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Western Political Thought: John Locke

John Locke (1632-1704) is recognized as a captivating persona in the history of political philosophy whose intelligence of exposition and scale of scholarly activity had profound influence on the development of political thought. John Locke was an English philosopher and physician, generally regarded as one of the most persuasive of Enlightenment intellectuals and usually identified as the "Father of Liberalism". It can be said that liberalism as a political thought initiated with John Locke. No political thinker had influenced political theorizing on two different countries in two different continents as Locke did. He was the controlling and spiritual predecessor of the 18th century enlightenment period, particularly for philosopher like Rousseau and Voltaire. He was accredited as the originator of modern empiricism with Hume, J.S. Mill, Russel as its exponents. He is equally important to social contract theory. His work greatly impacted the development of epistemology and political thinking. His writings influenced Voltaire and Rousseau, many Scottish Enlightenment thinkers, as well as the American insurgents. His contributions to classical republicanism and liberal theory are echoed in the United States Declaration of Independence.

Locke anticipated a deep-seated conception of political philosophy construed from the principle of self-ownership and the corollary right to own property, which in turn is based on his famous assertion that a man earns ownership over a resource when he mixes his labour with it. He argued that government should be limited to securing the life and property of its citizens, and is only necessary because in an ideal, anarchic state of nature, various problems rise that would make life more uncertain than under the protection of a minimal state. Locke is also renowned for his writings on toleration in which he adopted the right to freedom of conscience and religion, and for his forceful criticism of hereditary monarchy and patriarchalism. After his death, his mature political philosophy leant support to the British Whig party and its principles, to the Age of Enlightenment, and to the development of the separation of the State and Church in the American Constitution as well as to the rise of human rights theories in the Twentieth Century.

It is well identified that Locke exercised a deep influence on political philosophy, in particular on modern liberalism. Michael Zuckert has contended that Locke launched liberalism by moderating Hobbesian absolutism and evidently separating the monarchies of Church and State. He had a strong influence on Voltaire who called him "le sage Locke". His arguments concerning liberty and the social contract later influenced the written works of Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, and other Founding Fathers of the United States. But Locke's influence may have been even more reflective in the realm of epistemology. Locke redefined subjectivity, or self, and intellectual historians such as Charles Taylor and Jerrold Seigel argue that Locke's An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690) marks the commencement of the modern Western conception of the self.

The Moral Role of Government:

Locke stated that political power is the natural power of each man cooperatively given up into the hands of a designated body. The setting up of government is much less important, Locke contemplates that this is original social-political "compact." A community surrenders some degree of its natural rights in favour of government, which is better able to protect those rights than any man could alone. Because government exists specially for the welfare of the community, any government that breaks the compact can and should be substituted. The community has a moral obligation to upheaval against or otherwise replace any government that forgets that it exists only for the people's benefit. Locke realized that it was important to thoroughly examine public institutions and be clear about what functions were legitimate and what areas of life were inappropriate for those institutions to participate in or exert influence over. He also believed that determining the proper role of government would allow humans to flourish as individuals and as societies, both materially and spiritually. Because God gave man the ability to reason, the freedom that a properly executed government provides for humans amounts to the fulfilment of the divine purpose for humanity. According to Locke, the moral order of natural law is permanent and self-perpetuating. Governments are only factors contributing to that moral order.

An Empirical Theory of Knowledge:

For Locke, all knowledge comes exclusively through experience. Locke's theory of mind is often mentioned as the basis of modern ideas of identity and the self, figuring conspicuously in the work of later philosophers such as Hume, Rousseau, and Kant. Locke was the first to define the self through a continuity of consciousness. He assumed that, at birth, the mind was a blank slate or tabula rasa. Conflicting to Cartesian philosophy based on pre-existing concepts, he sustained that people are born without innate ideas, and that knowledge is instead determined only by experience derived from sense perception. He argued that humans fill with ideas as they experience the world through the five senses. Locke described knowledge as the connection and agreement, or disagreement and repugnancy, of the ideas humans form. This description clearly indicates that our knowledge does not extend beyond the scope of human ideas. In fact, it would mean that our knowledge is even narrower than this description implies, because the connection between most simple human ideas is unknown. Because ideas are limited by experience, and we cannot possibly experience everything that exists in the world, our knowledge is further compromised. Nevertheless, Locke proclaimed that though our knowledge is necessarily limited in these ways, we can still be certain of some things. For example, we have an intuitive and immediate knowledge of our own existence, even if we are unaware of the metaphysical essence of our souls. We also have a demonstrative knowledge of God's existence, though our understanding cannot fully comprehend who or what he is. We know other things through sensation. We know that our ideas correspond to external realities because the mind cannot invent such things without experience.

State of nature:

Locke begins by developing the idea of equality of human beings in the state of nature and their natural rights to life, liberty and the state of property. Following this description of the individual, he develops notions of the community and the civil society. Locke states that Government is based on the consent of the people and that legitimate government is limited, constituted by separation of powers. To describe the origin of political power, Locke elaborated the State of Nature. Locke's description of State of Nature was not as miserable and pessimistic as Hobbes'. It is well established that the State of Nature is the stock in trade of all contract theories of the state. It is conceived as a state prior to the establishment of political society. Locke considered that man is a rational and social creature and as such capable of identifying and living in a moral order. He is not selfish, competitive and aggressive.

The Lockean state of nature, far from being a war of all is a state of 'Peace good will, mutual assistance and preservation". It signifies a pre-political rather than a pre-social condition. Men do not indulge in constant warfare in it, for peace and reason overcome in it. The state of nature is governed by a law of nature. This law "obliges every one, and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind, who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm one another in his life, health, liberty or possessions for men being all the workmanship of one almighty and infinitely wise maker. All the servants of sovereign master, sent into the world by his order, and about his business; they are his property whose workmanship they are, made to last during his, not one another's pleasure."

According to Locke's state of nature, men have equal natural rights to life, liberty and property together known as Right to Property. These rights are unchallengeable and inviolable for they are derived from the Law of Nature which is God's reason. Everyone is bound by reason not only to preserve oneself but to preserve all mankind in so far as his own preservation does not come in conflict with it. Men are free and equal and there is no commonly acknowledged superior whose orders they are obliged to obey. Everybody is the judge of his own actions. But though the natural condition is a state of liberty, it is not a state of license. Nobody has the right to destroy himself and destroy the life of any other men. Because there is no common judge to punish the violation of natural law in the state of nature, every individual is his own judge and has executive power of punishing the violators of law of nature.

William Ebenstein in his 'Great Political Thinkers' composed that the law of nature in the Lockean state of nature is lacking in three important points.

First, it is not adequately clear. If all men were guided by pure reason, they would all see the same law. But men are biased by their interests and mistake their interests for general rule of law.

Second, there is no second party judge who has no personal state in dispute.

Third, in the state of nature, the injured party is not always strong enough to execute the law.

It can be assessed that in the Lockean state of nature, there are some short comings and inconveniences. Absence of a law making body law enforcing agency and an impartial judicial organ in the state of nature where the serious short comings in the state of nature. It is concluded that the state of nature, while it is not a state of war is also not a tranquil condition, and it has to be superseded sooner or later. Conflict and uncertainties are bound to arise on account of the selfish tendencies in human nature. The state of nature is always in danger of being transformed into a state or war. Where everyone is the judge in his own case and has the sole authority to punish peace is bound to be endangered.

In spite of absence of authority, the state of nature is not a dissolute condition, as it is for Hobbes, instead a condition of war of all against all. The state of nature is a moral condition, with a natural law, that commands peace and sociability, determining that no one should harm another person in their life, liberty or possessions. This state of nature for Locke is a moral state, in which natural law dictates peace and preservation. Locke initially starts by describing the conditions under which a 'just war' may occur in the state of nature. These natural rights of the individual and his right of self-preservation and survival, become the elements of the 'just war' against the offender.

Locke suggested that state of war is a state of insecurity and distress, similar to Hobbesian teachings. Despite the justification of the conflict from reason and the individual rights, the state of war maintains its structural elements, force and violence.

A Natural Foundation of Reason:

Locke argued that God gave people the capacity for reason to support them in the search for truth. As God's creations, we know that we must preserve ourselves. To help us, God created in us a natural aversion to misery and a desire for happiness, so we avoid things that cause us pain and seek out pleasure instead. We can reason that since we are all equally God's children, God must want everyone to be happy. If one person makes another unhappy by causing him pain, that person has excluded God's will. Therefore, each person has a responsibility to preserve other people as well as himself. Recognizing the responsibility to preserve the rights of all humankind naturally leads to tolerance. This notion forms the basis for Locke's belief in the separation of church and state. If we all must come to discover the truth through reason, then no one man is naturally better able to discover truth than any other man. For this reason, political leaders do not have the right to impose beliefs on the people. Because everything we understand comes through experience and is interpreted by reason, no outside force can make us understand something in conflict with our own ideas. Locke asserted that if men were to follow the government instinctively, they would be surrendering their own reason and thus violating God's law, or natural law.

Natural rights:

The notion of Natural rights has an important subject in Lockean political philosophy. Locke stated that men in the state of nature possessed some natural rights like right to life, liberty and property. These natural rights are derived from natural law and are limited by it. The freedom of man and liberty of acting according to his will is grounded on 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". The end of law is not to abolish or to restrain but to preserve or enlarge freedom for in all the states of created beings, where there is no law there is no freedom." Locke described that Right to Property is intimately connected with right to life and liberty as its necessary consequence. Sometimes Locke concluded all natural rights in the right to property. Life and liberty are more important than property. Man creates property by mixing his labour with the objects of nature. In the beginning all, things were held in common. But common ownership is not sufficient to provide men with means of life and satisfy their needs. Man must mix his labour with resources provided by nature to enable him to make use of them in a more efficient and profitable way. Since man owns his own person his body and limbs, the object with which he mixes his labour becomes his own property by right. This is the foundation of the famous labour theory of value common to both the classical and Marxian economics. Locke does not believe that man has an unlimited right of appropriation.

Locke defined that in the state of nature, individuals are conscious of these natural rights for they are subject to reason. The state of nature is distinguished from the civil society by the absence in it of a common organ for the interpretation and execution of law of nature. Therefore in the state of nature, every individual is the interpreter and executor of law of nature. Variety in interpretation leads to chaos and confusion and resulting insecurity of life and property. Hence, it is necessary to replace the state of nature into civil society in which there would be a known law accepted by all and applied by an impartial and authoritative judge whose decision would be enforced by the state. Thus Lockean state was shaped by entering into contract by the men in the state of nature.

The Right to Private Property:

The right to private property is the foundation of Locke's political philosophy, summarising how each man relates to God and to other men. Locke explained that man originally exists in a state of nature in which he needs to answer only to the laws of nature. In this state of nature, men are free to do as they please, so long as they preserve peace and maintain mankind in general. Because, they have a right to self-preservation, it follows that they have the right to those things that will help them to survive and make them happy. God has provided us with all the materials and we need to pursue those ends, but these natural resources are useless until men apply their efforts to them.

Locke recommended that because all men own their bodies completely, any product of their physical labour also belongs to them. Consequently, when a man works on some good or material, he becomes the owner of that good or material. The man who farms the land and has produced food owns the land and the food that his labour created. The only restriction to private property is that, because God wants all his children to be happy, no man can take possession of something if he harms another in doing so. He cannot take possession of more than he can use, for example, because he would then be wasting materials that might otherwise be used by another person. Regrettably, the world is aggrieved by immoral men who violate these natural laws. By coming together in the social-political compact of a community that can create and enforce laws, men are guaranteed better protection of their property and other liberties.

Social contract:

John Locke avowed that men in the state of nature entered into a contract due to some troubles such as absence of common law making, law-enforcing and law interpreting agency capable of protecting natural rights. Therefore, the problem is to form a civil society by common consent of all men and transfer their right of punishing the violators of Natural Law to an independent and impartial authority. According to Locke, contract was an agreement of each with all, a surrender by the individual of his personal right to fulfil the commands of the laws of Nature in return for the guarantee that his rights as nature ordains them life, liberty and property should be well-maintained.

Locke in his 'Two Treatises on Government' mentioned the nature of the contract. Each individual contracts with each to unite into and constitute a community. The end for which this contract is made is the protection and preservation of property, in the broad sense of the word, that is, life, liberty and estate-against the dangers both from within and without the community" Lockean contract represents that each individual agrees to give up not all his natural rights but that one of interpreting and executing the law of nature and restoring their own grievances. But this right is given not to any person or group of persons but the community as a whole, that too on the understanding that the natural rights of the individual to life, liberty and property will be guaranteed by the community.

The Lockean contract was not general as with Hobbes but restricted and specific in character. Locke wrote in book II that "Men being as has been said by nature all free, equal and independent, no one can be put out of this estate and subjected to the political power of another without his own consent, which is done by agreeing with other men, to join and invite into a community for their comfortable safe and peaceable living, one amongst another, in a secure enjoyment of their properties, and a greater security against any that are not of it. This any number of men may do, because it enquires not the freedom of the rest they are left, as they were, in the liberty of the state of nature: when any number of men have so consented to make one community or government, they are thereby presently incorporated and make one body politic, wherein the majority have a right to act and conclude the rest". It is observed that Lockean social contract was a bond with the community as a whole resulted in the establishment of that common political superior, the state, which was supposed to apply the law of Nature. After they have set up a political or civil society, the next step is to appoint a government to announce and execute the natural law. Locke denoted this process as the supreme authority established by the commonwealth or civil society. It can be said that there are two aspects in Lockean contract- one by which the civil society is established and the other which creates the government. While the first is the product of a contract, the second is only a fiduciary power to act for certain ends and there remains still in the people a supreme power to remove or modify the legislative, when they find the legislative act contrary to the trust reposed in them. The relationship between society and the government is conveyed by the idea of trust because it avoids making the government a party to the contract and giving it an independent status and authority.

Locke further elaborated that the newly formed government has three functions - legislative, executive and federative. The legislative is the supreme power to which all other powers, particularly executive must be subordinate. The executive power is subordinate to the legislative and is responsible to it. The federative power is associated with foreign affairs. Though the legislative power is supreme, it is not subjective. It exists for common good which is the safeguarding of freedom and protection of property. Additionally, the legislative cannot rule by arbitrary decrees, but only by duly propagated and established laws.

Lockean state is pigeonholed by certain features. Prime feature is that the "state exists for the people who form it and not they are for it". Locke further claims that all true states must be founded on consent of the governed. For Locke, men were by nature free, politically equal, creatures of God subject to the laws of nature; and possessors of an executive power of the laws of nature; they became subjects of political authority only by their consent. Without agreement, there was no political community. Locke mentioned of two kinds of consent: express or direct and tacit consent. Express consent was a clear commitment given at the time when the commonwealth was founded. According to Locke, the true stat must be a constitutional state in which men recognize the rule of law. Locke considered that there can be no political liberty if a man is subject to the inconstant, uncertain, unknown, arbitrary will of another man. Government must be established with standing laws, promulgated and known to the people, and not by extemporary rulings.

Locke emphasized that all true states were established by consent. He presumed that a minority would consent in all things to rule by the majority. Locke was criticized by Filmer that legitimate power combined power with right. A good government could not be subjective, it was bound by the general laws which were public and not subject to individual decrees. All individuals would be governed by the same rules as everyone else, otherwise it would isolate the natural moral equality of individuals. He made clear that people could use force only against unjust and unlawful authority. The right of obedience could be exercised by the majority, and not by one person or a small group. Lockean state is limited. It is limited because it derives power from the people and because it holds power in trust for the people. It is limited by Natural Law in general and by one most important Natural Law in particular.

Theories of religious tolerance:

Locke developed a classic reasoning for religious tolerance in his writing, his Letters Concerning Toleration (1689-92) in the repercussion of the European wars of religion. There were three main arguments:

  1. Earthly judges, the state in particular, and human beings generally, cannot dependably evaluate the truth-claims of competing religious standpoints
  2. Even if they could, enforcing a single "true religion" would not have the desired effect, because belief cannot be compelled by violence
  3. Forcing religious uniformity would lead to more social disorder than allowing diversity.

With reference to his position on religious tolerance, Locke was inclined by Baptist theologians like John Smyth and Thomas Helwys, who had published tracts demanding freedom of conscience in the early 17th century. Baptist theologian Roger Williams founded the colony Rhode Island in 1636, where he combined a democratic constitution with unlimited religious freedom. His tract The Bloody Tenent of Persecution for Cause of Conscience (1644), which was extensively read in the mother country, was a fervent plea for absolute religious freedom and the total separation of church and state. Freedom of conscience had high priority on the theological, philosophical and political agenda, since Martin Luther rejected to recant his beliefs before the Diet of the Holy Roman Empire at Worms in 1521, unless he would be proved false by the Bible.

When assessing Locke's philosophy, it is established that Locke's political theory was created on social contract theory. Dissimilar to Thomas Hobbes, Locke supposed that human nature is characterised by reason and tolerance. Like Hobbes, Locke believed that human nature allowed people to be selfish. In a natural state, all people were equal and independent, and everyone had a natural right to defend his "Life, health, Liberty, or Possessions". Most academics trace the phrase "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," in the American Declaration of Independence, to Locke's theory of rights, though other origins have been advocated.

In the line of Hobbes, Locke presumed that the sole right to defend in the state of nature was not enough, so people established a civil society to resolve conflicts in a civil way with help from government in a state of society. Locke also supported governmental separation of powers and believed that revolution is not only a right but an obligation in some circumstances. These ideas would have thoughtful influence on the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States.

To summarize, Locke has distinct position in developing political philosophy. He wrote his two Treatises on Government against the background of natural law, natural rights, and the contract theory. These outstanding works were published in 1690 to validate the Superb Revolution of 1688 which ousted the Roman Catholic James II and put on the throne Protestant William III and Mary. The states of nature, war and property, are fundamental principles of lockean theory over the political power and legitimate civil government. The people consent to leave the state of nature, which is full of inconveniences and they enter the civil state. Within society, they establish a government according to the will of the majority, from whom the powers derive. The highest position of the legislative power sets the limits within which the individuals must act as part of one body. According to Locke, the principle of 'just war' originates from the human nature and the law of nature. When there is an absolute and arbitrary power that impends the properties of the people, the people have a right to resist, entering a condition that is similar to the state of nature; a state of anxiety, fear and inconveniences. After the rebellion of this arbitrary state, people have the right to re-establish a new government and a new legislative power, creating new rules and forging a new 'contract' to govern their lives. The new 'contract' will have the consent of the society and will fulfil the basic purposes of the civil association and the respect and protection of the property of each individual member of society.