I have posited that justice is the squaring of what is with what ought to be. But how do we discover what ought to be? Is it pronounced by positive commandments, notions of what is naturally effective in the world, or perhaps, both? Is it accomplished by obedience to rules, in a manner of living that is consistent with a natural order in the world, or both?
Judaic Notions of Righteousness
Among the earliest writers on the issue of justice were the Jews. Natural Law constitutes a significant part of Jewish legal history. They were the rules and standards of living which emanated from God both as creator and as law giver. Another significant aspect was Jewish positive law. It was originally viewed as emanating from the Natural Law but amplifying it. For the Jews, justice was closely associated with their notions of righteousness. As their view of righteousness changed, so did their view of justice.
When the Jews viewed righteousness legalistically, as obedience to prescribed rules of conduct, justice was the squaring of one’s conduct with the rule of law. The Deuteronomic code was detailed in its requirements for both daily living and religious life. Later, with the prophets, some Jews viewed righteousness as right relations with God and with one’s neighbors. Justice was then the squaring of one’s actions, or a nation’s actions, with those principles of right relationships. The first view could lead to a sense of oppression and despair. Therefore the Jews resorted to mediatory acts through the levitical rulers, and expiatory acts of atonement. The latter gave hope of new beginnings and the possibility of a peaceful kingdom.
These opposing views alternate, even coincide, throughout the history of Judaism. The creation stories contain the seeds of each. In the first story, God pronounced that the created world, its creatures, and humankind were each good. In each story, it was apparent that mankind was intended to live in harmony with Nature and with God. But, as the story unfolds, humanity lost that harmony and was expelled from the ideal garden because of disobedience to God’s command not to eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. That forms the basis for the fundamentalist Christian notion of original sin – sin that we all have, not by act, but by inheritance. According to that doctrine, original sin can be overcome only by an act of atonement.
On the other hand there is also contained in these creation stories metaphorical statements about right relationships. In such a reading one can see that harmony in the world is possible, but it is disrupted by selfishness and deceit. One can also see in the stories the message that life involves struggle. In our innocent infancy we can experience safety and harmony within our parents’ care. But as we gain self-awareness, and with it an awareness of others, we acquire responsibility not only to self, but also to others. We must then decide what act is good and what is not. Living requires action. That puts us at risk of disobedience of some presumed authority. There is tension between interests of self and others. Once we have acquired awareness of self, other and relationship, implicitly the knowledge of good and evil, we, of necessity, must struggle. We can never return to the idyllic state of mere obedience to an authority outside ourselves.
These two orientations of obedience and right relations set up the fundamental question of why we obey the law. Do we obey the law because of the promise of reward or the fear of punishment under that law? Or do we obey the law because we believe good laws promote right relationships and that right relationships will help make a better place for all to live? The first orientation implies authority, reward and punishment. When stripped to its essentials, it tends to be narrow, selfish, and isolating: will I be rewarded or punished? It is also rife with fear: How do I determine what perceived command is in fact authoritative? The second orientation requires that we strike a balance between self and others. Related to that balance, do we see ourselves in others, they in us, and the breath of God in each? We see throughout the Old Testament a vacillation between these views progressively yet fitfully leading to prophetic exhortation to right relations, punctuated with warnings of punishment and promises of reward.
Jews consider Abraham to be the father of their faith. Muslims consider him to be the father of their faith. Christians claim him as their father. Each tends to treat Abraham as exclusively theirs. But the story is really a story of the kinship of many diverse people, and the kinship of their faiths. It supports notions of righteousness-as-right-relations.
The Genesis story tells that God promised Abram many descendants, but Sarai could not even bear him one child. So, to facilitate the promise, Sarai gave Abram her maid, Hagar, to bear him a son. Genesis 16:1-4. Hagar conceived and bore Abram a son, Ishmael. God promised Abram that he would become the father, not only of one nation, but of many nations. Genesis 17:4. And so God changed Abram’s name to Abraham, meaning “Father of many nations.” Genesis 17:5. God then promised Abraham a son by Sarai, and renamed her Sarah, meaning “Princess.” Genesis 17:15, 16.
The traditional Jewish and Christian view, according to the Biblicalstory, was that Ishmael was born of impatience. The implication is that Ishmael was not a legitimate son of Abraham, and that he was appropriately disowned. Such a view is born of gross ethnocentrism not supported by a broader reading of the story. In that same writing God promises to bless Ishmael and make of him a great nation – of which Abraham is father, just as God promises to bless Isaac and his decedents and make of them a great nation. Genesis 17:20; 21:13. Indeed, according to the story, when Sarah did bear Isaac, the division between Isaac and Ishmael emerged out of Sarah’s jealousy. That disturbed Abraham because Ishmael was as much his son as was Isaac. Genesis 21:11.
For the Jews, Isaac represented the Jewish line of descendants from Abraham, and Ishmael represented Egyptian Arabs, the future slave masters of the Jews, according to Exodus. From the limited perspective of the Jews, God blessed Isaac’s descendants (God’s “Chosen”) more than Ishmael who, according to the story, was destined to “be a wild donkey of a man; his hand will be against everyone and everyone’s hand against him.” Genesis 16:12. The Jewish story teller plants the seeds of hatred for its Arab neighbors.
Pre-Muslim Arabia had several idols representing gods. One was Allah, the tribal god of the Quarish. The Quarish were considered to be descendents of Abraham and Ishmael. They worshipped Allah as their chief god, thereby paving the way for monotheism. Mohammed grew up in that society in the Sixth and Seventh Centuries. Mohammed also came to know Waraqah ibn Nawfal, “who knew the Scriptures of the Hebrews and the Christians.” Will Durant, Story of Civilization</em, Age of Faith, Vol. IV, p. 163. In 610, Mohammed had a vision in which Gabriel announced Mohammed to be the messenger of Allah. For Mohammed, he was but one of several messengers of God, with Abraham, Moses and Jesus. His new faith was given the name of Islam, meaning “to surrender” or “to make peace.” Its adherents were called Muslimin or Moslems, “the surrendering ones,” or “those who have made their peace with God.” Will Durant, Story of Civilization, Age of Faith, Vol. IV, p. 167. Mohammed embraced the Jewish and Christian traditions and adopted them as part of Moslem tradition. They each worshipped the same God, the God revealed to Moses as “I am,” or more true to the Jewish word, “I am becoming.”
The story’s telling of Abraham, Ishmael and Isaac found in the Pentateuch and the Bible cannot be separated from the ethnocentric perspectives of its scribes. The Jews, and later the Christians, reduced the descendants of Ishmael to a product of misunderstanding and impatience. And yet, the core of the story can teach that Jew and Arab are brother and sister; they share one father; they are one family. That is the basis of righteousness as right relations. We are all related, after all. We need each other. What happens to my brother effects me. We will best go forward together, seeing God (the power of becoming) active in all and for all. This interpretation is supported by an enlightened moment, following a stinging array of woes, found in Isaiah 19:23-25:
In that day there will be a highway from Egypt to Assyria. The Egyptians and the Assyrians will worship together. In that day Israel will be the third, along with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing on the earth. The Lord Almighty will bless them, saying, “Blessed be Egypt my people, Assyria my handiwork, and Israel my inheritance.”
Following the story of Jewish slavery in Egypt and the Exodus, Deuteronomy 16:17-20 describes the development of the Jewish justice system as they settled in the land which they believed the Lord had promised them. Again we see a joining of righteousness and justice:
Every man shall give as he is able, according to the blessing of the Lord your God which He has given you. You shall appoint for yourself judges and officers in all your towns which the Lord your God is giving you, according to your tribes, and they shall judge the people with righteous judgment. You shall not distort justice; you shall not be partial, and you shall not take a bribe, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and perverts the words of the righteous. Justice and only justice, you shall pursue, that you may live and possess the land which the Lord your God is giving you.
Later, the story of Job rejects the static view of rewards and punishment under a dictated moral law. Job is frequently referred to as providing an explanation for why we suffer. But it is not an explanation of suffering at all. Rather, the arguments that suffering is punishment for moral wrong are rejected – Jobs’ friends’ admonition that he is being punished for wrong he has done. Job’s defense is that he has done no wrong.
In a legalistic system of rewards and punishment, it is natural to judge circumstances on that basis. Job 8:1-7 says that Job lost all that he owned, except his life which was plagued with boils, and he mourned on a dung heap. Job’s friend, Bildad, comes to comfort him. Being unable to console Job’s suffering, Bildad resorts to rationalization, accusation, and exhortation:
Then Bildad the Shuhite answered, “How long will you say these things, and the words of your mouth be a mighty wind? Does God pervert justice or does the Almighty pervert what is right? If your sons sinned against Him, then He delivered them into the power of their transgression. If you would seek God and implore the compassion of the Almighty, if you are pure and upright, surely now He would rouse Himself for you and restore your righteous estate. Though your beginning was insignificant, yet your end will increase greatly.”
Bildad seeks to explain Job’s suffering, and by that explanation to offer a remedy. The other friends also become judgmental. With obedience to authority their orientation, rather than right relations, judgment is its consequence. Judgment avoids suffering by becoming superior to it. But Job did not need judgment, nor was judgment adequate to explain his suffering. What he needed was someone to listen. He says as much, “Listen to what I am saying; that is all the comfort I ask from you.” Job 21:1.
Job seeks to defend himself against the accusations. “How I wish I knew where to find [God], and knew how to go where he is. I would state my case before him and present all the arguments in my favor.” Job 23:3-4. By doing so, he himself falls into the judgment trap. His defense is, itself, of classic rules orientation: “Yet God knows every step I take; if he tests me, he will find me pure. I follow faithfully the road he chooses, and never wander to either side.” Job 23:10,11.
There is always a counter to a defense, and Elihu counters. As frequently occurs in rules-oriented thinking, someone claims a higher authority or a deeper insight.
After Job and each of his “friends” have spoken, God speaks out of a whirlwind: “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth!” God does not explain why Job suffers. But God challenges, “Are you trying to prove that I am unjust -to put me in the wrong and yourself in the right?” Job 40:8. The book addresses both the mystery of suffering in the world and the wonder of life. God does not justify Job’s suffering. Nor does God adopt either Job’s friends’ judgments or Job’s defenses. We are confronted with a paradox: suffering exists in the midst of wonder.
The last chapter appears inconsistent with the prior four chapters. Indeed, it appears to justify Bildad’s admonition that if Job would implore God and be pure and righteous, God would restore his lost wealth many times over. The last chapter returns to a legalistic, rewards and punishment viewpoint in which Job is rewarded for his obedience and confession of the power of God. God restores to Job his fortunes – and that many times over. It is interesting from a modern perspective that the loss of Job’s former wife and children have no significance in themselves in the story, but are satisfactorily replaced to Job and enlarged upon – as though they were mere possessions. But, of course, that was a different time. Perhaps to draw any conclusions on that point is to stretch the metaphor beyond its limits.
Some scholars see the final account as an ending tacked onto the original story at a later time, much as the heaven scene was added to the Anderson brothers’ story of the little matchmaker. Whether it is or not, the predominant message remains: we are not to judge the suffering of others. Rather, we are called to love them, to help relieve their suffering when we can, to listen and to share in their suffering. Albert Schweitzer called it sharing “the mark of pain.”
The Jews directly addressed in their wisdom literature the distinction between conformity with prescribed practices and right relations.
Every man’s way is right in his own eyes, but the Lord weights the hearts.
To do righteousness and justice is desired by the Lord rather than sacrifice.
Finally, as the political greatness of Israel waned, and the luster of “God’s chosen people” became tarnished, the prophets exhorted the people to return to justice, not in a purely legalistic context, but through right relationships. If we love God, we will love all of God’s creation, including our neighbor as our selves. Here we see not only God’s “judgment,” the natural consequences for breach of mutually affirming relationships, but also the possibility of renewed relationship.
Therefore, justice is far from us, and righteousness does not overtake us; we hope for light, but behold, darkness; for brightness, but we walk in gloom. . . . And justice is turned back, and righteousness stands far away; for truth has stumbled in the street, and uprightness cannot enter. Yes, truth is lacking; and he who turns aside from evil makes himself a prey. Now the Lord saw, and it was displeasing in His sight that there was no justice. And He saw that there was no man, and was astonished that there was no one to intercede; then His own arm brought salvation to Him; and His righteousness upheld Him.
With what shall I come to the Lord and bow myself before the God on high? Shall I come to Him with burnt offerings, with yearling calves? Does the Lord take delight in thousands of rams, in ten thousand rivers of oil? Shall I present my first-born for my rebellious acts, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
Alas, you who are longing for the day of the Lord, for what purpose will the day of the Lord be to you? It will be darkness and not light; as when a man flees from a lion, and a bear meets him, or goes home, leans his hand against the wall, and a snake bites him. Will not the day of the Lord be darkness instead of light, even gloom with no brightness in it?
I hate, I reject your festivals, nor do I delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer up to Me burnt offerings, I will not accept them; and I will not even look at the peace offerings of your fatlings. Take away from Me the noise of your songs; I will not even listen to the sound of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
I find it interesting that Amos’ admonition was spoken in a time of prosperity.
At its best the Jewish law represented, not an authoritarian legalism, nor even a dualistic world, but rather a hope of achieving in the concrete that peace and harmony of spirit and matter for which we long and strive. The Messiah was to bring the reign of peace to the earth, when the lion would lie with the lamb. It was a hope that some day right relations would reign and justice would be achieved.
Greek Notions of Political Justice
About three hundred years later Plato considered the problem of government and justice. Plato analogized the city-state to the individual, or the State as “man writ large.” He argued that the state derives from the nature of the individual. The state is a natural institution because it is built upon the structure of the individual’s nature. “A state comes into existence because no individual is self-sufficing; we all have many needs.” In the Republic, Plato views a society in which the desires of the individual are sublimated or transformed for the benefit of the state.
For Plato, at times justice is completely even-handed, and at other times it is proportional to responsibility or need. Justice was a virtue, which meant that all parts fulfilled their special functions. Justice was the embodiment of the ideal, the working out of the concrete in harmony with the ideal. Full justice in society was dependent upon wisdom: “The human race will not be free of evils until either the stock of those who rightly and truly follow philosophy acquire political authority, or the class who have power in the cities be led by some dispensation of providence to become real philosophers.” Indeed, the definition of philosophy is “the love of wisdom or knowledge.”
If the state is “man writ large,” then, Plato concluded, the state will reflect the kind of people its society has become. It was in part for this reason that Plato viewed democracy, direct popular government, as a degenerate form of government: for its principles of equality and freedom would reflect the degenerate nature of men who pursued their appetites with equal freedom. “This insatiable craving would bring about the transition to democracy,” because “a society cannot hold wealth in honor and at the same time establish self-control in its citizens.” Because of this chaos of passion, the natural end of democracy is despotism, Plato concluded. For Plato the ideal state was that of an enlightened aristocracy, led by a philosopher-king who would lead the people to ever more perfectly emulate that ideal which was real but perceivable only under the light of wisdom.
Christian Notions of the Kingdom of God at Hand
The story of Jesus, which follows Plato by about four centuries, is a story of right relationships in love. Jesus taught that right relationship with God is grounded in right relationships with others. The greatest commandment is to love God. The next commandment is like to it: love your neighbor as yourself. Matthew 22:34-40. Jesus exhorts, don’t love only your neighbor; love also your enemy. Matthew 5:44, 45.
God, the living God, is not finite, nor measurable as are inanimate objects. The notion of God is an expression of becoming; it is not static. How can we finite beings have a relationship with the transcendent, the dynamic “I am becoming that I am becoming,” the living God, except in our concrete relationships with others and the world, which the creation stories declare is good?
John the Baptist sent his disciples to Jesus to ask Jesus some measure of his authenticity. Jesus responded that they should tell John what they saw: Jesus cared for those who suffered, and he relieved their suffering. God’s love was not limited to the initiated, nor was it a reward in a life hereafter for right belief or conforming conduct. Rather, the kingdom of God was for all and it was at hand.
Paul, through his Christological teachings, at times converts Jesus’ message of righteousness-as-right-relations to one of righteousness-as-state-of-being. It is the result of a notion of righteousness-as-obedience-to-rules. For Paul, righteousness is not even a part of a bargain, a reward for acting in obedience to a command. Rather, it is a state of being acquired by the concurrence of two circumstances: being “chosen” and right belief, called faith. It is not clear whether all are chosen, or whether only a few are chosen, but receipt of the benefits of that chosen state are conditional. The key to acquiring such a state of being appears to be the phrase, “I believe” or something akin to it.
While it is true that we are precious in the sight of God without doing anything at all, the dynamic state of living in the presence of God, in the Kingdom of God, is grounded upon mutually affirming relationship with others, not a static state in isolation from others. By its radical break from works, the Paulian concept of righteousness loses its dynamic nature.
Paul uses the example of Abraham. But Paul converts the dynamic example of Abraham leaving ties to home and the familiar to strike out in a new life in faith, into a statement of state of being: “Abraham believed God and because of his faith God accepted him as righteous.”
What does such a statement mean? This notion of righteousness easily devolves into a notion of personal salvation, which is also the mark of contemporary fundamentalism: saved by faith and not by works. But what difference would it make in our lives if we believed that God’s gift to us of salvation is also given to our neighbor, one quite different in social custom, religious belief, or race? How would it affect our relationships with our neighbors if we considered our neighbor to be accepted and loved by God, just as we are?
Faith coupled with action has meaning: it bears fruit, as Jesus said. But faith divorced from action is meaningless. It is as meaningless as the notion of “loving God” without loving neighbor. Truly the one is bound up with the other.
Faith is the result of a conviction based upon observation, experience and reason. It justifies action upon that conviction, even though we cannot prove the premise. Anything less than that paralyzes us in inaction for lack of trust; anything more than that threatens tyranny. Doubt is a necessary part of faith: it keeps the believer humble and open to becoming. Hope is also necessary to faith: it lends to faith strength and vitality. Someone mentioned once asking her mother if she really believed the story of Jesus walking on the water. Her mother said she believed the story and that she had no doubt but that when her daughter needed to walk on water she would. Faith is like that: it is not something to be casually tested, but to be acted upon in real life situations.
At the highest points of the Old and New Testaments, the faithful perceived the realization of love in the world: a world of harmony and peace, where the lion lies with the lamb; a world where the Kingdom of God is at hand, and we live in the presence of God. That is not a mere idyllic state of being, but a dynamic state in which all parts relate harmoniously.
Whitehead discussed the unique dynamism of the early church. The early Christians, before Paul sought to freeze the faith in a new orthotic theology, believing that Jesus would, true to his word, return in all his glory while yet some of those who knew him lived. Matthew 24: 32; Luke 21: 32. With such a belief, there was no need to protect one’s position in the world or one’s possessions. That belief permitted the believer to let go of all that would hinder right relations as taught by Jesus, and to live their faith zealously. And so the rich sold their possessions and gave to the poor. But as those who experienced Jesus diminished in number, and as the stories of Jesus faded in memory and in urgency, right belief increased in importance.
Roman Notions of Political Justice
Rome had a long history of positive law. Emperor Justinian (c. 482-565) was its codifier. For him justice was not mere conformity with the positive law. He wrote, “Justice is the constant and perpetual wish to render to every one his due.” (Institutes, I.i.1).
With the fall of Rome, Western society fell into the Dark Ages, and in time settled into the Medieval Period. The Medieval Period has been called the Age of Faith. Two of its dark results were the Crusades and the Inquisition. It elevated the spiritual over the natural world. Right belief was supreme. Scholastic thought turned to examination of spiritual matters disconnected from concrete and practical considerations, such as how many angels can fit on the head of a pin. The Middle Ages was prepared by monastic orders which flourished throughout the age and continue today. While many were devoted to service, the overwhelming focus was on the individual’s relationship with God. Hence the word “monasticism:” the right believer is set off from the world for contemplation and practice of the authoritative marks of right belief.
The Renaissance, however, meaning “rebirth,” was marked by a renewed interest in the natural world and in the classics. It marked a return to examination of social and political relationships.
As Europe emerged from feudalism, its feudal states began to band together. With increased resources, monarchies had the resources to explore the world, and to dominate it. The Spanish throne financed Christopher Columbus’ voyage that resulted in the discovery of “America.” Later the religious dispossessed of England established a British Colony in North America. The British Colonies developed under Puritanism. Puritanism, a local government based upon a notion of Natural Law, but predominantly authoritarian, lost its influence as the colonies developed economically, and as other religious and sectarian groups settled along the northern seaboard. As it developed, England exacted an increasingly heavy price in terms of taxes as well as governance. Political theory in Europe also developed, providing an intellectual framework to the colonists to challenge the burden.
Hobbes: The Social Contract
Western philosophical inquiry returned via Bacon and Hobbes to examine the structure of the world and Natural Law. Having rediscovered the Greek and Latin classics, Hobbes (1588-1679) examined the pre-civilized state of nature and went on to examine social development and the role of government.
AHobbes posited the notion of government as a social contract, “as if every man should say to every man, I authorize and give up my right of governing myself, to this man, or to this assembly of men, on this condition, that they give up their right to him, and authorize all his actions in like manner.” For Hobbes this contract was between individuals who agreed to give their authority of self-government to a sovereign. Hobbes had some historical basis for his theory in the Magna Carta, in which the sovereign agreed, “To no man will we sell, or deny, or delay, right or justice.” His notion of the sovereign was not limited to any one form of government, although monarchical authority was familiar to him as an Englishman.
Having established the philosophical basis for government, Hobbes went on to discuss notions of law, which for him began only when there was a sovereign. Hobbes defined law as the command of the sovereign. In the state of nature the Natural Law is binding and naturally coerces compliance. In a society there is no law without the coercive power of government to enforce it. Agreements between individuals without the power to enforce them are “mere words.” Having defined the law as the command of the sovereign with the power of enforcement, Hobbes concluded that “there can be no unjust law.” This does not mean there can be no bad laws. Rather, the sovereign was entrusted with the power to make law for the welfare of the people. To that the sovereign is obliged by the law of nature. Violation of that obligation is not a matter between the sovereign and the people; rather it is a matter between the sovereign and God.
Hobbes’ notion of the law influenced his concept of justice. As the law cannot exist without the sovereign, so justice, as obedience to the law, cannot be rendered without the sovereign. When a sovereign makes the law as authorized by the social contract, it makes it for the people as though the people were making it themselves: what the people agree upon cannot be unjust. Indeed the people are bound to obey the laws, and thereby to do justice by the Natural Law that requires “that men perform their covenants made.” To do so is the “fountain of justice.”
Rationalism and the World
Descartes, Spinoza and Leibniz sought to give philosophy the advantage of achievements made in science and mathematics. With them developed a new rationalism based upon the inherited assumption that what one thought with clarity corresponded to an objective existence in the world.
Through an argument based upon that assumption, Descarte began with the maxim, “I think, therefore I am.” The popular reading of this statement misses its real premise of innate ideas. Through the apparent objective reality of his thoughts about God, Descartes concluded that God existed as the cause of such ideas. Descartes’ world was a dualistic world of spirit and matter. Because the two were separate, theology and science were also separate and there could be no conflict between them.
Spinoza was influenced by Descartes’ rationalism, but his method was to explain the reality of the world geometrically with a complete set of axioms or theorems. Whereas Descartes’ rationalism led him to a dualistic view of the world, Spinoza’s rationalism led him to a pantheistic view that identified God with the whole world:
God I understand to be a being absolutely infinite, that is, a substance consisting of infinite attributes, each of which expresses eternal and infinite essence.
In Spinoza’s world, there can be no separation of mind and body: they are attributes of a single substance, which is a finite version of God. From this, Spinoza concluded that man is an integral part of Nature. From his mathematical foundation, however, Spinoza also believed that human behavior could be explained in precise terms of cause and effect, and that freedom of will was an illusion born of human ignorance. The central feature of Spinoza’s philosophy which remained after his esoteric method was the unity of all Nature with which humanity is one.
Locke: Accountability Under a Social Contract
Empiricism developed in reaction to the worship of human reason and belief in the possibility of sure knowledge. This was not a return to the skepticism of the Sophists, but it connected human knowledge with human experience. Its early proponent was John Locke, born into a Puritan home in England in 1632. For him, ideas did not have an objective existence apart from the corporeal world; rather, the origin of ideas was experience. He observed,
It is an established opinion among some men, that there are in the understanding certain innate principles . . . stamped upon the mind of man, which the soul receives in its very first beginning, and brings into the world with it.
He rejected that notion and noted the danger of its misuse by an authority that might “take them off from the use of their own reason and judgment, and put them on believing and taking them upon trust without further examination,” so that “in this posture of blind credulity, they might be more easily governed.”
Whereas Locke’s critics argued that the empiricist maxim that “nothing exists in the intellect which was not first in the senses” leads to atheism, Locke responded that the existence of God can be shown without the means of innate ideas. Using a common-sense view of substance, he concluded that intuitive knowledge gives us certainty that we exist, and the existence of God can be indicated by demonstrative knowledge.
Locke’s Two Treatises of Civil Government, published in 1690, was a justification of the revolution in England of 1688. He began, as Hobbes did, with an examination of the state of nature. For Locke “men living together according to reason, without a common superior on earth with authority to judge between them is properly the state of nature.” Moral law is not dependent upon the positive law, but rather Locke held that individuals living in the state of nature are capable of knowing the moral law. “Reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind who will but consult it, that, being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty or possessions.” This moral law is not oriented to self-preservation, but rather to the principle that each person has value by virtue of his or her status as a creature of God. Locke’s empiricism thus led him not to a pure positive law in which man defines the terms of his own existence, but rather to a Natural Law that implies natural rights with correlative duties.
For Locke the right to private property was grounded in the Natural Law, and its justification was labor. One applies labor to common property and thereby makes the common property private property. But the right of the individual to appropriate the common for personal use was limited to “as much as anyone can make use of to any advantage of life before it spoils, so much may by his labour fix a property in.” Locke also assumed the right to inherit the father’s goods.
Locke’s notion of property was not limited to that which one acquires by labor, but was extended to “lives, liberty and estates, which I call by the general name, property.” Locke’s notion of civil government was bound to this notion of property: “The great and chief end of men’s uniting into commonwealths and putting themselves under government is the preservation of their property.”
Although people know the moral law, when disputes arise each person tends to decide in the interest of protecting one’s own property. Therefore, it is desirable to have both a set of written laws and an independent judge to settle disputes. For that purpose humans create a political society. That political society must rest upon the consent of the governed, for “men being . . . by nature all free, equal and independent, no one can be put out of his estate and subjected to the political power of another without his consent.” Because “no rational creature can be supposed to change his condition with an intention to be worse,” the laws of the government must conform to the rights people have by nature.
Unlike Hobbe’s consent to yield authority to a sovereign, Locke foresaw a representative government in which the governed agreed to be bound by the decision of the majority. Whereas Hobbes’ sovereign was answerable only to God, Locke’s legislature held power in trust for the governed, and “the people shall judge.” Whereas Hobbes left the matter of justice to God, Locke recognized the right of the governed to demand justice of their government, and to hold government to the standards of Natural Law. Whereas Hobbes would define justice as obedience to the commands of the sovereign, for Locke justice was the embodiment of right relations.