Locke begins his second chapter with the explanation that all men exist in a state of perfect freedom and equality. Their actions and choices are unfettered and cannot be limited by other men. All men are born in the exact same state, with no one individual having privileges or advantages over another. Only God is able to bestow some advantage in power upon one man over another. Locke quotes the Anglican theologian Richard Hooker’s Lawes of Ecclesiastical Politie in his assertion that equality is the basis of a civil society; Hooker writes that if men want their own needs satisfied they must satisfy those of other men, that if they desire affection they must give affection to others, and that natural reason supports these assertions.
Reason is indeed the law of nature, for in a state of liberty where there are no limitations on a man’s ability to dispose of his person or property, a man must understand that he should respect all other men’s lives, health, liberty, and possessions. This is because God created all men equally, with no state of inferiority. All men should seek to preserve the rest of mankind unless they have committed an offense against the life, health, liberty, or possessions of another. In a state of nature, there is no government or superior force to carry out the laws and therefore every man may implement punishment.
This punishment, however, cannot be arbitrary or out of proportion with the crime that was committed. The justification for punishment is that the transgressor has chosen to break the law of nature, which is a compact between himself and God. He no longer sees fit to live by the laws of reason that govern men in the state of nature and is thus dangerous to the rest of mankind; it is only reasonable that men may punish an individual who sows dissension and chaos in order to make an example of him to others. Locke states that he understands that this may seem odd or controversial to some, and continues his argument by discussing the right of a sovereign to execute an alien, or noncitizen, for a crime. The legislature that made the law, which the alien broke, has no power over the alien and therefore the sovereign cannot execute him. If a sovereign wants this power, then he should understand why in a state of nature all men should be able to discipline a transgressor of the law.
Locke also addresses the issue of reparations when a crime is committed, believing that if a man has been wronged it is his right to seek reparations in some form for the harm he has suffered. In a government where a magistrate rules, it is understood that this magistrate has the power to punish the offender and proclaim what the injured party should receive in terms of reparations. In actuality, only the injured party has the right to set the terms for reparations. In regards to murder, in a state of nature where no one magistrate has the power, every man has the power to kill a murderer because there are no reparations possible in this case. Just as a man would kill a wild beast that shed the blood of a human, any man may kill a murderer to prevent further bloodshed and set an example for others. Locke uses the example of Cain, the slayer of his brother Abel, who said that all men had the right to kill him because he shed the blood of a fellow man.
As for minor crimes, they may also be punished by anyone in the commonwealth to deter future offenses. The law of nature certainly exists, and its foundation of reason is much easier to understand than those oftentimes confusing and self-interested laws of men.
Locke is clear that he understands in a state of nature if men are called upon to be a judge of them or their friends they may be unable to be impartial or disinterested. The remedy for this is a civil government with the power to adjudicate, but there can be problems with this state of affairs as well. Absolute monarchs are merely men and are privy to the same sort of self-interest (if not more); passion and whim may triumph over reason and no one can criticize their decisions. A state of nature is preferable to an absolute monarchy because of the premium placed upon liberty.
Locke concludes his second chapter by answering the question of whether or not there are or have been men who exist in a state of nature. He affirms that compacts can be made that do not destroy the state of nature, such as one between an Indian and a Swiss man in the wilderness who pledge to keep faith but are not co-members of a society. All men exist in this state until they consent to be governed.
“On the State of Nature” is one of the most important chapters in Locke’s Second Treatise. Here he lays out the basis for his political thought: the understanding that before men consent to be governed they exist in a state of perfect freedom and equality and are governed only by reason. A premium is placed upon personal liberty and its concomitant of self-preservation. A man may punish those who operate outside the law of nature, and who would destroy his life, liberty, property, or health; the absence of an authority permits all men to act as one.
Locke was not the only philosopher to discuss the state of nature. Thomas Hobbes took up the concept in Leviathan (1651), and while scholars dispute whether Locke was responding to him specifically in the Second Treatise, it is clear that the idea was prominent in the minds of 17th century political theorists. Hobbes, like Locke, believed that men existed in a state of nature based upon freedom and autonomy, but that this rendered life “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Human beings should be guided by reason and the desire to respect others so that they will be respected in turn, but realistically this did not always happen.
Hobbes believed men were often carried away by passion and caprice, or acted with regard to their own self-interest, thus turning the state of nature into a state of war. The remedy for this was a government, preferably a monarchy, which ruled absolutely. No division or limitation of power could exist because it would lead to misinterpretation, inefficiency, and disorder. Locke did not support an absolutist government nor did he have such pessimistic views of the state of nature, although he did admit that problems did exist when one man’s liberty conflicted with that of his fellow men.
Another difference between the two philosophers was that Locke’s theory of the state of nature had a theological basis, unlike that of Hobbes. Locke mentions God several times, most significantly by writing that God is the Maker and Master of men and is responsible for bringing them into a state of perfect equality. The traditional Christian tenets of morality, justice, and charity are infused throughout the Second Treatise, this second chapter in particular. Men should essentially treat others as they want to be treated and seek justice to right wrongs that were committed. Hobbes believed that the absolute monarch should determine the religious faith of the people and that disputes over religion proved divisive politically. Locke, on the other hand, adhered to more of a “separation-of-church-and-state” view; religious pluralism should be tolerated as much as possible because if the political authority has too much control over religion it might “tyrannize the soul,” as Locke scholar Ian Shapiro put it.
One more subject to consider is that of natural law. While Locke believed God created men and divine law existed, he did not believe it was the same thing as natural law. Natural law can be discovered by reason alone. However, he is not entirely clear on what exactly natural law entails. The scholar John A. Simmons concludes that Locke intended natural law to include: a duty to preserve one's self; a duty to preserve others when self-preservation does not conflict; a duty not to take away the life of another; and a duty not to act in a way that “tends to destroy” others. In the work Essays on the Law of Nature, unpublished in his lifetime, Locke also stressed that men had the obligation to obey their creator.