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Locke vs. Hobbes, Nature, and Civil Society (Part 4)

November 22nd, 2007 Comments off

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Unlimited sovereign authority is precisely that: the inconstant, uncertain, unknown arbitrary will of another man. The only form of government which is consistent with the rights of man is one which is restrained by the law of nature.

Some Problems in Locke

By contrast, we can see the comparative improvements of Locke’s political theory over that of Hobbes, though it also possesses some significant shortcomings. Among these are issues of consent to governance, in which Locke suffers from the same plausibility-versus-consistency trade-off as Hobbes does; and the inherent conflict between the idea of electing an arbitrator and government as the imposition of a single one for all. [12]

Consent is largely a problem for any political theory which treasures the independence of man, in the sense that there are numerous externalities that complicate the pragmatic feasibility of a right to secede and form governments freely. Locke somewhat resolves this with his doctrine of tacit consent, appearing the moment that someone resides in a sovereign’s territory or owns property there. However, this is at best a patchwork fix to the problem of consent, since governance should be a compact between the state and the governed, none of which directly implies territoriality or any non-consensual obligation.

Likewise, the need for a universal arbitrator as a reason for exiting the state of nature to form civil society can be contested. One might ask, “Who is to arbitrate between the people and the state? ” This creates another problem for Locke, who acknowledges it:

“Where an appeal to the Law lies open, but the remedy is deny’d by a manifest perverting of Justice, there it is hard to imagine any thing but a State of War. For wherever violence is used, and injury done, though by hands appointed to administer Justice, it is still violence and injury, however colour’d with the Name, Pretences, or Forms of Law. ”[13]

Concerns about the capture of arbitration, especially one which is practically monopolized on issues of force, severely undermine Locke’s political theory in favor of anarchistic individualism. Likely sensing that this objection was beyond the scope of his capabilities and not inclined to accept rebellion as a solution, Locke simply suggests that those dissatisfied with arbitration, with no other appeal available, “are left to the only remedy in such cases, an appeal to heaven. ”


[1] The remainder of this paper will attempt to focus on Hobbes through the lens of this interpretation, but elements of his work better served by a more mechanistic interpretation may crop up. The primary purpose of emphasizing a more “moral” Hobbes is to make him more compatible in comparison to Locke, and to make the discussion of proper governance more meaningful.

[2] Hobbes, Leviathan, xiii.

[3] Hobbes, Leviathan, xiii.

[4] Hobbes, De Cive, Epistle Dedicatory.

[5] Hobbes, Leviathan, xiii.

[6] Hobbes, Leviathan, xiv.

[7] Hobbes, Leviathan, xiv.

[8] The “high road” is used in the ethical egoist’s sense, i. e. the most rational action of self-interest. This could entail even a Lockean perception of morality, connecting the two thinkers quite closely.

[9] Locke, Two Treatises. 2. 19

[10] Locke, Two Treatises. 2. 16

[11] Locke, Two Treatises. 2. 176

[12] Locke’s Political Philosophy. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. http://plato. stanford. edu/entries/locke-political/. Accessed March 05, 2007.

[13] Locke, Two Treatises. 2. 20

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