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The Laws of Nature and Locke’s Discussion of Property

Two Basic Laws and the Right of Nature

In his fundamental treatise Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes introduced several philosophical conceptions, which can look seemingly similar and might confuse understanding. All of them are related to rights, laws, and human nature in one way or another. However, all these conceptions are logically connected, and all lead to the vital point of Hobbes’s ideas — the emergence and necessity of the state in relations between humans.

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According to Hobbes, the natural condition of humanity is a war of all against all. In this natural condition, every human has a natural right to any action beneficial for their survival and well-being, including killing other humans. In addition to right exists the law of nature, which prevents humans from harmful or dangerous acts towards their self-preservation. A law of nature is not equal to the natural right — Hobbes precisely separates these two conceptions, since natural right can be understood as a freedom to choose between undertaking particular action or refraining from it. On the contrary, the law of nature does not provide a choice but forces humans to refrain from actions detrimental to their lives.

Hobbes developed an idea mentioned above and defined two basic laws of nature. The first basic law proclaims that humans must seek peace and keep it to survive. Any reasonable human being must strive to achieve peace since it is the best way to avoid suffering and danger. The second basic law appears as a logical outcome of the first one — as it states that humans must reject their natural right to a degree sufficient for self-defense and peacekeeping.

Otherwise, humankind will be engaged in the war of all against all, since in their natural condition, humans will use their natural right unchecked, and nobody will be safe from discord and violence. Rejecting own natural right means losing the liberty to stop the other human from exercising it in full scale, and in this case, only external regulation can reliably prevent an abuse of that right. Therefore, two basic laws of nature serve as a balancing instrument used to control exercising of the natural right. Later on, Hobbes depicts the state as a sovereign mediator between humans and an institution, which establishes peace and order in exchange for certain limitations of the natural right.

Locke’s Discussion of Property

The Second Treatise of Government by John Locke provides an elaborated look on private property, the market economy, and the role of the government while explaining the emergence and development of these institutions. According to Locke, the nature of the private property was different from the views of his contemporaries, as he put labor above occupation, application of force, or mutual consent (XVIII). Locke agreed that God gave humankind the Earth and everything on it as common property, but after that, humans started to slowly acquire and transform parts of it, thus making parts of Earth their own.

By putting their skilled labor into the plot of land, specific individuals created the very first examples of private property. An empty plot of land had no significant value until industrious and skillful workers turned it into a flourishing estate and rightfully claimed it for themselves. The pattern of acquisition repeated itself and paved the road to the creation of more complex and developed societies. Their growing wealth led to the invention of money and the growth of trade, which served as a foundation of expanding economies and the creation of the state and government.

Locke also addressed topics of inequality and freedom, and in doing so, created an ideological ground for such historical events as European imperial colonialism and the American Revolution. One might see the roots of colonialism in Locke’s view on the property. Since England was highly populated and developed compared to America, it was justified to take lands from the native people and properly cultivate them (Locke, XIX). Inequality was considered an understandable outcome of a developing market economy and an acceptable price for living in society, where an English laborer is wealthier than an Indian chief (Locke, XVIII).

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Simple societies and economies enjoyed more equality and required less strict governance, while growing competition in prosperous market economies demanded the creation of protector and regulator in the government’s figure. In that sense, Locke’s views had much in common with Hobbes’s idea of the social contract between humans and the state. And as for the American Revolution, Locke’s idea of the connection between owning property and freedom manifested itself in the famous slogan “No taxation without representation,” which dismissed English royal claim on American private property.

In conclusion, one might state that the ideas of John Locke have influenced significant events of European and American history, as well as several contemporary concepts in economics, political, and social science. Locke created one of the first concepts of liberal market economy with limited state regulation, provided an image of a capitalistic paradigm, and formulated an ideological basis for the colonial expansion of European powers. Therefore, he can be rightfully recognized as one of the most influential philosophers in history.

Work Cited

Locke, John. Second Treatise of Government and A Letter Concerning Toleration. Edited by Mark Goldie, Oxford University Press, 2016.

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