John Locke


John Locke was an eminent English philosopher who founded the school of empiricism and defended the idea of social contract. Locke was born in the village of Wrington, Somerset on August 29, 1632. He was educated at the University of Oxford and lectured on Greek, rhetoric and moral philosophy at Oxford from 1661 to 1664. In 1667 he began his association with the English statesman Anthony Ashley Cooper, 1st Earl of Shaftsbury, to whom Locke was a friend, adviser and doctor. Shaftsbury secured for Locke a series of minor government appointments. In 1669 in one of his official capacities, Locke wrote a constitution for the proprietors of the Carolina Colony in North America but it was never put into effect. In 1675, after the liberal Shaftsbury had fallen from favour, Locke moved to France. He returned to England in 1679 but in view of his opposition to the succession of the king’s Catholic brother to the throne, he soon found it expedient to return to the continent. From 1683 to 1688 he lived in Holland and following the so called Glorious Revolution of 1688 and the accession of a protestant monarch, Locke returned once more to England. The new king, William III appointed Locke retuned once more to England. The new king, William III appointed Locke to the board of Trade in 1696 a position from which he resigned because of ill health in 1700. He died in Oates on October 28, 1704.

His works:

Locke wrote two treatises on government. The first was calculated to be an answer to the Patriarcha of the absolutist Filmer which had created a storm of indignation among Whig minds as evidenced by the fact that Algernon Sydney too, in his ciscourses Concerning Government noticed and refuted the Patriarcha by maintaining that government was a human institution having no divine or natural sanction; that its basis was popular consent and that sovereignty belonged to the people. Locke’s refutation of the Partiarcha too was more or less on the lines of Sydney. The second treatise of Locke entitled Of Civil Government, presents a systematic theory of the origin and nature of state and sovereignty. The political philosophy of Locke represents an elaboration of that of Judicious ‘’ Hooker whom Locke acknowledges to have read. Locke also took up the social contract theory of Hobbes but used it to draw conclusions diametrically opposed to those of Hobbes. The view of state of nature of Locke resembles that of Pufendorf.

John Locke on Human Nature:

John locke’s views on man and human nature have been expressed in his “An Essay Concerning Human Understanding” which was published in 1690 i.e. after the occurance of Glorious Revolution of 1668. Locke therefore, takes the bright picture of man and human nature. He says that all human actions spring from the desires of men which are produced by their sensation. Desire to John Locke is the feeling of uneasiness which is identified with pain. Every human being wants to get rid of the pains. Hence the object of all human actions is to substitute pleasure for pain. He also says that man has been endowed with the power of his reason which Locke terms as "the spark of divine nature". It inclines men towards society without the sanctions of anygovernment. Rationality is thus the characteristic quality of man.      ­

Locke's man in the State of Nature is social as well as rational. He is capable of recognizing a moral order and he also knows how to live in such an order. It follows that the life in the State of Nature was not pre-social but pre-political. In this pre-political life of the state of Nature man was basically good who felt sympathy, love and tenderness towards his fellow beings, To Locke, man is also descent, orderly and lover of civil society. He also feels bound to his fellow beings by ties of social cohesion. Men are, therefore, capable of ruling themselves. All this shows that Locke believes in the inherent goodness of human nature and his rationality.

It is to be observed that John Locke's views of the human nature are nothing like so profound and certainly not like as consistent as those of Hobbes. His views are simply a justification of the Glorious Revolution of 1688 which Hobbes would have regarded as anarchic and deplorable in the extreme. Locke also over-emphasized human rationalism, and artificial nature of human beings. Man has been endowed with good as well as bad qualities. Locke takes the right side of human nature but he neglects that man is also selfish by nature. His selfish nature may incline him towards badness. Actually is the environment that makes a man good or pad but Locke ignores this important point.

Locke on the State of Nature:

According to John Locke, the original state of nature was one of peace, good will, mutual assistance and preservation, There was no jungle war of every man against every other man. Life in the State of Nature was not pre-social. It was pre-political. Locke cannot conceive of human beings living together without some sort of law and order and in the state of nature it was the law of nature. He defines this law as a body of rules determined by reason for the guidance of men in their natural condition. This law was capable of being understood by the rational man of the state of nature.

Under the law of nature, men in the state of nature were and possessed equal natural rights. They included the right to, liberty and property. Locke says that the law of nature taught men not to harm one another .in his life, the liberty he, enjoyed and the property he possessed. And most men are reasonable enough to understand that observance .of the natural law is necessary in their own interest. .

Of the natural rights mentioned by Locke, the most important one was that of private property. Locke says that in the state of nature, property was common in the sense that every one had a right to draw subsistence from whatever nature has to offer. But when a man mixes his labour, it becomes his private property. Thus the right to property is man's right to any thing with which he has mixed his labour provided that he makes good use of it because "nothing was made by God for man to spoil or destroy".

Locke's law of nature in the state of nature not only accorded man 'the rights but it also imposed duties upon him. It commands man to do what he can to preserve others provided his own preservation does not come in conflict or competition. In other words, man's right to liberty in the state of nature was his right to do whatever he wanted provided it was not in conflict with the law of nature', The law of nature also puts a demand on man' that he should keep his promises because Truth and Faith belong to man as man and not as member of a society. Thus the state of nature in which men have rights and obligations, is moral and social in character.

The defect of the state of nature lies merely in the fact that it has no organization, such as magistracy, written laws, and fixed penalties, to give, effect to the of right. Everything that is ever right or wrong is so sternly. Moreover, there was no government and the only law was the law of nature which an individual interpreted and enforced for himself to protect his life, liberty and property. Though men in the state of the nature were equal yet they were not equal in intellect. This difference in intellect gave birth to different interpretation of law of nature and the shortcomings of the state of nature became visible.

Inconveniences in the State of Nature:

Locke says the state of nature was government by the law of nature. But difference in the intellect of the people gave birth to different interpretation of the law of nature which resulted in confusion and insecurity. The inconveniences that emerged in the state of nature were the following:

  1. There was no "established, settled, known law" in the state of nature men are not equal in intellect so naturally understanding of the law of nature is not the same. Even if it is presumed that they are equal in capacity to understand the law of nature they will be influenced by self-interest. So it was earnestly felt that there should be known laws having clear-cut rules to be applied to cases. If there are no laws in a field, they should be enacted.

  2. The state of nature lacked proper organization which could settle disputes among the individuals. It lacked a known and indifferent judge to settle disputes which arise under the law of nature. Since each person was a judge, each was likely to see too much merit in his own case and had too little concern with justice for others. There was no fixed criteria for the administration of justice and it was insistently felt that for the administration of justice there must be some organization.

  3. In the state of nature there was no executive power to enforce judgments. This authority too was vested in each man in the state of nature. Various persons were not equal in their ability to enforce the law of the nature. Lack of common executive authority brought the confusion and insecurity in the state of nature.

All the above inconveniences compelled men of the state of nature to devise ways and means for ending the state of affair. So the best way was to enter into a contract among themselves.

Locke on Natural Rights:

The natural rights of man to Locke are to life, liberty and property. Liberty means an exemption from all rules save the law of nature which is a means to the realization of a man's freedom. Property comes when an individual changes the pri­mitive community of ownership into individual possession by mingling his labour with some object. In the state of nature individuals are conscious of and respect these natural rights for they are subject to reason which "teaches all mankind who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty or possession­. The state of nature is to be distinguished from the civil state by the absence in it of a ‘common organ for the interpretation and execution of the law of nature'. Hence in the state of nature every individual is the interpreter and executor of the law of nature. Variety in the interpretation due to difference in standards of intelligence and in execution of the law of nature leads to chaos and confusion and consequent in­security of life and property. Hence it is necessary to replace the state of nature by civil society, in which there would be known law accepted by all and applied by an impartial and authoritative judge whose decisions would be enforced by the state. Locke talks of rights as natural and inherent in the individual. If rights are 'natural', they should be eternal and non-varying but rights vary. The fact is that rights are a gift of society and can effectuate only through the medium of civil society. Rights are born of human reason and human needs. They are 'social' rights. The primitive man had no conception of 'natural' rights. Locke's insistence on rights being natural to man has, however, led to the conception of a system of funda­mental rights of the individual which calls for a limited gov­ernment as a servant and trustee of the individuals.

Locke on Property:

Locke says that under the law of nature all men were equal and possessed equal natural rights. They were the rights to life, liberty and property.

Locke says that in the state of nature, property was held in common. But commonly held property must become private property before it can be used. This change comes when an individual applies his labour to the goods which nature provides and they become a part or himself. They become private as a result of his labour. By mixing his labour with something, an individual removes that thing from the common right of other. This is Locke’s labour theory of the origin of private property which he expands into labour theory of value. According to Locke, it is the labour that determines the value of goods. The greater the amount of labour expended on raw materials, the more valuable they are. Private property is thus a natural right. It is inherent in the individual because his labour is inherent in him. But it is not an unlimited one. No person has right, even by the application of his labour to more of the common store of goods than he and his family can use “before spoils”. Anything beyond this belongs to other. 

The right to property is a right which each individual brings to society in his own person just as he brings the physical energy of the body. Hence society does not create the right and except within limits cannot justly regulate it, for both society and government exist, in part at least, to protest prior right of private property. Political power established by consent is used for regulating and preserving property. In his own words, “The great and chief end of men uniting into a commonwealth and putting themselves under government is the preservation of their property. Government safeguards property that a legitimately accumulated; it may also to prevent its being used against the public interest. He says that “the supreme power cannot take from any man and of his property without his own will.”

It is to be noted that the effects of Lockean theory labour value were two-fold. It advanced the cause of capitalism by justifying free enterprise and the profit system. It was used by Adam Smith and David Recardo. Karl Marx used it in support of modern socialism. He elaborated it to produce the theory of surplus value which he employed to attack the foundation of capitalism.

Locke regards the right to property as natural. It is prior to state and society. But the fact is that all rights including the right to property are a gift of society and can actuate only through the medium of society. Man is integral of society and cannot have any inviolable rights against society. The right to property must be related to the performance of a man’s duty to the state. His ideas regarding property are not applicable in the complex industrial society of today.

John Locke's Social Contract:

John Locks says that people, in order to get rid of the state of nature, make a contract to enter into a civil society. This is a contract of all with all. This is social or more truly a political contract because it establishes a civil society. It is not a Contract with the government to be set up. The individuals by means of this contract form a body politic, giving up their personal right to interpret and administer the law of nature in return for a guarantee that their natural rights to life, liberty and property would be preserved and protected. In the words of Locke:

"Each individual contracts with each to unite into and constitute a community. The, end for which the agreement is made is the protection and preservation of property, in the broad sense of the word, that is, of life, liberty, and estate, against the dangers both from within and without the community. "

It is to be noted that the contract is no more than the surrender of certain rights and powers whereby man's remaining rights will be protected and preserved. It is thus not general as with Hobbes but specific and limited. Moreover, the power given up was not vested in a single man or organ but in the community as a whole. Hobbes contract puts an end to the state of nature but Locke's contract does not do so. Man in the State continues to be under that law as he was before. In the words of locks, "the obligation of the law of nature ceases not in society.”

Locke's contract is the first step towards the drawing up of a trust. People having formed a society must then institute a government. The government is the trustee of the people and it functions for them and is responsible to them. The trustee, (government) has no rights equal to those of the people. It has obligations to those who create it and for whom it acts as agent. The authority surrendered to it was conditional and a trust of the people. This trust is dependent upon the people. It was responsible to secure the rights of life, liberty and property. In case it failed to secure these rights, people had the right to revolt and overthrow it because the institution of government has not removed the supreme power from the people. In the words of Locke, "The supreme power (inspite of the institution of the government) remains still in the people."

Since there is no "established, settled, known laws, there must be a law making body. Locke believes in the representative assembly of man and gives supreme power to it. Executive is subject to legislature but the latter is not all in all. There are certain limitations on its powers:-

  • It cannot exercise powers arbitrarily.
  • Its powers must be directed towards the general welfare of the society.
  • It cannot deprive a man of his property without his consent.
  • It cannot delegate law-making power to another because this power is vested in the people. Only they can do so.

Lockean state that comes into existence as a result of the social contract as certain characteristics outlined below:

  • The state exists for the people who establish it, but they do not exist for it.
  • The state is founded on the consent of the people.
  • It is a constitutional state in which men acknowledge the rule, of law.
  • The state is not absolute but limited because it derives power from the people and holds it in trust for the people.
  • It is a tolerant. State which as far as can be, will respect differences of opinion.

Criticism of Lock's Social Contract:

Locke’s theory has been subjected to severe criticism.

  • Locke's state of nature was not only a state of freedom and innocence but it was also an age when individuals consciously obeyed the law of nature which enjoined justice. If a moral tone of the state of nature were as height as he said, then inspite of the inconveniences there is little need for civil institutions and political organization.

  • Locke stands for the right of property which according to him is the basis of the right of life and liberty. He thinks property to be something anterior to the civil society and quite illogical. Property, life, liberty etc. are the provisions of civil society and not its causes.

  • Locke's state is neither absolute nor sovereign. It is a corporate body, a more aggregate of individuals who agree to act together for certain specific and limited ends that reserve their primitive freedom and rights to themselves. His state is, therefore, no more than a limited liability company. Individual is sovereign in this state and is to be preferred than all other considerations.

Popular Sovereignty and Individualism:

The Lockean conception of the social contract inevitably points to the theory of the sovereignty of the people, limited by the prior rights of the individual. Locke was a thorough going individualist and he placed his individual before his state. Locke bases his whole theory of state on consent. The consent for membership of the political community by an individual may be express or tacit. For one whose consent is expressly given the contract is binding and perpetual unless the political community itself is dissolved. A person remaining in a community and holding property therein gives his tacit consent. The consent of the new generations may be given expressly or tacitly by accepting the protection of the state. The individual has the right of revolution. To Locke, the origin of civil society is a “historical as well as a logical fact”. Locke was one of the nearest in his assumption of social contract as a historical fact. In his time, the tribes of North America were more or less, living in a state of nature.

Locke’s contract implies the rule of majority. The law of nature cannot be enforced unless the minority submits to the authority of the majority. Such a submission is implied in the social contract. Common consent does not mean unanimous consent. The majority have the right to act for the whole community. “for that which acts (actuates) any community, being only the consent of the individuals of it and it being one body must move one way, it is necessary the body should move that way wither the greater force carries it which is the consent of the majority.” Locke believes that consent to form a political society implies acceptance by everyone of the rule of majority because unanimity of will and opinion is rare and individual wills or minority wills cannot reassert themselves without reversion to the state of nature.

Limitations on Government:

Locke does not build up a conception of legal sovereignty. He abolishes the legal sovereign in favour of popular sovereignty. He has no idea of absolute and indivisible sovereignty. He is for a government based on division of powers and subject to a number of limitations. His limited government cannot command anything against public interests. It cannot violate or abrogate the innate natural rights of the individual. It cannot govern arbitrarily but must do so according to laws. It cannot tax the subjects without their consent. Its laws must conform to the laws of nature and of God. It is not the government which is sovereign but law which is rooted in common consent. A government which violates its limitations is not worthy of obedience. The state is created for ‘certain conveniences’ and it must justify itself by creating those conveniences. Locke like Hobbes is a utilitarian. He thinks that utility demands that the state should conform to a moral order by acting within its limits and not functioning autocratically.

Government and Separation of Powers:

The chief motive of the individuals in entering into a political community being to put an end to the uncertainty regarding the interpretation and administration fo the law of nature the chief duty of the political community i.e. the state created by the social contract is to pass definite laws regulating rights and duties emanating from the law of nature. Hence the legislative function is the most important of the functions of the state. The location of the legislative power in a state would therefore, determine the type of its government. A government is changed with a change in legislature which is changed if the monarch replaces laws with his own arbitrary will or hinders the legislature from meeting in due time or from acting freely or arbitrarily changes the electoral system or delivers the people into subjection to a foreign power. Locke followed the time-honoured Aristotelian classification of government into monarchy, aristocracy or democracy, according as the legislative power was in the hands of one, few or many. Locke also believed in the possibility of a mixed government on the basis of the location of the legislative power. To him, the executive and judicial functions were subordinate to and dependent upon the legislative. The function of the executive is to enforce ‘by penalties the prescriptions embodied in the laws’. Locke refers to another function of the government which he calls federative. This function means maintaining the interest of the community or citizens against other communities or citizens and includes war, peace, external affairs and other external matters. Unlike Hobbes Locke does not believe in the permanency of the character of government. To him, monarchy and aristocracy mean sectional governments while a democracy represented by delegates chosen by popular election, is best because it promises enduring good rule. Locke, however, is not hostile to a monarchy which is based on popular consent and is divested of the Divine Right of Kings.

 Locke pleads for but does not fully develop his doctrine of separation of powers. He suggests the principle of separation. The legislature and the executive must be separated in their functions, powers and personnel, for otherwise the legislators “may exempt themselves from obedience to the laws they make and suit the law both in its making and its execution to their own private wish and thereby come to have a distinct interest from the rest of the community, contrary to the end of society and government”. But inspite of separation of powers, Locke gives to the executive the power of issuing ordinances when the legislature is not in session.

Limitations on Legislature:

According to Lock, the legislature is the supreme organ of government but is itself subject to a number of limitations. It cannot be arbitrary over the ‘Lives and Fortunes of the people’. Its powers are limited to public good. Its laws must conform to the laws of nature. It can exercise authority not by extemporary decrees but by ‘promulgated standing laws and known authorized judges’. It cannot take from any man any part of his property without consent.

The Right of Revolution:

The power delegated to the government in the scheme of Locke is a sort of trust for the purpose of achieving certain objective ends. The supreme and ultimate power rests with the people. The government was responsible to secure the rights of the individuals and work for their welfare. If the government belies its trust or over act its powers, resistance to it is the natural right of the people. People have the right to determine if the government is justifying itself and have the right to remove an inefficient or oppressive government. A ruler who acts arbitrarily puts himself in a state of war with the people and the latter have the right to resist him.

Locke holds that when injustice becomes obvious, the people have the right to resist the government. According to Locke, there was need of rebellion whenever the government endeavoured to invade the property of the subject and to make itself the "arbitrary disposes of the lives, liberties or fortunes of the people. The people, however, have no right to revolt against the government which has not violated its trust. The question is who is to determine whether trust has been violated? And the answer that Locke gives is that the people.

Locke does not specifically state that force is permitted but it seems to be so strongly implied in his theory and is so logically a part of his construction that not to infer it would constitute an error. The right of revolution and the use of force was qualified in only two ways; Force was not to be used except in the most serious cases and only majority could act to overthrow the government.

John Locke says that the people should be cautions in exercising their right of revolution. Even when a government is established by force, an attempt to unseat it should await a determination of how well it is performing its functions. The point is, however, that force is never properly its own justification. He further says that the overthrow of a government does not destroy the society. An organization still remains which may immediately set about the business of creating a new agent which will be more assiduous in doing its bidding.

It is said that Locke formulated, not a theory of government but a theory of revolution. Certainly he is a philosopher of revolution because he "omits to provide any machinery short of revolution" for the legitimate expression of popular opinion and popular discontent but he is the most conservative of the revolutionists.

State and Church:

Locke is not an erastian like Hobbes. In his letter on Toleration he discussed the relations between the state and the church. He is for religious toleration for all except the Roman Catholic because of their foreign allegiance, the Mohammedans due to their peculiar standard of morality, and the Atheists. The state and the church must be distinct. The church must not interfere in state affairs, thereby giving a theocratic colouring to the government. On the other hand, the state should not bother about the religious belief of the individuals. The state should not suppress opinions except when they are dangerous to its safety or tranquility. The opinions may relate to God, moral life and practical life. The state has not concern with the first and only a partial one with the second.

Lock’s Contributions to Thought:

Though some writers believe that Locke was a political pamphleteer whose object was to uphold Whig’s principles and rationalize the glorious revolution of 1688. yet this view does not seem to be cogent. He was essentially a philosopher whose doctrines were useful not only in his own time but are current coin in politics even to-day. It was mainly because of his deep philosophical insight that Locke profoundly influenced the 18th and 19th century thought. Locke's contributions to political thought and his impact on later thought can be outlined below: ­

  • Locke deserves to be ranked as one of the first utilitarian. It is obvious from his contention that "happiness and misery are the two great springs of human action." To him, morality is but pleasure and pleasure is only "conformity to universal law". It was this contention of John Locke which was later on elaborated and developed by Bentham in his theory.

  • Another important contribution of Locke to political philosophy is his definition of Natural Rights. The right to life, liberty, and property were converted by Locke into inalienable concrete rights of every individual. The concept of rights has presented the modern notion of Fundamental Rights which has been incorporated in almost all the constitutions of civilized world. Locke's assertion that men are endowed by pure with certain rights which are not within the purview of environmental authority is incorporated in the 5th and 14th amendments clauses of the American constitution which forbid the national and state governments to deprive any person his "life, liberty and property without due process of law".

  • Another great contribution of Locke to political right and action is his theory of government by consent. The incident of the American Declaration of Independence 1776 and the American Constitution 1789 drew largely upon Locke's theory. The notion of "government by consent" has tremendous effect on later thought. This and other principles of Locke majority rule, legislative supremacy, the rights of the people to resist unjust government, political equality and government as the agent of the people etc. have found lodgment in the American and other free systems of government of the civilized world. It is mainly because of this that some writers call him the philosopher of American Revolution.

  • Hobbes and later on others had developed the legal theory of sovereignty but they had forgotten that behind the legal sovereign stood the people whose will cannot be over ridden by the legal sovereign. John Locke is the first who takes into consideration the power of the people.

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