Get Your No-Good Keister Off My Property — A Blog Journal on John Locke (Chapter 5a)

(Part X of this series)

With Chapter 5, Locke seeks to establish a basic theory of property. In this update I’ll address his first major contention, namely that the resources of nature are the common property for all people’s utility, yet by investing his/her labor in acquiring a given resource, an individual may claim rightful ownership of that resource as his/her own property (provided this does not seize away the necessities of the community). He writes:

The earth, and all that is therein, is given to men for the support and comfort of their being. And tho’ all the fruits it naturally produces, and beasts it feeds, belong to mankind in common, as they are produced by the spontaneous hand of nature; and no body has originally a private dominion, exclusive of the rest of mankind, in any of them, as they are thus in their natural state: yet being given for the use of men, there must of necessity be a means to appropriate them some way or other, before they can be of any use, or at all beneficial to any particular man. … Though the earth, and all inferior creatures, be common to all men, yet every man has a property in his own person: this no body has any right to but himself. The labour of his body, and the work of his hands, we may say, are properly his. … [For] this labour being the unquestionable property of the labourer, no man but he can have a right to what that is once joined to, at least where there is enough, and as good, left in common for others. … He that is nourished by the acorns he picked up under an oak, or the apples he gathered from the trees in the wood, has certainly appropriated them to himself. … And will any one say, he had no right to those acorns or apples, he thus appropriated, because he had not the consent of all mankind to make them his? Was it a robbery thus to assume to himself what belonged to all in common?”
— John Locke, Second Treatise on Civil Government, Chapter 5 (emphasis mine)

The essential points are bolded, serving as the premises of the summary above. Locke reasons that, provided we can agree that the best feasible societal foundation is something like the constitutional democracy he suggests, there must be some coherent way citizens of this society can manage the resources at their disposal fairly. Though he doesn’t deny that there are some limits to pursuit of property, when this precludes others from their rightful property, it’s clear that Locke’s ideal excludes socialism from the outset. Property is afforded on the basis of merit/work rather than need, at least as far as the law is concerned (that is, Locke would not likely have objections in principle to charity).

While this seems an intuitive philosophy, we’ll have to see how he hashes out the details. After all, where on this basis is there room for, say, taxation and public property? For today, I leave the reader to consider both that question and the further hints of anthropocentrism in Locke’s view.

Notice that in the first emphasized part of this quote, he deems all of the entities of Earth’s ecosystem the rightful property of humans. To be clear, this isn’t necessarily an affront to environmental responsibility, as the preservation of non-sentient wildlife and natural resources is not only a worthy goal for its own sake, but also as far as this proves prudent for humanity’s own wishes in the long run. Basically, one saves the trees as much for the trees’ inherent value, as for the worth they have as one’s oxygen source. More troubling is the flippancy with which Locke denies any agency or value-as-an-end to conscious nonhuman creatures. Perhaps he took Descartes’s view of nonhumans as universally unconscious and machine-like, which is at least somewhat sympathetic when the state of seventeenth-century neurology was so undeveloped, but the familiarity of this perspective should give us pause. Who else, again, were denied fundamental liberties and protections because the powers that be saw them as property?

See the title of the preceding chapter for the answer.

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3 thoughts on “Get Your No-Good Keister Off My Property — A Blog Journal on John Locke (Chapter 5a)

  1. Probably not Descartes, but simply his own Christian roots. In the story of Genesis, God gives Adam dominion over all the animal kingdom. Locke often begins with the notion of God’s intent for how man ought to behave and the order of things.

    • Right, that’s the more likely explanation. I was simply trying to afford Locke the most sympathetic view, since otherwise that would be rather low-hanging fruit to pursue. I doubt most Christians considering jurisprudence approach matters from a naive view of Genesis as Locke did, although unfortunately far too many still do, embarrassing their fellow believers and skeptics alike.

      All things being equal on the empirical side, I must admit that Cartesian skepticism about the consciousness of non-humans is understandable, simply because we are not cows, pigs, deer, chickens, dolphins, etc. It’s dubious from a neuroscientific perspective, as I understand it, but it’s much easier to solve the “problem of other minds” for those of your own species. But I’m getting ahead of myself. : )

  2. I’m just beginning to read some of Chapter 5. It is interesting that Locke’s first assumption is that all of nature, prior to the division of the land as property, belongs to man in common. And in this original state, the man who picks apples or acorns fallen from a tree must either obtain the consent of every other man that these are his or we must reasonably assume that they are his for having picked them up and carried them off.

    Since getting permission from everyone is impossible and all would starve if this were required, Locke asserts that simply applying himself to the task of gathering them up makes the apples and acorns his private property. Locke posits a theory, that his labor “added something to them more than nature” and that made them his property. And that explains where some of this “self-ownership” and “mixing one’s labor” nonsense originated.

    A simpler theory is that, since it is impossible for anyone to obtain everyone’s explicit agreement, it is reasonable to assume everyone else must agree that the food each person gathers in this fashion from nature becomes one’s own property.

    All practical rights arise by agreement. And this was an agreement implied and which was confirmed each time we allowed our neighbor to keep what he gathered and he allowed us to keep what we gathered.

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