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. 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.
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”.
It is ironic that the idea of natural right introduces inequality at its inception, if not implies it by definition.
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, 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 submit to the authority of the government, even when it acts against his will, person and property. In other words, whether to be governed by an authority other than himself is subject to the consent of the individual, but how he is to be governed by said authority is not and cannot be subject to his consent. In short, government qua government has absolute authority independent of the consent of the governed.
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 summary, Locke did the idea of natural law a disservice by taking “right” out of the context of justice, and separating it from obligation.
- Two Treatises of Civil Government @ Online Library of Liberty
- Second Treatise of Government @ Gutenberg