Notes on John Locke

Notes on John Locke

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Notes on John Locke (1632-1704),
selections from The Second Treatise of Government (1690)

As we will examine it, a defining theme of the American experience from Thomas Jefferson through Elizabeth Cady Stanton to Martin Luther King, Jr. is democratic revolution: these and other major figures seek to change the existing social structure, in order to expand the circle of democracy - to encompass ever larger groups of people within a democratic framework which recognizes the basic equality and rights of each member. Using Jefferson as the starting point, the circle of democratic rights initially includes white males over the age of 41 who meet certain property requirements. Elizabeth Cady Stanton seeks to enlarge this circle to include women - as Martin Luther King, Jr., seeks to enlarge the circle to include people of color.

How do you argue for revolutionary change? The American experience is striking not only for its theme of revolutionary change: more fundamentally, these diverse calls for revolution all rest on a shared, central argument. This argument begins from certain premises, and uses those premises to support a specific conclusion - the conclusion that democratic revolution, radical social change in the direction of increasing equality with regard to rights and standing before the law, is justified.

The shared argument looks like this:

[P1] Governments (Jefferson, Cady Stanton) and laws (Martin Luther King, Jr.) are legitimate only if they rest on the consent of the governed and protect basic rights.

[P2] If governments and laws lack this consent, and/or fail to protect these rights, then

[C1] such governments are no longer legitimate, and/or such laws are unjust.

[P3] Illegitimate governments and/or unjust laws require no allegiance. Therefore,

[C2] Illegitimate governments and/or unjust laws must be dissolved and replaced with legitimate governments and/or just laws i.e., governments and/or laws which rest on the consent of the governed and protect basic rights (i.e., which meet the conditions of [P1]).

While Jefferson first articulates this argument as the central justification for the American Revolution, we will see this argument used to support the struggle for women's suffrage (Cady Stanton) and the struggle for civil rights for American blacks (Martin Luther King, Jr.).

But Jefferson did not invent this argument or its underlying assumptions. Among other sources, Jefferson was deeply influenced by Locke's views on human nature and the political arrangements befitting that nature - especially as Locke articulated his political philosophy in Two Treatistes of Government (1690).

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(Locke, for his part, helped shape the constitution of the colony of Carolina through his close association with Lord Ashley, earl of Shaftesbury.) As you can begin to see by contrasting this reading with Jefferson, the American democratic/revolutionary argument - the tradition that reaches from Jefferson through Martin Luther King, Jr. -is in fact rooted in the writings of English philosopher John Locke.

Some of Locke's key ideas and arguments are developed in our readings from The Second Treatise of Government.

To understand the importance of Locke's argument for democratic revolution and social change, we can go back to the first premise (P1) of the argument outlined above, and ask, "Why is the consent of the governed so fundamental - so fundamental that governments and laws lacking the consent of the governed are illegitimate and must not be obeyed?"

If we cannot answer this question, we have no reason to accept the first premise of the argument - and so opponents to the argument can dismiss it as weak, since it rests on an unsupported first premise.

Locke's way of answering this question involves:

1) a basic definition of human nature:

for Locke, human beings are driven by both emotions and reason, and they are both self-interested and naturally social or altruistic ("other-interested").

This conception contrasts sharply with the views of Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679). Hobbes argued that human beings are centrally desire-driven and solely self-interested. This view of human nature, we will see, leads to a very different conception from Locke's of what political arrangements are appropriate for human beings.

2) Given Locke's conception of human nature, we are further capable of self-rule - that is, especially through the facility of reason, Locke will argue, individuals can be (largely) trusted to manage their own affairs in ways that are (more or less) consistent with the interests and well-being of others.

This conception of human nature as capable of self-rule is crucial to the democratic argument.

If Hobbes is right - if human beings are primarily self-interested and desire-driven - we are not capable of self-rule. On the contrary: our ruthless competition with one another to satisfy individual desires will quickly lead to what Hobbes calls "the war of each against all," a "state of nature" in which life is "nasty, brutish, and short."

Such chaotic and uncertain conditions, he goes on to argue, will lead us to happily give up the sort of freedom from society and its laws which we enjoy in the state of nature: on Hobbes' view, we would rather live under an authoritarian monarch who holds all political power, for the sake of achieving a measure of social order.

In short, Hobbes' conception of human nature leads us to an either/or: either we enjoy freedom from society and its laws - resulting in chaos; or we give up this freedom for an authoritarian regime - and enjoy a social order established by force.

By contrast, if Locke is right - if human beings are naturally rational. social, and thus capable of self-rule - then we don't need an authoritarian regime to save us from ourselves.

On the contrary, as capable of self-rule, we are rather suited to establish and participate in democratic modes of government - i.e., modes of government which rest upon the consent of the governed.

3) But this argument for the legitimacy of democratic (in contrast with authoritarian) government also depends, lastly, upon a careful understanding of human freedom - and with it, the role of law in preserving human freedom.

Again, we need to understand Hobbes' view before we make sense of Locke's view.

For Hobbes, given his conception of human beings as essentially interested in fulfilling their own desires, freedom means primarily freedom from constraints.

That is, if my primary purpose in life is to fulfill my desires, then I experience anything that gets in the way of that fulfillment as a constraint or limitation. On this view, any effort to limit or channel my pursuit of self-interest - whether it be the objections and resistance of others whom I seek to use for my own purposes, or the more formal limits on behavior expressed in community habits, expectations, and laws - are simply obstacles in my quest to do precisely what I want to do.

So, in order to fulfill my desires most fully - I want to be free from as many constraints as possible.

Philosophers call this conception negative freedom. But for several reasons, this conception of freedom is seen to be incomplete, if not self-defeating.

A first objection runs like this: if I achieve perfect negative freedom - freedom from all constraints - I still have no positive motive or conception of what to do, except insofar as I am driven by desire. But is to be driven by desire to be "free" - or is it simply to become a slave to my desires? (This objection is as old as Plato and the Stoics: it is expressed in important ways in the modern period by Jean-Jacques Rousseau [1712-1788].)

Moreover, it is unclear that emphasizing negative freedom alone will in fact result in freedom from society. Consider the example of the 1960's hippie male, who wants to be free from social constraints. If society dictates that males wear short hair - to be free from society, the hippie male will wear long hair. If society dictates that smoking marijuana is forbidden, the hippie male will be free from society by smoking marijuana. The paradox of this sort of freedom is: despite the insistence on being free from social rules and constraints - society still controls the individual, insofar as the individual, using only negative freedom, can only reacting negatively to whatever society endorses.

For Locke, by contrast, our reason is crucial precisely as it is able to determine for us appropriate goals or ends - goals or ends which we then seek to achieve by establishing whatever rules or regular behaviors are necessary for the sake of accomplishing those goals.

Philosophers call this conception of freedom positive freedom - freedom that is capable of positively determining what human beings, both individually and collectively, are to do. On this view, we are free as (a) we are free to choose our own ends and goals, and thereby as (b) we are free to choose the rules or means by which we can achieve those goals. On this view, freedom is achieved or realized in part as we determine our own rules In other words, rules are not an obstacle to freedom (as they are for the Hobbesian); rather, they are an important means to freedom.

For example: a person who has chosen the goal of becoming an excellent athlete, musician, or dancer quickly learns that to achieve this goal requires considerable work and self-discipline.

Think of a ballet or jazz dancer. The goal of the dancer is to be able to express freedom and spontaneity. Paradoxically perhaps (at least for the Hobbesian who understands only negative freedom), the dancer's freedom of expression requires years of disciplined practice and study. Again, the dancer becomes ever more free to express his or her ideas, feelings, etc. - the more he or she undertakes the rules of long practice, proper diet, etc.

As another example: as drivers of automobiles, we all share the same goal: we want to be able to achieve our individual goals - getting to school or work, getting to the movie or the grocery store, etc. - safely and without damage to our vehicles. Traffic rules - which determine, for example, which side of the road drive on, when and where to stop and go, etc. - are ways (means) of ordering or regulating our behavior, so that we can achieve our shared goal of driving more safely - which then allows us to pursue our individual goals more freely.

In a democratic society, such rules ideally result from collective discussion and agreement: in this way, they are self-imposed means of achieving shared ends - just as the dancer's diet and practice are self-imposed means for achieving the goal of excellence. For the Hobbesian who believes solely in negative freedom, I can be free only if I am free from traffic rules of any sort: and imagine the results of everyone driving like Hobbesians! But for Locke and others who uphold a positive conception of freedom - I am more free to achieve my individual goals, not by opposing the rules, but through obeying the rules (presuming that the rules that are self-imposed as the result of reaching agreement in a democratic society).

It is this sense of positive freedom - meaning, the capacity of reason for self-rule as it seeks to achieves its ends - that Locke seeks to establish in Paragraphs 56 and 57 of our reading. He begins with an appeal to a conception of Adam as the first man - the archetype for human nature:

Adam was created a perfect man, his body and mind in full possession of their strength and reason, and so was capable from the first instant of his being to provide for his own support and preservation, and govern his actions according to the dictates of the law of reason which God had implanted in him.

That is, human nature, on this view, is centrally defined as the capacity to govern one's own actions by way of reason and the laws of reason - both of which, it appears, come from God.

Continuing in Paragraph 57, Locke makes the claim (for the Hobbesian believer in negative freedom, the utterly puzzling claim) that, indeed, it is only through following reason and the law of reason that we can be free:

The law that was to govern Adam, was the same that was to govern all his posterity, the law of reason. But his offspring having another way of entrance into the world, different from him, by a natural birth, that produced them ignorant, and without the use of reason, they were not presently under that law: for no body can be under a law which is not promulgated to him, and this law being promulgated or made known by reason only, he that is not come to the use of his reason cannot, be said to be under this law; and Adam's children being not presently as soon as born, under this law of reason were not presently free.

To support this claim, Locke then explains more carefully the relationship between law and his conception of (positive) freedom. He does so by first arguing against Hobbes' view of law (i.e., as an obstacle or hindrance to the negative freedom coveted by the desire-driven, self-interested individual):

For law, in its true notion, is not so much the limitation [i.e., as Hobbes would have it] as the direction of a free and intelligent agent to his proper interest, and prescribes no farther than is for the general good of those under that law.

To support this claim, in turn, Locke explains:

Could they be happier without it, the law, as a useless thing would of itself vanish, and that ill deserves the name of confinement which hedges us in only from bogs and precipices. So that, however it may be mistaken [i.e., by Hobbes and his followers], the end of law is not to abolish or restrain, but to preserve and enlarge freedom: For in all the states of created beings capable of laws, where there is no law, there is no freedom.

But this claim - that law, as what preserves and enlarges freedom, is necessary for there to be freedom - can make sense only if freedom is defined in a specific way. So Locke continues (again, arguing specifically against Hobbes' view):

For liberty is to be free from restraint and violence from others which cannot be where there is no law: But freedom is not, as we are told [by Hobbes], A liberty for every man to do what he lists: (For who could be free, when every other man's humour might domineer over him?)

That is, the "freedom" Hobbes assumes - the freedom to pursue one's own desires, free from constraints of any sort - leads, as Hobbes himself argued to "violence," to the war of each against all. But in such a condition - where everyone else is our potential master if s/he can become so through force - Locke argues, no one is "free."

Rather, freedom must be understood in a sense that goes beyond the Hobbesian emphasis on negative freedom: liberty or freedom for Locke is not the freedom to do whatever one wants,

But a liberty to dispose, and order, freely as he lists, his person, actions, possessions, and his whole property, within the allowance of those laws under which he is; and therein not to be subject to the arbitrary will of another, but freely follow his own.

After wrestling with the difficulties of resolving human freedom through the possession of reason with the realities of parental control over those human beings who are not yet fully rational (i.e., children), Locke then summarizes his position in Paragraph 63:

The freedom then of man and liberty of acting according to his own will, is grounded on his having reason, which is able to instruct him in that law he is to govern himself by, and make him know how far he is left to the freedom of his own will. To turn him loose to an unrestrained liberty, before he has reason to guide him, is not the allowing him the privilege of his nature to be free; but to thrust him out amongst brutes, and abandon him to a state as wretched, as as much beneath that of a man, as theirs.

In sum, our central human identity as rational creatures means that we are capable of self-rule through a positive conception of freedom.

We can now see that Locke's conception of human nature, as a rationality capable of self-rule and positive freedom, then provides support for democratic revolution as follows:

1) While the Hobbesian view, stressing negative freedom for the desire-driven, self-interested individual, leads rather naturally to the authoritarian state -

Locke can argue that human beings capable of self-rule need no such authoritarian regimes. On the contrary...

2) [P1] if human nature is understood as a essentially a rationality capable of positive freedom, the capacity for self-rule;

[C1] then the only legitimate governments are those governments which preserve and enhance our humanity - i.e., our rationality/positive freedom/capacity for self-rule....

meaning, in turn, that

[P2] if consent preserves and follows from our humanity/rationality/positive freedom/capacity for self-rule), then

[C2] governments and their laws are legitimate only if they rest on consent of the governed (i.e., as they preserve our essential humanity as rationalities capable of self-rule).

Notice that this last conclusion, C2, is just the initial premise we need for the revolutionary/democratic argument characteristic of the American experience. More generally, we can now see that argument as follows:

[P1] If democratic society (in contrast with authoritarian society) is one in which our (positive) freedom (to determine our own ends and our own rules as means to those ends) is preserved and enlarged through law (i.e., the rules serving as means to our individual and social ends), then

[C2] authoritarian society (e.g., the monarchy of King George III) is illegitimate (because it denies our essential humanity, and

[C3] democratic society is justified (because it preserves and enhances our humanity - our essential capacity of self-rule, of determining our own goals and rules for achieving those goals).

Locke in fact makes the requirement for consent explicit in Paragraph 64. Jefferson will follow him on this point, of course, in The Declaration of Independence, where he asserts as "self-evident" Locke's view that human beings are essentially freedoms (in Jefferson's language, they have the inalienable right to Liberty). This assertion is then followed by Jefferson's version of the above argument. For Jefferson it is further self-evident

That to secure these rights [including the right to liberty], Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,

That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it,

and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. [emphasis added-CE)


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