Lockeís Second Treatise of Government

John Lockeís Two Treatises of Government (1690) are essays which had an important influence on the development of modern concepts of democracy by arguing that all individuals have natural rights to freedom, independence, and political equality. The treatises deny that any individual has the right to exercise unlimited or absolute power over other individuals. The First Treatise attacks the theory of divine right monarchy which is presented by Sir Robert Fillmer in his Patriarcha, or the Natural Power of Kings (1680). This theory of the divine right of kings claims that kings rule by the will of God and that to oppose the power of kings is to disobey the will of God. Locke vigorously attacks this theory in the First Treatise, and describes in the Second Treatise how the powers of government may be used to protect the freedom and political equality of all individuals.

The Second Treatise is described on the title page of the Two Treatises as an essay which is concerned with the orign, extent, and purpose of civil government. The treatise describes the conditions under which a government may be established, and explains how a government may be based on a 'compact' or social contract in which the people of society exchange their natural rights for civil rights. The treatise discusses the duties and obligations of legislators and of other leaders of government, and describes the proper uses and limits of executive and legislative power. The treatise also describes the conditions under which a government may be dissolved by the people of a civil society if the government fails to protect their freedom and security.

Locke defines the 'state of nature' as an original condition preceding the development of society, and describes it as a state in which all individuals are perfectly free and equal. The 'state of nature' is governed by the 'law of nature,' and the 'law of nature' is that of reason. The 'law of reason' declares that all individuals should refrain from causing harm to each otherís liberty, property, and well-being. If all individuals obey the 'law of reason,' then peace and harmony will be maintained, and a 'state of war' will be avoided.

Locke argues that in the 'state of nature,' the right to enforce the 'law of nature' belongs to each individual. Each individual in the 'state of nature' has the right to punish those who cause wrongful injury to his own life, liberty, or property. Punishment for any act of disobedience to the 'law of nature' should be proportional to the magnitude and gravity of the offense, and should provide both an adequate reparation for that offense and an adequate deterrence to future offenses.

According to Locke, whoever disobeys the 'law of nature' also disobeys the 'law of reason,' which requires thst all individuals be treated fairly and equitably. Whoever attempts to gain absolute power over other individuals engages in a 'state of war' with them. Locke describes the 'state of war' as being different from, and contrary to, the 'state of nature,' and thus disagrees with Hobbes, who in the Leviathan (1651) describes the 'state of war' as being identical to the 'state of nature.'1 According to Locke, the 'state of nature' is properly a state of harmony and cooperation between individuals, but according to Hobbes, the 'state of nature' is actually a state of discord and conflict between individuals.

Locke maintains that all individuals have a natural right not to be ruled by the power of any government except that which has been established by common consent.2 Each individual has an equal right not be subjected to the arbitrary or unlawful power of other individuals. No individual has the right to unlawfully harm the lives, health, liberty, or property of other individuals.

Locke explains that the natural freedom of all individuals is not a freedom to disobey the 'law of reason,' because individuals may lose their natural freedom by disobeying the 'law of reason.' The natural freedom of all individuals is a freedom to act rationally, and is a freedom not to have to comply with any arbitrary or unlawful demands by other individuals.

Locke describes the 'state of nature' as a state of insecurity, in that each individual is exposed to possible infringement of his or her natural rights by other individuals. Thus, the purpose of establishing a civil government is to protect the freedom and well-being of all members of society.

According to Locke, each individual has a natural right to protect his or her own life, liberty, and property. Each individual has a natural right to be compensated for any wrongful injury to his or her own life, liberty, or property which has been caused by other individuals. However, in order for a civil government to be established, each individual must surrender to the civil government the natural right to punish those who infringe on his or her own rights, and each individual must submit to the judicial authority of the civil government his or her own grievances concerning the wrongful actions of other individuals.

Locke explains that in the 'state of nature,' there is no legislative or judicial authority to whom individuals can appeal for help in order to protect their lives, liberty, or property. Thus, in a civil society, a judicial authority may be established in order to resolve disputes fairly and equitably.

Locke also explains that the main purpose of establishing a civil government is to protect the freedom and security of all members of society. If a government arbitrarily attempts to deprive some individuals of their liberty or property, then it engages in a 'state of war' with them, and they have the right to oppose the unjust actions of that government. The people of a civil society may rightfully dissolve a government which acts unlawfully or which fails to protect their freedom and security.

Locke argues that a civil government does not have the right to take away the life, liberty, or property of any individual arbitrarily. The power of a civil government cannot rightfully be used for the purpose of enabling some individuals to gain absolute or arbitrary power over other individuals. In a just and well-ordered society, all individuals are obligated to obey civil laws, and legislators are obligated to obey the same laws as other individuals.

Locke also argues that if the executive power of a civil government arbitrarily prevents the legislative power of government from exercising its lawful functions, and if the executive power arbitrarily prevents laws from being enacted which would protect the public good, then the people of society have the right to remove that executive power from the government. If a tyrant oppresses the people by using unlawful force to deprive them of their liberty or property, then the people of society have a right to forcefully oppose that tyrant. Furthermore, the people of society have a right to defend themselves against those individuals who use violence to try to take away their freedom and security.


FOOTNOTES

1Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, edited by J.C.A. Gaskin (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), p. 84.

2John Locke, The Second Treatise of Government, edited by Thomas P. Peardon (Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1952), p. 15).

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan. Edited by J.C.A. Gaskin. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Locke, John. The Second Treatise of Government. Edited by Thomas P. Peardon. Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1971.

Copywright© Alex Scott 2004

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