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John Locke's Limited State
In order to understand Locke, we must begin with his epistemology as put forth in his An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690), a work that took him 20 years to complete. The underpinning philosophical foundations of Locke’s political thought are found in this work in which he discusses the nature of the world as it is known to us and the ways whereby we come to know it. Locke set out to inquire into the nature, origin, sources, certainty, and extent (or limits) of human knowledge. In this essay, Locke’s interest centers on the nature of reality, God, and the grounds of our knowledge of them.
Locke agrees with Descartes’ cogito that the existence of the self is implied in every state of consciousness. The notion that “I think, therefore, I am” implies the prior certainty of consciousness (i.e., that consciousness precedes consciousness of objects). What both mean to say is that every idea of which a person is conscious is an affirmation of his existence as the subject of that experience. Although consciousness is an axiom, it is not the primary one that the above inversion appears to make it. The irreducible foundational axiom is that there must first be something that exists of which a person can be aware. It would have been better if Locke had written that consciousness, the second axiom, is the faculty of perceiving that which exists. There must first be something. If nothing exists, then there is nothing about which to be conscious.
Expressing humility about what men are capable of knowing, Locke states that our knowledge extends no further than our ideas. He teaches that our knowledge is bounded and that some things exceed the mind’s comprehension. According to Locke, knowledge is restricted to ideas, no ideas are innate, and ideas originate from sense experience. The mind is tabula rasa (blank sheet) until a person experiences the external world. Without experience, nothing is written on the “tablets” of the mind. Being originally blank, the human mind gains knowledge through the use of the five senses and a process of reflection. It is data from the external world that triggers the operations of the mind.
A notable exponent of empiricism, Locke attacks Descartes’ doctrine of innate ideas and ridicules the view that ideas can be antecedent to experience. Ideas produced by sensations are in the mind and are indications in us of an external reality. A sensation is the product of a man’s experience with the external world. Locke makes sensations (like tall, brown, and solid) prior to percepts. He says that the mind brings the sensations together to form the percept “tree.” Attributes, rather than entities, are thus primary for Locke. Locke explains that when we observe an object ideas enter our minds single file and that ideas of different qualities of an object enter through different senses.
Sensations tell us about things and processes in the external world. Locke says that ideas are caused by the real world but they do not permit us to see that world as it is in itself. External experiences, called sensations, give us ideas of supposed external objects. He explains that we know ideas but we really do not know objects or things-in-themselves. What is known by one’s mind is not the thing-in-itself but rather the representation of the thing that the mind was able to assemble. Holding a representationalist theory of perception, Locke contends that the mind perceives ideas and ideas are caused by and represent the objects that cause them. He states that consciousness is the perception of what passes in a man’s own mind and what the mind grasps is not reality but ideas of reality. It follows that we are aware of the idea that is between consciousness and existence.
Locke speaks of all the objects of understanding (i.e., the ideas) as being in the mind. He uses the term, idea, so vaguely and broadly that it includes, at various times, sensations, percepts, representations, images, concepts, and notions. Locke explains that there are innate faculties through which the mind perceives, remembers, and combines ideas that come to it from without. He says the mind is also capable of desiring, deliberating, and willing. Our faculties of knowing are thus innate although our ideas are not. The processes which transform the material provided by the senses into knowledge are activities of the mind which themselves cannot be reduced to ideas. These mental activities are the source of a new class of ideas. These are ideas of an internal reality—ideas about the activity of our minds which are the product of reflection. Ideas of reflection involve perceiving, thinking, believing, reasoning, knowing, doubting, willing, and so on.
In Locke’s theory of knowledge, which is limited to mental content, it is impossible to prove the actual existence of supposed objects. Locke admits the existence of substances but claims they are unknowable. By asserting that phenomena alone are knowable, he distanced the realm of the known with the realm of the knower. Locke’s theory of knowledge is isolated from reality and unable to break through the phenomenalism in which it is encompassed to reach metaphysical data. For example, Locke refers to and uses the principle of causality while denying its validity because it exists in the real world of real objects and beings outside of one’s mind. We could say that Locke is an empirical phenomenalist.
Locke’s notion of ideas as intermediary and representational ultimately became for Kant the phenomenal world. Locke’s view led to the skepticism of Hume and Kant’s two-world dualism. Locke unintentionally opened the door and paved the way for Kant’s epistemological dualism which constituted an all-out attack on the mind’s ability to know reality.
According to Locke, there are two types of experience (sensation and reflection) and ideas are either simple or complex. Simple ideas are obtained from sense experience and through reflection the mind can combine simple ideas into complex ones. Reflection tells us about the operations of our own minds. We cannot have the experience of reflection until we have already had the experience of sensation. Simple ideas comprise the source of the raw materials out of which our knowledge is constructed. Complex ideas are built by the mind as a compound of simple ideas. The mind is able to bring ideas together, combine them, and abstract from them.
Both sensation and reflection can produce simple ideas. For sensation, simple ideas are referred to as sensible qualities and can be divided into primary and secondary ones. According to Locke, primary qualities really do exist in the objects themselves and secondary qualities produce ideas that have no counterpart in the objects. He distinguishes between the primary qualities, which are objective, and the secondary qualities which are subjective. Primary or mathematically determinable qualities of an object actually exist in the world and secondary qualities do not exist in objects as they exist in ideas. Primary qualities include solidity, extension, figure, motion or rest, and number. Examples of secondary qualities are colors, sounds, tastes, odors, and so on. Locke sees these qualities as attributes as stuck into a substratum which he calls “something I know not what.” The substratum is a substance in which qualities are said to subsist. Of course, we know that this view is wrong and that an entity is simply the sum of all of its attributes.
Complex ideas are said to be either ideas of substances or ideas of modes. Substances are independent existences such as God, angels, human beings, animals, plants, and constructed things. Mixed modes are dependent existences such as moral and mathematical ideas and the languages of religion, politics, and culture. Locke explains that ideas of substances are compounded from simple ideas but which are intended to represent real objects rather than abstractions. These ideas of substances name the objects of our concern as the underlying realities that support the qualities known to us through sensations. Locke says that these ideas of substances are real because they are combinations of simple ideas as really co-existing and united in things outside of us. On the other hand, mixed modes refer to abstract ideas that have no counterpart in external reality and have only a purely intellectual existence. Mixed modes include ideas put together at the pleasure of the mind. Example of mixed modes are ideas of justice, obligation, liberty, and so on. Locke explains that mixed modes are identical with archetypes within our own minds and created by our minds out of simple ideas.
In a similar manner, Locke goes on to complete his classification of ideas with ideas of relation. Locke explains that knowledge involves relations and relations are the work of the mind. He gives the example of the notion of moral relations arising from the idea of God compounded with ideas of pleasure and pain. He explains that from the constant association of pleasure and pain with our actions we recognize rules of behavior that specify what is good and bad. Locke will later go on to determine rights from the relations that exist between God and man.
According to Locke, we know that we exist with the highest degree of certainty and we know that God exists with the second highest degree of certainty. The notion of God is an idea of substance constructed from simple ideas such as existence, knowledge, duration, pleasure, pain, happiness, power, and infinity. The idea of God is deduced from a person’s intuitive knowledge that he exists as a conscious human being and that something greater must have caused him. By inference, he has the idea of an eternal, most knowing, most powerful, being of pure consciousness. The idea of God as creator, the first efficient cause of everything that exists, leads Locke to the conclusion that God is the legislator of the rules of behavior. Locke’s notion of the moral good is inextricably tied to the idea of a God who is greatly concerned with our happiness. He says that through our reason we can discover the moral rules that conform to God’s law. Although we cannot know the mind and reasons of God or the ultimate why and wherefore of things, we can understand the how of things as revealed in the processes of the world.
With respect to free will, Locke explains that the mind has the power to suspend the execution and satisfaction of its desires and is free to consider, examine, and weigh them alongside others. Men can voluntarily control their thinking. They can choose to employ or to withhold their conceptual faculty. Locke says that people are able to control their passions. Because men can exercise their freedom by thinking about the consequences of their actions and then deciding what to do, they can be held morally and legally responsible for their actions. Locke views each person as a free moral agent who possesses sufficient reason to guide and order his own life.
Political and Ethical Theory
Locke’s First Treatise of Government was a polemical work refuting the doctrine of the Divine and Absolute Right of Kings that was supported by Sir Robert Filmer. Locke systematically attacks Filmer’s thesis that royal power is similar to parental authority, that is predicated upon, and descended from, the power of the first king, Adam.
Locke’s The Second Treatise of Government contains the key elements in Locke’s political theory including the state of nature, natural law, natural rights, social contract, government consent and the right of property ownership. It is in this work that Locke explains that the function of legitimate civil government is to preserve the rights of life, liberty, health, and property of citizens and to prosecute and punish those who violate the rights of others. The Second Treatise is by far Locke’s most influential work.
For Locke, the state of nature is not Hobbes’ “war of all against all.” Unlike Hobbes, Locke does not equate the state of nature and the state of war. Locke refers to the original state of nature as the great natural community of mankind. This state of nature is a state of freedom where men are able to order their actions and dispose of their possessions as they see fit. He maintained the original state of nature was generally pleasant and characterized by reason and tolerance. In this prepolitical society men are free, independent, and the equal of every other human being. The state of nature is one of peace, good will, mutual assistance, and preservation in which all power and jurisdiction is reciprocal. In this state, there is no natural superior or inferior and a man must protect himself and his own the best he can. Natural freedom derives from natural equality.
Locke explains that men in the state of nature know the moral law through reason and that the state of liberty is not a state of license. He says that the natural liberty of man is to have only the law of nature for his rule. The state of nature is not devoid of law. Everything that is ever right or wrong is so eternally. A person’s freedom and actions are regulated by natural law which obliges everyone. Reason teaches all mankind that, being all-equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions. Nature makes every man an executioner of the law with authority to punish wrongdoers. Locke says that everyone is bound to preserve himself and that natural man, being social, ought to preserve the rest of mankind. The law of nature needs an executor. Because there are aggressors, even in the state of nature, this executive power is given to every man who has the right and obligation to restrain offenders and to protect the innocent. In the state of nature, everyone has the executive power of the law of nature and is obliged to preserve himself and to preserve all mankind. An aggressor is to be treated as an individual unfit to associate with human beings and as a threat to all mankind. Despite the presence of aggressors, we can safely say that Locke’s state of nature is not nearly as violent as Hobbes’. In Locke’s state of nature, a sometimes precarious peace prevails.
The state of nature involves men living together according to reason without a common superior with authority to judge among them. In the state of nature there is an absence of a common judge and the absence of any law except the law of nature. A state of peace exists when men live together and there is no use of force without right. The state of war involves the use of force without right, justice, or authority. In civil society there exists a common judge with authority to enforce civil laws. Both in the state of nature and in civil society sometimes a state of peace may dominate and at other times a state of war may prevail. Whenever force is instituted, a state of war exists. They can occur in either the state of nature or in civil society.
The state of nature involves the state of war because of the passionate nature of man. According to Locke, the moral law, the law of God, is always valid but it is not always kept. Natural justice exists even if the state does not exist. Moral rights and duties are intrinsic and prior to positive law. Positive laws add nothing to the ethical nature of conduct but simply provides a mechanism for effective enforcement. The moral rules established by God are valid whether observed by government or not. Locke says that men recognize that the laws of nature constitute moral obligations for them.
Locke teaches that morality needs a lawgiver and that the lawgiver is God. If one obeys or breaks God’s law then pleasure and pain, respectively, will be experienced in this world and in the next life. Locke believes that ethics can be made a deductive and demonstrable science like mathematics. He contended that his political theory was underpinned by self-evident truths of a demonstrable science of ethics. He says that morality is scientific, rational, provable, and a deductive certainty. Unfortunately, he never gave the proof for this deductive ethics. Nowhere does he endeavor to deduce such a systematic code.
Locke explains that natural rights exist in the state of nature before the introduction of civil government. He interpreted natural law as a claim to innate, indefeasible rights inherent in each individual. These natural rights are attributes of the individual person. He says that natural law implies natural rights and correlative duties. Locke explains that all individuals are endowed by their creator with a right to life, liberty, and estate. Men are all the workmanship of one omnipotent and omniscient Maker. Because men are God’s property to be morally used by God for his purposes, it is wrong to damage God’s property. It follows that Locke’s ultimate validation of rights is based on religion. All human beings have natural rights inherent in their created nature and have moral obligations to respect the rights of others.
The purpose of natural rights is to sanction the sovereignty of the choices of each individual person. Individual rights imply a sphere where one is free from force. Locke understood that only individuals think, judge, will, and act. He knew that reason is an attribute of the individual and that each individual has free will control of his reason. Locke also realized that men are metaphysically equal, not in their talents, but in the fact that a man’s life is a gift from God and that he has right to use his life as he chooses. Rights are possessed by all men by virtue of being human, and there is no right to violate rights.
Locke recognized that the natural right to freedom is necessary for the possibility of moral action. It follows that the purpose of natural rights is to protect individual autonomy and accountability. He saw that it is illegitimate to use coercion against a man who does not first undertake the use of force. It follows that in the state of nature all men equally have the legitimate right to punish transgressors. It is proper to use force in self-defense against unjust violence. In other words, victims can enforce the law of nature in the state of nature. When the law of nature is violated the result is a state of war in which an unjust aggressor has violated someone’s rights.
Locke explains that the defect of the state of nature is that it has no organization to give effect to the rules of right. He says that there are deficiencies in a system that must depend upon self-execution of the natural law. It follows that men would seek an institutional device that would make more secure the rights they already possess. The political power of such an institutional device would be derived from the transfer of individuals to enforce the law of nature. Locke says that civil power can have no right except as derived from the individual right of each man to protect himself and his property. He explains that the individual does not surrender his substantive natural rights but only his right of executing the law of nature. Men are said to leave the state of nature when they voluntarily give their natural right to self-defense to a common public authority. The power of the government is nothing except the natural power of each person resigned into the hands of the community. This is a better way of protecting natural rights than the self-help to which each person is naturally entitled. Locke states that any number of persons can make a compact to leave the state of nature. He explains that the individual is driven into political society by inconveniences of his natural conditions rather than by nature itself. Men are motivated to form a civil society by their desire to avoid the annoyances of the state of nature and not by the fear of destruction. A government might better guard natural justice and avoid the inconveniences that disorder men’s properties in the state of nature.
Civil society originates when, for the better administration of the law, people agree to delegate that function. In order to acquire mutual protection, men place the retaliatory use of force under established, settled, objective, known law interpreted by an impartial judge. In addition, the combined force of individuals helps to overcome the strength of rights violators. Men form into societies in order to have the united strength of the entire society to secure and defend their properties and to have standard rules by which everyone may know what is properly his. Power is needed to back and support these standard rules, to give them due execution, and to punish the crimes committed against them. Of course, the power is limited by the purposes for which they were made.
The law should be received and permitted by common consent to be the standard of right and wrong and the common measure to settle all controversies. In order to have objective administration of the law, society requires a known and impartial judge with authority to determine all differences according to the established law. Locke explains that it is unreasonable for men to be judges in their own cases because self-interest will be apt to make them partial to themselves and their friends.
Locke’s social contract theory sees the establishment of a government as a two-step process. The original compact by which men incorporate into society is one to form a civil society. Once this society is established, the people must then proceed to set up a government. Civil society is derived from the consent of its members. No man, without his consent, can properly be subjected to the political authority of another. Through the social contract, men transfer to the newly created community the power to execute the natural law which is the power they held in the state of nature. The people are the parties to the social compact with each person agreeing with all the others to form one society. Locke states that unanimity is necessary to form the social compact to make an individual a member of civil society. Consent to join a community is binding and cannot be withdrawn. Anyone who refuses to join may go his own way and provide for himself elsewhere.
Locke says that by consenting to the agreement to form a political body, each man obligates himself to acquiesce to majority rule. Once an individual has agreed to the original contract he is bound thereafter to accept the decisions of the majority. Why is it that in the original contract unanimous consent be required and in subsequent acts of government only majority approval is necessary? Can’t the majority occasionally exploit its greater power to violate individual rights?
The principle of majority rule does not have the immediate and obvious validity that Locke thought it had. Perhaps he considered the establishment of a government as less important than the original agreement that makes a civil society. Of course, he did argue that an individual’s rights are less severely threatened by majority rule than by monarchist absolutism. He wanted political society to be constructed so that it would be unable to oppress its citizens. Locke attributes no special wisdom to the majority and seems to base his argument on expediency and the law of the greater force. In a democracy the majority will have the greater force and will prevail.
Locke furthers the fiction of a social contract with the additional fictions of unanimous consent and tacit consent. He explains that if anyone accepts the benefits of a government he has tacitly consented to the conditions the government imposes on him. Locke understood that most people live under a government that they never explicitly authorized to make decisions for them but have given their tacit consent. He says that a government is legitimate because its power derived from the people who gave their consent at its formation and that any person who is born within a particular government and accepts the protection supplied by it gives tacit consent as to the government’s legitimacy.
Locke realizes that the main powers of a government ought to be separated because it may be too great a temptation for the same individuals who have the power of making laws to also have the power to execute them. He explains that legislative power is superior to executive power and that the power of the government must be limited by law. Limited rule is justified under a government that gains its authority from the people and holds its power in trust for their benefit. Being responsible to the people, the government’s power is limited by moral law and by constitutional traditions and conventions. Locke states that the legislature should be a representative body subject to periodic re-election. He says that federative power, as a member of the international community, should be in the same hands as executive power which achieves peace, order, and security of property. According to Locke, the protection of property is the principal business of the government because there is a natural right to property that antedates the establishment of civil society.
The survival of each person requires that he be able to use material objects to sustain his life. Because God wants each individual person to live and prosper, he instituted the right to property as a corollary to the right to life. Locke’s supposition is that God gave the earth and its fruits to all men in common. It follows that in the state of nature property was common in that every person had the right to gain subsistence from whatever nature provided. Originally, nobody had a private domain exclusive of the rest of mankind. God not only gave the world to men in common, he also gave them reason to make use of it. The problem that Locke faced was to explain how commonly available resources can become legitimate private property to the exclusion of the right of other men. Locke employs the principle of individuation in the world to explain how collective property can become individual private property. He says that a person transfers his individuality into matter through his own labor. This individuates and decommunalizes property.
Private property does not and cannot come about by universal consent. According to Locke, natural man enjoys property in his own person which is the foundation of all other property. This concept of self-ownership is the cornerstone of individualism and personal freedom. Every man owns not only his own person but also his own labor. It follows that people can legitimately turn common property into private property by mixing their labor with it thereby using and improving it. Because individuals mixed their bodies in the form of their labor with unowned (free) resources, they created something new that was their property. What a person does when he applies his labor to a natural object is to endow it with certain attributes belonging to one’s own mode of existence. The Lockean view is that the quality of the owner’s very personality is embodied in his property. The right to private property arises because by labor man can extend his own personality into the objects created. This natural right to private property exists even in the primitive society of the state of nature. The right to private property precedes civil law and is grounded in natural moral law.
Nature itself severely limits property in the state of nature. The natural fact of spoilage drastically limits property in the state of nature and acts as a type of rule to maintain a fair distribution of goods in the state of nature. This leads Locke to proclaim that spoilage limits the right of clear and exclusive acquisition in the state of nature. Private property is thus limited to as much as anyone can make use of before it spoils. Men should not allow things to go to waste in the state of nature. We could say that nature has put both a moral and a practical limit on the amount of property that anyone can accumulate. The limit is not defined by the amount of what is owned but only by the consequences of the ownership. As long as nothing spoils in one’s possession, it makes no difference how much property he owns. Property ownership is thus qualified to as much as anyone can make use of to any advantages of life before it spoils. This is known as the “Lockean proviso.”
Locke believed that greater productivity of some would raise the general standard of living. He says that a person is wrong to think that a man deprives others by enclosing land and cultivating it for his own use. It follows that all his neighbors benefit because cultivated land is more productive. The poor frequently gain as an unintended consequence of the acquisitive actions of others. Because the productive use of resources by one person tends to enrich everyone, we could say that men’s interests are not in conflict and that wealth is not a static quantity—one man’s gain is also everyone else’s gain.
Locke recognized that spoilage is a necessary, applicable, and effective means toward fair distribution only in the case of a scarcity of perishable goods. The invention of money renders the accumulation of property essentially harmless and avoids the disadvantages inherent in the original natural limits to property ownership in the state of nature. The invention of money, which does not spoil, made it desirable and reasonable for a person to produce more than was required for his family’s immediate needs (i.e., more than they could consume before it spoiled). Men could exchange money for perishable and other goods. There would be no limit to the private acquisition of wealth if held in the form of money. Without money, a person had no incentive to expand his holdings and produce a surplus.
Money came into existence through a natural mutual consent process in the state of nature. Through this process the most durable and easily tradable commodity ultimately becomes acceptable as a money commodity. Locke’s theory of the origins of social institutions provided the framework for his consent theory of money. Money allows the more talented, rational, and industrious to create more, to accumulate the products of their labor, and to increase their wealth relative to others. According to Locke, money makes possible a benevolent form of property accumulation that enriches some without making others poorer.
Locke thought that labor was the major creator of economic value but that the market or relative value or the price of an object depended upon its usefulness and scarcity rather than the amount of labor embodied in it. In Locke’s system one earned property through his own efforts, but the value of that property was determined by the market. It follows that Locke’s writings implied no theory of labor exploitation. There is no evidence that Locke believed there would be a relationship between the amount of labor that goes into a product and its market price.
Locke explains that money so transformed the conditions of the state of nature that it was no longer desirable for men to live together without greater protection for their possessions. Lockean man therefore quits the state of nature and forms into civil society for the protection of his life, liberty, and estate. Locke sees the economy as logically prior to government and explains that government arises to remedy inconveniences that occur in the state of nature. The purposes of the government are to protect property, to keep order, and to provide a peaceful environment in which each person can freely pursue his own ends. Locke says that some government regulation of trade is necessary to protect and foster commercial interests. Here he is talking about procedural rather than substantive regulation. Permissible regulation for Locke includes contract enforcement, dispute adjudication, and the registration of deeds and titles. As an advocate of free markets, he is against the regulation of interest rates on both economic and moral grounds Locke’s reflections on the interest rate show that he is strongly against fixing the rate of interest by law.
Tyranny and Toleration
At the end of the Second Treatise Locke speaks about the nature of illegitimate governments and the conditions under which rebellion is legitimate and appropriate. He says that an illegitimate civil government violates the national rights of its citizens and puts itself into a state of war with them. Whenever legislation attempts to take away or destroy people’s property or reduces them to slavery the government puts itself into a state of war with the people In such cases Locke defended the moral right of revolution to resist tyranny.
In his writings on toleration, Locke teaches that religious persecution by the state is wrong and that the use of force to get people to hold certain beliefs is illegitimate. He says that the persecution of religious diversity generates turmoil and that religion should be treated as a purely private and individual matter. Churches are said to be voluntary private organizations with equal legitimacy before the law. Boundaries separating church and state should be fixed and immovable. A secular state provides for peace, order, and safety. Public force can protect life and property but it cannot persuade one’s conscience. Eternal salvation cannot be forwarded through coercive measures. Government force must be separated from the mind—ideas cannot be forced.
Locke says that because the mind is fallible we ought to tolerate one another’s opinions. Religion is a matter of faith and faith is a matter of inner conviction. The purpose of religion is to help people attain salvation in the hereafter. He explains that “social justice” is not a concern of the church but rather is the business of the civil society only. Locke contends that religion is entirely outside the jurisdiction of the state but he does also say that atheists and Catholics are not to be tolerated! The exception to his support of religious toleration with regard to atheists is based on the idea that the existence of the state depends on a contract, and the obligation of that contract (like all moral law), depends upon the will of God. Locke explains that promises, covenants, and oaths, which constitute the bounds of civil society, can have no hold on atheists. He is also concerned that members of the Catholic Church are potentially dangerous and may pose an additional threat to the social order.
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