John Locke and Natural Law

Natural Law theory is often written about, but rarely can stand up to utilitarian ethics in actual life. This is a shame. One approach to natural law comes from John Locke. In some respects, the concept of natural can be defined this way: that virtue exists over and above either the ethics of pleasure or self preservation (Seliger, 1963, 338). This means there is a metaphysical reality, the existence of law that exists over and above the actual acts and functions of any specific society.

It exists above and beyond the economy and the laws of the state: it is an objective reality, a real existing set of rights and duties (and their synthesis in “virtue”) that cannot be changed, but itself can be used to judge actual practices in practical life. In many ways, natural law theory is perfectly situated to provide an objective, solid basis for criticism. In Locke’s view, the natural law is given to mankind at birth, and such things, as a man develops, are plainer to him even than the civil laws of an existing state. They are intimately known to every normal and rational man.

But what is significant is its content, and its relation tro moral integrity. We can summarize it this way: 1. That there is a natural right, existing beyond any civic law, that offenders against our bodies and property demands punishment. In other words, that things that belong to us are ours, and those who violate this pre-political idea (as natural law exists prior to society and the state) deserve to be punished. But, since human beings are not motivated by abstract justice, the punishes, if a private person, cannot be relied upon to provide justice, because, when judging in one’s own case, one is naturally partial to one’s own interest.

This being undeniably true, the state has its basis: the idea of an objective entity that can judge disputes between two self-interested parties. But beyond this there is no role for this objective authority, it protects the contracts made between two rational beings (Seliger, 1963, 342). 2. Now that the state has been deduced through man’s innate rationality, the function of the state is the next question. Here, the repository of the law exists within the whole social body.

Since natural law spells out the rights to property and freedom inherent in man’s nature, the protection of these natural and pre-political things is the job of the state (Forde, 2001, 400ff). But, given the principle of self-interest in #1, the state cannot be allowed to function on its own, since the state has interests of its own. Hence, the idea of election from the whole body, ad the right to revolt, both based on natural law, are deduced easily from the primary proposition in #1. While this might seem appealing and easy to comprehend, what does it have to do with 2009 and ethical integrity?

First of all, the truly integral personality in this case will be mindful of his rights and duties as God given, not granted by the state or social forms. Secondly, the individuals will not take justice into his own hands, but seek the assistance of the state in dealing with criminals. However, in our present circumstances, the state in the entire western world has gone far beyond what is mandated in natural law, and the economic system is dominated by a handful of major banks and corporate entities. Hence, natural law then demands revolt, and the withdrawal of support form the state.

If Locke is correct, then the only rational and natural response to the economic and political crisis of 2009 is withdrawal and dismantling of the state and its corporate masters in the name of the people, or more specifically, in the name of natural law. In other words, if Locke is correct, then the rational response is to withdrawal consent from the system as a whole, since property rights are violated left and right by foreclosures, high taxes and the “disappearance” of pension funds, etc. But what results is the next stop in the revolution, and that is provided by