Natural Equality And Civil Society Essay, Research Paper
Natural Equality and Civil Society
According to John Locke in his “Second Treatise of Government”, natural equality is an essential component of the state of nature; the ?state of nature’ being one of peace, tranquility, and equality, where there is no common power guided by reason. However, the lack of common power also supplies an inconvenience for the state of nature? the aptitude to fall into a state of war with no means to escape it. To avoid this “inconvenience”, Locke finds it a necessity to form civil society ruled by a common authority of law. For a such government to preserve its legitimacy, the transition into civil society must maintain some degree of equality. The origination of property, the introduction of money, and furthermore the practice of slavery are three reasons certain aspects of natural equality are sacrificed in the conversion to civil society.
To assess the extent of loss of natural equality, we must first come to understand what Locke’s definition of equality is:
A state of equality, wherein all the power and jurisdiction is reciprocal, no one having more than another; there being nothing more evident, than that creatures of the same species and rank, promiscuously born to all the same advantages of nature, and the use of the same faculties, should be equal one amongst another without subordination or subjection.. . . [pg.8]
When one knows Locke’s definition of equality, the mere existence of property subtracts from our natural equality. Let us examine the origins of property. Locke suggests the origin of property is of God, pointing to the 115th Psalm verse 16 of the Old Testament, “. . .God, as king David says, ?. . .has given the earth to the children of men; given it to mankind in common.” [pg.18] Even though God has given the earth to all humankind in common, Locke believes that humankind, bearing God given reason, has the right to use the earth to his/her “best advantage of life, and convenience.”[pg 18] Here lies the problem. If all human beings are to use the earth to their ?best advantage’ and the earth is the common property of all, someone somewhere will have conflicting interests with another human being over the possession of some thing. The only remedy is to sacrifice his/her equality by consent (It is not likely that one would surrender equality to another) OR to enter a ?state of war.’ The only protection against the state of war in John Locke’s opinion is to enter into civil society governed by a common authority. By taking this measure, Locke insists humankind can better protect itself against war and preserve the right to enjoy what one possesses, “. . . because no political society can be, nor subsist, without having in itself the power to preserve the property” [pg. 18].
Entering civil society requires handing over one’s executive rights and submitting to a common authority by law. So, according to Locke’s definition of equality, giving up one’s natural executive rights means natural equality is no longer truly existent. Though we are all still ?born to the same advantages of nature’, and we still ?share the same faculties’, and we still do not gain the right to ?subordinate’ another human being, we consent to subordinate our personal freedoms and liberties to a common law for our own welfare. By consenting to this authority, we eliminate total natural equality, giving away the power over our own lives.
In addition, true equality asserts that no man is superior to another. But, to legitimize possessions is to institute a means for subordination, in that an individual who is the sole possessor of a good or service has dominion over the use of that good or service. Under this system of possession, where one individual has dominion over one good, and a separate individual has possession over a separate but equally desirable good, the individuals must establish trade with one another to enjoy the exclusive property of the other. In the instance that we are without an equally desirable good, we must have some other medium of trade? currency? in order to obtain the ownership or use of a property possessed by another.
The introduction of money into society is an extension of property, granting a non-perishable medium of exchange to assign common value to a possessed good or service, according to humankind’s desire for the item. Locke postulates the origin of money:
. . . in the beginning before the desire of having more than man needed had altered the intrinsic value of things, which depends only on the usefulness to the life of man; or had agreed that little piece of yellow metal, which would keep without wasting or decay, should be worth a great piece of flesh, or whole heap of
corn. . .[pg.23]
We find yet another example of the loss of equality in the introduction of currency. Assigning values to the property of respective individuals removes the common balance between all human beings. By the time the practice of possession comes to need a medium, the desire for goods possessed or owned by another individual or group can be described as those who have possessions and those who do not have possessions? the haves and the have-nots. The have- nots, forced to bending to the will of the haves in order to accumulate enough currency, or money to become a have, thus attaining equality with the other haves, acquiring dominance over those who have not. If person A possesses one apple which is worth one unit of currency, and person B has one rabbit worth 5 units of currency (the rabbit being worth more because it required more work to obtain) and the owner of the apple decides he/she wants the rabbit; then the owner of the apple is at a disadvantage to the rabbit owner. In order to obtain the rabbit, person A must submit himself/herself to satisfying person B’s requirement for transferral of the rabbit. A non-owner is required to subject himself to the will of an owner in order to receive the object of his/her desire.
The virtue of no one having more (power) than another is erased with the introduction of money. Even though certain aspects of natural equality are retained, (being born with the same faculties, still being of the same species and still without the right to subject someone else to our own respective wills) the amount of money one accumulates becomes a direct parallel to the position an individual holds in society. In a society that utilizes currency as a means to obtain those items that are necessary for the sustenance of life, those individuals with less money will always have to appeal to the needs and desires of those who have more. The introduction of currency institutes a value system which grants those with more, more power to subordinate others. This inequality does not alter the legitimacy of government because the law is for those who are protected by it; and all people in civil society are protected by the law because, “every man has a property in his own person,” [pg.19] (whether in civil society or the state of nature) unless they are in the state of slavery.
Slavery is the ultimate and direct contradiction of natural equality. It is the greatest form of subjection and subordination, in which one man has complete power (under the law) over another’s life. Slavery is the inverse of every aspect of natural equality. Because God is the only being with the power over life:
. . .for a man, not having power over his own life, cannot, by compact, or his own consent, enslave himself to anyone, nor put himself under the absolute, arbitrary power of another, to take away his life, when he pleases. No body can give more power than he has himself; and he cannot take away his own life, cannot give another power over it.[pg.17]
However, Locke allows for the existence of slavery, claiming that, if in some way someone by his/her own fault forfeits their life by committing an act punishable by death, “…He, to whom he has forfeited it may (when he has him in his power) delay to take it, and make use of him to his own service. . . “[pg.17] This statement invalidates the existence of slavery, contradicting Locke’s prior quoted assertion, because the perpetrator still cannot agree to give over more power than he/she has, e.g. forfeiting his/her own life. Also if, “This is the perfect condition of slavery, which is nothing else, but the state of war continued, between a lawful conqueror and a captive: for, if once compact enter between them, and make an agreement for a limited power the one side, and obedience on the other, the state of war and slavery ceases, as long as the compact endures.” [pg.17] Under no circumstances, even committing fault punishable by death, can one agree to subject himself/herself to the arbitrary will of another, “…for, as has been said, no man can, by agreement, pass over to another that which he hath not in himself, a power over his own life.” Nevertheless, whether or not Locke’s views on slavery are consistent, the presence of slavery still does not undermine the legitimacy of the government, because the protection of the law does not give rights to those individuals who do not even possess themselves.
In conclusion, natural equality need not be preserved to its full extent in transition to civil society. Members of civil society, give legitimacy to the governing power of common rule or law by consenting to it. For a government to sustain this legitimacy, it need only continue to protect these consenting participants from the constant threat of a prolonged state of war, sustaining our right to enjoy our property within it. Furthermore, the inequality that is intrinsic in monetary based civil society, does not undermine the validity of government because the purpose of consenting to common law is to protects one’s valuables; life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness (which to Locke means possessions). Therefore, there is no condition under which the participants of any civil society imaginable by Locke, can allow the common law to protect the existence of property, money or slavery, and maintain all the virtues of natural equality.