In his Second Treatise of Government, Locke follows Hobbes in approaching political philosophy through state-of-nature theory. According to both Hobbes and Locke, a group of individuals are in a state of nature (relative to one another) if they are not subject to a common governmental authority. Being in a state of nature is our original, baseline condition because no one is born subject to political authority. Our birth—or, to put matters more precisely, our entrance into adulthood—does not brand us with an obligation to obey those who aspire to rule over us. Nor does their birth—or their entrance into adulthood—bestow on them the right to rule us. Although we are not literally born as “free and independent” beings, we are born to freedom and independence in the sense that we each attain this status when we reach adulthood.
In our original natural condition, we are equally and perfectly free. There is no natural hierarchy of ruler and subjects. This view was dramatically expressed by Richard Rumbold before his execution on June 26, 1685 for his participation in the Rye House plot: “No man is born marked by God above another, for none comes into the world with a saddle on his back, neither any booted and spurred to ride him”. Since there is no natural political authority, it seems that, if some party has a right to rule while others have correlative obligations to obey, that right and those obligations must have been created by the individuals in the course of exiting from the state of nature. State-of-nature theory investigates whether people have good reason to exit the state of nature by creating and placing themselves under the sway of governmental power.
The main goal of this chapter is to spell out Locke’s understanding of freedom and highlight how it differs from the view that freedom is a matter of doing whatever one wants to do. Locke, as a classical liberal, holds that everyone has a right to freedom—but not a right to do whatever one wants to do.
Hobbes and Locke seem to agree that all individuals (who have reached the age of reason) are naturally equal and free. However, for Hobbes, this natural equal freedom is a matter of no one being naturally subject to any other person or to any constraining principles of law or justice. For Hobbes, to be free is to be able to do whatever one desires to do. Any constraint on how one may act constitutes a denial of freedom. In contrast, Locke holds that our natural equality and freedom is a matter of each of us having a natural right against being subordinated to the will of others. Our freedom consists in others not subordinating us to their will. The freedom of others is not compromised when they are required not to subordinate us to their will—even if they desire to engage in such subordination. The freedom of others is compromised only if they are subordinated to our will. A corollary of each person’s right to freedom is each other person’s obligation not to infringe upon that freedom.
In this chapter, I present Locke’s arguments for each person possessing a natural right to freedom. Locke’s view is that each person’s right to freedom takes the form of each person’s rights over his or her own person and his or her possessions. The right to freedom and the right not to be deprived of discretionary control over one’s person and possessions are two sides of the same coin. In addition, Locke equates infringements on one’s freedom with being subordinated to the will of others. Thus, Locke’s arguments for respect for individual freedom sometime focus on the reasons we each have to demand freedom for ourselves and to acknowledge others’ like demand for freedom; sometime focus on the claim that each of us has against being harmed “in his life, health, liberty, or possessions”; and sometime focus on the reasons that it is unjustified for any individual to be subordinated to the will of another.
Locke tells us that the right to freedom includes the right to do as one sees fit with one’s possessions. Yet he cannot mean the right to do as one sees fit with whatever one actually possesses for he does not think that one has rights to do as one sees fit with objects one has acquired illicitly, that is, through theft or fraud. Such a right would conflict with the rights of the victims of theft and fraud to do as they see fit with their possessions. So, Locke needs a theory of property rights that explains why certain methods of acquisition engender rights to the acquired objects and why other methods of acquisition do not engender such property rights.
In his First Treatise, Locke argues that, since “Man should live and abide for some time upon the face of the Earth”, he must have a right “to make use of those things, that were necessary or useful to his Being”. If human beings are to have a chance of achieving commodious preservation, they must have the opportunity to use and, indeed, exercise discretionary control over objects that are external to their own persons, for instance, acorns, plows, and fields cleared for cultivation.
Recall that, besides rights to life, liberty, and estate, each individual possesses by nature rights to engage in self-defence, to extract restitution for rights-violating losses, and to punish rights violators. If Abe attempts to enslave Bea on the isolated island that they inhabit, Bea may use force (or deception) to thwart Abe. If Abe manages to enslave her, Bea has the right not only to escape but also to extract reparations from Abe and to punish Abe for his violation of her right to liberty. Locke refers to these rights to protect and enforce the rights of life, liberty, and estate as “the executive power of the law of nature”.
Locke holds that in the state of nature—especially prior to the introduction of money—most people will be inclined to comply with others’ rights to life, liberty, and estate, at least when they expect reciprocal compliance by others. However, this is not true of all people. People who do not consult reason, which teaches us that we are each equal and independent beings who are not to be subordinated to others, may well not abide by core laws of nature. Others may consult reason and, thus, be aware that each person is “absolute lord of his own person and possessions” and yet still tend to behave “as beasts of prey”. Some people may desire “the benefit of another’s pain” and, hence, attempt to seize the labour of others or the products of their labour or the goods these others have acquired through voluntary exchange.
In this chapter, I address Locke’s view about why individuals are obligated to abide by the legislation that is enacted by government as long as those enactments accord with the purpose that Locke sets forth for governments, viz., to better articulate and enforce their rights of life, liberty, and property.
One of the four or five major themes most commonly associated with Locke’s political doctrine is the claim that each individual’s obligation to obey the legislation of the government under which he lives rests on that individual’s consent. A government’s authority to impose its statutes on its subjects must derive from the consent of the governed. Locke tells us that “[m]en being … by nature, all free, equal, and independent, no one can be put out of this estate, and subject to the political power of another, without his own consent”. Similarly, since every person is naturally free, nothing can “put him into subjection to any earthly power but only his own consent”. Locke is especially eager to maintain that sons cannot be bound by the consent of their fathers: “a child is born a subject of no country or government … there is no tie upon him by his father’s being a subject of this kingdom; nor is he bound up by any compact of his ancestors”.
Locke’s A Letter Concerning Toleration (1689) is his second best-known work in political philosophy and is one of the great essays on behalf of religious toleration. Locke defends toleration for all Protestant sects and, much more radically, for Jews and Muslims. However, Locke did not advocate full toleration for Catholics and atheists. This was not because of Catholic or atheist doctrine as such but, rather, because Catholics and atheists were politically suspect. According to Locke, Catholics were suspect because of their political loyalty to the Pope and often to the tyrannical Catholic monarchies in Spain or France. Atheists were politically suspect because they could not take themselves to be bound by their oaths to God.
This final chapter will describe Locke’s bold doctrine of justified forceful resistance against state agents—monarchs, legislators, or their henchmen—that encroach upon the rights of individuals and of political society. Recall that Two Treatises of Government was largely composed in the early 1680s. When it was published in 1689, it was seen—and served—as a justification after the fact for the Glorious Revolution of 1688, which deposed James II, the successor to Charles II. However, it was initially composed in support of attempts by Locke’s patron, Lord Shaftesbury, to check the power of Charles II.
As was mentioned in the Introduction, a deep premise of Locke’s doctrine of justified resistance is that state agents, including heads of state, are subject to the same fundamental moral constraints as ordinary persons. If a certain type of action by a private individual violates the rights of another individual, an action of the same type performed by a state agent will also violate that individual’s rights. If it is a violation of Abe’s rights for Bea to lock him up in her backyard shed for entering into economic competition with her or her friends, it is also a violation of Abe’s rights for the monarch or the legislators to lock Abe up in the Tower of London for entering into economic competition with the monarch or the legislators or their cronies. If it is criminal for Bea to burn Abe at the stake in her backyard for rejecting the doctrines of Bea’s church, it is equally criminal for the monarch to burn Abe at the stake in the town square for rejecting the doctrines of the monarch’s church.
Listed below are links to other websites and resources where you can learn more about John Locke, his written works, his lectures, and interviews.
Locke’s Life and Major Works
A Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry which brings together a biography of John Locke’s life, including sections on his major works, including The Two Treatises of Government and his books on the limits of human understanding.
This website contains a biography of Locke’s life broken into three portions, and copies of his major works including An Essay Concerning Human Understanding and the Two Treatises of Government.
Biography and Political Philosophy
A biographical account of John Locke’s life and the evolution of his political philosophy as evidenced by his published works.
Brief Biographical Account of Locke’s Life
This History article briefly summarizes the life of John Locke and the effects of his works and ideas.
Video: School of Life on Locke
A short informational video covering Locke’s life and the evolution of his thought.
Video: Lecture on Locke’s Political Philosophy
After giving an overview of Thomas Hobbes, Professor Charles Anderson goes on to discuss the thought of John Locke. This is from a course on Political, Economic and Social Thought given at the University of Wisconsin.
Collection of John Locke’s Works
Put together by the Liberty Fund’s Online Library of Liberty, this website compiles links to many of Locke’s major works, all downloadable in PDF format.
John Locke Foundation
A short biography and extensive annotated list of Locke’s works and pieces written about his philosophy.
Locke’s Political Philosophy
A Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on the major concepts in Locke’s political philosophy, such as natural law and natural right, property, consent, political obligation, and the ends of government among several other major concepts.
Introduction to Locke’s Ideas
An introduction to Locke’s major philosophical ideas published by Great Thinkers.
Audio: History of Political Philosophy
This lecture by David Gordon, senior fellow at the Mises Institute, is a part of his History of Political Philosophy lecture series. It explains why Locke is often referred to as the “father of classical liberalism.”
Natural Rights to Life, Liberty, and Property
A biographical piece on John Locke, stressing his links to the American Constitution and the rise of liberal democracy. This work was published by the Foundation for Ecnomic Education and was written by Jim Powell, a CATO Institute senior fellow and expert in the history of liberty.
Locke on Freedom
A Standord Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on Locke’s theory of human freedom contained within his Essay Concerning Human Understanding.
John Locke and the Natural Law Tradition
Written by Steven Forde, a professor at the University of North Texas, this essay traces the effects of Locke’s philosophies of natural law and natural right to the Western political systems of today.
Libertarianism.org John Locke Series
This series, written by George H. Smith, covers many of Locke’s most influential ideas from a libertarian lens, including private property, labour, and money. Use the green bar above the title of the article to navigate through this series.
Locke on Limited Government
This blog shares links to five of its postings which use chapters of the Second Treatise of Government to lay out Locke’s argument for limited government. The blog is written by Miles Kimball, who holds the Eaton Chair in Economics at the University of Colorado Boulder and is Emeritus Professor of Economics and Survey Research of the University of Michigan.
IR Theory and Locke
This article, written by Michael Lind, applies Locke’s political philosophy to contemporary debates in IR theory, concluding that Locke’s ideas more closely align to classical realism than to liberalism.
Made possible by generous grants from the Lotte and John Hecht Memorial Foundation, the John Templeton Foundation, and the Peter and Joanne Brown Foundation.