John Locke: The Philosopher of Individual Rights and Enlightenment Thinker

John Locke was an influential Enlightenment philosopher known for his ideas on empiricism and natural rights, asserting that individuals have inherent rights to life, liberty, and property, which greatly influenced modern political thought.

John Locke (1632 – 17040

Introduction

John Locke, a luminary of the Enlightenment era, was born on August 29, 1632, in the quaint town of Wrington, England. His enduring legacy as an English philosopher and physician is anchored in his profound influence on Enlightenment thought, earning him the moniker ‘Father of Liberalism.’ Locke’s ideas resonate through the annals of history as he championed the Social Contract Theory and expounded upon essential concepts such as government by consent, human freedom, and the role of reason in society. It is through Locke’s intellectual groundwork that the ideals of the Enlightenment were articulated, shaping the course of modern political philosophy. He is also credited as the ‘father of the Enlightenment’, as he asserted that a society which practiced toleration in intellectual and religious matters was the most desirable and stable.

One of Locke’s pivotal contributions was his endeavor to justify the Glorious Revolution of 1688 in England. This bloodless revolution marked the transition from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy. Locke’s writings provided the philosophical underpinning for this transformative moment in English history.

Major Works by John Locke

Throughout his prolific career, Locke penned several influential works that continue to shape political philosophy and education. Some of his major works include:

A Letter Concerning Toleration (1689): In this treatise, Locke argued passionately for religious toleration as the path to civil peace, opposing the policy of religious uniformity.

Two Treatises of Government (1689): Published anonymously in 1689 and acknowledged by Locke in 1704, these treatises critiqued Filmer’s theory and explained the true nature and purpose of civil government.

Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690): This work delved into the foundation of human knowledge and understanding, exploring the intricacies of human cognition. In this book he gave the concept of “Tabula Rasa” – White paper, void of all characters to describe human mind at birth.

Some Thoughts Concerning Education (1693): Locke’s treatise on education became the cornerstone of educational philosophy in England for over a century.

The Reasonableness of Christianity (1695): An exploration of religious thought, Locke’s work contributed to the broader discourse on faith and reason.

Of the Conduct of the Understanding (1706): This handbook for clear and rational thinking complemented Locke’s thoughts on education, providing guidance on self-education.

Important book on John Locke – “Political thought of John Locke” – John Dunn

Paternal Authority and Political Power by John Locke

Locke’s philosophy diverged sharply from the prevailing beliefs of his time. While Filmer’s theory justified absolute power in monarchy through a patriarchal inheritance from Adam, Locke countered this notion vehemently. He argued that paternal authority could not be equated with political authority. Locke rooted freedom and liberty in reason, maintaining that as children grew rational, paternal authority should yield to their individual freedom.

In Locke’s view, political authority was exercised over equals and rested on consent, a foundational principle. He advocated three types of political power: Legislative (Supreme Power), Executive and Federative (Later equated with Foreign Policy). Unlike paternal authority, political power could be transferred from one government to another through the consent of the governed if a government failed to fulfill its responsibilities.

Locke’s utilization of the Social Contract Theory emphasized that legitimate political authority derived from the consent of the people, who retained the power to withdraw that consent if their freedom was violated or curtailed.

In the following sections, we will delve deeper into John Locke’s major works and explore the nuances of his philosophical ideas, shedding light on their enduring relevance in the modern world. Join us on this intellectual journey as we uncover the profound wisdom of John Locke, a luminary who illuminated the path to freedom and reason during the Enlightenment era.

State of Nature by John Locke

To understand John Locke’s concept of political power and the origins of civil society, we delve into his idea of the State of Nature. For Locke, the State of Nature represents a state of complete freedom and equality among individuals. It is a realm characterized by “peace, goodwill, mutual cooperation, and preservation.”

Locke makes a crucial distinction between liberty and license. Liberty, in his view, entails the freedom to do as one wishes, provided it aligns with the laws of Nature. The key law of Nature, according to Locke, is reason, which teaches that all individuals are equal and independent. Moreover, no one has the right to harm another’s life, health, liberty, or possessions. In essence, the State of Nature is a realm of liberty rather than license.

However, Locke recognizes that some individuals may choose to disregard the rules of morality in pursuit of self-interest. In the absence of a political authority in the State of Nature, addressing such transgressions and ensuring justice becomes challenging.

The Social Contract: Transition to Civil Society

Given the complexities of the State of Nature, individuals, according to Locke, opt to leave this state and enter into civil or political society through a contract. In this contract, they surrender certain rights, but crucially, they retain their right to life, liberty, and property.

In Locke’s framework, both society and the state are created. Here, Locke quoted that “state is an unavoidable evil”. Initially, society is formed, and subsequently, the state is established through the institution of government. Importantly, this government can be replaced by another without resulting in the disintegration of society.

Locke places the government under the control of society and defines it as a ‘fiduciary trust’ i.e. power of trust of the community. This trust binds the government to act within the terms of its constitution. Consequently, Locke’s vision is that of a constitutional government, where individuals make a conditional or partial surrender of their natural rights.

According to Locke, the primary role of government is to judge and punish those who transgress natural laws. It must govern with the consent of the people, as it is a creation of their collective will. Moreover, Locke recognizes the people’s right to revolution, emphasizing that ultimate power still resides with the people, not an absolute and unlimited sovereign as envisioned by thinkers like Hobbes.

Once established, Locke’s social contract is considered irrevocable. Those who have entered into this contract “can never again be in the liberty of the state of nature.”

Read more about Thomas HobbesThomas Hobbes: Politics, Philosophy and Social Contract

Right to Property: Labor and Limitations

In Locke’s political philosophy, the theory of property holds a prominent place. Locke rebuffs the argument put forth by Filmer, asserting that God had granted the earth exclusively to Adam and his heirs.

For Locke, an individual’s physical and mental capabilities, particularly the capacity for labor, serve as the distinguishing factor between privately owned property and common resources. When an individual mixes their labor with natural resources, they transform them into a form of private property.

Locke imposes three limitations on the right to appropriation in the State of Nature:

  • Individuals should acquire only as much property as they can reasonably use.
  • They must leave enough and of sufficient quality for others.
  • Property rights extend only to what individuals acquire through the labor of their body and mind. Labor, according to Locke, determines the value of property by enhancing its utility and productivity.

Locke contends that the introduction of the concept of money in the State of Nature distorts these limited rights to appropriation, as property is converted into the form of money.

Crucially, Locke asserts that property precedes the government, as it is a natural right derived from natural law. Consequently, no government can deprive an individual of their property without their consent. The state’s primary role, in Locke’s view, is to safeguard individuals’ rights to liberty and property.

Locke’s emphasis on the right to property leads him to advocate for a minimal state with limited government power, the protection of individual rights, and a rejection of the hereditary principle of government.

John Locke’s theory was criticized by various thinkers such as Nozick, Waldron and simons etc on the basis that it is contradictory in nature as on one hand he is saying that right to property is a natural right while on the other hand he is restricting it with these limitations. 

Civil or Political Society

Addressing the Inconveniences of the State of Nature, John Locke, in his profound exploration of political philosophy, outlined three key inconveniences that propelled individuals to transition from the State of Nature to a Civil or Political Society:

  • Need for Established Known Law: In the State of Nature, there was a pressing need for a recognized and established legal framework to regulate human interactions.
  • Need for an Impartial Judge: To resolve disputes fairly, an impartial and well-recognized judge was required—a role not fulfilled in the State of Nature.
  • Need for Power to Support Justice: The absence of a centralized authority meant that there was no power to enforce just sentences and ensure their execution.

To address these challenges, individuals collectively established a Civil or Political Society by entering into the social contract. This newly formed society came complete with a government tasked with preserving the life, liberty, and property of its members.

The Limits on Government: Protecting Individual Rights

John Locke, a luminary in political philosophy, articulated a crucial principle regarding the boundaries of government authority. According to Locke, a government can be deemed illegitimate and subject to replacement if it infringes upon an individual’s natural right to liberty and property.

Moreover, Locke emphasized the importance of consent in governance. He contended that the government could not levy taxes on property without the explicit consent of the people. In essence, the authority to govern must rest on the will and agreement of the governed.

Individuals enter into the social contract to transition from the state of nature to civil or political society, making the legislature the supreme authority in this new social order. However, Locke emphasized that even the legislature is not above the law of nature. To ensure just and equitable governance, Locke delineated four essential limits on the legislature:

  • Governance through Established Impartial Laws: The legislature must govern through established laws that are impartial and treat all members of society fairly.
  • Laws Designed for the Common Good: Legislation must be designed to promote the welfare and well-being of the people as a whole.
  • No Property Taxation Without Consent: Taxation on property cannot be raised without the explicit consent of the people, safeguarding their economic interests.
  • No Transfer of Legislative Power: The legislature is prohibited from transferring its power to make laws to any other body, ensuring the continuity of the social contract.

Political Obligation: Obedience Grounded in the Public Good

Locke’s theory of political obligation centers on the idea that individuals are obligated to obey the government when the public power is wielded for the “peace, safety, and public good of the people.” In other words, a government’s legitimacy hinges on its commitment to serving the common welfare.

Crucially, Locke argued that individuals grant to the government only the powers they themselves possess in the state of nature—no more. This principle acts as a safeguard against the emergence of arbitrary and absolute governmental authority that could encroach upon individual liberties.

Furthermore, Locke introduced the concept of conditional political obligation. Citizens are not bound by unconditional obedience; they possess the legitimate right to change or dissolve the government under specific circumstances. These circumstances include:

  • Establishment of Arbitrary Rule: When a leader imposes their arbitrary will above the law.
  • Obstruction of the Legislature: When a ruler obstructs the legislature from fulfilling its designated purposes.
  • Alteration of Elections Without Consent: When electoral processes are changed without consent and against the common interests of the people.
  • Submission to Foreign Powers: When the people are subjected to foreign authority by the ruler or the legislature.
  • Neglect of Laws: When the supreme executive power fails to uphold the laws.

Importantly, Locke asserted that the right of disobedience could be exercised by the majority rather than isolated individuals or small groups, reflecting a collective approach to addressing unjust authority.

Scholarly Assessment of Locke’s Theory

Locke’s theory has received mixed reactions from leading scholars. Some have expressed support for his ideas, while others have raised critical points, highlighting various inconsistencies and contradictions in his theory. I will endeavor to outline some of these critical viewpoints.

Hume, for instance, challenges Locke’s notion of property as a natural right. Hume argues that private property is a human construct, not an inherent feature of nature but a product of societal convention. Consequently, there is no inherent connection between an object and its rightful owner, as property rights are contingent upon societal laws and justice.

Ramon addresses Locke’s limitation on the accumulation of property, particularly in relation to money. Locke’s assertion that one can accumulate limitless wealth is seen as incompatible with the restriction on property ownership. The distinction between natural products and money is blurred, as both have utility and are essentially the same. Ramon also raises three objections to Locke’s theory: it does not account for the development of employer-employee relationships, fails to determine the fair distribution of products between employers and employees, and lacks a mechanism to allocate shares in the division of labor.

Leo Strauss suggests that Locke did not believe in genuine natural law but only in conventional law. Richard Cox, in his work on Locke’s views on war and peace, argues that Locke’s Two Treatises contain two contrasting perspectives: one aligning with classical orthodox views of God, divine relationships, and empathy, while the other portrays humans as driven by Hobbesian passions. However, this view may be somewhat exaggerated.

Mac Person contends that Locke harbored a hidden assumption of “possessive individualism,” viewing society and individual interactions as mere exchanges of property. This perspective paints Locke’s theory as harsh and self-centered.

MacPherson explains that although Locke claimed private ownership would increase the overall wealth of the community, there was no guarantee of equal distribution. Locke seems to contradict himself by assuming that everyone’s life would improve, regardless of property ownership, yet expecting non-property owners to work for property owners, leading to the unfair accumulation of wealth by the latter. Notably, he also considered him as fountain head of English Liberalism.

It’s worth noting that these scholars’ assessments of Locke’s theory have also faced criticism. For instance, Peter Laslett dismisses MacPherson’s criticisms as unrealistic and occasionally ahistorical.

On the supportive side, Martin Seliger argues that many of the apparent confusions surrounding Locke’s theory stem from misinterpreting his views on equality. Seliger believes that while Locke advocated for political equality in the state of nature, he never claimed there would be equality of possessions.

Karl Marx, in his Communist Manifesto, advocated for the abolition of private property, asserting that the bourgeoisie perpetually oppressed the working class through labor exploitation. Marx also argued that the state enacted laws favoring the ruling or owner class. These views stand in stark contrast to Locke’s ideas.

However, Marxism has faced criticism for its perceived intolerance and impracticality, as it seeks to abolish something when there is no clear authority to enforce such abolition. This aspect has been deemed absurd by some critics.

Meanwhile Richard Ashcraft in his book “Revolutionary Politics” criticized Locke for defending the Glorious revolution.

Famous Quotes by John Locke

  • ‘I have always thought the actions of men are the best interpreters of their thoughts’. 
  • ‘What worries you, masters you’. 
  • ‘Government has no other end, but the presentation of property’. 
  • ‘All mankind….being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty or possessions’. 
  • ‘All wealth is a product of Labour’. 
  • ‘Everyman has a property in his own person. This nobody has the right to, but himself’.
  • ‘Individuals are subjected to laws of nature’.
  • ‘Laws are the command of sovereign backed by force”
  • ‘Right to appeal to heaven’
  • ‘Law does not restrict liberty as much as defend or enlarge it’.
  • ‘White paper, void of all characters to describe human mind at birth’. – Concept of Tabula Rasa

Conclusion

John Locke remains one of the most controversial and influential figures in the history of political thought. His key emphases on constitutionalism, consent, and toleration have become integral components of modern political theory.

Locke was a pioneer in championing the doctrine of civil society and formulating the concept of government as a trust. He sought to empower people as the ultimate arbiters of government accountability by granting them the right to rebellion or revolution when their fundamental rights were threatened.

In today’s world, Locke’s ideas continue to resonate, inspiring discussions on governance, individual rights, and the essential relationship between the state and its citizens. His legacy endures, offering a framework for understanding and evaluating the role and limits of government in our lives.

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