Common Mistakes — A Blog Journal on John Locke (Chapter 5c)

(Part XII of this series)

Recall that in Chapter 5, Locke has so far been attempting a defense of the right to property. Now, he is describing how it is both in the nature of humans to, in his terms, “cultivate” land and property from the common, and in our best interests to do so. Evidently, Locke distinguishes between two kinds of a “common.” In one sense, there is land that has not been marked as a part of any particular society’s dominion, which, therefore, there seems no apparent harm in letting people utilize at their leisure. The other sense is of property already designated the community’s common land, which an individual requires the direct consent of the society to claim for private purposes (which ideally don’t pose any threat to that society).

One major question arises at this consideration. Although the separation makes sense initially, we would do well to ask how much we actually apply such a philosophy in our manner of dealing with the land — obviously Native American tribes throughout two whole continents had their territories treated as if they were examples of the first, rather than the second, but there’s another, more modern-applicable case. Taking a “my right to extend my fist ends where your nose begins” approach is fair enough, but particularly in the realm of using natural resources wisely, it’s important not to let this principle become a caricature of itself. We mustn’t ignore the ways our fists reach to extents we can’t see merely with the naked eye.

Consider, for instance, the far-reaching effects of the Industrial Revolution. Sure, Locke didn’t live even to see this age start up, but supposing a hypothetical society abiding by his principles contemplated the beginning of the revolution ethically, how would they have dealt with this? Perhaps the most important and disturbing query is this: Would anyone have known — much less had no excuse not to know — that industrialization could have potentially hazardous implications for the lower class, child labor, and our ecological stability? Was this anything resembling a moral question for some observers of the time, or was it an error that could only manifest its ugly head in hindsight, like our past failure to save countless lives through rudimentary hygienic practices in infant delivery?

I wish these could be more than rhetorical questions at the moment. Please share your thoughts, if you’re so inclined.

As a side note, readers who are following along doubtlessly notice Locke’s affinity for justifying his claims as reflections of the will of God. While those who say they speak for God have the unfortunate habit of projecting their own desires on a being they hardly comprehend, Locke’s contentions are generally (certainly not always, as we’ve seen) difficult to reject so far, provided we translate this tactic into “a perfectly rational being with our society’s collective well-being at heart would prescribe X.”

Looking at them this way, we may engage his arguments on their own merits. Though it’s the prerogative of any given believer in infallible scripture to consult it for ethical information, he or she can only hope to shape public policy around ideas that the majority can support independent of private beliefs; in practice, most religious social activists acknowledge this.

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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.

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.

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.

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?