Illusions of Thievery — A Blog Journal on John Locke (Chapter 5b)

(Part XI of this series)

Returning to Locke’s musings on property in Chapter 5, he goes on to make an uncontroversial refutation of a possible criticism of his theory. The objection maintains that anyone could arbitrarily seize the right to absurdly unnecessary amounts of resources (doesn’t this ring a bell?), if working for the acquisition of something affords a person property rights over it. This, of course, ignores Locke’s important caveat that the needs of the community ought to be considered; he’s not advocating an unrestrained law-of-the-jungle philosophy, but merely suggesting that no claim to resources an individual has taken by his/her own efforts should be denied, if this poses no explicit threat to the basic well-being of others. Abundant as many natural and artificial resources are, moreover, it’s not as if it’s even physically feasible for John Doe to declare a monopoly over all the planet’s water, etc.

Anti-socialist though Locke may have been, it’s worth bearing in mind that even his philosophy seen here leaves room for the appropriation of property to those who desperately need it, but who did not necessarily “work for it.” Not that we should treat him as the end-all-be-all of legal thought — this is simply a matter of engaging potential hypocrites on their own terms (including ourselves). What matters is whether Locke’s ideas stand to reason on their utilitarian merits, and what we can learn from this in attempting to reverse-engineering our modern system, to see where new legal challenges can fit in consistently.

In the same breath, Locke develops a fair idea about the availability of resources, and the vices of those who act as if one person claiming a part of those resources threatens them. In principle — though perhaps not always in practice depending on the nature of the resource — such objectors are, he contends, essentially smuggling in an excuse for their laziness. They could get a slice of the same pie if they so chose and acted, but they would prefer to indirectly steal from the person they denigrate. I have no problems with this so far, yet we’d be wise to remember life always comes with nuances to form exceptions to rules like these.

How the Sorting Hat Made Me Think About Justice

Admit it. Some time in your life, you’ve probably taken a Harry Potter sorting quiz, typically from the Internet, as I just did yesterday. Supposedly, I’m a Hufflepuff, but one of the hypotheticals this quiz used to make that determination stood out to me:

“You have saved up for months to buy a new bike. As you’re getting ready to buy it, a child runs by and steals your money. You chase him down and find that his mother is deathly ill and the child stole the money to buy her medicine.”
The Almighty Guru

Granted, this dilemma is not particularly deep, and it’s at least as old as Les Miserables, but even my cynical self can acknowledge the value of asking the simple questions. This scenario frames the matter in a different light than that book, as the thief is a child, whose mother’s sickness is directly emphasized.

None of which makes the problem any easier. The compassionate thing to do obviously seems to be to let the kid keep the money, considering America’s health care system does not — as far as I know — guarantee a safety net of basic life-saving care for someone who cannot pay for it. How, after all, does the value of a bicycle compare to that of a person’s life, especially when that person is loved dearly by a child?

Put that way, it looks simple. Any other course of action would be callous by comparison. Yet how can we say this consistently when our priorities, in so many ways we like to pretend don’t exist, claim otherwise?

Our society allows grotesque numbers of preventable deaths — in this country alone — because people don’t have the money that we spend on extravagant dinners and extra TVs. We consider it theft for a government (as for one person) to use taxation to combat this solipsism.

We unquestioningly make automobile transportation the social norm, and many of us criticize capital punishment for being a cruel institution of denial of life’s value. This is despite, as the speaker in the video below notes (skip to about 4:35), the damage several orders of magnitude greater inflicted by car accidents compared to the death penalty.

The uploader’s numbers vary somewhat from the source above (even considering the video was made in 2011), but his point stands independent of the particular ethical question he addresses here — which I may return to in future posts, particularly referencing the central argument of this video. I encourage the reader to watch it in full regardless, since if nothing else it’s a case study in the subtle complexities of moral arguments that appear straightforward, one way or the other.

DISCLAIMER: None of this is to say that the above attitudes are necessarily unacceptable (or, if they are, they may be brute facts of apathetic human nature we have to accept), as I am of course oversimplifying things. (Or am I? Is this what every generation that permits appalling social evils tells itself, just as we said centuries ago that slavery was too integral to the South’s economy to abolish?) It could be that the true error lies in our moral hypocrisy, or that the value outweighing the proverbial mother’s life is a fundamental liberty, although I like to think the obvious answer to this dilemma really is the right one. It wouldn’t be easy to live up to, but it would leave us less demoralized and more confident in our consciences.

I’m not trying to be wishy-washy. I just think some perspective on issues like this couldn’t hurt, and if the idea I imply here does turn out faulty upon further inspection, so much the stronger does the truth stand after this test. Undoubtedly, this consideration will help us as we continue looking at John Locke’s work.

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.

Killing Over a Coat? — A Blog Journal on John Locke (Chapter 3b)

(Part VIII of this series)

If the reader found Locke’s unabashed eye-for-an-eye ethic regarding murderers excessive, what comes next in this chapter is even more bizarre a logical leap:

“This makes it lawful for a man to kill a thief, who has not in the least hurt him, nor declared any design upon his life, any farther than, by the use of force, so to get him in his power, as to take away his money, or what he pleases, from him; because using force, where he has no right, to get me into his power, let his pretence be what it will, I have no reason to suppose, that he, who would take away my liberty, would not, when he had me in his power, take away every thing else.”
— John Locke, Second Treatise on Civil Government, Chapter 3

He at least gives a reason for this view, but it’s one we would unequivocally condemn for its rashness of judgment. Even if Locke refers not to petty theft here, but to serious embezzlements or bank robberies — being generous, since he in fact cites theft of a horse or coat as worth killing over — it seems hardly sensible to infer total hostility and non-negotiability from a willingness to steal property of a non-essential sort (not integral to a person’s well-being, that is). That’s a heavy burden of proof to shoulder when making claims about human nature upon which lives depend. Here we see a simple but important example of a way ethical and legal determinations concern probabilistic facts, given an agreed-upon premise of value.

As backward as Locke has gotten the details, his broader point stands fairly well: Without government, people are in a state of nature in which we may get along cooperatively to some respectable degree, delivering informal justice, and it is when one person threatens the crucial property of another that “war” is declared. Such is a circumstance in which one may suspend the general rules of non-harm for a greater good, although of course it would be wise not to use more force than is necessary for that good.

As the chapter concludes, Locke brings his points together, expressing the necessity of war as a proper response to an aggressor’s attempt to dodge justice. The bottom line in this theorizing about the state of war is that society emerges when people seek to minimize the frequency with which they must resort to war. Ideally, we implement a justice system by which harmful actions are discouraged or prevented by the deterrence, isolation, and/or rehabilitation of would-be dangerous individuals, without using the extreme force of war.

Now we have seen some reason to consider Locke as moderately fallible a thinker and moralist as we should expect any human to be, but delving into more of his treatise should prove fruitful in uncovering the essentials of how rights, laws, and justice work.

War and Slavery — A Blog Journal on John Locke (Chapter 3a)

(Part VII of this series)

Locke introduces Chapter 3 with a new concept to consider, that of the “state of war.” This is less likely to refer to an actual “state” in a political sense, but in any case the idea is that one person (or group) enters the state of war against another when he/she acts to attempt destruction of the second party. Fair enough; in some sense even a singular murderer wages a microcosm of war, because despite the lack of a genuine war’s complexity and size, there is the same transgression against a social contract (Hobbes’s concept, but Locke would actually seem to agree with him on this) that makes force necessary — so the conventional wisdom goes — to reduce further damage.

Here Locke reiterates the justice of killing a murderer just as one would kill a hazardous beast. This is where we must recall the utility of psychological knowledge to aid us in optimal legal policy, because whether Locke’s analogy stands depends on the extent to which violent criminals are, as he puts it, “not under the ties of the commonlaw of reason, [and] have no other rule, but that of force and violence.” Less tied to science in this area is the degree of our value, as a society, of the well-being of people who harm others. After all, given two options with equal use for the protection of citizens from crime, we ought choose the one less cruel to the transgressor, but of course matters multiply in uncertainty when the more humane option is empirically less efficient. I don’t have the definitive answers, naturally, but half the battle is knowing what the right questions to ask are, and that of striking the balance between mercy and preventing further suffering to innocents seems like one of those questions to me. Inconsistent and flippant though Locke’s reasoning may be in this region, he does raise a point at least worth considering.

Interestingly, his next contention is that one of the most sinister and indirect ways one enters the state of war is by claiming absolute power. Noting that absolute power by definition precludes withholding consent from one who would use a person for his/her own ends, Locke states that such authority is tantamount to enslaving all one’s subjects. He adds that since freedom is the foundation of a person’s self-preservation, the denial of freedom (slavery) is therefore declaration of “war” against the person whose freedom is being denied.

If Locke evidently considers this form of war a violation of that which he believes people ought to have, we should suppose he was a critic of institutionalized slavery. That would depend on who exactly Locke regards as a person in this thesis, and although we’ll discover Locke’s views on slavery in the next chapter, we can consider at the moment how, in this context, the definition of a person is so important. I’ll probably give it a few more updates to get to the bottom of Locke’s perspective, but expect an interlude post exploring that question very thoroughly someday.

Natural Altruism and Anarchy — A Blog Journal on John Locke (Chapter 2e)

(Part VI of this series)

By the point at which the reader has gone past Locke’s last proposition (pertaining to capital punishment, discussed here), the concept of the state of nature that he is considering has grown far more clear. One might have found it perplexing that we established from the outset that the state of nature is anarchy, yet Locke also wrote of the “law of nature,” which would seem to require some government. It turns out Locke was referring quite literally to a “state” of nature, suggesting that even without formal government, it is default for humans to react to actions against their purposes with retaliation, which most reasonable people deliver to a degree proportional to the offense. So far as we know from common experience with people’s behavior in situations where the threat of punishment looms very small, this is mostly accurate, and not so hopeful as to lead us to think Locke is advocating anarchism.

Such is clear as Locke continues:

“I easily grant, that civil government is the proper remedy for the [inconveniences] of the state of nature, which must certainly be great, where men may be judges in their own case, since it is easy to be imagined, that he who was so unjust as to do his brother an injury, will scarce be so just as to condemn himself for it: but I shall desire those who make this objection, to remember, that absolute monarchs are but men … [Compared to a state] where one man, commanding a multitude, has the liberty to be judge in his own case, and may do to all his subjects whatever he pleases, without the least liberty to any one to question or [control] those who execute his pleasure … and in [which] whatsoever he doth, whether led by reason, mistake or passion, must be submitted to … much better it is in the state of nature, wherein men are not bound to submit to the unjust will of another: and if he that judges, judges amiss in his own, or any other case, he is answerable for it to the rest of mankind.”
— John Locke, Second Treatise on Civil Government, Chapter 2 (for the sake of transparency I must say I took some liberties of clarification with this quote; though Locke’s point is preserved in all its accuracy, I had to make some edits seen in most of the bracketed terms because parts of this passage are incomprehensibly phrased — should you find while reading the original that I have improperly abridged Locke’s words, feel free to correct me in the comments)

So Locke’s intention is not to promote full-blown anarchism, but to concede that given the choice between anarchy and absolute monarchy, he would gladly choose the former. After all, though in practice rebellions tend to replace one tyranny for another (exhibit A: the French Reign of Terror), the freedom most people retain in natural anarchy outweighs, while it lasts, the lack of monarchy’s false “security.”

Does this sound familiar? From “Give me liberty or give me death” to “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety” (this lesser-known nugget comes from Benjamin Franklin), the idea that concentrated power steals more freedom than it offers in protection (which can be arbitrarily withheld without checks on this power) is fundamental to modern constitutional democracy. This is a useful rule of thumb for keeping our government on a short leash, but someday we’ll have to come to the crucial questions of when it’s necessary to extend that leash to achieve what we truly value as a society.

In the following paragraph, Locke clarifies that the state of nature yields to a different state when people contractually agree to coexist in one community under one government — not all agreements of cooperation and compromise are mutually exclusive with the state of nature. This is evidently Locke’s attempt to use a particular term for the sake of explaining this: there are some social, collaborative efforts people can make, forgoing narrow self-interests, to work together for a common purpose without government. Considering Locke wouldn’t say “all” in place of “some” here, this may seem a trivially true point, but in context, Locke was distancing his view from Hobbes’s that human nature is essentially (that is, sans government) parasitic and hostile.

Let’s keep this in mind for future considerations, because the debate over the defaults and malleability of human nature, with and without law, is one worth having for our goals.

Locke ends the chapter (“finally,” you surely sigh) with a provocative statement, namely that all people are born into the state of nature until by their consent they enter a political contract. We’ll give him his say to make his case next chapter, but for now I want to hear your reactions to this. Does the idea that we are not truly bound by the governments we’re born into, until we agree, strike you as as unintuitive as to me?

Crime and Punishment — A Blog Journal on John Locke (Chapter 2d)

(Part V of this series)

To minimize repetition of the same criticism, I’ll make the sincerest effort to give any chapters hence in the Second Treatise the most charitable interpretation I can, granting Locke, for example, his deontological terms as shorthand for a consequentialist argument. Where he undergirds his argument in the “law of nature,” we may think of this as the recognition that for those who value a flourishing society for themselves and for others, adherence to the ethics he describes is imperative.

That said, picking up where we left off in Chapter 2, Locke contends that the law should be enforced equally upon all individuals who transgress it, and it ought be the people who collectively execute that law — as opposed to a monarch or aristocracy imposing laws to restrict the commoners. To his credit, as much as I have picked apart Locke’s arguments so far, this proposal and the ones that follow it are agreeable. He acknowledges that the primary role of justice, far from sheer vengeance, is the rehabilitation of criminals and the deterrence of further crime. This constitutes a reasonable exception to the rule of no harm that a Locke had earlier endorsed, as in practice we find that the force employed by the justice system is usually (but not always) more productive and justified than criminal force.

Locke also makes the overlooked but important point that besides the administration of justice to the criminal, the justice system carries the other responsibility of ensuring the restoration of the victim’s well-being (as much as is feasible). As citizens comply with the laws and taxes binding on all in the community, it stands to reason from the utilitarian perspective that any who sustain significant suffering in this community through no fault of their own (but that of others) should be able to have these damages repaired. The system by which any society does this is bound to be imperfect, but it’s a crucial fundamental of societal structure that deserves the attention Locke gives it.

As a parenthetical note, I should mention that if, again, most of this seems obvious, it probably is — but Locke’s (and our) purpose here is to build up, from our most honest philosophical starting points, the necessary conclusions in the study of societal protection of rights. If these conclusions happen to closely match what we already believe, provided we have critically thought these matters through and not succumbed to bias, this should tell us that conventional wisdom does indeed have some basis in reality. Where it does not, naturally, is the interesting part, and that’s where Locke’s ideas get revolutionary. This isn’t to say all answers are to be expected from serious sociological thought (rendering the endeavor as futile as the unfalsifiable theories of, say, Freud), but rather to admit that the reasonable answers do not discriminate based on what is popular.

Though it is not central to his treatise, Locke takes his endorsement of (at least as far as we can infer, unless he is — improbably so from his words — attempting a description of the origins of ideas about justice, not a prescription of them) justice against criminals to something of an extreme:

“[A]nd thus it is, that every man, in the state of nature, has a power to kill a murderer, both to deter others from doing the like injury, which no reparation can compensate, by the example of the punishment that attends it from every body, and also to secure men from the attempts of a criminal, who having renounced reason, the common rule and measure God hath given to mankind, hath, by the unjust violence and slaughter he hath committed upon one, declared war against all mankind, and therefore may be destroyed as a lion or a [tiger], one of those wild savage beasts, with whom men can have no society nor security: and upon this is grounded that great law of nature, Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed.”
— John Locke, Second Treatise on Civil Government, Chapter 2

From the bolded phrase, it’s clear that Locke sees the death penalty as, at least partly, the logical consequence of murder’s being a specially irreparable crime. Such a topic warrants multiple posts of its own someday, but for now it’s sufficient to note a fact that stands independent of whether the reader defends capital punishment in any circumstances. His hypocrisy is glaring; if murder’s due justice is proportional to its inability to rectify for the murdered person him/herself, surely we ought to be especially cautious when considering the ethics of delivering a punishment that itself can’t be reversed. The miscarriage of justice is just as bad as any comparable crime inflicted upon the innocent, so even if killing murderers as Locke recommends is just, few moral duties could weigh more heavily on our justice system’s shoulders than that of ensuring that those killed by the state are in fact guilty.