Politics and Morality: John Locke


John Locke (1632-1704) was an early Enlightenment philosopher and physician who had a huge influence on Thomas Jefferson and by extension all Americans. The early Enlightenment sought certainty and answered the question: “How can you claim to really know a thing?” with the concept of maker’s knowledge. You can claim to know a thing if you made it. We are like mini-gods with respect to what we create and have maker’s knowledge, just as God has maker’s knowledge of the universe.

God not only knows what he created, he also owns what he created. We belong to God because he created us. The universe is God’s property, because you own what you make. Just as we are mini-gods over what we make in knowledge, we are like mini-gods in owning what we make.

Locke says,

“The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which obliges every one: and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind, who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions.” Furthermore, we are all equal before God and cannot dominate one another. The Declaration of Independence echoes these thoughts.

Property, which was ever on the minds of the English philosophers, was on Locke’s mind as well. How does one acquire rights to property that is ultimately owned by God? Locke says that by mixing his labor with the natural world that part becomes his, so long as 1) He does not spoil it and 2) he leaves “enough and as good” for others. Property rights can be gained second-hand through transfers from those who originally mixed their labor with it. People who lack sufficient goods to stay alive may have “claim rights” to the surplus goods of those who have more. A claim right is a right which entails responsibilities on other parties regarding the right-holder while a liberty right does not entail obligations on other parties.

What comes first, the property or the state? Lock says the reason for society and government is not so much to establish property rights as to protect pre-existing property rights (which are partly natural and, with the advent of money, partly conventional).

Locke’s reasoning:

1. God intends for people to preserve themselves and others, and they have a duty to God to do so.

2. God gave people the natural world in common, to use to preserve them selves.

3. In order to preserve themselves, however, people need exclusive use of bits of the natural world.

4. Therefore, God must have intended people to use exclusively bits of the natural world, and so people must have the right to do so.

Since our rights to exclusive use are based on our duty to preserve ourselves and others, we have no rights to exclusive use that does not serve that purpose. We have a duty to preserve others, when doing so does not compete with our own preservation.

Locke carried on a running debate with Robert Filmer, who in his book Patriarcha, referred to natural law to claim that the family and state were established to fulfill the purposes of human nature. The king held ultimate power as a father did over his children, political power was not consensual and subjects had no right to disobey or resist their king.

According to Filmer, God gave the earth to Adam who passed it down to his descendants. The kings and queens of Europe were the most direct living descendents of the first couple, which gave them political authority. In 17th century England there were folks running around who would trace your lineage to Adam and Eve for a fee.

Locke said, “No, God makes the child and uses the parents as his instrument.” The parents simply act out an urge that’s implanted in them, but they can’t fashion the intricacies of the child. And, of course, they can’t put a soul in the child, so the child is God’s creation and we are all God’s creation.

Locke further maintained that there is no authoritative earthly interpreter of the scriptures, an extraordinarily radical idea for the time. “[Those things that] every man ought sincerely to inquire into himself, and by meditation, study, search, and his own endeavours attain knowledge of, cannot be looked upon as the peculiar possession of any sort of men.”

“Princes, indeed, are superior to men in power, but in nature equal. Neither the right nor the art of ruling does necessary carry along with it the certain knowledge of other things and least of all of true religion. For if it were so, how could it come to pass that the lords of the earth should differ so vastly as they do in religious matters?”

Locke maintained that the care of souls cannot belong to the civil magistrate, because his power consists only in outward force; but true and saving religion consists in the inward persuasion of the mind, without which nothing can be acceptable to God. We own what we make just as we know what we make.

  1. We have common rights to the creation that God has put before us.
  2. The king doesn’t have any right to declare what natural law means, or the magistrate to compel us to believe the received interpretation.
  3. Each individual is sovereign over himself and has the right to resist the authority of the state

John Locke’s ideas have been extremely influential in American thought. Besides the obvious references in the Declaration of Independence and his assertion that the state should have no authority in religion, colonists referred to Locke when they claimed land in North America. In 1722, a Puritan minister wrote,” THERE was some part of the Land that was not purchased, neither was there need that it should it was vacuum domicilium and so might be possessed by virtue of GOD’s grant to Mankind, Gen. I:28…The Indians made no use of it, but for Hunting.”

What do you think? Was John Locke right? Wrong? Partly right?

Yale Open Courses: The Moral Foundations of Politics



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