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AS/POLS 2900.6A
  Perspectives on Politics

January 20 – Comparison with Hobbes; Locke’s Original Contribution

John Locke was the second most influential thinker coming out of the seventeenth century, second only to Hobbes, although his influence with contemporaries was much greater than that of Hobbes. When Locke was writing his major works, the civil war in England was over. The monarchy had been restored in 1660, so he was living in much more settled and peaceful times. His popularity with his contemporaries comes from his Two Treatises’ being a justification of the “Whig Revolution”, the Glorious Revolution of 1689. That “revolution” was an all but bloodless sort of coup d’etat in which King James II was replaced by William and Mary of the House of Orange.  It was not much of a revolution, but it did secure final confirmation of the supremacy of Parliament within the British state.

Locke’s theory was much more popular than Hobbes’s inasmuch as he was a far better ideologist of a market society, of bourgeois society. In what way? Hobbes’s theory was quite a grim and rather frightening picture of the nature of social relations and of the human being that led inexorably to the conclusion that arbitrary force was the only thing that could preserve and protect the god things in life. For Hobbes, human solidarity was not a product of the moral capacities of individuals. Solidarity was instead something of an illusion. Also illusory was morality in the old and traditional sense. Hobbes’s morality seemed to be nothing more than expediency over the long run.

Locke’s theory, on the other hand, was designed to be a moral justification of bourgeois society. Locke fairly self-consciously tries to obscure the differences between the old moral natural law traditions of an organic society and the realities of the market society. Instead of challenging natural law and traditional morality root and branch like Hobbes, Locke used the traditional language of natural law to describe and justify the new social relations. Both are theorists of liberalism, but where Hobbes is the evil genius of liberalism, perfectly candid and pulling no punches, Locke is more like the patron saint of liberalism. He is liberalism with a more human face. John Stuart Mill will be liberalism with its most human face (to date).

This difference between Hobbes and Locke is partly reflected in the kinds of life each led. Whereas Hobbes was a solitary thinker attached to no political movement and an object of suspicion for both sides in the Civil War, Locke was extremely well-connected. He was a Fellow of the Royal Society and a wealthy man connected with other men of money and political influence. He held some fairly important government positions both before and after the Glorious Revolution and was much caught up in the policy matters of his day. He even wrote a Treatise on Interest and Money.

But there is another reason why Locke is more popular than Hobbes. Not only is the break between natural law and natural right much less clear than it is in Hobbes, Locke is usually treated (within liberalism) as the great opponent of Hobbes because Locke is for limited and conditional government (not an absolute and self-perpetuating sovereign). Until almost the 1950’s it was by far the dominant tradition in political theory to treat Hobbes and Locke as opposites. Also, it was possible to start from Locke and, with some significant changes and omissions, arrive, as Thomas Jefferson did, at an argument for democracy – that sovereignty is in the majority of the people.

Generally speaking, if you take the individualistic presuppositions of both Hobbes and Locke for granted (and that tends to be the default position for a society like ours), then the differences between the two will loom very large. If you take the individualism which they share for granted or for self-evident truth, then you will see nothing but the difference between absolute government and strictly limited government. You will then tend to miss some highly significant overlap and agreement between the two. But even this difference between absolute sovereignty and limited government is not so great as it might first appear. It can be argued with much justification that Locke’s limited government is for nearly all intents and purposes just as strong as that of  Hobbes – except that Locke strenuously opposes a self-perpetuating government. Yet there is far more of Hobbes (of what Hobbes takes for granted or justifies) carried over into Locke than is usually seen. They share at bottom the same scientific materialism; the same or nearly the same theory of human nature and motivation; and the same or nearly the same sovereignty of the state over the individual.

So, if you share with Hobbes and Locke their presuppositions about society and individual human nature than they may either appear quite different or very similar. But, if you do not share those presuppositions, then the similarities appear much more important and whatever real differences there may be in the positions they hold about the powers and limits of government appear more minor. They are not the main issue.

By now you may have gained the not incorrect impression that Locke’s theory may be a bit confused, or at least ambiguous; that at times Locke may appear to be saying one thing, and at other times something quite different. But don’t lose heart. The confusion in Locke’s theory is significant and far from aimless. It is, in fact, Locke’s ambiguity that made and makes his theory so popular and acceptable, and so useful to certain interests.

Locke did make a certain contribution that goes beyond Hobbes. He did so by offering a moral justification for the new property relations of an emerging capitalist market society. For him, the end of Civil Society (i.e. a society that has enforceable laws, that has a state) and of Government is the liberty and security needed for the unlimited accumulation of property. And this was quite important from the point of view of the older natural law tradition, which thought of property as being just only when it was subjected to certain restrictions. Hobbes, of course, accepts unlimited accumulation, but with him it is ultimately a simple fact, a scientific law of nature that has to be recognized (it is what humans as matter in motion simply are). For Locke it is also fact, but much more as well – unlimited accumulation is a good thing and a good thing for everybody.

In Locke the emphasis shifts from Hobbes’s concern for the protection of life to the protection of property. The “true extent of Civil Government” would, for Locke be just enough government to make unlimited property accumulation a secure and going thing. (One of Locke’s practical schemes as an aspiring statesman was workhouses where everybody over the age of three laboured to earn their keep; the new society Locke celebrates demands much more in the way of labour than the middle ages did.)

We will be looking, almost exclusively, at Locke’s Second Treatise (of Government). It is a sequel to the First Treatise, which latter destroys the tory argument of Robert Filmer’s Patriarchia. Filmer’s book was an argument for absolute monarchy by divine right. For Filmer, political power mirrors the power of the father and divine power. But what is left when arguments for the divine right of kings are destroyed? What grounds are left for obedience to political authority. Political power is now seen to be a human creation, an artifice not found in nature, nut created anew by the hand of human beings.

In the Second Treatise, after summarizing the negative results of his critique of Filmer, Locke begins with a definition of political power. Political Power, he says, is “A right of making laws with penalties of death or less for the regulating and preserving of property, for protecting against invasion, and all this only for the publick good.” Now, in this definition, and throughout the Second Treatise, the word “property” can have either or both of two senses. “Property” has, first, the narrow sense of goods that are in one’s possession, what Locke sometimes refers to specifically as “estate”. It also has a second broader sense that refers to practically everything pertaining to a person: I possess not only external things, but also my life and my liberty (so sometimes property means estate; and sometimes it means life, liberty and estate).

After defining political power, Locke moves immediately into the state of nature, thus sparing you the equivalent of Ch.s 1-12 of Leviathan. Only much later in his argument does Hobbes appear to highlight and focus his theory of  human nature. Locke uses the notion of a state of nature right away in order to assert that there is a set of God-given natural rights (from which a great deal will follow), but he offers nothing by way of an account of human behaviour to back up his assertions about natural rights.

This means that we need to take a brief detour into statements about human nature made by Locke in an other key text of his (which you need not read for this course). In his Essay on Human Understanding (which is one of the half dozen or so greatest modern works on epistemology or theory of knowledge), in Book I, ch. 2 and the first thirteen paragraphs of chapter 3, Locke offers some analysis of human nature and motivation. He begins this work by denying the existence of innate ideas. Locke was famous for developing the theory that the human mind was, in its beginnings,  like a “blank slate” which receives all of its contents (its ideas) from experience or from derivatives of experience. There are no innate mathematical or moral principles. All such principles are derived from experience. Locke’s psychology therefore tends very strongly to a pure environmentalism: our ideas and therefore our behaviour are determined by our environments.

Now this position (in the Essay…) seems to contradict what Locke is saying at the very beginning of the Second Treatise, i.e. that there is a universal moral law that is innate. In the Essay Locke asserts that there is no contradiction between the lack of innate ideas and the real existence of universally valid rules of behaviour. You’re not born with these rules, but experience and the development of reason will inevitably discover them anyway.  Besides, according to Locke, the Gospels contain such a perfect body of ethics that reason can be excused from the task anyway.

Where has this gotten us? For Hobbes, obligation exists only where the external force of positive law backs up certain maxims of prudence. For Locke it seems the law in and of itself imposes obligation. Any reasonable creature is by that fact of being reasonable obliged to respect the rights of others. But what is it that in fact governs behaviour. For both Hobbes and Locke it is only the perception of or the utility of certain rules, in relation to appetite and aversion, that explains behaviour. For Locke, this explains the existence of a variety of different rules in different societies. The differences arise from different circumstances. But for Locke, it also means that the only constant principles governing human behaviour are appetite and aversion. So – like the old style natural law, Locke thinks his version of natural law is binding without the existence of an external authority. But like Hobbes, and unlike the old natural law, Locke thinks these laws only summarize the natural appetites and aversions of men. Perhaps the difference is that, for Locke, the very same prudential hypotheses that Hobbes calls natural law, can be self-imposed. In the last instance then, his theory of human nature is nearly identical or the same as Hobbes: people are moved by appetites and aversions; natural law is a function of the appetites and aversions of or within the human individual.

We are now ready for the second installment, in which we can move from the state of nature through Locke’s analyses about the extent of political power and into his special theory of government.

Locke – Study Questions:

  1. How would you describe Locke’s idea of the “state of nature”? In what ways is it different from that of Hobbes? How does Locke account for the differences?
  1. How does Locke justify the unlimited accumulation of private property? Does consent to the use of money necessarily mean consent to “all of its consequences”? What are its consequences?
  1. Is there a difference in Locke between full citizenship and restricted/partial citizenship? What accounts for such differences as exist?
  1. What is the difference between sovereignty and government in Locke? Where is sovereignty located? Is government in Locke necessarily weak? Is the sovereign?
  1. What does Locke mean by rationality? Is it different from what Hobbes means? How would Plato or Aristotle view Locke’s idea of rationality?
  1. What is the right of resistance and how is it to be exercized according to Locke.
  1. Is Locke’s theory fully democratic? If not, how not? Are there any ways in which it is not compatible with full democracy?

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