Great Ideas, Questionable Defenses — A Blog Journal on John Locke (Chapter 2b)

(Part III of this series)

As Locke continues along his argumentative thread, the crux of his premises unfolds more clearly. He contends:

“[T]hough man in that state have an [uncontrollable] liberty to dispose of his person or possessions, yet he has not liberty to destroy himself, or so much as any creature in his possession, but where some nobler use than its bare preservation calls for it. [R]eason … 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: for men being all the workmanship of one omnipotent, and infinitely wise maker; all the servants of one sovereign master, sent into the world by his order, and about his business; they are his property, whose workmanship they are, made to last during his, not one another’s pleasure: and being furnished with like faculties, sharing all in one community of nature, there cannot be supposed any such subordination among us, that may authorize us to destroy one another, as if we were made for one another’s uses, as the inferior ranks of creatures are for [ours]. Every one, as he is bound to preserve himself, and not to quit his station [willfully], so by the like reason, when his own preservation comes not in competition, ought he, as much as he can, to preserve the rest of mankind, and may not, unless it be to do justice on an offender, take away, or impair the life, or what tends to the preservation of the life, the liberty, health, limb, or goods of another.”
— John Locke, Second Treatise on Civil Government, Chapter 2 (changes made strictly to modernize archaic spellings, or to adjust sentence structure without compromising any crucial context)

Basically, Locke begins with the assumption that all people (charitably interpreting the term “men”) are the equal creations of God, made to carry out this deity’s will. He supposes as well that humans alone retain this birthright, and that the “inferior ranks of creatures” were created for the purpose of serving human goals. From the former basis Locke concludes that we ought not thwart the life, liberty, and property of other humans, nor should we take places of domination over each other, provided such an action is not the necessary means to protect the well-being of innocents.

While I concur with this conclusion as a general rule and suspect the average reader does too, the logic from which Locke derives it is far from indubitable, regardless of the subject’s religious persuasion. Just because an idea is correct, that does not mean all of the ways one might arrive at that idea are accurate.

Consider the proposition, “The earth revolves around the sun.” This is true, but if someone were to say to you, “The earth revolves around the sun because Carl Sagan said so,” would you accept this as valid reasoning? Would you also accept the claim, “If you don’t believe that everything Carl Sagan says is true, you must not believe the earth revolves around the sun”? Of course not. The same fallacy is at work in the strikingly common meme that those who don’t accept Locke’s religious premises, much less that such premises have some logical connection to the conclusions he draws, are incapable of believing in the normativity of persons’ rights.

When I refer to “normativity,” this is a fancy term for the more awkwardly written “ought-ness.” A key principle I adhere to in this analysis that may need some explaining (and criticism, which is what the comments are for) is this: Given a desired state of affairs from the perspective of one or more subjects, and the facts relevant to the possible actualization of that state, there is an objective fact of the matter — however difficult to ascertain, as most objective truths are — as to what the subject(s) ought to do.

Why, exactly, am I belaboring this point, when I could simply say “people ought to have rights” and leave it at that? Well, as you may have deduced, I’m not comfortable smuggling truths in through doors of bad reasoning, nor would I recommend anyone else make a habit of this. I’ll unpack what I mean by that next update, but for now feel free to mull over this idea. It has numerous implications for the concept of rights that we’ll be exploring.

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One thought on “Great Ideas, Questionable Defenses — A Blog Journal on John Locke (Chapter 2b)

  1. Locke is not working from a blank slate, but from a collection of principles that had evolved long before him. He is working from the presumption that “thou shalt not steal” is a good idea, without reasoning out the “Why?” himself.

    If we are to have an abundance of goods, then those who produce them should be rewarded and encouraged. Having the thing oneself is a reward. Being able to trade it for other things is also a reward. The thief frustrates this by taking the thing without providing anything in return.

    At some point in moral evolution, most likely prehistoric, there was a choice to be made:
    (a) shall everyone be allowed to steal? or
    (b) shall no one be allowed to steal?

    One of these answers provides a greater net benefit to society than the other. This is called “moral reasoning”.

    Because Locke came along much later, after most of these were already worked out, he described how he came to “discover” them, which would have been in Church.

    “Natural rights” theory is mostly to conserve the current rules as they are in place now. And as you pointed out in the previous post, we have evolved morally, and have agreed upon many new rights, including the rights of women and the rights of other races and religions.

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