The Religious Dimension of the Lockean Law of Nature

The desire for equality has been used to justify quite heavy-handed action by states. But John Locke, in his  2d Treatise on Government: “On Civil Government” section 6, reasons from the equality of all to natural rights. To John Locke, equality means a starting place in which no one is under the thumb of anyone else, and those who are not under the thumb of anyone else are free. In John Locke’s view, beyond a prohibition on suicide reflecting his view of our relationship to God, the key bound on that freedom is that one is not allowed to “take away, or impair … the life, the liberty, health, limb or goods of another”: 

But though this be a state of liberty, yet it is not a state of license: though man in that state have an uncontroulable liberty to dispose of his person or possessions, yet he has not liberty to destroy himself, or so much as any creature in his possession, but where some nobler use than its bare preservation calls for it. The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which obliges every one: and 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: for men being all the workmanship of one omnipotent, and infinitely wise maker; all the servants of one sovereign master, sent into the world by his order, and about his business; they are his property, whose workmanship they are, made to last during his, not one another’s pleasure: and being furnished with like faculties, sharing all in one community of nature, there cannot be supposed any such subordination among us, that may authorize us to destroy one another, as if we were made for one another’s uses, as the inferior ranks of creatures are for ours. Every one, as he is bound to preserve himself, and not to quit his station wilfully, so by the like reason, when his own preservation comes not in competition, ought he, as much as he can, to preserve the rest of mankind, and may not, unless it be to do justice on an offender, take away, or impair the life, or what tends to the preservation of the life, the liberty, health, limb, or goods of another.

Other “natural law” doctrines view people’s freedom as limited by more than just a ban on suicide and not harming others (who are not themselves offenders). Why is it that John Locke views our freedom as so extensive? There is a clue in saying that each of us is sent into the world by God and “about his business.” In effect, John Locke views us each as the one in the best position on Earth to make the ultimate judgement for what God wants each of us to do. Although, presumably, people sometimes fail to do what God sent them to Earth to do, many beautiful things that God did send someone to do might not happen if that person’s freedom of action is blocked.  

From a less theistic perspective, the point is that if someone is given freedom, they may do something wonderful that no one else would have thought to have them do. Giving each individual a chance to do that something wonderful that perhaps no one else would have thought of is figuratively giving that individual a chance to fulfill her or his mission in life. 

The view that John Locke scorns is the idea that “we were made for one another’s uses.” We were made for greater ends than that. And the final judgment on those greater ends cannot be made by another.