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Saturday, January 26, 2013

LOCKE: Of Civil Government (War and Property)

In order to give a satisfactory explanation Of Civil Government Locke has to tackle some pretty big topics such as property, war, and law.  His theory of government is fairly clear and straightforward.  He says the reason men come together to form governments is for the mutual preservation of their lives, liberties and estates.  Virtually no one would disagree that men want to protect their lives and the lives of their families.  Few would disagree that they want to preserve their freedoms too.  But “estates” sounds rather like a bunch of wealthy people getting together so they can keep their fancy homes and cars and yachts.  This is not what Locke means by “estate.”  Personal possessions may be a better phrase to use.  Locke himself labels personal possessions by the general name “property.”  This is an important distinction.  Because when Locke goes on to discuss “property” he says though the earth and all inferior creatures be common to all men, yet every man has a "property" in his own "person." This nobody has any right to but himself.  So in Locke’s definition a man’s most basic personal possession is his own body.  For Locke this is important because a man’s “property” can then be extended from his body outward through work (or what Locke calls “labour”).  Our personal rights (or civil rights as we would call them today) begins with our bodies and extends to the rest of our personal possessions: land or houses or money or whatever we can earn with the work of our hands.  And this is where Locke’s theory of government spills over into his theory of war.  Justification for war begins with self-defense for the preservation of our lives.  War is allowed because… it being reasonable and just I should have a right to destroy that which threatens me with destruction.  Locke believes that the law of nature is actually the law of reason.  When we’re attacked it’s not because it’s the “law of nature” for creatures to be aggressive and prey on one another.  These attackers must be fended off or destroyed precisely because they are not under the ties of the common law of reason, have no other rule but that of force and violence.  Sometimes brute force and violence are the only means we have of protecting ourselves and our property.  But the odds of being attacked by foreign forces aren’t very likely in modern America.  And even in countries where foreign attack is a real possibility, most of the time citizens have to go about their daily lives doing ordinary things like earning a living, finding a place to live, and feeding their families.  All of this is accomplished best if it can be done in an orderly way.  And that’s where Locke’s theory of law comes in handy.  He draws a distinct line in the sand when it comes to using the power of government to coerce its citizens.  For Locke the law is limited to the public good of the society.   But how can we know what the “public good” is?  The law, according to Locke, is a power that hath no other end but preservation, and therefore can never have a right to destroy, enslave, or designedly to impoverish the subjects.  This will help preserve the civil rights of its citizens.  Then we can establish public good by consulting the laws of nature.  And these laws of nature, as we have seen, are reasonable.  Furthermore, they are understandable by everyone: the law of Nature stands as an eternal rule to all men, legislators as well as others.  Since these laws are available to all men who will consult them they also provide the best way for establishing the public good in a fair and equitable way.  No one man or small group of men should be able to circumvent these rational laws in order to establish their own arbitrary rules.  This would, in effect, be a state of war because it violates the law of nature (see above).  The main point Locke wants to make is that the fundamental law of Nature being the preservation of mankind, no human sanction can be good or valid against it.  Because property, war, and law are all inter-related we need a government based on the law of nature/reason for the common good of all.


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