A Lockean Discourse on Self-Defense, Punishment, and Justice

G. Stolyarov II and Others
Issue XIV - June 8, 2003
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Mr. G. Stolyarov II: It is my design here to initiate an experiment in philosophical analysis as well as to grant every reader of The Rational Argumentator the opportunity to publish items in his name without the obligation to write a lengthy and intricate article. The following passage by English philosopher John Locke, the father of individual rights, explains what measures need to be enacted for the preservation of universal individual liberty against its transgressors.

I will welcome any reasoned responses to this excerpt, including questions of clarification, and items of feedback, support, or refutation on any aspect of the following passage. You may respond to other participants and to me, as I shall be actively involved in such a discussion should it develop. Be advised, however, that by responding, you grant implicit consent to the publication of your words (with credit given to you as the author), along with any editorial corrections that I must impart for the purpose of rendering them presentable. I promise to alter only grammatical, spelling, and sentence structure where necessary, never the content of any response.

From John Locke: An Essay Concerning the True Original Extent and End of Civil Government (1690).
http://www.swan.ac.uk/poli/texts/locke/locke00.htm .

7. And that all men may be restrained from invading others' rights, and from doing hurt to one another, and the law of Nature be observed, which willeth the peace and preservation of all mankind, the execution of the law of Nature is in that state put into every man's hands, whereby every one has a right to punish the transgressors of that law to such a degree as may hinder its violation. For the law of Nature would, as all other laws that concern men in this world, be in vain if there were nobody that in the state of Nature had a power to execute that law, and thereby preserve the innocent and restrain offenders; and if any one in the state of Nature may punish another for any evil he has done, every one may do so. For in that state of perfect equality, where naturally there is no superiority or jurisdiction of one over another, what any may do in prosecution of that law, every one must needs have a right to do.

8. And thus, in the state of Nature, one man comes by a power over another, but yet no absolute or arbitrary power to use a criminal, when he has got him in his hands, according to the passionate heats or boundless extravagancy of his own will, but only to retribute to him so far as calm reason and conscience dictate, what is proportionate to his transgression, which is so much as may serve for reparation and restraint. For these two are the only reasons why one man may lawfully do harm to another, which is that we call punishment. In transgressing the law of Nature, the offender declares himself to live by another rule than that of reason and common equity, which is that measure God has set to the actions of men for their mutual security, and so he becomes dangerous to mankind; the tie which is to secure them from injury and violence being slighted and broken by him, which being a trespass against the whole species, and the peace and safety of it, provided for by the law of Nature, every man upon this score, by the right he hath to preserve mankind in general, may restrain, or where it is necessary, destroy things noxious to them, and so may bring such evil on any one who hath transgressed that law, as may make him repent the doing of it, and thereby deter him, and, by his example, others from doing the like mischief. And in this case, and upon this ground, every man hath a right to punish the offender, and be executioner of the law of Nature.

9. I doubt not but this will seem a very strange doctrine to some men; but before they condemn it, I desire them to resolve me by what right any prince or state can put to death or punish an alien for any crime he commits in their country? It is certain their laws, by virtue of any sanction they receive from the promulgated will of the legislature, reach not a stranger. They speak not to him, nor, if they did, is he bound to hearken to them. The legislative authority by which they are in force over the subjects of that commonwealth hath no power over him. Those who have the supreme power of making laws in England, France, or Holland are, to an Indian, but like the rest of the world- men without authority. And therefore, if by the law of Nature every man hath not a power to punish offences against it, as he soberly judges the case to require, I see not how the magistrates of any community can punish an alien of another country, since, in reference to him, they can have no more power than what every man naturally may have over another.

10. Besides the crime which consists in violating the laws, and varying from the right rule of reason, whereby a man so far becomes degenerate, and declares himself to quit the principles of human nature and to be a noxious creature, there is commonly injury done, and some person or other, some other man, receives damage by his transgression; in which case, he who hath received any damage has (besides the right of punishment common to him, with other men) a particular right to seek reparation from him that hath done it. And any other person who finds it just may also join with him that is injured, and assist him in recovering from the offender so much as may make satisfaction for the harm he hath suffered.

11. From these two distinct rights (the one of punishing the crime, for restraint and preventing the like offence, which right of punishing is in everybody, the other of taking reparation, which belongs only to the injured party) comes it to pass that the magistrate, who by being magistrate hath the common right of punishing put into his hands, can often, where the public good demands not the execution of the law, remit the punishment of criminal offences by his own authority, but yet cannot remit the satisfaction due to any private man for the damage he has received. That he who hath suffered the damage has a right to demand in his own name, and he alone can remit. The damnified person has this power of appropriating to himself the goods or service of the offender by right of self-preservation, as every man has a power to punish the crime to prevent its being committed again, by the right he has of preserving all mankind, and doing all reasonable things he can in order to that end. And thus it is that every man in the state of Nature has a power to kill a murderer, both to deter others from doing the like injury (which no reparation can compensate) by the example of the punishment that attends it from everybody, and also to secure men from the attempts of a criminal who, having renounced reason, the common rule and measure God hath given to mankind, hath, by the unjust violence and slaughter he hath committed upon one, declared war against all mankind, and therefore may be destroyed as a lion or a tiger, one of those wild savage beasts with whom men can have no society nor security. And upon this is grounded that great law of nature, "Whoso sheddeth man's blood, by man shall his blood be shed." And Cain was so fully convinced that every one had a right to destroy such a criminal, that, after the murder of his brother, he cries out, "Every one that findeth me shall slay me," so plain was it writ in the hearts of all mankind.

12. By the same reason may a man in the state of Nature punish the lesser breaches of that law, it will, perhaps, be demanded, with death? I answer: Each transgression may be punished to that degree, and with so much severity, as will suffice to make it an ill bargain to the offender, give him cause to repent, and terrify others from doing the like. Every offence that can be committed in the state of Nature may, in the state of Nature, be also punished equally, and as far forth, as it may, in a commonwealth. For though it would be beside my present purpose to enter here into the particulars of the law of Nature, or its measures of punishment, yet it is certain there is such a law, and that too as intelligible and plain to a rational creature and a studier of that law as the positive laws of commonwealths, nay, possibly plainer; as much as reason is easier to be understood than the fancies and intricate contrivances of men, following contrary and hidden interests put into words; for truly so are a great part of the municipal laws of countries, which are only so far right as they are founded on the law of Nature, by which they are to be regulated and interpreted.


7 x 77:  Maybe you'd like Jack Ryan, one of the GOP Senate candidates from Illinois. He's always referring to Locke:

INTERVIEWER: Why did you become involved in the Republican Party?

JACK: Because I really do believe in John Locke’s ideas of liberty, freedom, personal responsibility for yourself, and personal responsibility to those less fortunate than yourself. I think that is what makes America great. I really believe strongly in those ideals. And the party that comes closest to those ideals is the Republican Party.


G. Stolyarov II: It appears to be evident that, from his forthright dealings in the business world and his commitment to quality education and encouragement of his students, as well as his overt confession of lusting not for power nor the petty acceptance of others, that Jack Ryan is a fine political candidate who lives out the ideas of Locke in practice.

There is, however, a matter of clarification to his statement that I would like to insert, as, I believe, is resonant with the intended spirit of Mr. Ryan’s statement. “Personal responsibility to those less fortunate than yourself” is not the same as the self-sacrificing altruism that pre-Lockean and post-Kantian philosophers had endorsed. Rather, Mr. Ryan sees this as a key to personal fulfillment and a complete existence, something, that, within the realm of individual valuation, is not far from what even Ayn Rand herself had advanced. Locke’s specific contribution on this matter includes a developed theory on parental responsibility for children who are yet incapable of assuming their own care, which is also fully embraced by the philosophy of Objectivism.

Moreover, in the realm of criminal justice, which is the focus of this discourse, Locke emphasized that every man should possess the right to do justice to a murderer as a function of natural law. Moreover, there can be undertaken a peculiar benevolence in assisting a wronged party in seeking reparation for a crime inflicted. “And any other person who finds it just may also join with him that is injured, and assist him in recovering from the offender so much as may make satisfaction for the harm he hath suffered.” This assistance to others is not altruistic, but rather is undertaken in the interests of justice and social stability, which shall inevitably reciprocate upon every constituent individual.

The rights to self-preservation and justice belong to every person, individually. We delegate that right to government, to police and judges, who act as our agents, but in so delegating we do not give up those rights. When government fails to carry out its responsibilities, we have the right obviously to replace it with another, but we also retain the ultimate right to both defend ourselves, and to extract justice.

The policeman, the judge, is our agent; we are not his.

G. Stolyarov II:
Yes, this was precisely Locke's contribution to social theory. Thank you for your post.

In the world of absolute monarchial domination that he faced, Locke's theory was ground-shattering, and also preventive of arbitrary exertions of government intervention into the lives of the governed. "And hence it is that he who attempts to get another man into his absolute power does thereby put himself into a state of war with him; it being to be understood as a declaration of design upon his life. For I have reason to conclude that he who would get me into his power without my consent would use me as he pleased when he had got me there, and destroy me too, when he had a fancy for it; for nobody can desire to have me in his absolute power unless it be to compel me by force to that which is against the right of my freedom- i.e. make me a slave."

Tamsey: Locke is not why I have developed into a "broken-glass Republican", but when I began studying his work a year ago it was an epiphany. Feeling so at home with his philosophies and seeing the way they correlate to conservative issues showed me why I am Republican.

Jefferson was also a fan, and it is fascinating to see how our country was founded on Locke's principles...

John Locke, Concerning Civil Government, 1693, Second Essay, Ch. 19

Secondly: I answer, such revolutions happen not upon every little mismanagement in public affairs. Great mistakes in the ruling part, many wrong and inconvenient laws, and all the slips of human frailty will be borne by the people without mutiny or murmur. But if a long train of abuses, prevarications, and artifices, all tending the same way, make the design visible to the people, and they cannot but feel what they lie under, and see whither they are going, it is not to be wondered that they should then rouse themselves, and endeavor to put the rule into such hands which may secure to them the end for which government was at first erected...

Thomas Jefferson, Declaration of Independence, 1776

Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shown, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.

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Learn about Mr. Stolyarov's novel, Eden against the Colossus, here.

Read Mr. Stolyarov's comprehensive treatise, A Rational Cosmology, explicating such terms as the universe, matter, space, time, sound, light, life, consciousness, and volition, here.

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