Stories, Learning & Place

Wednesday, October 27, 2004

Why do we need government?
   A brief introduction to the ideas of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke

This is a draft of an introduction intended to provide context for students discussing the Montana vigilantes. It seems one way of delving into the complexities and dilemmas of those, and similar, events, is to talk about them using language and ideas that have always been central to what America was and is. I’m not sure how much of this is new to today’s high school students, or how much is a rehashing of old ideas. I’m assuming most had American history in 5th grade and these concepts wouldn’t have meant much.

If you can imagine people living without laws or governments, you may imagine what Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) called a ”state of nature.” He didn’t necessarily believe that this state of nature had ever actually existed. He discussed it as a thought experiment to help people understand laws and governments.

In a state of nature, he said, each person would be “a law unto himself.” How would people act in such a case, Hobbes wondered. With no rules, no police, no bosses, what would people do? Hobbes believed that human nature would lead them into constant competition. They would busy themselves with endless contests for possessions and glory, and this would lead to widespread distrust and fear.

Because of the constant fear of war and the preparation for war, not to mention the harsh realities of war itself, people would end up with little leisure to cultivate their minds or their gardens, or to travel and engage in commerce, or to create beauty and prosperity. In a state of nature, Hobbes argued, life would be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

It would do no good at all for someone who suffered harm to complain that it wasn’t fair. This was because justice and injustice would be meaningless. The meaning of justice is that a person’s conduct meets some standard of conduct. But there can be no such standard unless there is some external authority. If there is no authority to write a book of rules governing football, for example, then it makes no sense to say that a player committed a foul. It is only a foul because the rule defined it that way. Where there are no laws there are no crimes. Since a state of nature is precisely the absence of any laws or authorities, there could be no justice or injustice.

Hobbes imagined that the worst people would get their way by force and by deception, and so everyone would live in danger of them and their plans.

Of course, people would want more safety and security than that. They would want to escape the state of nature. The only escape would be to become a part of something larger than themselves. When people are united into some form of governed order, they have formed a commonwealth. In Latin, this is called the civitas. In a commonwealth, or civitas, people give up some of their rights to govern themselves to a leader or an assembly of some sort. The commonwealth can then act in the name of the whole society. Its unity will give it the power to protect individuals from each other and to protect the whole society from invasion by hostile outsiders.

Hobbes pointed out that commonwealths have been created in two ways: by conquest or by institution. A strong leader can force others to grant him authority, or a group of people can meet and agree to institute a government. By accepting a governed society, people give up some of their rights. In return, they get more security.

In Hobbes’ words, they formed a social contract. A social contract is the agreement, usually unwritten, that forms civil life. Civil life, unlike a state of nature, is ordered by laws and governments. Of course, not all social contracts would seem very good to Americans today. If a king conquered a country and made the laws himself and punished anyone who disagreed with him, his government would still be a commonwealth held together by a social contract.

John Locke (1632-1704) thought along the same lines as Hobbes in some things, but there was an important difference between his ideas and Hobbes’: Locke believed in natural law. This made a huge difference, and led to his ideas becoming much more influential than Hobbes’. The Founders of the American nation developed many of their ideas by reading him.

Natural law, according to Locke, is a moral principle woven into the very fabric of existence. It’s as real as the law of gravity. It operates whether we recognize it or not. People have a natural moral sense, Locke believed, and can readily learn through reason to recognize natural law. All people can understand the natural law that “no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty or possessions.”

Though Hobbes believed that a person in a state of nature had the right to do whatever it took to defend himself and make himself secure, Locke’s idea about natural law went far beyond this. He believed that every person had a right to enforce the law of nature. Everyone had a right to punish people who harmed another person’s life, liberty, or property. Since the law of nature creates an external standard by which we can judge conduct, justice and injustice are real, even in a state of nature.

If strangers showed up in our midst and began a criminal spree, where do we get the right to stop them and put them on trial? It can’t be from the social contract, for we have no such contract with them. It’s a right that’s in nature, Locke said. Though he says it’s a “strange doctrine,” he argues that we have a natural right to punish wrongdoers, because we have a right to enforce nature’s law.

Locke’s view of human nature was not as pessimistic as Hobbes’. He didn’t think life in a state of nature had to be constant war.

He did believe, though, that once trouble started it would be hard in a state of nature to get it stopped again. We tend to judge ourselves with more understanding than we judge others. If we take our neighbor’s lamb because his dog killed one of our ewes yesterday, we may think that this is just and that we are enforcing what is right. Nonetheless, he may think we are just stealing a sheep we have no right to take. So we will think the score is even, while he will think we owe him a sheep. And when he comes to take his sheep, he will think it is just and we will think it is unjust. And like the famous feud between the Hatfields and the McCoys, it may go on forever.

Things get even more complicated when genuinely bad people get into the picture. They often do things secretly and make it appear that someone else did them. They tell lies about others.  They pretend they are in favor of justice when they are really just arranging things to suit themselves. When lots of people get involved, people become confused. One bad thing leads to another and to another in a cycle that can be impossible to stop without a judge who has authority to settle things.

When we accept a common judge, we leave the state of nature and enter a commonwealth.

In history, this usually happened when a strong military leader forced others to accept his rule. The kings of England had fought for their right to rule with swords. The limits to that right had been established by powerful lords who had armies of their own. Through much of human history, might made right. Whoever had the power made the rules. This might be better than a state of nature, but sometimes it was awful.

An alternative to “might makes right” developed in England. In the early 1600s James I argued that there was a ”divine right of kings.” Kings were chosen by God, he said, which meant that subjects had a moral duty to obey their rulers. For their part, kings had a duty to rule wisely and justly. One good thing about this idea was that it held the promise that there was some principle other than pure force and coercion that might order the affairs of government. It included ideas of duty and obedience to duty that were not based solely on threats.

But Locke didn’t believe that some people were born to be masters and others slaves. He believed that people were born equal in the sense that everyone had natural rights to their lives, their liberty, and their property. For a social contract to be legitimate, it had to be based on the ”consent of the governed.” Government did not come from above, it came from below--from the people who were governed. And it had to preserve their natural rights. This had powerful consequences. For one thing, a government that “violates the social contract… rebels against the people, and the people have the right to dissolve” it. In other words, Locke said, governments get their legitimacy from the and people have a right to revoke that consent if the government violates their natural rights. It was an idea that could power a revolution, as it has, more than once.

The ideas of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke lie at the heart of the American Revolution: People are not granted their rights by governments. People already have their rights, which exist in nature. Governments are not imposed upon people by God. People create governments, in order to protect their rights. When a government violates natural rights, it loses its legitimacy, and the people have a right to dissolve it and form a new government.

They are ideas that have shaped America through history and that continue to be debated today.

Note: the idea of legitimacy is important to understanding governance. Its literal meaning is “in accordance with the law.” In our American tradition we grant legitimacy to leaders who have won elections, or to decisions that are made in accordance with established laws, or to judicial rulings that are true to the Constitution. But we don’t always use “legitimate” to mean the same thing sas “legal.” Sometimes we use the word to mean “in accordance with recognized principles.” Since principles and laws may not always be the same, we sometimes think actions are legitimate without being legal, as when Rosa Parks ignored the rules against blacks sitting in the front of city buses in the South. We think other things are legal without being legitimate, as when a slick lawyer manages to free a wealthy corporation from a legal requirement to clean up an environmental mess it has made.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey on 10/27 at 09:17 PM
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©2004 Michael L. Umphrey
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