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Political Philosophy: US Declaration of Independence Critical Essay

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Updated: Jun 11th, 2019


Legitimate political authority is that which is derived from the consent given by the people to be governed. This is based on Locke’s explanation in which he applies the social contract technique. The authority may, however, be withdrawn when a state interferes with or reduces the freedom to be enjoyed by subjects (Mukherjee & Ramaswamy 2001).

In the assumption of legitimate political power, a state has the right to develop laws and measures to be used for the purpose of controlling and conserving individual or public property.

In certain instances, the state may use the community to ensure that stipulated laws are well respected and adhered to for the sake of every person. Typically, legitimate political power is controlled by trust and the entire community is expected to play a big role in stipulating the intentions.

Freedom and Nature of Political Authority

Generally, the legitimacy of any state has to do with the right the state has to control its subjects (Corbett 2009, p. 45). This right and its correlative obligations constitute a special moral relationship between the state and each individual who consents. In Lockean’s view, the justification of a state ultimately gives us moral reasons to refrain from undermining it.

Ordinarily, it gives subjects moral reasons to positively support the state or perhaps promote the existence of similar states. Seemingly, justice and happiness of others look like ends that may require positive promotion by all moral agents. However, the justification of a state in this manner cannot form the basis of any special moral relationship between it and its subjects.

Ordinarily, no single individual can be made to succumb to another without his or her own consent (Simmons 2001, p. 129). Ostensibly, the legitimacy of political power springs from the morals that often exist in societies. Subjects, therefore, have a moral duty to obey.

However, Locke also offers a different and quite general argument for the moral and prudential preferences of states ruled by the limited governments to life in the state of nature (Jahanbegloo 2004, p. 32). This argument is plainly addressed to those who maintain that the state in any form is morally or prudentially inferior to life without the state.

As a result, state legitimacy is the logical correlation of various obligations, including the subjects’ political obligations. A state’s legitimacy right is in part a right held specifically against the subjects bound by any state imposed duties arising from morally significant relations (Rawls 2009, p. 23).

It follows, therefore, that state legitimacy may be complete or partial, depending on whether such relations hold with all or only with some of those against whom the state enforces the duties it imposes. By and large, governments can presumably be illegitimate even where the states they govern are not.

According to Estlund (2012, p. 35), however, state and legitimacy seem not to be independent of one another, since an illegitimate state could not have a legitimate government. Arguably, states earn their legitimacy by virtue of the consent of their members. This consent empowers a central authority to create a viable political society for the benefit of everyone.

The fact that a state is legitimate with respect to a subject typically results in the subject having feelings, beliefs, or attitudes that generate allegiance and support. It is important to note that a state may actually be legitimate with respect to its subjects without receiving much or any support from the subjects.

This is, however, pegged on the fact that subjects may be sufficiently immoral, deceived, stupid, overwhelmed, weak-willed, or manipulated. As noted by Simmons (2001, p. 134), it is correct and perfectly natural to say that a state is legitimate, but unstable, unpopular, or unsupported.

When people fail to uphold a state due to their own shortcomings rather than to its lack of moral authority, this cannot reasonably be described as a reduction of its legitimacy. It is a mistake, then, to focus in an account of state legitimacy on the attitudes of subjects or on the capacity of a state to produce or sustain these attitudes.

This is insofar as it is the positive attitudes and beliefs of subjects that reliably produce their compliance with and support for states or regimes, instead of the nature of those actual relations with the state that obligate them to support it and give it the right to rule them.

In order to explain the origin of political power, Locke began with a description of the state of nature (Nyquist 2013, p. 51). Without being compelled by anyone or getting pressure from any external source, individuals became political subjects by choice. Despite the existence of a political society, individuals were still allowed the right to privacy.

This dichotomy between the state and society, and between the private and public, was fundamental to Locke’s theorizing. Since then, it has become an integral part of the Western intellectual tradition. Locke rejected Filmer’s biblical account of the origins of political power without abandoning religious foundations.

His theory rested on a firm and explicit moral relationship between the human being and God. Locke saw this shared duty to God to preserve one’s self as part of God’s creation as the basic moral law of nature, which existed in the pre-political order or the state of nature.

He tried to show that political power could be understood only if it was derived from a state in which all individuals were perfectly free to do, with regard to their person and possessions, what they thought fit within the bounds of the laws of nature. Locke was quite categorical that God had made everything for subsistence and not for waste (Mukherjee & Ramaswamy 2001).

Locke further argued that an individual’s life was not his own, but was given by God as a trust, meaning that human being have no right to destroy or kill themselves. They are not permitted to destroy, kill, rob, or enslave other beings who are considered equal in the presence of God.

In Locke’s arguments, political authority, like all moral claims, is ultimately based on religious obligations, which are the source of all morality. Although his arguments are politically radical, they are quite far from being secular. Unlike Hobbes who argued for an unlimited right of nature that each individual can claim, Locke stresses on a natural duty of self preservation owed to God for having created us (Hobbes et al. 1999).

Certainly, this duty rules out conflict, for not only do we need to preserve ourselves, but we also need to perceive the fact that we are all equal before God. As such, the state of nature is moral. For Locke, political authority is not mere power, but power with right.

This right can only be derived from an already existing right, and because individuals have no right to give away their duty to preserve themselves, they cannot morally or logically grant rightful power to an absolute authority. Locke considers any form of supreme power as being illegitimate, and sees the various arguments presented by Filmer’s as wrong and wicked.

Generally, Locke’s description of the state of nature is not as gloomy and pessimistic as Hobbes’. The state of nature is not of license, for though the individual is free from any superior power, he or she is still subject to the laws of nature. The laws of nature are known to human beings through the power of reason, which directs them towards their proper interests. Besides natural rights, human beings also have natural duties to discharge.

Liberty, for Locke, is not the freedom to do what one chooses, but to act within the bounds of the laws of nature. Freedom presupposes order and is possible only within a framework of law. To a very extent, law helps to keep individuals from being subject to the arbitrary will of others. Natural rights act as constraining factors on the powers of the state, once these are established through a contract between individuals.

In Locke’s view, personal independence and freedom are fundamental human rights. No one has a right to coerce or dominate another person in the state of nature (Locke 1996, p. 26). Everyone has an equal right to his or her natural freedom without being subjected to the will or authority of any other individual. In his clarification, Locke argues that the laws of nature are those that are dictated by reason.

Since rights and duties are derived from the laws of nature, the most important of these is the right to hold others responsible for a breach of law and to punish them accordingly. Although Locke categorically rejects the right of a person to kill one’s self, he grants the right to inflict penalties, including death penalty, on those who violate the laws in general. Locke explicitly rejects the right of the individual to commit suicide and murder.

As noted by Ward (2010, p. 105), the compulsion to constitute a civil society is to protect and preserve freedom and to enlarge it. The state of nature is one of liberty and equality, but it is also one where peace is not secure, being constantly upset by the corruption and viciousness of degenerate men. Apparently, it lacks three important wants. First, there is the want of an established, settled, known law.

There is also the want of a known and indifferent judge, and finally, the want of an executive power to enforce just decisions.

Through the state of nature, Locke tries to explain the meaning and importance of authority, namely that human beings came together to ensure the observance of the laws of nature, to guarantee the greater possibility of impartiality in the implementation and execution of rules that govern common life, and thereby increase the chance of peace that impartiality entails.

Locke brings out the perils of human partiality, and how absolute power makes partiality potentially dangerous (Grant 2010, p. 63). Flattery and servility only makes it worse. He recognized the tremendous potentiality of power for making human life better, but fears that it has to be entrusted only to those who are responsible towards those on whom it is exercised.

Ostensibly, most societies are based on force rather than right (Mack 2009, p. 16). Political authority is a trust, and if the terms of the trust are violated, the community has the right to take remedial measures in order to preserve itself. It is on these grounds that he objects Hobbes’ argument that only total order can provide for commodious living.

It does not seem credible that people who do not trust one another can entrust an all powerful sovereign to safeguard their interests. He found it objectionable that there are no safety measures against potential violence and oppression of absolute authority.

Through a contract, individuals consent to submit to the majority rule and organize themselves as a community or civil society. They surrender their powers partially, namely the three specific rights and constitute the natural right to enforce the laws of nature. Once a civil society is established, the individuals establish a government to act as a judge in the nature of a fiduciary power for promoting certain ends.


As can be deduced from the preceding discussion, Locke advocates for a limited sovereign state. Certainly, reason and experience have taught him that political absolutism is untenable. Describing the characteristics of a good state, Locke says that it exists for those who form it, and not the vice versa.

It has to be based on the consent of the people subject to the constitution and the rule of law. It is limited in two ways. First, its powers are derived from the people and are held in trust and, secondly, it is subject to natural laws and individual rights.

Reference List

Corbett, RJ 2009, The Lockean Commonwealth, State University of New York, Albany.

Estlund, D 2012, The Oxford Handbook of Political Philosophy, Oxford University Press, New York.

Grant, RW 2010, John Locke’s Liberalism, University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Hobbes, T, John, B, & Vere, C 1999, Hobbes and Bramhall on Liberty and Necessity, Cambridge University Press, New York, NY.

Jahanbegloo, R 2004, Iran: Between Tradition and Modernity, Lexington Books, Oxford, UK.

Locke, J 1996, Some Thoughts Concerning Education: And, Of the Conduct of the Understanding, Hackett Publishing, Indianapolis, Indiana.

Mack, E 2009, John Locke, Continuum International Publishing Group, New York, NY.

Mukherjee, S & Ramaswamy, S 2004, History Of Political Thought A: Plato To Marx, PHI Learning Pvt. Ltd., New Delhi, India.

Nyquist, M 2013, Arbitrary Rule: Slavery, Tyranny, and the Power of Life and Death, University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Rawls, J 2009, Lectures on the History of Political Philosophy, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.

Simmons, AJ 2001, Justification and Legitimacy: Essays on Rights and Obligations, Cambridge University Press, New York, NY.

Ward, L 2010, John Locke and Modern Life, Cambridge University Press, New York, NY.

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