The USA’s Founding Fathers were influenced by John Locke’s concepts that mankind was endowed by nature with inalienable rights such as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and that man at some stage had made a social contract with government to protect these rights. Both of them were in his Two Treatises of Government of 1690. Thomas Jefferson was well-versed in political philosophers of the Enlightenment.
But. as stated below, this was an idealistically rosy view of what we were like in a state of nature. I think it was rather that emotion that one gets as one looks at man weighed down with oppressions that he doesn’t need..
He could more accurately have simply stated: ‘We have long ago reached a stage of moral devepment, if we ever lacked it, that we don’t need these oppressions.’
Thomas Hobbes, in Leviathan (1651), had stated that man’s life in a state of nature had been one of violence and barbarism where his life would have been ‘nasty, brutish and short’, and where the only natural law or right had been to survive at any cost. (Perhaps ‘law’ simply meant that it was the over-riding imperative for Man in the state of nature; there was no law imposed by society. ‘Right’ seems to have meant simply that it was fundamental to one’s nature to preserve one’s life.)
But Locke, in contrast to Hobbes, had a much more benign view: that people prior to government had been peaceful, happy, benevolent, and got on quite well. This is a huge difference in basic belief about human nature and leads to huge difference in politics.
Locke believed in a natural law where people had ‘certain inalienable rights’ such as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. (Did Locke say ‘inalienable ‘or ‘unalienable’? I am also not sure whether these precise rights in these precise words come from Locke himself or from the US Constitution. Also, why is this a ‘law’? How come it is ‘natural’? And why are these ‘rights’? I will deal with these questions later, from other sites. )
These ‘rights’ are there to be gained by individuals by working for them, not from the lofty noblesse oblige of the aristocracy or from a welfare state. So, the economic expression of Lockean laws and rights is Capitalism, which supplies goods and services for a profit. (Didn’t people before Capitalism believe they had such ‘rights’ – no, perhaps they thought they had to work for the nobility as a religious duty and to receive a percentage for survival. Now the individual could go out and make a profit for himself and his family.)
Now comes the matter of a social contract between government and people. Hobbes had already imagined a social contract between the ruler and the masses, to justify the former using any means necessary to keep mankind from reverting to its natural state of barbarism.
For Hobbes, it was self-interest that motivated individuals to give up their freedom and live under a government that protected their lives It is the only cure for the untethered self-interest of individuals.
From his experience of England in Charles I’s reign, Hobbes concluded that the worst tyrant is better than a weak and ineffective one. Hence, his sovereign has absolute power. It is a requirement for peace. He reigns above the law. Unlike citizens, he is not subject to the social contract except to see to it that his subjects live up to the contract which they have agreed to obey. His duty is to punish those who transgress the laws. (It seems that the ruler’s part of the contrct is to maintain peace in his realm.)
Locke too had a concept of social contract, but not just to preserve the lives of individualss but also their other natural rights such as liberty and the pursuit of happiness. So, Locke’s sovereign had to have higher standards than Hobbes’s.
Locke also felt that a citizenry’s silence is consent: If they are displeased, they have the right to leave, or change the government. The minds behind the American and French Revolutions picked up on that. Perhaps the status quo had until then been regarded as divinely ordained, by the Great Chain of Being, and by the Divine Right of Kings, for example. Locke was obviously against the Divine Right of Kings that the Stuart kings had wanted to impose on England.
Locke’s political doctrines were incorporated into the Constitution of the US, and of France in 1871. Thomas Jefferson said of Locke’s Second Treatise, “It is perfect as far as it goes,” meaning that it was a blueprint for a working constitution.
Locke published most of his political writings anonymously, preferring to keep them separate from the Essay, which he regarded as his most important work.
What Hobbes and Locke wrote implies their atheism but they had to hide this for fear of their lives. They probably dismissed all metaphysics.
These above paragraphs were based on James Mannion in what used to be ‘netplaces, and on Politics: The Need for a Social Contract and a Strong Sovereign by Kenneth Shouler, in the same site.
My remaining paragraphs are based on Politics: The Need for a Social Contract and a Strong Sovereign by Kenneth Shouler in netplaces. These are criticisms of Locke, which surely many others have expressed in the intervening centuries.
Firstly, where on Earth do we actually get these ‘natural rights’ of Locke’s? According to the US Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.”
So they are self-evident, as well as endowed by God! But, we are told in effect by this site. that there are no passages in the Bible or other Christian texts that put forward unalienable political rights. Second, an argument on religious grounds is influential only to those who share that particular religion. Third, governments grounded on specific religions tend to violate unalienable rights. Fourth, rights of the individual have been protected for other reasons than religion. And fifth, the idea of rights based on natural law sees man and nature not as they really were:
We are carnivores, genetically programmed killers, who have likely driven other primates to extinction. Elements of this violence and selfishness are intrinsic to us. It is only by intentionally suppressing them over the succeeding millenia that we have become better human beings and increased our own likelihood for longer and happier life.
So the concept of rights stemming from natural law is problematic. We strive for empathy; nature is indifferent. We strive for love; nature is violent. We strive for inclusion; nature excludes. We strive for a better world while nature teaches us to exploit it. Natural law is a poor foundation for natural rights.
The idea of natural rights is not an axiom of nature comparable to the laws of physics. Nature, which is indifferent to our rights and struggles, has nothing to do with it. One benefit of the natural law theory of rights though is that it implies that everyone has the same rights and that these never change.
But we can’t in fact look to nature for these rights. We ourselves have created them over the centuries in our values. We care enough about people to respect their livelihoods and their autonomy. We care about women, and about the embryo in the womb. We don’t want people imprisoned for speaking their opinions, or for their religion, or to suffer cruel punishment, or to be wrongly found guilty. These feelings of ours come before our sociological reasoning that such rights are ultimately good for society.