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Locke 2

The Social Contract Theory

Just as natural rights and natural law theory had a quite incredible fluorescence in the 17th and 18th century, so did the social contract theory. Why is Locke a social contract theorist? Is it merely that this was one prevailing way of thinking about government at the time which Locke blindly adopted? I think the answer is that there is something about Locke's project which pushes him strongly in the direction of the social contract. One might hold that governments were originally instituted by force, and that no agreement was involved. Where Locke to adopt this view, he would be forced to go back on many of the things which are at the heart of his project in the Second Treatise. Remember that TheSecond Treatise provides Locke's positive theory of government, and that he explicitly says that he must do this "lest men fall into the dangerous belief that "all government in the world is merely the product of force and violence." So, while Locke might admit that some governments in fact come about through force or violence, he would be destroying the most central and vital distinction, that between legitimate and illegitimate civil government, if he admitted that legitimate civil government can come about in this way. So, for Locke, legitimate civil government is instituted by the explicit consent of those governed. Those who make this agreement transfer to the civil government their right of executing the law of nature and judging their own case. These are the powers which they give to the central government, and this is what makes the justice system of civil governments a legitimate function of such governments. There are many problems involved with social contract theory which I will briefly mention here though we will spend no time on them. One of these is how many votes are required to institute a civil government. Must the vote be unanimous, a very large majority, a bare majority? On what principle would one decide this question? How do those who are born under a particular civil government come to give their consent to it. The answer here is that by remaining in the community they give their tacit consent to the government.

The Function of Civil Government

We are now in a position to explain the function of a legitimate civil government and distinguish it from illegitimate civil government. The aim of such a government is to preserve, so far as possible, the rights to life, liberty, health and property of its citizens, and to prosecute and punish those of its citizens who violate the rights of others. In doing this it provides something unavailable in the state of nature, an impartial judge to determine the severity of the crime, and to set a punishment proportionate to the crime. This is the main reason why civil society is an improvement on the state of nature.

Given this characterization of legitimate civil government and all that has led up to it you ought to be able at this point to explain what characterizes the functioning of an illegitimate civil government. You should be able to explain how it is different from a legitimate civil government, and in what ways the power exercised in an illegitimate civil government is related to despotic power.

Paternal, Despotic and Political Power Distinguished

Since Locke is arguing against the position of Sir Robert Filmer who held that patriarchal power and political power are the same, and that in effect these amount to despotic power, Locke is at pains to distinguish these three forms of power, and to show that they are not equivalent. Thus at the beginning of Chapter XV Of Paternal, Political and Despotic power considered together he writes: "THOUGH I have had occasion to speak of these before, yet the great mistakes of late about government, having as I suppose arisen from confounding these distinct powers one with another, it may not be amiss, to consider them together." Chapters VI and VII give Locke's account of paternal and political power respectively.

When Can One Legitimately Rebel?

Your last task in this section is to explain under what conditions one can legitimately rebel against a civil government, and what justification Locke would offer for the crime of regicide (King killing). To do this properly involves most of the philosophical machinery of states of nature, war, natural rights and natural law which Locke develops in the course of the Second Treatise of Civil Government. It is thus a good test of you understanding of that work. It is also important for the task which you are going to take on next. This next task is to explore Locke's theory of slavery in the Second Treatise to determine whether Locke intended this theory to justify the institutions of Afro-American slavery in the seventeenth and eighteenth century.


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