|Understanding John Locke|
John Locke on Natural Rights and Natural Law
According to John Locke, A natural right is a right that a human being has prior to the formation of political or civil society. In the state of nature, natural rights are reciprocal with natural obligations to not harm others in their life, health, liberty and possessions. These obligations are commands embedded in the law of nature: Do not kill, do not injure, do not restrain, do not steal.
The claim that there are natural rights implies the existence of natural law. In his Second Treatise of Government, John Locke says that there is a law of nature and “reason…is that law.” Unfortunately, Locke never explains what he means by this, nor does he bother to offer a proof.
Reason is a faculty, not a law. Laws command behavior, but reason does not command anything. We can use our mental powers of reasoning to reach a conclusion about what we ought to do, but this is a process not a command. Reason might tell me that Socrates is mortal because Socrates is a man and all men are mortal, but this conclusion, though valid, does not recommend a course of action.
The only credible explanation of Locke's identification of reason with the law of nature is that reason is a method for discovering the law of nature. Locke elsewhere defines reason as a mental ability or power to discover “the certainty or probability of such propositions or truths, which the mind arrives at by deduction…” (Essay Concerning Human Understanding, IV. XVIII. ii. p. 689). For example, if I am certain that Socrates is mortal because Socrates is a man and all men are mortal,” then this is due to a deduction I have made from the premises “Socrates is a man” and “All men are mortal.” I am certain because I cannot deny the conclusion while accepting the truth of the two premises. Reason forces me to accept the conclusion that Socrates is mortal. In this sense, we might come to think of reason, like the law of nature, as having a prescriptive function.
But does this get us any closer to affirming the existence of natural rights and natural law? I'll say more on this in my next post.