Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Locke on the Duty to Resist and Legitimate Slavery

One of my favorite things about teaching is the discovery of new insights and connections that takes place, unbidden, when I'm standing up in front of the class, responding to questions and quizzical looks. In precisely this way, I think that I had my first real thought of the new term today.

I'm teaching Locke's Second Treatise, and wrestling with the sheer, unadulterated normativity of it. Warren Montag has claimed that Locke vacillates between a juridical and a physical concept of power throughout the Treatises, and that may be, but what impressed me immediately was the consistently juridical usage in the opening chapters of the Second Treatise. That is, whenever Locke uses "power" in these pages, what he means is "jurisdiction." Power is always shot through with right, such that humans in the state of nature have the power to do only what they also have the right to do (see, for example, Sec. 8, where "one man comes by a power over another" when that other violates the law of nature).

The difficulty, for me, came in understanding the various things Locke says about slavery in light of this normative concept of power.

On the one hand, Locke defines "the perfect state of slavery" as "the state of war continued, between a lawful conqueror and a captive." The conqueror is lawful because the captive violated the law of nature, and the conqueror is acting according to his or her natural right to execute that law, seizing by force the body of that "degenerate" and "noxious" "beast of prey" who has "forfeited his own life." Here is slavery that accords with right.

On the other hand, the people of England saved themselves from "the very brink of slavery" by consenting to William of Orange's conquest, and the very criminal who initiates war in the state of nature does so by attempting "to get another man into his absolute power," i.e., to "make him a slave." Here is--threatened--slavery that is a breach of right.

The thought that occurred to me in class is that submitting to slavery is itself a breach of natural right, and therefore justifies--slavery. In other words, the only slavery that is wrong, according to Locke's theory, is slavery that threatens but never arrives, or slavery that has been thrown off through resistance. Actual slavery, by the slave's submission to it, is completely compatible with natural right. In Hegel's terms, the one who chooses life over freedom loses the right to both, debasing his or her humanity. That the slave submits to another who also breaks the law of nature doesn't matter.

In other words, I think that Locke advocates not merely a right of resistance but a duty of resistance. The flip side of this duty to resist, however, is a justification of all actually existing slavery. The real is rational, and the rational is real.

PS: This was meant to be an hypothesis, offered by one who is certainly far short of an expert in Locke. I'd be curious to hear from people who really know their way around Locke as to the merits and deficiencies of my argument. Especially that bit about how it doesn't matter whether the master is just as much in violation of the law of nature.

UPDATE: Edited slightly.