On Despotism

Being under someone else’s power is the result of some kind of lack on one’s own part. This is the gist of Chapter XV of John Locke’s 2d Treatise on Government: Of Civil Government: “Of Paternal, Political, and Despotical Power, considered together.”

Parental Power. Being under parental power results from the disabilities inherent in childhood. Looking to the other end of the age spectrum, parental power can be compared to the medical or financial power of attorney those people often give others in their old age. Knowing, or suspecting, that they will become unable to make good decisions for themselves, many people voluntary sign documents in advance saying that another can make decisions for them if they are not in a position to make a good decision for themselves.

The situation for children differs when children are young enough, there is no earlier time at which they were more competent to make good decisions. So it is not possible to get a fully informed, well-considered assent from children in advance to a document giving parents leave to make decisions for their children. Because of this practical difficulty, we treat children—or at least young children—as if they had signed such a power of attorney over to their parent. Nevertheless, just as in the case of an explicit power of attorney for someone older who can no longer make good decisions for themself, the power parents have vis a vis their child should be considered a power to be used for the benefit of the child. And it is a power to be used by the parent only to the extend that a child is, indeed, unable to make good decisions for herhimself.

Political Power. Being under the power of a ruler or magistrate or judge results first from the disability almost all human beings have in being an impartial judge in their own case. As a defendant, most of us are likely understate the magnitude of our transgression and the appropriate penalty. (A few might overstate it.) As a victim, most of us are likely to overstate the magnitude of the perpetrator’s transgression and the appropriate penalty. To get an impartial judgment, defendants and victims must submit to third-party judgment.

Our willingness to so submit has a lot to do with the overwhelming force that can come from joining in a compact to deal with another disability: the inability most of us have to enforce the law of nature on our own. We join in society so that law can be enforced, because for most of us, however much we fear the law being enforced against us, we have even more to fear from others violating our rights in the absence of enforceable law.

Despotical Power. Being under the power of a despot results from the fact that one sometimes lose wars—whether international wars or civil wars—or have a strong enough expectation of losing a war that we give in before engaging in a war.

John Locke emphasizes too much the case of losing a war in which the other side has justice and right on its side. Losing a war in which on has justice and right on one’s side can just as easily put one under despotic power.

A key element of being under despotic power is that, ethically, after losing a war in which one had right on one’s side, one remains in the state of nature and in a state of war with the despot. Contrary to some of what John Locke says, those under despotic rule can sometimes have a semblance of property, but that semblance of property is, in effect, a matter of foreign affairs—a treaty that can be broken. It is all a matter of what the despot can get away with without serious reprisal.

Conclusion. The bottom line is that the justice of power should not be taken for granted. Any kind of power over another person needs to be justified, and that justification will often involve strong limitations on that power. Power is needed in society because of human weakness. But power should not take advantage of human weakness. John Locke’s words in his chapter “Of Paternal, Political, and Despotical Power, considered together” reinforce this message:

§. 169. Though I have had occasion to speak of these separately before, yet the great mistakes of late about government having, as I suppose, arisen from confounding these distinct powers one with another, it may not, perhaps, be amiss to consider them here together.  

§. 170. First, then, Paternal or parental power is nothing but that which parents have over their children, to govern them for the children’s good, till they come to the use of reason, or a state of knowledge, wherein they may be supposed capable to understand that rule, whether it be the law of nature, or the municipal law of their country, they are to govern themselves by: capable, I say, to know it, as well as several others, who live as freemen under that law. The affection and tenderness which God hath planted in the breast of parents towards their children, makes it evident, that this is not intended to be a severe arbitrary government, but only for the help, instruction, and preservation of their offspring. But happen it as it will, there is, as I have proved, no reason why it should be thought to extend to life and death, at any time, over their children, more than over any body else; neither can there be any pretence why this parental power should keep the child, when grown to a man, in subjection to the will of his parents, any farther than having received life and education from his parents, obliges him to respect, honour, gratitude, assistance and support, all his life, to both father and mother. And thus, ’tis true, the paternal is a natural government, but not at all extending itself to the ends and jurisdictions of that which is political. The power of the father doth not reach at all to the property of the child, which is only in his own disposing.  

§. 171. Secondly, Political power is that power, which every man having in the state of nature, has given up into the hands of the society, and therein to the governors, whom the society hath set over itself, with this express or tacit trust, that it shall be employed for their good, and the preservation of their property: now this power, which every man has in the state of nature, and which he parts with to the society in all such cases where the society can secure him, is to use such means, for the preserving of his own property, as he thinks good, and nature allows him; and to punish the breach of the law of nature in others, so as (according to the best of his reason) may most conduce to the preservation of himself, and the rest of mankind. So that the end and measure of this power, when in every man’s hands in the state of nature, being the preservation of all of his society, that is, all mankind in general, it can have no other end or measure, when in the hands of the magistrate, but to preserve the members of that society in their lives, liberties, and possessions; and so cannot be an absolute, arbitrary power over their lives and fortunes, which are as much as possible to be preserved; but a power to make laws, and annex such penalties to them, as may tend to the preservation of the whole, by cutting off those parts, and those only, which are so corrupt, that they threaten the sound and healthy, without which no severity is lawful. And this power has its original only from compact and agreement, and the mutual consent of those who make up the community.  

§. 172. Thirdly, Despotical power is an absolute, arbitrary power one man has over another, to take away his life whenever he pleases. This is a power, which neither nature gives, for it has made no such distinction between one man and another; nor compact can convey: for man not having such an arbitrary power over his own life, cannot give another man such a power over it; but it is the effect only of forfeiture, which the aggressor makes of his own life, when he puts himself into the state of war with another: for having quitted reason, which God hath given to be the rule betwixt man and man, and the common bond whereby human kind is united into one fellowship and society; and having renounced the way of peace which that teaches, and made use of the force of war, to compass his unjust ends upon another, where he has no right; and so revolting from his own kind to that of beasts, by making force, which is theirs, to be his rule of right, he renders himself liable to be destroyed by the injured person, and the rest of mankind that will join with him in the execution of justice, as any other wild beast, or noxious brute, with whom mankind can have neither society nor security.  [Another copy corrected by Mr. Locke, has it thus, Noxious brute that is destructive to their being.] And thus captives, taken in a just and lawful war, and such only, are subject to a despotical power, which, as it arises not from compact, so neither is it capable of any, but is the state of war continued: for what compact can be made with a man that is not master of his own life? what condition can he perform? and if he be once allowed to be master of his own life, the despotical, arbitrary power of his master ceases. He that is master of himself, and his own life, has a right too to the means of preserving it; so that as soon as compact enters, slavery ceases, and he so far quits his absolute power, and puts an end to the state of war, who enters into conditions with his captive.  

§. 173. Nature gives the first of these, viz. paternal power to parents for the benefit of their children during their minority, to supply their want of ability, and understanding how to manage their property. (By property I must be understood here, as in other places, to mean that property which men have in their persons as well as goods.) Voluntary agreement gives the second, viz. political power to governors for the benefit of their subjects, to secure them in the possession and use of their properties. And forfeiture gives the third, despotical power to lords for their own benefit, over those who are stripped of all property.  

§. 174. He that shall consider the distinct rise and extent, and the different ends of these several powers, will plainly see, that paternal power comes as far short of that of the magistrate, as despotical exceeds it; and that absolute dominion, however placed, is so far from being one kind of civil society, that it is as inconsistent with it, as slavery is with property. Paternal power is only where minority makes the child incapable to manage his property; political, where men have property in their own disposal; and despotical, over such as have no property at all.

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