Many critics of social contract theory and of the Declaration of Independence have denied the historical reality of this state of nature. After all, all human beings have been born into societies, subjected to the authority of their parents and others in their society. Human infants living a solitary life would soon die.
Although this criticism might apply to Rousseau's account of the state of nature as an utterly asocial condition of solitary individuals, it does not apply to Locke's account of the state of nature as human beings living in social bands of hunter-gatherers without formal government or laws but with customary norms of conduct that constitute a law of nature. For Locke, the historical reality of this state of nature is evident in the life of the American Indians, who lived the sort of hunting-gathering way of life that must have characterized our ancient human ancestors: "In the beginning, all the world was America."
As I have indicated in some other posts, Locke studied the reports of the American Indians living in foraging bands as evidence of how human beings originally lived in a state of nature prior to the turn to agriculture and the establishment of government, and most of what Locke inferred has been confirmed by modern research in evolutionary anthropology.
Here Locke was following the lead of ancient authors like Lucretius and Dicaearchus, who saw that the first human beings must have lived as hunter-gatherers, which Dicaearchus called "the state of nature." Although the Declaration of Independence does not use the term "state of nature," the idea is implied in the claim that human beings are naturally equal in their liberty until "governments are instituted among men."
Remarkably, however, Zuckert argues that "the Declaration does not present literal or empirical history, but moral history." "The Declaration is not speaking of some primordial prepolitical condition in which human beings wander the forests 'lonely as a cloud'" (23). The Declaration's history is actually "mythic history" (145). But then he seems to contradict this when he says that the Declaration is exploring "the primeval human condition, the condition prior to the establishment of government and prior to all humanly established laws and rights" (102).
Moreover, Zuckert recognizes that Jefferson, like Locke, thought that the American Indians showed the historical reality of the state of nature (68-69). According to Jefferson, the Indians manifest "the circumstance of their having never submitted themselves to any laws, any coercive power, any shadow of government. Their only controls are their manners, and that moral sense of right and wrong, which, like the sense of tasting and feeling, in every man makes a part of his nature. An offense against these is punished by contempt, by exclusion from society, or, where the case is serious, as that of murder, by the individuals whom it concerns" (Notes on the State of Virginia, Query XI).
Jefferson's insight here into the evolution of the moral sense in foraging bands has been confirmed by the evidence gathered and analyzed by evolutionary anthropologists like Christopher Boehm, who see the evolution of morality through indirect reciprocity, or what Locke called "the law of reputation," which has been the subject of a post.
From the evolutionary anthropology of the 18th century Scottish philosophers and historians, Jefferson adopted the "four stages theory" of human evolutionary progress--hunting, pastoral, agricultural, and commercial (see Jefferson, Letter to James Madison, Jan. 30, 1787; Letter to William Ludlow, Sept. 6, 1824; and Ronald Meek, Social Science and the Ignoble Savage, 1976).
West quotes a remark by John Adams that West takes as expressing a "view shared by all the founders" (103):
"Men, in their primitive conditions, however savage, were undoubtedly gregarious; and they continue to be social, not only in every stage of civilization, but in every possible situation in which they can be placed. As nature intended them for society, she has furnished them with passions, appetites, and propensities, as well as a variety of faculties, calculated both for their individual enjoyment, and to render them useful to each other in their social connections. There is none among them more essential or remarkable, then the passion for distinction. A desire to be observed, considered, esteemed, praised, beloved, and admired by his fellows, is one of the earliest, as well as keenest dispositions discovered in the heart of man" (Discourses on Davila, II).The natural sociality of human beings, even in the primitive state of nature without government, and the evolution of a natural moral law from the natural social concern for praise and blame have been corroborated by modern research in evolutionary anthropology.
West argues that the American founders did not see the state of nature as something found only in the distant primeval past, because they thought it was an ever present reality. So, for example, when the Americans declared their independence from Great Britain, they momentarily entered the state of nature until they instituted a new government over them. Moreover, in affirming the natural right to revolution, the Americans understood that people could enter the state of nature at any time in the future when they might judge that their government was not securing their natural rights, and that they must invoke their natural right to alter or abolish their government, and institute new government that might seem to them most likely to effect their safety and happiness by securing their natural rights.
I agree with this, but I also believe that Locke was correct in thinking that the only way to explain how these natural rights are really natural for human beings is to see how they express the primordial human nature shaped in the original state of nature of our hunter-gatherer ancestors.
I don’t understand the impulse of scholars to take the social contract interpretation of the American founding so deadly seriously. The problem with it is not just that there was no historical state of nature, but that there was no period during the founding that any “return” to that state took place. The Declaration itself was a political act, written and signed by representatives of governments of “the thirteen united States” “in Congress” assembled. States sending delegates to a Congress: This can hardly count as a return to the state of nature. Regardless of what rhetoric was employed, the actual events of the founding simply do not bear out the myth.
I posted a response to JG on August 17, 2022. Sometimes I'm a little slow in responding!
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