Locke, Hobbes, Mill, Thoreau

Custom Student Mr. Teacher ENG 1001-04 17 November 2016

Locke, Hobbes, Mill, Thoreau

John Locke explains the state of nature as a state of equality in which no one has power over another, and all are free to do as they please. He notes, however, that this liberty does not equal license to abuse others, and that natural law exists even in the state of nature. Each individual in the state of nature has the power to execute natural laws, which are universal. I believe that Locke is correct in his analysis of the state of nature however; Locke? s theory includes many assumptions. First is the assumption of a system of morality, the natural law derives from a theory of justice, a set of rights.

No one would have any “rights” at all in the absence of a moral code applicable to human actions, nor would there be any standard of “just” punishment. Locke frequently uses the term “rights” and appeals to conscience and “calm reason”, all of which reflect his assumptions about justice and morality. For individual property to exist, there must be a means for individuals to appropriate the things around them. Locke starts out with the idea of the property of person; each person owns his or her own body, and all the labor that they perform with the body.

When an individual adds their own labor, their own property, to a foreign object or good, that object becomes their own because they have added their labor. This appropriation of goods does not demand the consent of humankind in general, each person has license to appropriate things in this way by individual initiative. Locke then places a bound on this type of acquisition, a person may only acquire as many things in this way as he or she can reasonably use to their advantage. One can only take so much as one can use.

Lock applies these rules to land: a person in a state of nature can claim land by adding labor to it, building house on it or farming on it, but only so much as that person can reasonably use without waste. Locke then defines labor as the determining factor of value, the tool by which humans make their world a more advantageous and rewarding place to inhabit. Locke states that in order for a civil society to be established, the individuals must forfeit some of their rights that they have in the state of nature.

This needs to be done so everyone can live together in peace. If everyone had the right to take whatever he or she could use, this might infringe on another member’s right to take whatever he or she could use. This “consent” to the laws in put upon the society in an indirect way. The people didn’t actually say “I will not take that man’s land” but it is inferred through the agreement that the other man wont take my land. This way we can all live in harmony together. Locke points out that any society has the right to rebellion.

In order to justify this, Locke says a society must be in a very poor state. The state must be infringing on the natural rights of the people. A society couldn’t rebel for the sake of rebellion, this would cause chaos and in order to return chaos to order tyranny would follow. Locke is very opposed to tyranny for obvious reasons. The voice of the people doesn’t get heard and causes injustice. This eventually leads into a cycle. This justifies rebellion but since the people have to be strictly controlled, a rebellion couldn’t get organized and there is no way out of the circle.

John Stewart Mill Mill writes a majority may consciously try to oppress a minority. He also states that this concept of a tyranny of the majority has come to be accepted by major thinkers. What ever the general will of the majority dictates is what gets done. This is illustrated in the United States Congress. It doesn’t necessarily consciously try to oppress the minority, but if the US didn’t have the balance in power, what ever the majority wanted would get done without the consent of everyone.

Mill discusses why silencing opinions hurts humanity. His first argument is that the suppressed opinion may be true. He writes that since human beings are not infallible, they have no authority to decide an issue for all people, and to keep others from coming up with their own judgments. Mill asserts that the reason why liberty of opinion is so often in danger is that in practice people tend to be confident in their own rightness, and excluding that, in the infallibility of the world they come in contact with.

Mill contends that such confidence is not justified, and that silencing potentially true ideas hurts all people. This brings us to the next argument Mill makes. He observes that if an opinion is true, it will survive persecution. This is generally true; however when history is written, it might conveniently forget the truth for many generations. A perfect example of this is Nikola Tesla. He was considered one of the greatest if not the greatest scientist in his time, but his opinion (the truth) was silenced because he was thought to be crazy.

Mill tries to show the contingency of popular beliefs about truth while going to great lengths to not actually state that any popular views about things like religion are wrong. Galileo and Copernicus are just a few of the examples of people getting persecuted for religious reasons for what is now believed to be true. Henry David Thoreau Thoreau says that while everyone recognizes the right to revolution when faced with an intolerably tyrannical or inefficient government, most people say that such a revolution would not be warranted under current conditions.

However, Thoreau argues that we have not only the right, but also the duty to rebel. He uses an example from the Mexican-American War. He argues Americans must stop the slavery and war with Mexico even if it costs them their existence. He believes the war is unjust and the people have the duty to rebel against the government to protect their conscience. One of the most important themes throughout Thoreau’s work is the notion of individualism. Deeply skeptical of government, Thoreau rejects the view that a person must sacrifice or marginalize his values out of loyalty to his government.

He believes individualism is the most important virtue in humanism. Furthermore, he argues that if an individual supports the government in any way, even by simply respecting its authority as a government, then that person is implicated in the injustices committed by the government. For example, if a German in Nazi Germany let the injustices against the Jews go by because he feared retribution from the government, he is just as responsible as the people who actually executed the Jews.

However, a person couldn’t withdraw his consent because withdrawing would be morally unjust. This is where a person’s duty to rebel comes into play. A person must actively try to change what they don’t agree with. Thoreau believes a very heavy responsibility should be placed on the individual to make sure the individual consents to everything. Thomas Hobbes It can be understood from Hobbes the state of nature is what would exist if there were no government, no civilization, no laws and no common power to restrain human nature.

The state of nature is a “war of all against all,” in which human beings constantly seek to destroy each other in an incessant pursuit for power. Life in the state of nature is “nasty, brutish and short”. From this one can infer Hobbes believes human nature is inherently evil and corrupt. To prevent the ensuing chaos, Hobbes believes a social contract must be created. To inter into a social contract the individual must give up some of his rights in order to preserve the peace. This becomes obvious when the laws of nature are looked at.

Hobbes states “The right of nature, which writhers commonly call jus naturale, is the liberty each man hath to use his own power, as he will himself, for the preservation of his own nature; that is to say, of his one life; and consequently, of doing anything, which in his own judgment and reason, he shall conceive to be the aptest means thereunto. ” People must surrender part of this right in order to live in harmony. Obviously when Hobbes discusses right to do anything in order to preserve one’s life, this can’t mean killing someone to preserve one’s life.


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  • University/College: University of Chicago

  • Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter

  • Date: 17 November 2016

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