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Lecture 1d: Locke

February 3, 2014

At a minimum, one owns oneself and everything that derives from this self. Since our labor derives from this self, we therefore own our own labor. To deny someone ownership of his or her own labor is to make him or her a slave. (It is important to note that Locke conceives this term “property” as being close to the original Latin “proprios”, which connotes all that which is one’s own, including life, liberty, and estate.) It then follows that whatever derives from our labor also belongs to us.

It is here that the “nature” aspect of the state of nature intervenes. As Locke maintains in the Second Treatise, nature by itself, unaltered, is worthless and without value (see proposition 3.) above). Similarly, common or public property is that which is without value to any particular person. This common property only becomes valuable or worth something when we have done something to it and thereby mixed it with our labor. Locke gives the example of a man having stumbled upon an apple tree in the wilderness. Upon picking an apple and lifting it to his mouth to eat it, this person mixes his labor with the apple, and the apple becomes his apple. In other words, it passes from common to private property. Were this same person to gather more apples or to begin to tend the apple trees to be found in this area in order to sustain himself, this would also become private property. In the end, for Locke, it is our drive to self-preservation that ensures that we create private property in this way.

There arises a different question. If we are driven to create private property in this way from self-interest and preservation, what is then to stop us from making private property of another’s private property? Why not simply take it all? Locke’s response to this is twofold. On one hand, God commands that we act to the common good, and this command and our own-self interest are such that we want to see others provided for. On the other, Locke thinks that certain rules come into effect in the state of nature and are effectively binding upon all individuals therein. This comes to be known as the Lockean proviso and includes three rules of conduct for property acquisition:

1. Leave enough for others in the communal store.

2. Leave as good for others (not taking from others so as to worsen their stock).

3. Take only so much as you can use before it spoils.

Once private property has been established through the observation of these rules, a further consideration comes into effect to help secure respect for extant private property: a common political order, of whatever form that the community in question chooses for itself). Accordingly, for Locke, governments arises to protect property: property is the raison d’être of government.

f. Locke’s politico-moral legacy

Relatively unknown in his own time, Locke’s Treatises first become widely popularly with their advocacy of life, liberty and property in the 1760’s, some fifty years after his death, particularly at the time of the American Revolution and the drafting of the American Constitution. Thomas Jefferson counts him one of the three greatest men to have lived, along with Bacon and Newton.

How does the above connect with the four propositions outlined above? Locke is very keen on 3.) and 4.) as is shown by his view that the world is neutral. Remember that common property is worthless and only takes on value after a human agent has done something to confer value on it. By appealing to God’s command to prosper and flourish, Locke promotes an individualism that uses technical means on neutral objects to advance its own self-preservation.

Locke also wants to show that something like 2.) is true, i.e. that all lives have value. If we are here to flourish as God commanded, we need to make sure to use all of the means afforded to us by God (family, marriage, everyday tasks, etc.) to sustain that flourish. (Although it is important not to enjoy them too much.) It is here that Locke’s Puritanism truly emerges, for, as in Locke’s account of property, Puritanism also places emphasis on work and industry. The Puritans believed that each person had a calling that he or she had to exercise and work at diligently, each as noble as any other. This person does this for two reasons:

a. Industry promotes personal order. A diligent worker is not idle and thus avoids sin.

b. Industry promotes social order. A group of diligent workers helps form a well-functioning society.

This accounts in part for the emphasis on labor and work in Anglo-Saxon society and industry today, as well as their propensity for capitalism.

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