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Politics in a State of Nature


William A. Edmundson


Georgia State University College of Law

December 26, 2012

Ratio Juris. Vol. 26 No. 2 June 2013 (149–86)

Abstract:     
Aristotle thought we are, by nature, political animals. Political philosophy in the tradition of Hobbes and Locke sees political society not as natural but as an artifice. For this tradition, political society can usefully be conceived as emerging from a pre-political state of nature by the exercise of innate normative powers. Those powers, together with the rest of our native normative endowment, both make possible the construction of the state, and place sharp limits on the state’s just powers and prerogatives.

Thus described, a state-of-nature theory has three components. One is an account of the native normative endowment, or “NNE.” Two is an account of how the state is constructed using the tools included in the NNE. Three is an account of the state’s resulting normative endowment, which includes a (purported) moral power to impose duties of obedience.

State-of-nature theories disagree about the NNE. For Hobbes, it consists of a moral permission to do whatever seems to one to be necessary to survival, and a moral power to covenant. Locke specified a more constraining NNE, which also included a “natural executive right” to punish wrongdoing. Rawls excluded personal desert from the “original position,” his refurbishing of the state of nature. In each case, the NNE is not treated as though it were a matter of empirical investigation and discovery, but rather were one of reflective adjustment to the other two components of the theory.

The work of social psychologist Stanley Milgram and his students suggests a quite different NNE, one far more constrained than what state-of-nature theories have allowed. Norms that constrain moral reproof are of particular interest here. Contrary to Locke, people do not behave in experimental settings as one would predict if they possessed a “natural executive right” to punish wrongdoing. Moral reproof is subject to standing norms. These norms limit the range of eligible reprovers.

This paper draws on a wealth of more recent work in the social sciences (including anthropology, social psychology, evolutionary game theory, and neuropsychology) that pertains to cooperation, altruism and third-party punishment. The paper reaches two main conclusions. One is that the native normative endowment is (as Aristotle held) already political. The other is that political authority should be re-conceived as a matter of standing - that is, as the state’s unique possession of a moral permission to enforce moral norms - rather than as a moral power to impose freestanding duties of obedience.

Keywords: authority, political obligation, Milgram, third-party enforcement, Locke, Hobbes, virtue ethics

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Date posted: May 16, 2011 ; Last revised: November 3, 2013

Suggested Citation

Edmundson, William A., Politics in a State of Nature (December 26, 2012). Ratio Juris. Vol. 26 No. 2 June 2013 (149–86). Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1835745 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.1835745

Contact Information

William A. Edmundson (Contact Author)
Georgia State University College of Law ( email )
P.O. Box 4037
Urban Life Building, Room 402 140 Decatur Street
Atlanta, GA 30302-4037
United States
404-413-9167 (Phone)
404-413-9225 (Fax)
HOME PAGE: http://law.gsu.edu/wedmundson/
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