A Journal for Western Man



Locke versus Calhoun on Natural Rights:

The Natural Rightness of Locke

G. Stolyarov II

Issue LVI- May 8, 2006




            In his “Disquisition on Government,” John C. Calhoun (1782-1850) attempted to justify the institution of slavery by rejecting the Lockean idea of natural rights which had underpinned America’s founding documents and principles. Calhoun attacked the idea of natural rights by attacking the Lockean concept of a state of nature—existing prior to any government—where every individual enjoyed absolute self-sovereignty before delegating a portion of his rights to government. Calhoun critiqued the state of nature, stating that

such a state is purely hypothetical. It never did, nor can exist; as it is inconsistent with the preservation and perpetuation of the race. It is, therefore, a great misnomer to call it the state of nature. Instead, of being the natural state of man, it is, of all conceivable states, the most opposed to his nature—most repugnant to his feelings, and most incompatible with his wants. His natural state is, the social and political—the one for which his Creator made him, and the only one in which he can preserve and perfect his race. As, then there never was such a state as the, so called, state of nature, and never can be, it follows that men, instead of being born free and equal, are born subject, not only to parental authority, but to the laws and institutions of the country where born, and under whose protection they draw their first breath.

                        Calhoun’s argument is complex and interesting; it implies that the individual is born subject to society and dependent on others for his rights. His rights are not inherent in him qua individual, but rather bestowed upon him by others as judged by some “greater” societal standard. If correct, Calhoun’s claim constitutes a refutation of moral and political individualism.

            But it is not correct. The fallacies in Calhoun’s reasoning are numerous, though they may be hard to detect. I shall analyze them here and vindicate the natural rights theory of John Locke from Calhoun’s assault.

            Calhoun states that men are born subject to their countries’ laws and institutions. This may have been true for men of his time and may be true for men today, but has it always been true? Calhoun commits a logical fallacy by asserting that whatever was true for his own time must necessarily have been always true; taking Calhoun’s argument consistently implies a full denial that change exists, since whatever is must have always been.

            Locke never disputed that all of his English contemporaries were born subject to a government. His principal point was one of logical necessity; every government, being a human institution, requires a beginning. Thus, there must have been at some time a state of nature wherein no government existed and a government had to be formed.

            Locke’s ideas can be justified by simple logical analysis of how governments must be created. Individual human beings form and constitute governments, not the other way around. The formation of governments is a process, and every process takes time to undertake. It also requires pre-existing entities as agents in performing it. Governments are formed by men, their formation takes time—ergo, men must have existed prior to all governments and needed to take time to deliberately form them. Thus, there must have been some prior time—the state of nature—in which men were not under the control of government and which they decided to alter by establishing a government. This is not a matter liable to contemporary empirical verification. If one concedes that governments are formed by men, one must of necessity recognize a one-time state of nature.

            Furthermore, while it is true that all men are born subject to parental authority—and must necessarily be so in order to survive—this by no means implies what Calhoun suggests. Calhoun uses this example to assert that all men at all times must be subject to others’ coercive constraints—whether or not they consented to them. Yet children are only subject to parental authority for a limited period of time; every parent is obliged to release his child from his control once the child has developed a sufficient degree of skill to autonomously manage his own life. The entire purpose of parenthood is to serve as an environment for developing autonomy, not stifling it.

            If we make the analogy Calhoun wishes us to make, then the entire purpose of society and government ought to be a liberating, not a restraining one. Just as a parent must seek to maximize his child’s development to autonomy, so must a society be structured so as to maximize the autonomy of the individuals comprising it. For this purpose, a government must exist to guarantee the maximum protection of individual liberties and the minimum intrusion upon them. To understand what these liberties are, it is logically necessary to refer to a condition outside of government—since defining liberty as “whatever government protects” not only falls prey to circularity but also constitutes automatic approval of anything government does. Thus, to even define the function of a proper government, one of necessity concedes a state of nature’s past existence.    

            Children are born subject to the authority of their parents and the laws to which their parents have assented, yet this does not constitute a perpetual bond. Locke’s theory makes a provision for this; Locke states explicitly that it is legitimate for a person born into a commonwealth to decide to leave it along with his property—at the cost of no longer enjoying the benefits of that society and government. One only gives implicit consent to a government so long as one deliberately benefits from the services such a government provides. One is always free to return to a state of nature and then join or form a different government if one is dissatisfied with one’s present government.

            At best, all Calhoun’s argument provides for is that children do not have a choice over whether or not to be subject to their parents and the government under whose jurisdiction their parents reside. As soon as the age of autonomy is reached, this restraint disappears, and the individual is free from his parents and the government if he chooses to be. He can choose not to be—in which case he will continue to abide by the laws of his parents, the government in question, or both. Calhoun’s argument neither refutes the existence of a state of nature nor the liberties derived therefrom; it does not nullify individual self-sovereignty.

            Despite Calhoun’s fallacious assertions to the contrary, Locke’s views on natural rights are, naturally, right.

G. Stolyarov II is a science fiction novelist, independent filosofical essayist, poet, amateur mathematician, composer, contributor to Enter Stage Right, Le Quebecois Libre, and the Ludwig von Mises Institute, Senior Writer for The Liberal Institute, and Editor-in-Chief of The Rational Argumentator, a magazine championing the principles of reason, rights, and progress. His newest science fiction novel is Eden against the Colossus. His latest non-fiction treatise is A Rational Cosmology. Mr. Stolyarov can be contacted at gennadystolyarovii@yahoo.com.

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

Read Mr. Stolyarov's new comprehensive treatise, A Rational Cosmology, explicating such terms as the universe, matter, space, time, sound, light, life, consciousness, and volition, at http://www.geocities.com/rational_argumentator/rc.html.