Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Saturday, March 05, 2016

LOCKE: Of the Limits of Government (Hunger Artist Test Case)

In our last reading (Kafka, A Hunger Artist) we faced this situation.  A man voluntarily chose to live in a cage and starve himself to death.  It should be noted that this took place in a public arena, in full view of a public audience.  A question arises.  Should the government step in and prohibit this type of activity?  That’s one of the questions Locke tries to answer in this reading about the limits of government.  Would he have prohibited the Hunger Artist from starving himself?  Locke starts out by defining the primary function of government.  He says “The great end of man’s entering into society is the enjoyment of their properties in peace and safety.”  For Locke the government’s main purpose is to protect us and secure our belongings.  All other government functions are, in his view, secondary and optional.  We can, as a free society, choose to have our government perform other tasks.  But we cannot choose to hand over absolute power.  Why not?  Locke says the utmost bounds of power must be “limited to the public good of the society.”  Back to our Hunger Artist.  Is it in the public interest to prohibit his “performance”?

In this particular case Locke wouldn’t worry too much about the public interest because it isn’t power itself that he fears.  He knows every government must have enough power at its disposal to achieve its ends.  What Locke fears is arbitrary power.  There’s a big difference between legitimate power wielded by government under established law and the illegitimate or arbitrary power that follows no set of rules.  Under this theory Locke would prohibit the Hunger Artist’s performance.  But didn’t he himself say that governmental power must be limited to the public good?  If the Hunger Artist chooses to starve himself to death, what business is it of the government’s?  Locke responds that “nobody has an absolute arbitrary power over himself, or over any other to destroy his own life, or take away the life or property of another.”  The key term here is arbitrary.  No man has a right to arbitrary power, not even over himself.  Locke disagrees with John Stuart Mill when Mill claims “Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.”  Locke is more closely aligned with Edmund Burke’s notion that we do not have a right to what is not reasonable.  Starving one’s self to death is not reasonable for the individual nor is it desirable for society.  Burke may believe this.  But why does Locke agree?  And how would we know when our liberty or our desire is in fact reasonable?

The answer is, by consulting Natural Law.  Locke says “the obligations of the law of nature cease not in society… the law of nature stands as an eternal rule to all men.”  In other words, we don’t leave behind the laws of nature when we enter into society.  But we must be careful to implement them according to their proper ends.  Locke says “the law of nature being unwritten, and so nowhere to be found but in the minds of men, they who through passion or interest shall miscite or misapply it cannot so easily be convinced of their mistake where there is no established judge.”  If natural law is “nowhere to be found but in the minds of men” then civil law must make social expectations more explicit.  Law must be written down and codified so citizens will know what is expected of them.  For Locke the purpose of civil law is to make sure natural law is implemented properly in society.  And to accomplish this goal society establishes a legislature to make legitimate laws and a judiciary to make sure they’re applied properly.  In the case of the Hunger Artist either the legislature failed to do its duty (pass a law prohibiting public suicide by starvation) or else the local judge failed to enforce the law (if there was already a law on the books).  Not everyone agrees.  Mill, for example, stresses that legislative power must be limited to the public good.  Locke agrees with that.  But they disagree on the relationship between private conscience and the public good.  Locke’s Letter on Toleration explains why.


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