John Locke – State of War and State of Nature

How does Locke distinguish between the State of War and the State of Nature?


It is important to make a distinction between living in Society and living in Nature. In society, people have a common judge to turn to in situations that present threat and conflict. This common judge presents us with an opportunity to have impartial judgment from humans outside of the situation in question when that situation, (usually one of conflict), needs some judgement. This does not exist in the state of Nature. To Locke, the state of nature involves people living “together according to reason”, in this state there is no authority, all systems such as the monarchy are seen as equal. So this means in situations of force or conflict, you are judged objectively in a state of Nature. Having no parties to call to for help when force is initiated are the inherent risks in the state of nature that causes a state of war to arise.


Locke defines the State of War as one of “enmity and destruction”. Locke believes that this state is brought about when one person’s words or actions make an attempt towards another person’s life. He then goes on to talk about how the law of self-preservation makes this situation become a state of war or conflict by default. Locke wants to make it clear to us that the state of nature and the state of war are not the same. He explains to us in the fourth paragraph that while some men have “confounded” the two states in the past, they are in fact “as far distant, as a state of peace, good will, mutual assistance and preservation, and a state of enmity, malice, violence and mutual destruction, are one from another.”


Power is a key theme in this chapter of Locke’s work. Power seems to be everything; it manages to be both part of the problem and the solution. You cannot argue that Locke was not right when linking Power so heavily to states. Locke believes that when one party moves towards another with an act of force or conflict, the ultimate goal or result is that of one party falling under the others power. This creates the state of war. Locke believes that when one man desires another man to be under his power, he therefore desires that mans life. Once that man has his prey under his power, he can do so with him as he wishes, whether that be to destroy his life or abuse his freedom. Locke makes it clear that the kind of man, who makes a move to have you under his power, is the kind of man who you can suppose will want monopoly on all other properties belonging to you or the state you are in. It is this definition and idea of power that envelopes all the properties of persons and states that make it the key theme for Locke. He shows how it is applicable to everything with his example of a thief.


Locke believes it is lawful for a man to kill a thief, even if this thief has not used force to make an attempt on his life. The thief is trying to take away someone’s money or their possessions; Locke sees this as an equivalent to trying to get someone within your power. As I stated earlier, anyone who is the kind of man that has intention of forcing you under his power, is the kind of man who you can suppose will want monopoly on all other properties belonging to you. This is why Locke says it is lawful to treat the thief as someone who has put himself at a state of war with you; Locke believes you should kill him if you have the opportunity because the thief put himself at that “hazard” when he aggressed you into a state of war. Locke links in the threats that the thief makes to your personal liberty, and makes it clear that a thief “attacking” your belongings is an attack on your personal liberty.


Locke’s idea of power is heavily linked with the concept of freedom in this writing. When we speak of someone asserting force to get you under his or her power, it is impossible to not talk about your freedom. When someone is living in a state of Nature, they have complete natural freedom where everyone is bound by a perfect equality. In a state of Nature you sacrifice the security of having a common authority and a power to turn to in situations of conflict, this is why a state of Nature has massive problems when it becomes the aggressed. We can explain what you sacrifice in an example of conflict. When the actual act of force or conflict is over, Locke believes the war is over and a Society has the luxury of turning towards the common authorities between the parties and arbitrary decisions “fair determination of the law” will be made on outcomes and where the “winning” and “losing” states progress from there. In Nature, Locke believes that even when the act or force is over, war has not ended. The war only ends for the state of Nature when the “aggressor offers peace” and offers to repair all that has been damaged. This problem with a state of nature is why many people would choose to enter into a society instead.


Locke seems to talk about right in two different ways. We have right in terms of what is just and right in terms of what we as humans have the rights towards. An important part of Locke’s definition of engagement becoming a state of war is the right to force. Locke says, “force without right, upon a man’s person, makes state of war”. When Locke talks about rights in this aspect, he is referring to the reasoning concerned with an engagement into conflict. Have you engaged another party for the correct reasons and are those reasons for asserting your power the right ones. Right meaning morally and just. Locke distinguishes the two states in terms of rights as well. Rights are a social construct, we as humans have no natural rights. This is why in a society you have rights; they are given to you by the higher authorities and entitle you to certain things. As a state of nature has a level of equality and no higher authorities, you are not given any rights; one would argue the only right is that of equality.


Overall I think Locke does a good job distinguishing between the two, highlighting the importance of construct between the two. In the previous paragraph I highlighted how the structure of a society means you have rights and you do not have these in the state of nature. This structure is what changes all the properties between a state of war and a state of nature.