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The focus of this essay is to examine the political theories of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke as presented in their books, Leviathan and The Second Treatise of Government, through the analyses of their definitions and uses of the terms: natural equality, natural right, natural liberty and law of nature. It is important to note that Locke and Hobbes each have a different conception of human nature which is reflected in their uses of these terms and in their political theories in the overall.
Both Locke and Hobbes begin with the understanding that all humans are equal. Nevertheless, each one of them has a different conception of this equality and its implications on society. From Hobbes’ perspective people are all naturally equal, while some people are physically strong, others are more astute, so that there exists an equilibrium in the powerfulness of all people in a state of nature.1 From this assumption, Hobbes concludes that war is inevitable. When people who are equally powerful desire one thing they automatically become enemies and there is nothing to stop them from fighting with the knowledge that they each have equal chances of gain. On the other hand, Locke believes that humans are for the most part rational enough to recognize that they are all equal in human nature, and therefore, no one should violate another’s rights. In fact, he goes as far as to state that our natural equality is such an inherent part of us that it is impossible to completely give it up or have it stripped away from us by others. He also claims humans will love one another just as they love themselves, and that no one would harm another knowing that they are all equal; for to harm another is to bring suffering unto oneself.2
Whatever their conception of natural equality and its implications on human behavior, both Locke and Hobbes believe that all humans have the natural rights to carry out all acts that preserve their life, and the natural liberty to exercise those rights without any restrictions. In Hobbes’ conception of natural rights, he even takes it a little farther in saying that anything that a person may define as an act of preservation of life and/or simply well being is also a right. Locke, nevertheless, specifically mentions that natural liberty is the freedom to be governed exclusively by the laws of nature and by nothing and no one else. Thus, in Locke’s perspective there are the boundaries of the laws of nature to be considered within natural liberty.
Having established these notions of natural equality, rights and liberty, Hobbes concludes that in light of these rights and equality, mankind will never reach a state of security and stability. The first law of nature that he introduces declares that one ought to seek peace as long as he know that he can attain it. From this law, Hobbes derives the second law of nature, that as far as there is promise for peace then a person must cast away his “right to all things an be contented with so much liberty against other men as he would allow other men against himself.” Thus, Hobbes claims that the only reasonable laws that people can follow to ensure their security and stability is to collectively set aside their natural rights and redefine their liberty in terms of what they will allow others, and in turn themselves. In these laws, Hobbes lays the foundation for the justification for an absolute sovereign power. In opposition, the laws of nature as Locke claims them are not only consistent with natural rights and liberty but actually mandate them. Locke’s first natural law is that humans must do that which preserves their life, and that which preserves mankind. Here Locke makes the basis of his political theory clear, by declaring that individuals in a state of nature have the power to create a structure for security and stability simply by exercising their natural rights and equality. Within this context, Locke includes the protection of one’s self and others from those who assume authority and impose ‘subordination’ among them. In this sense, Locke has entrusted every individual to enforce the laws of nature, thereby creating a framework for democracy.3
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