if only we wished. And it is that spark of reason that allows us to see the advantages of having a neutral magistrate, of coordinating our mutual defense, and of forming a government that will facilitate our working together to solve problems and make life together better.

        So for Hobbes, the government exists to beat all of us mad dogs into submission, and therefore it must be overwhelmingly strong and intimidating. For Locke, government exists to coordinate our mutual interests and allow for a pooling of our reasoning abilities as well as our material possessions for the greater good of all. In both thinkers, though, there are certain bedrock values that the individual has in the state of nature that he (or she) never gives up, since the whole reason for accepting the rule of law was to protect those bedrock values in the first place. Again, what those values are differs between the two, and that dictates the differences between their political systems. Hobbes thinks you have a natural right to life and freedom from pain, but he thinks the idea of private property is established by the sovereign. You live in a commonwealth so people will stop stealing your crops, but it is the sovereign who decides the price of your life of peace. He allows you to keep some of the goods you acquire because it contributes to a well-running commonwealth, and the sovereign is glorified by being the head of a prosperous and powerful nation. Locke, on the other hand, thinks that private property is a natural right, and one of those rights that the individual expects the government to protect; therefore, he envisions a much more limited role for government. He believes humans are basically rational, though clearly also inclined towards selfishness at times, and clearly there are lawbreakers. Therefore, we need a government not to beat most of us into submission, but to act for most of us, beating only the few outlaws into submission. We don’t need a government to decide whether we have a right to the works of our own hands; we only need it to help safeguard our property, and to coordinate that portion of our wealth that we choose to pool together in the form of taxes supporting communal projects (such as paying the magistrate and equipping an army).

        I think your suspicion that many of the differences between these two thinkers rests with basic assumptions is correct. Hobbes’ father was a vicar, and not a particularly good one from what I can tell; he once got in a fistfight with a member of his church on the church doorsteps. I think Hobbes grew up with no real respect for the Church and in later life was a closet atheist; open atheism was against the law in England, and Hobbes would not break the law. Those of us who work for the Church have many stories of the PK (“preacher’s kid”) who is the least respectful of religion, precisely because the preacher’s kid sees “how the sausage is made.” The church IS human to the preacher’s kid; specifically, it is his or her human parents. Locke, on the other hand, has a rational, liberal and somewhat liberal view of religion, perhaps rooted in his own upbringing as the child of a soldier in the rebellion against both royal and ecclesiastical heavyhandedness. It was in the 1600s that King James called together the best scholars, linguists, historians and theologians he could to create a new, authorized Bible for his realm. Later, the Parliament established a commission to work together to revise theology for the kingdom, creating the Westminster Confession. In every case, the first option was people working together, sometimes more effectively than others perhaps but still at least hoping to solve problems in groups, resorting to force only when dialog failed (as it did with the absolute monarch King Charles I, whom Hobbes supported). Ultimately, yes, discussion failed and plunged England into a horrifying war, leading ultimately to the rule of General Cromwell as Lord Protector; but that failure was only for a time. Eventually, with the Glorious Revolution and the crowining of William and Mary as co-regents who accepted the limits Parliaiment placed on their power, a more rational and representative government was established. Locke was educated as a lawyer and a doctor before turning to philosophy, and strongly believed in the power of reason to understand the world and solve problems. And he seems to have looked at his own family and national history as vindicating that basic optimism. So when he imagined people living without the benefits of government, he did not assume a dark and fearful anarchy as Hobbes had; he supposed that people would still have a natural law of reason, which is the same as the true essence of Christianity or any other valid religion, and that this would guide even people living in a wilderness. Some would choose to break that law, but even they would know there was a law that they were breaking. So, at least partly because each had such a different view of human nature, each proposed a different sort of ideal government: where human nature was seen as irrational and violent, the proposal was for totalitarianism; when human nature was seen as basically good or at least educable, the proposal was for a more limited and reasonable government.

        I see the same basic dynamic working out in ancient China as well. Confucius and his disciple Mencius believed people were basically good, though in need of some teaching and correction; so both emphasized the idea that government should rule first by example and “moral force,” and keep punishments limited. Hsün-tzu, by contrast, believed people were basically evil, crooked like sticks needing to be forcibly straightened before they could be used; so he proposed a government with brutal laws and a powerful police force to enforce them. The Ch’in dynasty, which created China as we know it by uniting the other nation-states in the region by force, founded its government on this totalitarian philosophy known as “Legalism.” When the Ch’in were overthrown, it was taken as a sign that history had ruled against their philosophy, and the more benevolent political philosophy of Mencius became dominant. It was this belief that people were mostly good, and that government should accept limits on the use of force to impose imperial whims, that created the prosperous and stable empire that was the envy of the world for almost two thousand years (coopting even their Mongol conquerors). Confucianism wasn’t really swept away until European nations overran the country in the 1800s, about two thousand years after the failure of Legalism. Personally, I see Maoism as a Western import, which may explain why it had to resort to such brutal methods; like Legalism, it used harsh punishments to try to bend the people, instead of working with them. Today’s China seems to be still working through the various Western, Confucian and Taoist political philosophies that the last two centuries have left it with. But that’s another essay.


      • Nemo Says:

        Speaking of Confucius, I like his aphorism of governance, “enlighten by reason, move by emotion, and bind by law”. Cicero expressed similar ideas in his works.

        What concerns me about Locke’s theory is that the individual can put himself above the law any time he feels like it, and have no shortage of “reasons” to justify his lawlessness.

        The problem with tyranny is not that the laws are too severe, the problem is that the rulers put themselves above the law. This is why it is important to Plato that everybody, including the guardians of the state, respect the law, and nobody is above the law.

        Personally, I think the social contract in Crito is more logically consistent.

      • philosophicalscraps Says:

        Maybe. I haven’t thought much about it, but Plato is a rationalist, and Locke is one of the early empiricists. Locke is much more inclined to rely on common sense, such as when he proposes the concept of “substance” even though he admits we never directly perceive it since there must be something that has all those qualities which we do perceive. Rationalists are generally more consistent, sometimes more consistent than reality seems to be.

        Locke is writing partly to explain and justify the overthrow of Charles the I and then Charles II, as well as explain why the Glorious Revolution (with its more limited monarchy) is superior to the absolute monarchy the Stuarts tried to impose. Whether this “justifies lawlessness” depends partly on one’s definition of “lawlessness;” Locke would say that opposing tyranny is not lawlessness but rather restores the law of nature and reason. Locke’s belief that all people are naturally subject to the law of reason might seem overly optimistic, but it is one of his main checks on subjectivism; he believes that most, if not all people will obey a just government because their own reason will show them that it is both right and advantageous. True, a person may decide to justify his actions, as Dylann Roof did or the guy who walked into the pizzaria and shot the place up to shut down the imaginary child sex ring. But they are outside the bounds of reason, which is why the majority don’t support them and they wind up being caught and punished. If enough people do join them, then presumably there must be some reason for a revolt. I don’t think Locke could have imagined the industrial mass-production of fake news which we see today. Since for Locke all knowledge is based on one’s own sense experience, he would say that anyone who isn’t a fool will realize that he can’t know what he hasn’t perceived, and clearly the two cases I mention were responding not to what they had perceived but rather to anonymous rumors spread on the internet.

        Locke would say that the problem with tyranny is that the rulers impose their own wills rather than governing according to the will of the majority of the people.

      • Nemo Says:

        . Since for Locke all knowledge is based on one’s own sense experience, he would say that anyone who isn’t a fool will realize that he can’t know what he hasn’t perceived,

        Hmm…What does “right” look like? I’m still wondering how Locke came to know it….

        tyranny is that the rulers impose their own wills rather than governing according to the will of the majority of the people.

        Plato would say that the will of the majority can also be tyranny, just like the will of a tyrant, if it is against law and reason.

        Julius Caesar was assassinated by the Romans who believed that they were “opposing tyranny”. But, Cicero, who initially rejoiced at the death of the tyrant, eventually realized what the true problem was, “The tyranny lives on, the tyrant is dead!
        We rejoice at his slaughter and defend his acts!”

        Killing a tyrant doesn’t result in the abolition of tyranny, unless the people abolish the tyrant in themselves.

      • philosophicalscraps Says:

        “What does “right” look like? I’m still wondering how Locke came to know it….” That’s the problem with empiricism, as Hume pointed out. This is also the point Kierkegaard (who absorbed Hume’s epistemology second-hand through Hamann) deals with in the “Interlude” section of Philosophical Fragments. If knowledge of the world comes through the senses, then what is true is what corresponds to reality. But our senses are imperfect, so we can never have perfect knowledge of the world. The best we can do is do our best. Try to understand as much as possible, and if at some point we realize we may have made a mistake then go back and try to find the error. Basically, it’s the scientific approach; Locke was strongly influenced by the science of his day, including Newton. Plato achieves perfect knowledge by denying that knowledge is about the world at all—-the world is always in flux and can’t be fully known, so the philosopher only deals in concepts and Forms and mathematical relationships. The empiricists would say that this is tautological truth only. That is the problem of the Enlightenment: on the one side you have rationalists striving for certainty and logical consistency and losing touch with reality, and on the other you have empiricists striving to understand reality and losing certainty. Locke is not the skeptic that Hume became, but even Locke admits that our knowledge cannot be more precise than the material allows.

        “Killing a tyrant doesn’t result in the abolition of tyranny, unless the people abolish the tyrant in themselves.” The Founding Fathers knew Locke and knew Cicero too; that is why Washington refused the crown when it was offered to him. The Constitution was an attempt to establish limited centers of power that would check one another, preventing tyranny. They knew that no matter how good the person appeared to be, no one should have absolute power.

      • Nemo Says:

        If knowledge of the world comes through the senses, then what is true is what corresponds to reality.

        I agree with your conclusion, but not your premise. 🙂

        If knowledge comes through the senses, then the animals would have better knowledge of the world than humans, because they have sharper senses; And, humans would never know anything about “right”, “justice”, etc, because no matter how perfect their senses become, they will never “see” right and justice.

        The Platonist epistemology, as I understand it, is that knowledge comes by reason, but there is a sort of “check and balance” in place in the nature of man, between his reason and his senses, viz, the knowledge derived from reason and mathematical principles, must correspond to observations from the senses. If they don’t correspond, there are two sources of errors: logical errors and inconsistencies in our reasoning, and errors and imperfections in our senses. The scientific approach is to constantly improve along those two lines, i.e, to construct better and more consistent models on the one hand, and to build machines that extend the reach of our senses on the other.

        Speaking of the Constitution, I once watched a very informative dialogue/debate between Justices Stephen Breyer and the late Antonin Scalia. Scalia said that the purpose of the Bill of Rights is to protect against tyranny, both to protect the people against tyrants, and to protect the individual against the will of the majority, I thought that made perfect sense.

  2. Nemo Says:

    Like the scene in Lethal Weapon, after the cop killed the villain who claiming “diplomatic immunity”, “Just been revoked”.

  3. lila1jpw Says:

    I’ve been thinking about the title of this post. Do you really mean “stupid” as in low intelligence or do you mean “uninformed?”

    • philosophicalscraps Says:

      I mean whichever gets the most clicks 😉 But more precisely, I’m working on that question through this series of articles, so it’s best to leave that question unanswered for the time being.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: