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.

What Are Rights? — A Blog Journal on John Locke (Intro)

In my post Questions on My Mind, I asked whether commonly accepted legal theory has room for the rights of nonhuman animals (henceforth called “animal rights” as shorthand, even though I personally consider the colloquialism of “animal” to exclude humans indirectly unethical, as it carries the implication that we occupy a special status purely by virtue of our species). But how can we think through a proper answer without establishing what standard legal theory is?

Knowing that the answer is “we can’t,” I chose to start this series because John Locke is to modern constitutional government as Francis Bacon is to contemporary science. I tracked down his magnum opus relevant to the foundations of law and the protection of rights, and what I found was this:


To be sure, Second Treatise on Civil Government is not the exhaustive compendium of rights theory, but it is certainly a worthy introduction considering its historical influence. Reading this is likely (based on common background knowledge) to remind one of a certain Thomas Jefferson and his ideas in the Declaration of Independence. Further, most important, examining this text will be our starting point to the critical analysis of a variety of surrounding issues: What exactly was the original basis upon which early constitutional thinkers developed the laws of the United States (and other democratic republics)? How essential is this basis to the application of legal philosophy to current questions of social justice? Where do rights come from, and why does this matter? If rights apply to persons or citizens, what makes a person/citizen?

While one would be in an awkward position to argue that law is the sum force for the common good, it’s a non-negligible force. Since we the people are (in theory) those who shape the law, if we find it wanting in protection of persons’ basic interests through rights, we have the power to do something about that. Understanding some of the earliest thought on legally sanctioned rights of individuals is, then, imperative.

In each subsequent post of this series, I’ll summarize and comment on a few chapters from this book, which I encourage you to read as well to follow along. It’s free in the iBooks store for those with Apple e-readers, and on this site available to anyone with an Internet connection — as its author is some 300 years long deceased, this work is in the public domain. You could find a physical printed version in a library too, of course.

Questions on My Mind

This post will be somewhat more informal today, folks. The same reasons for last article’s delay (sheer business) have restricted my freedom to write developed theses for this blog at the moment, so for now, I’d like to stop pretending I have answers to simply raise some questions. Hopefully this will spark some thought in you and me, and even if not, consider this a preview or syllabus of the sorts of topics we may explore here in weeks to come.

1.) To what extent is the good of society dependent on our understanding of the human mind, particularly of how it can be prone to error or destructive behavior due to biases and psychopathologies? What steps can we take towards acting upon this knowledge properly?

2.) Do accusations of “political correctness” and oversensitivity carry merit, or are these labels little more than excuses not to use the power of words wisely?

3.) What are some effective and evidentially supported methods of distributing charity? Is our problem in combatting world hunger and disease one merely of quantity, or are we approaching this the wrong way entirely?

4.) What are the ethical, economic, and social implications of the impending artificial intelligence explosion (this is one you’d be better off just web searching to get the idea; I recommend Goodsearch, a search engine that gradually raises money for a charity of your choice)? As far-fetched as the idea of a sci-fi-esque robot takeover seems, is the probability that artificial intelligence might work against human interests in more subtle ways one worth taking seriously?

5.) Regardless of the more personal ethical quandaries, is there any consistent legal case that can be made for the rights of certain nonhuman animals? If so, how far do these rights extend, and how does this relate to our food industry, scientific practices, and manufacture of other animal products?

I’d be delighted if you could comment with your thoughts on any of these questions, and if you have some of your own you’d like to raise (within reason), please share them!