When is liberty worth fighting a revolution for?

When is liberty worth fighting a revolution for?

In this essay I will argue that there only a few occasions when liberty is worth fighting a revolution for, and I will illustrate this by discussing the ideas and works of English philosophers Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679) and John Locke (1632 – 1704). Both philosophers were alive and wrote at a time of great civil unrest in England, the former writing in exile during the English Civil War, and the latter writing his treatise on government a year after the Glorious Revolution of 1688. I will argue that within a commonwealth our individual rights cannot come before society’s collective rights, and that equality of outcome is not the same as equality of opportunity. Central to my argument is that if the state is meeting it’s obligations (principally when there is a recorded and agreed covenant with the people) then revolution is unjust, especially if it is for personal benefit. I will also argue that fighting for the rights of others is not justified on the basis of “I know better than them”.

At this point it is important to discuss what is meant by “liberty”. The Oxford English Dictionary (O.E.D.) defines liberty as ‘The state or condition of being free’ and this inevitably leads on to examining the O.E.D. definition of “freedom” which is ‘The state or fact of being free from servitude, constraint, inhibition, etc.; liberty’. But freedom is more than being “free from” (a negative freedom), it is also involves being “free to” (a positive freedom). While considering terminology, I will argue from the viewpoint that “fighting a revolution” in this context would involve violent or armed struggle to either overthrow the governing body, or at the very least, to change laws that were unpalatable or intolerable to members of that society. That said, it is worth mentioning that at the time of Hobbes’ and Locke’s writings, sedition (considered to be treason) was a capital offence in England.

To understand Hobbes’ views on liberty it is necessary to appreciate that when he viewed freedom it was in terms of “freedom from” the state of nature. Hobbes’s described the “state of nature” in his tetralogy of books Leviathan in 1651 by undertaking a thought experiment – this was to mentally go back to a time in mankind’s history before there was civilisation, government, organised rule or civic duty. In such times, Hobbes surmised, life would be ‘nasty, brutish, and short’. Hobbes considered that lack of civil authority would allow individuals complete freedom to follow their base desires, resulting in a perpetual state of conflict at individual and family level, where everyone would be forced to try and hold on to (or take from another) whatever meagre possessions they had. Under this regime no community activities such as farming, industry, or education would be possible, thus even rudimentary civilisation could not be founded. So Hobbes believed that where there was an absence of a sovereign power or government that provided law, negative liberty would result. Thus, the state of nature was a prescription for disorder and lawlessness. The result of this would be people only using their ‘liberty’ in negative ways, to plunder and pillage from others.

Hobbes expands his views on liberty in Chapter 21 of Leviathan by explaining that when people act within the law they do so with liberty, and therefore it would seem absurd to want liberty from the very laws that were there to protect you. Furthermore, when people act outside the laws, they do so without the protection of those laws, thus they are in effect returning to the state of nature. So Hobbes very much expounded the concept that with freedom comes obligation (to follow the law of the land).

John Locke recorded his thoughts on societal liberty in his publication Two Treatises of Civil Government in 1689, almost three decades after Hobbes’ Leviathan. Locke re-affirmed Hobbes’ postulate that liberty is synonymous with acting within the law when he stated ‘all the states of created beings capable of laws, where there is no law, there is no freedom for inWhilst Locke’s views on the state of nature differed from Hobbes, in that he thought that pre-societal life was more harmonious and less chaotic, he agreed with Hobbes by arguing against the potential anarchy of an uncivilised state by writing ‘for liberty is, to be free from restraint and violence from others; which cannot be, where there is no law’.

It can be seen that both philosophers considered true liberty to be only possible within a society governed by laws, hence both favoured a commonwealth with a sovereign power (be that one person or a collective) at its head. Therefore, both Locke and Hobbes discussed types of governance and agency within a commonwealth, and then asserted that individual rights cannot trump the collective rights of that society where a sovereign commits to protect its individuals. Hobbes writes in Leviathan that the common good (or collective good of a society) does not differ from the private good in other animal species. It could be argued though that Hobbes and Locke provide us with three premises for liberty within within a commonwealth, each of which need to be tested. The first premise is that people in society only have true liberty when they are governed by laws, secondly that we consent to keep these laws, and thirdly that the collective good outweighs or is equal to the individual good.

To bolster the first premise Hobbes argues in Chapter 13 of Leviathan that even within a lawful society we lock away belongings, and lock our doors at night when we sleep. Hobbes believed that liberty was only possible when there were laws and punishment for breaking them. Locke addressed a weakness in the second premise which is that people do not “sign up” to a covenant within a commonwealth and there is no written agreement between citizens and the sovereign in almost every state, but he countered this by stating that ‘every man, that hath any possessions, or enjoyment, of any part of the dominions of any government, doth thereby give his tacit consent, and is as far forth obliged to obedience to the laws of that government’In simple terms, Locke stated that even when enjoying the simple freedom of walking down a state’s highway you have given your tacit consent to follow that state’s laws. The third premise is argued by Hobbes in respect to utility and security, and Barber explains Hobbes’ premise by saying ‘A common power of this kind […] is only possible if everyone hands over all their power to a single man, or a single body of men’.Thus, when all members of society have the benefit of security of this central power, by definition every individual enjoys those benefits equally. It follows then, they are not subservient to any individual in the state, only to the sovereign.

If the above conditions of liberty are provided within a commonwealth, then when would it be possible to fight a revolution? It was Hobbes’ view that the only valid exception to fight a revolution is for the preservation of the first right in the law of nature- that being to protect ourselves from death, injury or imprisonment. Furthermore, to assert this point Hobbes’ considered why it was that men fight or come to a state of war with each other. Hobbes’ concluded there were three reasons: ‘The first, maketh men invade for Gain; the second, for Safety; and the third, for Reputation’.

So Hobbes’ remedy lay in addressing these root causes by ensuring that the covenant between the individual and the sovereign within the commonwealth provided strong laws and security. While the covenant is in tact and the sovereign is providing security, people are compelled not to revolt. To re-enforce this, Hobbes believed that to make citizens comply with the law, the punishment for any offence must be greater than any potential gain from committing that crime. However, if the sovereign cannot provided this security, either in the immediate short term (for example when an individual is confronted by a thief), or in the long term through dereliction of duty or lack of law enforcement, then citizens become entitled to fight as a person cannot give away their first right in the law of nature to protect oneself. Hobbes went further in his heeding of revolutions by stating that when commonwealths are set up by revolution the subjects are ruled by fear and not by trust, as there is no covenant in place, and he concluded that ‘rebellion was like war renewed’. Locke, similarly, held the principle that when citizens act outside the law then they act outside the state of nature and therefore they are acting in a state of war. In such cases they have the right to protect themselves using force not normally permitted within the law.

It can be seen that a pre-condition for a safe and secure society for both Hobbes and Locke was a commonwealth in which the sovereign power provided fair and just laws to protect its citizens, but could this state be seen to be fair and equitable if the sovereign power was exempt from (or above) the law? Hobbes believed that the sovereign is subject to the laws of nature but not to civil law, for if he were bound by civil law then it would necessitate a sovereign above him setting and enforcing that law. Locke did not accept this view, and considered that rulers, be they monarchs or elected government, should be subject to civil law, and went on to argue that ‘wherever law ends, tyranny begins’. This difference between Hobbes and Locke is important, for if you follow Locke’s viewpoint then there is a greater need to legitimise the covenant between sovereign and citizen through a formal written treatise to prevent digressions and excesses of that sovereign power. In 1689, The Bill of Rights (1688) became law in England and although Locke was not credited with authorship, it is believed that his political philosophy was the bedrock of its content. In this legislation, the King could no longer circumnavigate laws enacted by a Parliament which was voted for, and made up from, the people. He could no longer keep a standing army without parliamentary approval. This law also made freedom of speech and petition of the King legal, and it gave citizens the right to bear arms for their own protection. In effect, Locke had overcome some of the objections against Hobbes’s view on liberty by proposing a system where there was greater accountability of the ruling power, and greater equity for the citizens.

Therefore, both Hobbes and Locke agreed that there are determinable bases for when it is worth fighting a revolution in the cause of liberty; these being for Hobbes the right of self-defence to protect oneself against individuals or the sovereign at such times when that sovereign can no longer provide protection; and for Locke citizens have the right to rebel when their leader becomes a tyrant and acts outside the civil laws, or their government can no longer protect them.

A flaw to this limited approach is that whilst rules and obligations are in place to provide every citizen with basic liberties to live peacefully within a set legislative framework designed to protect life and provide a base level of security, there is no consideration of minimum standards for the quality of life or for the means of provision thereof. Any liberty under such a regime can be described as the enactment of negative rights (laws to prevent yourself and others from doing harm). To address this Locke argued that natural rights extend beyond life and liberty, a third right being that of individual property, stating a citizen entering society does so ‘only with an intention in every one the better to preserve himself, his liberty and property; (for no rational creature can be supposed to change his condition with an intention to be worse)’. Locke proposed that in a commonwealth there is communal property that everybody owns and is available to all, and as soon as a man puts his labour into the provisions nature has provided it becomes his, with the caveat that he does not take more natural resource than that which would deprive others of their fair share. In other words, property is the fruit of labour. Therefore, he considered that there is equality of opportunity if men are free and unhindered to use nature’s resources, and that they would have agency to shape their destiny. Thus any inequality and personal hardship would lie in the inequality of outcome, not opportunity.

This argument against inequity, though, still falls short of being a positive right (that is to say, the state providing minimum means of sustenance). A premise could be put forward that if the standard of subsistence in a state is declining or has declined below that which is necessary to give a healthy and secure living, then conditions are met for disenfranchising oneself from that state. However, this hardship premise again is problematic, in that without recorded and universal subsistence standards, any ranking of individual circumstance is subjective. Furthermore, it could be argued that as long as the majority of the population are above the arbitrary subsistence threshold then the greater good of the community is being met by the state, and the rights of any individual below the threshold do not supersede those of the majority.

Therefore, individual rights should not take precedence over the collective good. And even if the majority of the population fell below a poverty or hardship threshold but they were content with the sovereign, then it could also be argued that it would be ethically wrong for an individual to fight on others behalf; this would be to presumptuously act as a surrogate for other less well off citizens in the belief that “I know better than them”, and would go against the collective will. It follows, therefore, that the decision to fight a revolution must be in regard to an individual’s personal circumstances together with the irrefutable knowledge that it is the will of the majority of the people to fight, and that will is for the good of the majority of the people.

I mentioned in my introduction that I would limit my arguments around the term “fighting” a revolution to that of violent struggle. It is fair to state that this is a limited stance as violence is at one end of a wide spectrum of revolutionary measures that can be taken to oppose a regime (the other end being acts such distributing propaganda or peaceful marches). However, if one were to believe that armed conflict, which may lead to the taking of lives, is only permissible when one’s own life is in immediate peril, then it is important to appreciate that any act of opposition or sedition, however seemingly small, may lead to a violent conclusion. There are numerous examples throughout history where justifiable non-violent direct action has resulted in civil disobedience and loss of life, and the threat of violence from either the protestors’ or state’s side often results in the arming of both.

In conclusion, if a state has a tacit or written set of rights, or a formal constitution within a commonwealth, and if the sovereign does not break the covenant with its citizens, it follows that there is no right to revolution, as sufficient individual liberty exists within this framework. The notable exception to this is the need for immediate self-preservation which supersedes all agreements. Self-preservation encompasses the right of an individual to prevent harm to life, health, and freedom from imprisonment. During those times when an individual does not enjoy the protection and security of its sovereign power, an individual is deemed to be free from any covenant, and is put into a state of war, thus enabling them to act outside the laws of nature which includes the right to fight with proportionate violence.

Published by The Sage Page


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