Political Philosophy: Unit 2 The state of nature

2.5 Locke

This section of your reading has two parts

  1. A short extract from Locke’s Second Treatise on Government
  2. A description and analysis of Locke’s argument from the Wolff textbook.

Locke’s view of the state of nature is commonly contrasted with that of Hobbes. It was first published in 1690, about 40 years after Leviathan. Locke published the Second Treatise on Government anonymously and never acknowledged it in his lifetime. It was considered, quite literally, a revolutionary text, arguing that the King’s power has moral limits, in that individuals have natural rights to life, liberty and property. On this view, taxation without the consent of the people is illegitimate. The foundation of Locke’s political philosophy is his social contract theory of political authority, and this, in turn, starts from his depiction of the state of nature. We will look at other aspects of Locke’s views in later units.

Please read the Locke extract, Selection 3 in Rosen and Wolff (eds.), followed by pp. 17–23 of Wolff.

Individual activity: Locke quiz

Now answer the quiz, remembering to write your answers in your blog or elsewhere if you want to, before looking at my answers.

  1. Is, for Locke, the state of nature a state of liberty or a state of licence? Reveal

    A state of liberty.

  2. What is Locke’s ‘law of nature’? Reveal

    That no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty or possessions.

  3. Why does Locke think that people in the state of nature have the right to punish others who disobey the law of nature? Reveal

    Because otherwise the law of nature would be in vain.

  4. How is the appropriate level of punishment determined in the state of nature? Reveal

    To make it an ‘ill bargain’ to the transgressor, give him cause to repent, and terrify others from doing the like.

  5. Why does Locke think that Civil Government is needed? Reveal

    Because ill nature, passion and revenge can carry people too far in punishing transgressors.

Individual activity: Locke and the state of nature

Does Locke provide a plausible account of the state of nature? Once more, jot a few notes down about this in your blog or elsewhere, as preparation for the discussion at the end of the unit.