In A State of Nature

John Locke In a State of NatureJohn Locke was one of the most influential political philosophers that the Founders drew from. In particular, his Second Treatise On Government. His starting place was from what he called being in a “State of Nature.” Here’s my short form take on it.

In a state of nature, i.e. no government, an individual human being by himself has the absolute freedom to do whatever he wants and has no choice but to accept the consequences, for better or worse, of doing so. But people are pretty weak, compared to other animals. Our only real survival tool is using what’s between our ears.

The primary goal of any individual is to survive, having the absolute natural right to life. Survival depends on taking the actions needed to do so, the absolute natural right to liberty. It also depends on keeping the results of your efforts; food, shelter, tools, clothing, territory, and so on. So people have an absolute natural right to defend, with deadly force if needed, themselves and their property (which is what the term of art “pursuit of happiness” means in expanded form to include intangibles).

Now, what happens when other people come into the picture? Working and interacting with other people greatly increases your odds of survival. People can spend some of their time doing what they’re best at or prefer to do and trade that with others who do what you don’t. We can choose, if we see it’s in our best interests to do so, to combine our efforts to accomplish what no one person could do by themselves. But none of this changes the basic absolute individual natural rights.

We have some weaknesses too. We don’t know everything and often make mistakes. If they aren’t fatal, we need to learn from them and go on. All too often, we act on emotion rather than reason. Again, if those actions aren’t fatal we need to learn from them and go on.

But when other people are around, we need to find a way to keep the consequences of acting on those weaknesses from outweighing the benefits of interacting with each other.

If someone takes what you’ve spent time and effort on making or trading for, you’re angry, very angry. If you think you know who did it your normal reaction is to try and get it back and punish the person who did it so badly that they’re never going to do it again.

But what if you’re wrong and it was someone else? What if the punishment you would dole out based on your emotional reaction is way too harsh for the actual damage done? Now we have the need for an external organization that equally protects the rights of all parties to the best of its ability. It puts reason and deliberation and judgment back into the picture.

LadyJustice In a State of NatureAt least in theory, the people who are judging don’t have an emotional bias. They have the time to actually look at the evidence and decide if the person accused really is the person who did it. They can weigh the harm done against the range of possible penalties and decides what seems sufficient. They can require restitution (which is something we do too little of) to the person harmed.

There is one caveat in all of this which is that the organization has to have the authority to use force, deadly force if needed, to enact its decision. It is exactly the same force that an individual has an absolute natural right to use when in a state of nature to defend himself and his property that is delegated to the government and is the derived source of all proper government powers.

Some forms of government do a much better job of protecting the absolute natural rights of individuals than others. If the current form isn’t getting the job done, in the judgment of the people who are subject to it, they can withdraw their authorization and set up a new organization (government) that they believe will work better at maximizing the benefits of living with others while minimizing the costs in terms of what seems most important to them.

Take all this and then put it into the context of the Declaration of Independence and see if it sounds familiar.

Rights And The Declaration Of Independence

This is an expanded version of a comment I made on PBS at (http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/finding-empowerment-words-founding-fathers/). A fascinating discussion of how one little change in punctuation makes the Declaration of Independence even stronger.

As normally written:

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, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to affect their Safety and Happiness.”

With one little change:

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, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness, that to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to affect their Safety and Happiness.”
 
Changing the period after “happiness” to a comma makes the preface “We hold these truths to be self evident” apply to all five following phrases. It’s not really clear on the original text and punctuation rules weren’t as strict then as now. Read it a few times.
 
On to my comment:
 
The setting for the word “equal” here is in a political document. Political equality is equality under the law and legislation (not always the same thing).

Natural rights are concepts arising from the nature of members of our species, regardless of race, sex, religion, or any other division you care to make except one: That you are capable of understanding that the rights you claim are equal to the rights of every other person and that you refrain from actions that infringe on the equal rights of others.

Natural rights are completely and solely negatives on the actions of others. They do not require anyone else to take any actions, only that they refrain from infringing on your rights.

Procedural rights, such as voting or trial by jury aren’t strictly necessary by nature but have been found to be good methods within our general societal structure for handling how those rights are defined in general and protected in specific cases.

Children, the insane, or those disabled in any other way that prevents them from being capable of understanding the concept of rights are not regarded as fully equal under the law. There are actions that they may not be free to take and there are consequences they would normally face as a result of their actions that they may be shielded from.

Almost every other political use of the word “rights” is actually an infringement on the natural rights of some people for the benefit of other people. Jefferson and the other Founders seem to have been very aware of those differences and were careful where they used the word “rights.”

Liberty and freedom are liberty and freedom to act without government permission, or indeed without anyone’s permission, as long as those actions do not infringe on the equal rights of others. There are no guarantees of outcome, only the freedom to “pursue” what you consider to be what is needed for your happiness. There is no guarantee that other individuals will treat you justly, whatever you consider that justice to consist of. Only the government must be restrained because only the government is authorized to use force and only in response, aside from the immediate self-defense right of individuals.

Those shackles on government have been rusting away for a long time and they’re getting pretty loose.