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Do We Have Rights? (part 2)

John Locke vs. Thomas Hobbes

by Christian Ledford

While both Hobbes and Locke defined their ideas on natural rights in a negative sense, where a “right” is not an owed entitlement but rather a natural ability that exists before and beyond the context of a state and cannot be taken away, Locke intentionally strayed away from the nihilistic vagueness and license of the Hobbesian definition where individuals’ rights included the right to violate, steal, and trample on the rights of others if their strength granted them the ability to do so. Rather, Locke argued that, regardless of the violence of other individuals or the state itself, humans are born with the right to life (the claim to one’s own existence and the freedom from undue violence or end upon it), the right to liberty (the claim to sovereignty over one’s own actions, decisions, and thoughts and freedom from undue infringement upon them), and the right to property (the claim of ownership over the fruits of one’s own labor and the freedom from theft of it). Locke wrote “The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which obliges everyone: and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind, who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions… Everyone as he is bound to preserve himself…may not unless it be to do justice on an offender, take away, or impair the life, or what tends to the preservation of life, the liberty, health, limb, or goods of another” (Locke, 271).

Improving vastly upon the Hobbesian definition, Lockean formulation of natural rights philosophy established a definition based in both universality and equality. While Hobbes argued that the strong have the natural right to trample over the weak, Locke explicitly rejected this brutal notion, arguing that the strong and weak alike possessed universal and equal right to their own life, liberty, and property. However, at first glance, one could question how exactly the Lockean definition mechanically differs from the Hobbesian definition, as both philosophers heavily refer to both the “natural” nature of rights as well as the “state of nature” from which mankind derives them. This important question reveals the true distinction between Hobbes and Locke and reveals why Hobbesian philosophy fails while Lockean philosophy succeeds: while Hobbes argued from a secular, purely physical perspective where mankind was nothing more than simply the apex species that had earned their role through brute strength, Locke argued from an explicitly theistic and Christian perspective where mankind is a chosen species directly imbued with an eternal conscience by a loving and supernatural creator. In fact, the entirety of John Locke’s First Treatise on Civil Government, which directly precedes his Second Treatise, argues that the entire reason mankind has any rights to speak of at all is because of their creation and endowment with rights by the Judaeo-Christian God.

Although writing Leviathan centuries before Charles Darwin would ever pioneer the theory of evolution, Thomas Hobbes consistently and constantly appealed to notions of the world that would come to fall directly in line with Darwin’s ideas on the survival of the fittest, appealing to a vision of natural human existence which he called the “State of War”. Hobbes wrote “So the nature of war, [consists] not in actual fighting; but in the known disposition thereto, during all the time there is no assurance to the contrary… In such condition, there is…continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” (Hobbes, 186). Although never claiming atheism in his own lifetime, Thomas Hobbes did repeatedly reject the existence of a spiritual, incorporeal realm and asserted that every aspect of existence could be observed through pure naturalism alone. Nevertheless, this startling and bleak outlook on the life, condition, and destiny of mankind utilized by Hobbes, atheistic or not, was not one shared by John Locke.

In Locke’s First Treatise, he starts his analysis not in some unspecified, violent state of primitive humanity, like Hobbes, but rather at the beginning of Christian religious text: the creation story in the Book of Genesis. Locke, directly analyzing and interpreting the Bible, argues that the existence of natural rights began not when humanity developed strength and intelligence necessary to seize them but rather at the very moment God created Adam, the very first man, as a unique, sentient being. Locke wrote “I cannot see, nor consequently understand, how a supposition of natural freedom is a denial of Adam’s creation… For I find no difficulty to suppose the freedom of mankind though I have always believed the creation of Adam; he was created, or began to exist, by God’s immediate power…when it pleased God he should… Then bare creation gave him not dominion, and one might have supposed mankind free” (Locke, 151). Locke also wrote “God who bid mankind increase and multiply, should rather himself give them all a right, to make use of the food and raiment, and other conveniences of life, the materials whereof he had so plentifully provided for them… Therefore no man could ever have a just power over the life of another” (Locke, 169-170).

Look for part 3 next week.


*This piece is both timely and fitting for the current political climate. It is an excerpt from a longer speech that Christian wrote for last spring's Locke and Lewis / Faith and Reason speech contest at the University of Michigan-Dearborn. He delivered this speech from the university's film studio on March 18, the first week after it had been shut down due to the Coronavirus. It won first place. The full video recording of the speech can be viewed in YouTube here: Christian Ledford is a recent political-science graduate of the university (2019) who aspires to a profession in law.


  • 30 November 2020
  • Author: Guest Blogger
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