Politics in a State of Nature


  • William A. Edmundson

    1. College of Law, Georgia State University, Atlanta, Georgia, USA
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    • I thank Dorota Mokrosinska and Emily Crookston for the opportunity to present this to the Academy Colloquium on Political Obligation and Legitimacy of the State, at the Koninklijke Nederlandse Akademie van Wetenschappen, in Amsterdam, in June 2011. Jerry Postema gave a helpful commentary and I benefited from the remarks of other participants, all of whom I should mention, but Dave Estlund, John Simmons, Govert den Hartogh, Doug MacLean, and Massimo Renzo were particularly forceful about what I had yet to do. Irit Samet, Jerry Gaus, Luciano Venezia, Bas van der Vossen, Ekow Yankah, Andrew I. Cohen, and George Rainbolt valuably commented on a later draft.


Aristotle thought we are by nature political animals, but the state-of-nature tradition 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. 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 Locke, it included a “natural executive right” to punish wrongdoing. Recent social scientific findings suggest a quite different NNE. 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. The social science can support two claims. One, is that the NNE is (as Aristotle held) already political. The other is that political authority can be re-conceived as a matter of standing—that is, as the state's unique moral permission coercively to enforce moral norms, rather than as a moral power to impose freestanding duties of obedience.