John Locke & the Ethics of Punishment & Severity

by James Stuart

One of philosopher John Locke's main concerns was the state of humanity in a pre-societal state of nature. By looking at human behavior, Locke posited a theory that in the state of nature, human beings had no formal constraints on their behavior which in turn meant that they had absolute freedom over how they punished others for perceived moral transgressions.

State of Nature

According to Locke, the term "state of nature" refers to the way human beings lived before they came together to form societies. In the state of nature, human beings have absolute freedom to pursue their desires, and because there are now laws, they can steal or kill without the fear of institutionalized punishment. However, everyone also has absolute freedom to protect themselves and attack others for perceived slights. Since individuals alone decide on how and when to seek retribution, Locke doubted whether any actions enacted by these individuals could actually constitute punishment.

Punishment in Society

Locke argued that the idea of punishment is one of the principle reasons why humans come together to form a society. According to Locke, in a state of nature, each person acts as a judge in his own case, but this unchecked power puts all humans in a potential state of danger. Therefore humans consent to turn their power to punish over to the government and relinquish absolute freedom. In a society, authorities such as kings or elected officials formalize ideas of punishment.

Ethics of Punishment

Locke viewed punishment as a means of repairing the social order. If somebody steals something, the government selects an appropriate punishment, and enacts it in order to return order to that society. Locke's theory on the severity of this punishment relates to restitution, and he claimed that an appropriate amount of punishment is whatever provides restitution for the injured and deters other people from committing a similar crime. According to the University of Stanford, critics believe that this view of punishment is no different than his conception of punishment in the state of nature, since both views center around the notion of preservation. In the state of nature the individual is punishing others in the interest of self-preservation, while in society an individual or individuals create laws and enact them, but they still create these laws in the interest of preserving the state or even humanity.

Implications

Locke's theory of punishment influenced -- and continues to influence -- governments and individuals all over the world. Several countries have built laws on the ideas espoused by Locke, and some countries, such as the United States, have built the ideas into their constitutions. The U.S. Constitution enshrines the idea that the government derives its power from the people, who turn some of their freedoms over to the government when they consent to be governed. This, as well as many other aspects of the Constitution, comes directly from Locke.

About the Author

James Stuart began his professional writing career in 2010. He traveled through Asia, Europe, and North America, and has recently returned from Japan, where he worked as a freelance editor for several English language publications. He looks forward to using his travel experience in his writing. Stuart holds a Bachelor of Arts in English and philosophy from the University of Toronto.

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