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Essay: Hobbes and Locke’s Views on Slavery and Justice in State of Nature

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Hobbes and Locke make their arguments for slavery differently, with major implications by each. Hobbes justifies slavery in a way that is not consistent with his contractarian stance, refuting the existence indirectly and leaving the topic up to interpretation. Locke verifies the institution of slavery under explicit conditions, however refutes his stance with his personal actions. Neither mode of explanation is a strong asset to their overall work–the way they argue slavery negatively impacts their style of argument and the overall persuasiveness of their viewpoint.

Defining the state of nature is necessary to create a basis for the argument to be made, especially a topic as complex as slavery. According to Hobbes, in the state of nature, what people want for themselves is considered an appetite, and therefore good, and what people don’t want is considered an aversion, or bad. This makes it such that “good, evil, and contemptible, are ever used in relation to the person that useth them,” (Hobbes, 383). Acting on these wants and desires is rational in the state of nature. Irrationality, therefore, is willingly acting towards something that you don’t want for yourself, and thus isn’t beneficial for you. For example, the most irrational thing a person could do is start a civil war, which is can only end in violent death, the single common fear among humanity–fear being the greatest aversion. Therefore, according to Hobbes, the most rational thing is to avoid a civil war by transferring all power to a sovereign, thus creating a Leviathan.

Justice in a Hobbesian world comes solely from the governing body, or the Leviathan. In a state of nature, the concepts of just and unjust don’t exist because “where there is no common power, there is no law: where no law, no injustice,” (Hobbes, 393). There is no governing body to define what is just or unjust, which allows it to be subjective, similar to what is considered good and bad. Without a Leviathan, people act out of their own desires and wills, not according to any norms of justice.

For Locke, the state of nature is “a state of perfect freedom to order [one's] actions,” (Locke, 451). People are completely free and equal due to the natural rights put in place by God. These rights protect “another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions,” (Locke, 451). Justice in this state is determined by the natural laws, and citizens have a right to “be an executioner of the law of nature,” or defend it from the people who break it (Locke, 452). Something or someone is unjust if it goes against these laws.

Rationality is working within the freedom given by the laws of nature to do things for one's best interest, and ultimately the “peace and preservation of mankind,” (Locke, 452). Irrationality is the opposite. This behavior, according to Locke, is defined as misuse of the freedom that the state of nature allows. People don’t have the liberty to “destroy [themselves], or so much as any creature in possessions,” or do things that cause harm to the natural rights that are given to them (Locke, 451). Doing such things is considered irrational and, similarly, unjust.

Hobbes and Locke have unique views in regards to justice and rationality in the state of nature, which can be traced back to the extreme differences between their premises. Hobbes starts with a very individualistic society where people act in their best interest, uncontrolled by a sovereign. Locke, however, argues that people in a state of nature are still controlled by higher laws that exist without a governing body and come merely from God. These fundamental differences contrast the two arguments, making Hobbes seem more pessimistic and Locke more idealistic, and give a basis for their arguments on political bodies to commence.

A key element of any political argument is a stance on slavery, the most extreme form of ownership of another person, and a highly controversial subject. However, both Hobbes and Locke fail to make compelling arguments for their viewpoints for different reasons. Hobbes’ stance is unclear throughout his work, stating that a slave cannot be “obliged because he is conquered; that is to say, beaten, and taken, or put to flight; but because he cometh in, and submitteth to the victor,” (Hobbes, 418). This means that a slave is not justified unless the slave enters a willing contract with the slave owner, aligning with Hobbes as a contractarian. This, however, is not in the slaves best interest, therefore not considered good or rational. The owner can coerce the slave by threatening a “nasty, brutish and short” life, making the decision to enter slavery a rational one, but that slave would merely work to “avoid the cruelty of their task-masters,” (Hobbes, 418). This differentiates between a tacit contract, of slavery, and a coerced contract, “the very same with [that] of a sovereign by institution,” (Hobbes, 418). Hobbes recognizes that a slave will not willingly or rationally enter into such a contract the same way that a citizen would. Yet, he does endorse this “despotical dominion,” as the complete power of one person over another decreases the occurrence of civil wars and is inline with his argument for giving up all power to a strong centralized being (Hobbes, 418).

Hobbes leaves this section of his argument open-ended, allowing the reader to draw conclusions for themselves on whether or not slavery can be justified through his argument. This ambiguity on such an important matter draws away from his main argument: the case for an all-powerful sovereign. Unwillingness to take a solid position on slavery causes the reader to ask questions as to why he chose to do this. Perhaps he feared repercussions for speaking out against slavery, possibly he was unsure on his position himself, or maybe he thought that slavery was not a simple issue that he could solve. No matter the cause, his lack of assurance on such a fundamental topic is unsettling for the reader, who will as a consequence be less likely to believe the rest of his argument.

Hobbes could remedy this issue by clearly stating his stance, or, if he chooses to remain skeptical, fully elaborate on how his line of thought could produce both outcomes: slavery as a coerced contract and therefore not valid, or slavery as the purest form of a complete and all-powerful sovereign. Proposing both ideas to the reader would not clarify his stance any further, but would decrease the assumptions being made, thus increasing trust in Hobbes’ argument.

Locke takes a different stance on slavery, but still presents some dilemmas that cause uncertainty for the reader. According to Locke, “a man, not having the power of his own life, cannot, by compact, or by his own consent, enslave himself to any one, nor put himself under the absolute, arbitrary power of another,” (Locke, 456). This means that no one can willingly enter slavery, as it would be a breach of their natural right to liberty. However, slaves captured in a Just War are justified as they have “forfeited their lives, and with it their liberties,” by entering into such a war (Locke, 472). A Just War is one that is fought against a threat, not as an act of aggression, as the defending side “may destroy a man who makes war upon him” (Locke, 454). This argument is sound, as the now-slaves consented by waging war upon another party, implicitly consenting to the consequences of such a war, including slavery.

However, this argument does not apply to conquest, the most common way to capture African slaves in Locke’s time. The conquerors were not fighting a Just War, as they were the aggressors, and were therefore not justified in enslaving the people they captured. Although this goes against his argument, Locke invested heavily in the African slave trade and was a supporter of African slavery in the United States. This is blatantly hypocritical–for the reader who is aware of Locke’s personal and public position on slavery, it creates a confusing argument and raises questions as to why Locke does not follow his own position, and makes readers unsure of what to believe in the rest of Locke’s work. Uncertainty on the actual beliefs of a philosopher is not conducive to creating a persuasive argument and makes his viewpoint less compelling.

Locke’s argument could be improved in two ways. First, he could not have invested in the slave trade, remaining with his public stance and simply losing out on the investment opportunity. This does away with the moral fallacy that he has created and is the simplest way to solve the issue. However, changing his investment choices is not addressing the problem of the conflict between his personal beliefs and his public beliefs. He could wed the two by making a distinction between choosing to invest his money in something and supporting the underlying beliefs of it, claiming that his property and what he chooses to do with it is one of his fundamental rights and doesn’t require justification from morality. This clarification would benefit his argument by regaining the trust of the reader.

Hobbes and Locke both make unique, yet unconvincing, arguments on slavery that could very easily be remedied to have a more positive effect on their works as a whole. To persuade people that their view is the most true, the reader has to trust in them enough to be convinced. By elaborating more on their positions on slavery, they could increase the trust between reader and author, thus making their arguments stronger and more compelling.

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