On Locke’s Doctrine of Natural Right

"On Locke's Doctrine of Natural Right," Philosophical Review, Vol. 61, No. 4 (October 1952).  Reprinted in Natural Right and History (Ch. 5B).

It is on the basis of Hobbes’s view of the law of nature that Locke opposes Hobbes’s conclusions.  He tries to show that Hobbes’s principle–the right of self-preservation–far from favoring absolute government, requires limited government.  Freedom, “freedom from arbitrary, absolute power,” is “the fence” to self-preservation.  Slavery is therefore against natural law except as a substitute for capital punishment.  Nothing which is incompatible with the basic right of self-preservation, and hence nothing to which a rational creature cannot be supposed to have given free consent, can be just; hence civil society or government cannot be established lawfully by force or conquest: consent alone “did or could give beginning to any lawful government in the world.”  For the same reason Locke condemns absolute monarchy or, more precisely, “absolute arbitrary power…of any one or more” as well as “governing without settled standing laws.”  In spite of the limitations which Locke demands, the commonwealth remains for him, as it was for Hobbes, “the mighty leviathan”: in entering civil society, “men give up all their natural power to the society which they enter into.”  Just as Hobbes did, so Locke admits only one contract: the contract of union which every individual makes with every other individual of the same multitude is identical with the contract of subjection.  Just as Hobbes did, so Locke teaches that, by virtue of the fundamental contract, every man “puts himself under an obligation to everyone of that society to submit to the determination of the majority, and to be concluded by it”; that, therefore, the fundamental contract establishes immediately and unqualified democracy; that this primary democracy may by majority vote either continue itself or transform itself into another form of government; and that the social contract is therefore in fact identical with a  contract of subjection to the “sovereign” (Hobbes) or to the “supreme power” (Locke) rather than to society.  Locke opposes Hobbes by teaching that wherever “the people” or “the community,” i.e., the majority, have placed the supreme power, they still retain “a supreme power to remove or alter” the established government, i.e., they still retain a right of revolution.  But this power (which is normally dormant) does not qualify the subjection of the individual to the community or society.  On the contrary, it is only fair to say that Hobbes stresses more strongly than does Locke the individual’s right to resist society or the government whenever his self-preservation is endangered.

Google Books