“Two Treatises of Government” By John Locke

John Locke
John Locke
Locke criticizes, Sir Robert Filmer, a proponent of divine right of kings, for not defining terms clearly and building an edifice of political theory on a dubious foundation. I find it ironic that he makes the same mistake, and consequently, “there was never so much glib nonsense put together in well-sounding English”.

In this review, I’ll first summarize Locke’s ideas in his own words, and then present my objections.

Right to Life, Liberty and Property

The first and strongest desire [God planted in men, and wrought into the very principles of their nature], being that of self-preservation, that is the foundation of a right to the creatures for the particular support and use of each individual person himself. But, next to this, [God planted in men] a strong desire also of propagating their kind, and continuing themselves in their posterity; and this gives children a title to share in the property of their parents, and a right to inherit their possessions.

The equality, which all men are in, in respect of jurisdiction or dominion one over another; being that equal right, that every man hath, to his natural freedom, without being subjected to the will or authority of any other man.

Property, whose original is from the right a man has to use any of the inferior creatures, for the subsistence and comfort of his life, is for the benefit and sole advantage of the proprietor, so that he may even destroy the thing, that he has property in by his use of it, where need requires.

The labour of his body, and the work of his hands, are properly his. Whatsoever then he removes out of the state that nature hath provided, and left it in, he hath mixed his labour with, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property.

Authority of Government

Those who are united into one body, and have a common established law and judicature to appeal to, with authority to decide controversies between them, and punish offenders, are in civil society one with another: but those who have no such common appeal, I mean on earth, are still in the state of nature, each being, where there is no other, judge for himself, and executioner.

Political power is a right of making laws with penalties of death, and consequently all less penalties, for the regulating and preserving of property, and of employing the force of the community, in the execution of such laws, and in the defence of the commonwealth from foreign injury; and all this only for the public good.

The conqueror has no right to seize more than the vanquished could forfeit: his life is at the victor’s mercy; and his service and goods he may appropriate, to make himself reparation; but he cannot take the goods of his wife and children; they too had a title to the goods he enjoyed, and their shares in the estate he possessed.

Objections from Philosophy

Locke’s political philosophy is based on some a priori notions of good, namely, life, equality and freedom — it is not a blank slate. He asserts the natural right of men provided by “the law of nature”. But, nowhere does he give a definition of right, what “right” is, how the concept of right can be constructed from simpler concepts, and how it relates to other concepts, such as obligation and freedom. Despite claims to the contrary, these notions are not “self-evident” at all, neither to sense nor to reason.

Being and right are two different categories. From the fact that one is a human being, it doesn’t follow that he has the right to be a human being, as opposed to an amoeba; Desire and right are also two different categories. One might desire and choose a high standard of living by joining a state that provides it, but it does’t follow that he has the right to a high standard of living.

Locke’s notion of property is also full of non sequiturs. A human being has de facto use of the creatures and other things for his subsistence, it doesn’t follow that he therefore has ownership of those same creatures and things. Ownership and usage are two different realities. Without ownership, a human being has no right to destroy other creatures at will.

What struck me the most is that humans’ right to life necessitates the death of other living beings. The assertion of the right of one negates the right of another. I suspect Locke realized this difficulty and could only justify it by calling those beings, whose right to life are denied, “inferior creatures”.

I finnd it ironic that the idea of natural right introduces inequality at its inception, if not implies it by definition.

If, as Locke argues, a person can claim something as his private property if he labours for its acquisition and formation, an argument can be made that a citizen is a property of the State, because the State contributes a great deal to his coming into existence, his education and formation as a human being. The same logic would prove that children are the property of their parents, and slaves their owners.

Objections from Politics

Firstly, government by the consent of the governed is a contradiction in terms.

The government envisioned by Locke is essentially an extension of the individual. The purpose of the government must be in line with that of the individual, viz. to protect his life and property. The government is legitimate only when it represents and executes the collective will of the people, which is the will of the individual writ large. Hence “the government of the people, by the people and for the people.”

However, the government qua government must have absolute authority independent of the consent of the governed. Locke acknowledges that government is the ultimate arbiter of conflicts and disagreements among its people, for the wills of the people are seldom unanimous. By joining the state, the individual implicitly consents to relinquish control, to submit to the authority of the government, even when it acts against his person, property and will. In other words, the individual must consent to be governed by an authority other than himself, but he has no say in how he is to be governed by said authority.

Secondly, are there laws which are independent of the will of the people, by which they are governed, and which they transgress at their own peril?

Plato, Cicero and other proponents of natural law would argue that the laws governing civil society are like the laws of nature, which are independent of the will of the people. The society can only thrive if the people abide by those objective laws, just as a person can be healthy only if he heeds the laws of health sciences. Unless the people are willing and able to exercise self-control according to law and reason, the will of the people would be no different from the will of a tyrant. This is in fact part of Plato’s original conception of social contract in Crito. It is important to Plato that everybody, including the guardians of the state, respect the law, and nobody is above the law.

What concerns me the most about Locke’s political theory is his exaltation of right to the neglect of obligation. Individuals or groups can put themselves above the law any time they perceive an offence against themselves, and have no shortage of “reasons” to justify their lawlessness. When everything is evaluated in terms of rights and not obligations, nobody is obligated to safeguard another’s right, consequently, no rights are safeguarded. If the state has no obligation to defend the right of its citizens, the rights of citizens become void; if the citizens have no obligation to abide by the laws of the commonwealth, the commonwealth disintegrates.

In short, Locke did the idea of natural law a disservice by taking “right” out of the context of justice, and separating it from obligation.



8 thoughts on ““Two Treatises of Government” By John Locke

  1. Locke has been criticized for a general tendency to assume things that are just “common sense” but not actually philosophically necessarily true. Hume’s critique of the concept of “substance” is the most notable of these. Locke’s notions of “rights” might not be as rigorous as they could be, either. To some extent he is drawing on earlier conversations, such as Hobbes Leviathan. In the “state of Nature,” everyone has a right to every thing. For Hobbes, that meant that outside of a civil society, anyone could rob, kill, enslave or otherwise abuse another, act out of unlimited greed, and so on. Locke asserts that humans are rational beings (Hobbes does not really believe this; his notion is that humans are driven by irrational fear and desire); as rational beings, they are both capable and morally obligated to act rationally even if there is no law enforcer compelling them to do so. So for Locke, you have a natural right to do anything that does not contradict reason, because outside of a civil society with laws and police there is no force other than your own reason telling you that you can’t act on your desires.

    As far as Locke’s religious references go, don’t overestimate them. My students often make that mistake. Locke’s vision of God is more like the Deists than that of the Christians; God created a good and rational universe and allows it to run on its own internal natural laws, without the need for miraculous interference. He considers himself a Christian, but even by today’s standards he’d be a very liberal Christian; his book on religion is titled The Reasonableness of Christianity, and in that book he describes Christianity as a monotheistic and moral system with a lot of useful stories and mythological language to teach those moral lessons. He doesn’t believe in miracles and doesn’t believe people are “saved” by some miraculous “grace” bestowed by a great moral teacher who died but somehow came back to life and lets people into Heaven even when they don’t follow the moral teachings he offered. The law of God, the law of Nature and the law of Reason are all functionally synonymous terms for Locke, since God’s will is expressed in God’s creation of a rational Nature.

    So, for Locke you can just look at two men, and realize that if they were dressed the same and used similar language you would never know which was “born a king” and which was simply an educated “commoner;” so nature and reason tell you that they are in fact equal. For someone like Filmer, God has chosen some people to be born royal for some inscrutable and evidently irrational whim, and we all have to respect that and obey the king as if he were God no matter how degenerate, foolish or even impious that king might be, unless some religious authority deposes him (I assume; I haven’t read Filmer but most “divine right” theories allowed the Pope to depose a king). And of course, that religious authority is itself often degenerate, foolish or even impious, but we can’t question that, either, for the divine fiat has made a Medici a Pope and that’s all there is to it.

    The claim that Locke expresses himself sloppily at times, and assumes that some of what he thinks are obvious truths will be shared by his readers, is a fair one that is often made, as I said, of his writings in general.

    However, I strongly disagree with the idea that “consent of the people” is inherently absurd. Even Hobbes allowed that before anyone can be the absolute monarch, people have to consent to live under the monarch’s rule. Hobbes thinks that we all are such vicious brutes that we need a strong overlord to crack heads and keep us in line; we are just rational enough to recognize the advantages of peace over unending violence, so we consent. Locke thinks that we are more naturally social and reasonable, so we don’t require such a violent governing power. Why, then, should anyone form a government at all? Why not just live as free people in a state of anarchic equality? There must be some advantage to having a government; and the purpose of government is therefore to attain that advantage. Anything the government does beyond that is illegitimate and may be opposed. Government has to make decisions for the group, so it acts according to the will of the majority. I think of government like a group of people eating out, who have to make a choice on what to get. Any group with more than a very few people is going to have some disagreement as to how to spend our resources so we call all eat together. Now, we could let someone pick something that everyone has to eat; that is in fact what happens if you have a family and the kids can’t agree on an option, so a parent just makes the choice. But among adults, meaning essentially equal and reasonably rational beings, we have a discussion and eventually choose. If possible, we make a choice that everyone is satisfied with; but if the group is large and a choice has to be made, there is a good chance that someone is going to want something that the majority does not. In that case, someone gets outvoted. No, Bob, we’re not getting anchovies and that’s final; if you don’t like it, you can leave, but in that case you’re on your own (like the refugee who leaves the country because he or she doesn’t like the laws).

    Locke largely assumes, rather than argues, that humans are by and large rational enough to make this work. Going back to my analogy, even if ten of us want Waldorf salad, we’re not going to make Betty eat it because with her nut allergy it will kill her, and we’re sane enough that we won’t kill someone over what is an unessential desire of the majority. Locke also appeals to this sort of common-sense reasoning when he answers the objectors to his theory who say he is opening the door to constant revolution. Look, he says: People like stability. People as a class don’t want constant violence or even much change; they want the world to be predictable and safe. Therefore, they will tolerate an imperfect government, even a very imperfect one, rather than try to overthrow it. They have to be desperate enough to think that all the dangers and discomforts of revolt are really necessary before they will resort to such extremities. And to support his argument, he simply asks the reader to look at the world, look at history and see just how much people in fact do take from their governments before they try to rise up. That may not be a philosophically rigorous argument, but that’s what he finds convincing.

    I have more to say about Plato and Locke, but that’s for my own blog 😉

    1. Locke’s vision of God is more like the Deists than that of the Christians

      At least we agree on something about Locke. 🙂 I bracket out the references to God in Locke’s description of “right”, because they seem superfluous to his purpose. Having said that, Locke does use lessons learned from the Scripture to support his political theory –if only to give Filmer a dose of his own medicine. I find it fascinating, for I never thought of the Scripture as a potential source of political wisdom before.

      However, I strongly disagree with the idea that “consent of the people” is inherently absurd.

      The point I’m trying to make is this: every individual has the power of reason to discover what is just and good for himself, but justice and goodness are not subject to his consent or will.

      There are two distinct functions/purposes of the law: One is to reflect what the citizens want to do as one political body, the other is to state what is good and just for all citizens. The former is subject to the “consent of the people”, but the latter is not. To use your analogy, what the family will have for dinner is dependent on the consent of the majority, but what is good for their health is not dependent on their consent, though they are free to eat junk food.

      According to Aristotle, democracy is the best form of government where there is not one person (or persons) that excels the rest in wisdom or power, and it makes sense that the people should pull their heads together and find out the best solution they can. And this is where we’re now.

      1. Locke would have to agree with your point that what is “good for us” is objectively true. Part of what he means by “reason” is the ability to observe and learn what is true, including observing the world and human nature and learning what is good for people. To choose what is pleasant in the short run but harmful overall would be foolish. Locke didn’t write a lot about personal ethics, though people who know more than me say he leaned towards a sort of rational hedonism. “Good” is what is experienced as “good,” meaning what is pleasant; with experience, we learn what is good in the long run rather than the sort of immediate self-gratification we see in the immature. I would say there are similarities to Aristotle there. Historically, though, most Enlightenment thinkers rejected Aristotle because of his association with medieval Scholasticism; even empiricists like Locke looked to Plato for inspiration, even when they rejected his epistemology and metaphysics.

        One thing about the so-called desire for “change” we see in politics today: it almost invariably comes from conservatives. Trump voters didn’t want “change;” they want a return to the “good old days” that they remember from their childhoods, when things were safe and stable and you never heard any language but English being spoken and white people made a really nice world (for white people, anyway; and since segregation ensured they never even saw black people who weren’t servants, they never had to be aware of the price others paid for the white privilege utopia). European nationalists and English Brexiters don’t want change; they want the end of change, and the return to a more ethnically and culturally pure nation. But more relevant to Locke’s point, even these moves for radical upending of the current status quo (to reassert an earlier status quo) are not generally interested in violent revolution. Most people want to use the democratic processes of their nations to assert themselves and their own interests. The fact that they are, in many cases, doing so in ways that undermine and potentially could destroy those same democratic processes is simply not something most have thought through. There are some people, like the Christian Reconstructionists, who openly say they intend to use the democratic process to overturn democracy and assert a theocracy; but in the U.S. those people would be powerless nut jobs without the cooperation of millions of less radical Christian Right and “values voters” who go along with the agenda, blind to the ultimate intention of some of their ideological leaders. I think that is why so many people applauded Sean Hannity when he praised the Bundys and the Sovereign Citizens for pointing guns at U.S. law enforcement officers, but were appalled when some of those people actually used those guns on Nevada police. And when the Bundys took over a national park and called for “free men everywhere” to join them in rebellion, very few people actually joined them; the militants vastly overestimated the popular support they had because while there were lots of people who SAID they wanted to overthrow everything, very few really meant it. When someone actually got shot, the majority of people occupying Malheur refuge did not fight for their cause; they quickly surrendered once things got real.

        Part of Locke’s point is that real revolutions are messy, brutal, and fatal for a lot of innocent people. His father was part of the English Civil War, which was a particularly vicious affair. No halfway sane person wants that, unless the alternative is something even worse. So, Locke says, the idea that democracy will lead to constant bloodshed is simply wrong, and the claim that the only possibility for stable government is to have an all-powerful king is more than wrong; it is in fact simply itself a constant state of war between the king and his opponents, real and imagined. The only truly stable society, he claims, is one that rests on the consent of the governed, and replaces the ongoing conflict between a government relying on force to impose its will with a government that based on the will of the governed, where people talk out their conflicts and work together to find solutions.

      2. There are some people, like the Christian Reconstructionists, who openly say they intend to use the democratic process to overturn democracy and assert a theocracy
        I’m not terribly interested in politics, but this is intriguing. How do they plan to use the democratic process to overturn democracy?

      3. I don’t always endorse Wikipedia, but in this case their summary tracks with what I’ve learned from my general survey of American religion: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chalcedon_Foundation.

        If you want to know precisely how they intend to carry out their program, I think you can look at the executive order today expanding the ability of churches to contribute unlimited, secret funds to political candidates. The home school movement and the school voucher program pushed by Education Secretary DeVos is another part of their program, since they want to divert tax money away from the public school system and reinforce religious education. Efforts by the Religious Right to pass laws based on “biblical” principles (such as seeking “religious exemptions” to allow any individual to discriminate against homosexuals and claim a religious mandate) are another example. The stated goal of the Chalcedon Foundation is to elect state and federal leaders who will implement a Christian theocracy, then amend the Constitution to forbid any vote to undo this. Not all members of the Religious Right would openly go so far as to advocate abolishing democracy. Some seem to honestly not realize that their own actions and pronouncements are fundamentally opposed to the idea of democratic government. Others, judging from their actions, do know that if they want power they have to subvert truly representative government, but continue to use the language of democracy to cloak and justify their agenda (for example, gerrymandering and voter I.D. laws that are intended to make it as close to impossible to vote as they can manage, while claiming they are only protecting the voting process, not sabotaging it).

        The current president is not, apparently, a Christian Dominionist. After all, under the stated principles of the Chalcedon Foundation and other Christian Reconstructionists, Donald Trump should be sentenced to death for adultery. (Of course, we can be pretty sure that were Dominionist or Reconstructionist principles implemented, they would be enforced the way they are in other theocracies around the world: death to homosexuals and women who have sex outside of marriage whether voluntarily or not, but no meaningful prosecution of heterosexual men.) But Trump is supremely stupid and easily duped, and is taking a lot of his cues from the Religious Right thinking that he is manipulating them into backing him. When he is gone, however, the laws that he passed to help them will still be on the books, turning evangelical megachurches into tax-exempt SuperPacs. We are closer now to de facto theocracy than we have been at any time in our nation’s history, including the 1700s.

        P.S. As a Christian, I am appalled at this prospect. I know my religion’s history. France used to be a fusion of monarchy and Catholic theocracy, and when the revolution came it did not go well for the Church. The main reason the U.S. is more religious than any European nation is that we didn’t have a State Church, so when the political winds shift the religious institutions don’t get blown down with the secular political ones.

      4. Thank you for the interesting summary. It sounds to me that they are attempting Phari-cracy, not Christian theocracy. On the other hand, I know parents who are concerned, if not saddened, by the fact that their children abandoned faith due to secular influences in public schools. If you were a pastor, what advice would you give them?

      5. The fact that monarchical empires have lasted for centuries, if not millenia, is sufficient proof that monarchy can be a stable form of government. Let’s be honest, all forms of government rely on force, including democracy. If people can resolve their conflicts in a rational and civil manner, there would be no need of government, isn’t that one of Locke’s point?

        I’m not arguing that democracy leads to constant bloodshed. Democracy is a valid form of government. My main concern about Locke’s theory is his rationale for revolution. It is a serious matter of life and death, and therefore any justification for it should be carefully thought out, sufficiently debated and defined as clearly as possible. I find his treatment of the subject sloppy, bordering on irresponsible. To say that because people are averse to revolution, and therefore it is OK to advocate it, is like saying that someone is averse to drugs, and therefore it is OK to supply him plenty of drugs.

    2. People as a class don’t want constant violence or even much change

      I guess there is some truth to that statement, if people were content to live under monarchies for so many centuries. However, even a casual observer of current events like myself cannot help but notice that the common theme around the globe seems to be the demand for “change”, not necessarily for progress, but change for the sake of change.

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