Quantity and Quality — A Blog Journal on John Locke (Chapter 4)

(Part IX of this series)

Continuing where we left off, Locke’s points in Chapter 4 are rather brief. Beyond reiterating in summary the idea that one’s liberty is maximized by a limited yet right-securing government, which derives its power from the consent of the people, he doesn’t add anything terribly revolutionary here. Today, let’s consider one particular quote:

“[Nobody] can give more power than he has himself; and he that cannot take away his own life, cannot give another power over it. … [N]o man can, by agreement, pass over to another that which he hath not in himself, a power over his own life.”
— John Locke, Second Treatise on Civil Government, Chapter 4

This chapter being named “On Slavery,” we can see that Locke is stating that, in short, self-enslavement is impossible. The logic he uses to arrive at this conclusion is, once again, rather bizarre. He notes that, since freedom from slavery is so fundamental to life, to give the power to enslave oneself to another person is tantamount to terminating one’s own life. Since he starts from the premise that one cannot do the latter, he deduces that no one can self-enslave. Taking this generously — as I cannot believe Locke did not know what suicide is — he is apparently saying that no rational person would end one’s own life, so too would no rational person give oneself to slavery.

Both of which seem sensible at first impression, but as this blog has probably shown you by now if this isn’t my first post you’ve read, nothing is ever totally uncontroversial upon greater scrutiny. The irrationality of self-enslavement is as close as anything can get to the exception to that. However, what do we make of the former proposition?

Far be it for me to open up the Jack Kevorkian can of worms in this article (that’s a discussion worth addressing in its time; this is not yet such a time), but this matter raises some fairly open questions to chew on: Is the very state of conscious existence valuable in its own right? If so, how valuable? Valuable enough to outweigh considerations of quality of life? Part of the reason the debate over the “right to die” and related matters is so touchy, presumably, is that there are good arguments to be made on either side as to the expectation of future quality of life (or lack thereof). I hope the importance of this easily missed detail of Chapter 4 is clear. Social justice, after all, concerns the joy and suffering of conscious persons, and perhaps if we set aside our biases, we may agree on this much — that sentience provides the potential for an individual to experience a variety of pleasures and pains on a wide spectrum, which can be narrowed or shifted depending on circumstances that it would behoove us to consider, as a responsible society.


5 thoughts on “Quantity and Quality — A Blog Journal on John Locke (Chapter 4)

  1. The thing to keep in mind is that the lack of sentience is not to be at rest, but not to be at all.

    • I’m not sure I see your reasoning here. Plenty of things exist, but we have no reason to think they are sentient. From a solipsistic perspective, I suppose, they might as well not exist if no one perceives them, but that’s a whole other philosophical beast I have yet to fully confront.

      • Sorry for the confusion. I was referring to suicide. Many people imagine that ending their current pain through death results in being at rest. But it doesn’t. It ends being. And it prevents the possibility of future alleviation and return of some normal function. Of course, if there is no possibility of future alleviation then death may the only “relief”.

        If anything at all is good, then life itself is good. For living things to question that would introduce paradox, or at least comedy.

        • True, although it cuts both ways. Many commit the opposite error by fearing death (or incredulously suggesting that skeptics of the afterlife should do so), as if not being conscious is the same as being conscious of an eternal black void of boredom and inactivity. Death has its poisonous effects, but this ill-conceived idea of what being dead constitutes is not one of them.

          “If anything at all is good, then life itself is good.”

          Again, playing devil’s advocate here, it’s just as accurate to say if anything at all is bad, then life itself is bad. We don’t have to deny that these can both be true to some degree, in order to avoid projecting the impression of nihilism. Though I would tend to caution the frivolous treatment of life given the potential for “future alleviation” in most cases, that doesn’t mean it’s necessary to consider each life’s value for its conscious owner (or others) as anything more or less than the sum of its many utilities — positive and negative. I don’t see why so many (not necessarily accusing you of being among them) find this a threatening idea, when this is as basic an existential principle as you can get.

          • “each life’s value for its conscious owner (or others) as anything more or less than the sum of its many utilities ”

            That’s the paradox I warned of. Life has no utility. All utility is defined within the context of life. If one is dead, then nothing can be said to be of any use to one. One simply is no longer one.

            It would be more accurate to say that consciousness has utility to life, rather than the other way around. Life can continue in the absence of consciousness. But consciousness cannot continue in the absence of life.

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