Locke on rights

Notes for March 4

Main points

We compared Hobbes’s views on our natural state with Locke’s. By “natural,” I mean prior to the state. So we talked about what moral rights and obligations exist prior to the state as well as each thinker’s predictions about what life in such a state of nature would be like.

Natural rights

The most prominent difference between Hobbes and Locke is that Locke has something that we would recognize as human rights while Hobbes does not. Some vocabulary used in the philosophy of law is very helpful here. We can distinguish between two different meanings of the term “right”.

  1. Liberty. Having a right in the sense of liberty means that you are free to act in some way, you have no obligations preventing you from acting and so would do no wrong in acting.

  2. Claim-rights. Having a right in the sense of a claim-right means that others have obligations corresponding to your right.

These two different senses of the term “right” can be distinguished according to whether they allow for competition or not. For example, if we are in a race with one another, each of us is at liberty to win the race; we both have a right to win the race in that sense. But neither of us has a claim-right to win the race since neither one of us is obliged to let the other win. Liberties describe rights in competitive situations. Claim-rights, by contrast, are exclusive. My claim-right to my property means that you are obliged to leave my things alone; we are not in competition for my shoes because I am the only one who has a right to use them and you are obliged to leave them alone.

Hobbes’s right of nature is a liberty. Locke, however, thinks that people have natural claim rights that impose obligations on others. The law of nature, according to Locke, “obliges every one” such that “no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions” (Locke, §6).

Locke’s view is much more congenial to most of us because most of us believe in human rights. Those are rights that everyone has, just because they are human. They do not depend on the existence of the state.

However, there are two questions about Locke’s version of natural rights.

  1. Where do they come from? Locke has a story about God’s ownership. But it is rather thin. So, for example, I asked why it is obvious that Locke’s inference about God’s intentions for us is more accurate than one that Hobbes might have drawn, namely, that God thought we should make peace if that is possible but strike first if it is not.

  2. Locke thinks that self-preservation comes first: everyone ought “to preserve the rest of mankind” provided that “his own preservation comes not in competition” with doing so (Locke, §6). So exactly what you’re permitted to do depends on how dangerous the state of nature is. As Adam noted, if Hobbes is right about the dangers of the state of nature, he and Locke might be very close on what people in such a state are permitted to do.

So what did Locke think a state of nature would be like? On the one hand, he thought that there was an important distinction between what he called a state of nature and what he called a state of war (see §19 and §128). That suggests he thought it was possible for people to live at peace even without a government. On the other hand, he seems to have thought that life without government would not be safe enough to be tolerable: it would be “very unsafe” and rights would be “very unsecure” (§123). Furthermore, he seems to have believed that decentralized enforcement of rights would lead to cycles of violence like the ones in New Guinea that Diamond described (§125).


There are three differences here.

First, Locke thinks there is a natural right to punish: individuals have a right to punish even in the state of nature. Hobbes thinks that only the sovereign can punish.

Second, Locke has to explain why punishment is permitted. Hobbes does not. This follows from their different views on natural rights: Locke thinks people are obliged not to hurt one another while Hobbes does not. So a right to punish will have to overcome this obligation for Locke while Hobbes does not have a similar problem. (The problem for Hobbes is that it’s too easy to justify violence, not that it’s too difficult.)

Third, Locke treats criminals as if they were in a state of war with the rest of society. Criminals forfeit their rights and may be treated like wild animals (§16, for example). Hobbes, by contrast, thought of punishment as something reserved for members of a society (“subjects”) because it is limited by the law in various ways. In other words, a criminal in Hobbes’s commonwealth retains the protection of the law and is much better off than an enemy would be. In Locke’s society, by contrast, this is not so.

Key concepts

Compare Hobbes and Locke’s views on:

  1. Natural rights
  2. What the state of nature (anarchy) would be like.
  3. Punishment
This page was written by Michael Green for Social and Political Philosophy, Philosophy 33, Spring 2014. It was posted March 24, 2014.
Social and Political Philosophy