Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Tuesday, January 22, 2013

LOCKE: Of Civil Government (Introduction and State of Nature)

When someone breaks the law it’s possible that they can be arrested by the police, tried by the courts and sentenced to serve time in jail; or in some cases even get the death penalty.  But if I catch the same person doing the same thing it’s against the law for me to lock them up in my basement.  Why is that?  Because I don’t have the authority to arrest anyone, much less lock them up in my basement.  So who (or what) gives the government the right to do it?  This is just one of the questions John Locke considers in his great book Of Civil Government.  According to Locke only the government has the authority to imprison people because only the government has legitimate political power.  And what exactly is the government authorized to do with this political power?  Locke says there are three primary responsibilities of government: Political power, then, I take to be (1) a right of making laws with penalties of death, and consequently all less penalties, (2) for the regulating and preserving of property, and of employing the force of the community, in the execution of such laws, and (3) in the defence of the common-wealth from foreign injury.  So these are the three primary objectives of government: make our laws, preserve our property, and protect us from foreign invasion.  But then Locke goes on to conclude his list of government’s responsibilities with one very important qualification: all this only for the public good.  Why only for the public good?  This sounds reasonable to us only because we live in the twenty-first century.  But it was not at all clear in Locke’s time or before that.  So Locke has to make the reader understand why political power can only be legitimately used for the public good: To understand political power right, and derive it from its original, we must consider, what state all men are naturally in… In other words, Locke wants us to go back to the beginning.  What were things like in a state of nature, before there ever were such things as governments and police departments and armies?  Locke believes that a state of nature is a state of perfect freedomThat sounds good.  We like freedom; therefore perfect freedom must be even better.  In Locke’s state of nature men are free 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.  Sign me up.  It sounds like I can do whatever I please in this state of nature.  Why would anyone ever give up perfect freedom to live under the burden of laws and regulations of a city or a state?  There are many reasons.  Maybe I don’t want to be lonely; maybe there’s better economic opportunity.  But mostly it’s for safety and security.  Some people may want to take my stuff or hurt me or even kill me.   That’s not the way it’s supposed to be.  Locke believes that the state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which obliges every one: and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind, who will but consult it… This law of nature is universal.  Everyone can understand it.  And that law is this: no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions.  That’s why I can’t just lock someone up in my basement whenever I feel like it: because it’s against the law of nature and the law of reason.  My perfect freedom doesn’t mean I can do whatever I want.  My freedom is perfect only in the sense that every other person has the same freedoms that I have.  No more, no less.  My freedom is perfect because it is perfectly symmetrical with yours.  Americans refer to this concept as the freedom of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”  John Locke called it life, health, liberty, or possessions. These are all things everyone wants and they’re the minimum things everyone should have.  Government should guarantee all its citizens at least these basic benefits of living in society.  Living in a well-governed civil society is much better than living in a state of nature.  This is the public good that Locke is talking about.


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