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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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.

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?

The State of Nature — A Blog Journal on John Locke (Chapter 2a)

(Part II of this series)

Contra Hobbes, Locke’s starting analysis of the state of nature — that is, the behavior and conditions of humanity in a hypothetical pre-government state of anarchy — is rather optimistic. He writes:

“A state also of equality, wherein all the power and jurisdiction is reciprocal, no one having more than another; there being nothing more evident, than that creatures of the same species and rank, promiscuously born to all the same advantages of nature, and the use of the same faculties, should also be equal one amongst another without subordination or subjection, unless the lord and master of them all should, by any manifest declaration of his will, set one above another, and confer on him, by an evident and clear appointment, an undoubted right to dominion and sovereignty.”
— John Locke, Second Treatise on Civil Government, Chapter 2

Taken as a declaration of an ideal derived from reason, rather than a description of the way sociology actually works, this makes sense. When people are alike in all respects relevant to civil rights, the most just and empathic course of action for a government is to protect those rights equally, barring reasonable exceptions such as the withholding of liberties from those who commit serious crimes.

But is it anthropologically accurate to say humanity started out egalitarian? Suffice it to say, the inferences we can make are at best educated guesses, based on indirect clues since Paleolithic humanity did not keep written records. The answer either way is mostly irrelevant to the success of Locke’s point, as even if we assume prehistoric society had equality (not necessarily a lack of leadership, as leaders of small Paleolithic bands may have balanced their power with responsibility for the protection of the band), what does this prove? That adopting the hunter-gatherer way of life would restore this idyllic golden age? Locke never proposed as much, as the very purpose of this treatise was to argue for a legal structure quite different from that of the Stone Age — distinct from absolutist monarchies, yes, but that is neither here nor there.

That Locke proceeds with the following quote seems to show that the latter interpretation would be an exercise in futility:

“The like natural inducement hath brought men to know that it is no less their duty, to love others than themselves; for seeing those things which are equal, must needs all have one measure; if I cannot but wish to receive good, even as much at every man’s hands, as any man can wish unto his own soul, how should I look to have any part of my desire herein satisfied, unless myself be careful to satisfy the like desire, which is undoubtedly in other men, being of one and the same nature?”
— Richard Hooker quoted by John Locke, Second Treatise on Civil Government, Chapter 2

This basically amounts to the golden rule, which, though it is a noble appeal to the conscience provided the reader has altruistic interests, the cynic in me must admit would do little to persuade the very sorts of tyrants Locke wanted to challenge. Provided the kings and queens who ruled with the proverbial iron fist were already seduced by the promise of power and wealth, enough to override the compassion that would have motivated them to institute fairer legislatures, what would Locke’s line of thought here do to restore that compassion? Either Locke believed tyrants truly did want the greatest good of the people, and they simply thought (in error) that their “divine right” gave them the means to best sustain their societies, or he supposed his argument carried some undeniable logical force.

If it’s the latter, Locke would have done well to survive up to David Hume’s famous utterance, “‘Tis not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger.” No rational sentiment, however intuitive it may seem to us in the context of our desires as an ideally equal society, can be expected to change the mind of the absolute ruler without appealing to some value that ruler would like to pursue. If, for instance, Locke argued that betraying the equal treatment of persons before the law would cultivate unstable rebellion or damage to moral integrity for the monarch, he would have a convincing case, but the argument he advances here is little more than a way to invigorate action among those subject to the monarch. By this same reasoning, the former possibility in the preceding paragraph has its own flaws: it’s doubtful every (or even the common) absolute ruler had only faulty exegetical motives for such rule. History is not so kind to the Rousseau-esque assumption that all people across all epochs are fundamentally altruistic, for money talks to slave-owners. Monarchs are no exception.

Locke continues along the same thread, asserting that reason tells all people that the equality of humans in the state of nature implies a normative obligation to afford all the right to property. Here Locke is, again, either making a non sequitir argument from some vague pre-Humean conception of reason, or he is assuming (understandably) that his readers will take as a premise the value of all people as ends unto themselves. In which case, his presentation of this idea as if it is obvious is dubious, not only because politics is fraught with incentives to flout our consciences, but also as Locke was hardly the model equal rights advocate — for reasons of sheer social inertia, societies of his time discriminated unapologetically against women, ethnic minorities, sexual minorities, and other common targets. Locke may not have supported all such prejudices, but he did not publicly challenge them as far as I can ascertain.

As you can see, this is taking longer than I’d anticipated. This isn’t a disadvantage; if anything, it’s allowed us a more thorough look into such a crucial subject. Expect me to inject digressions into other topics when appropriate, rather than keep this series going uninterrupted. With hope, I can make more progress on the “Giving Peace a Chance — For Real This Time” thread.