John Locke

John LockeJohn Locke, (1632 – 1704) is famous for his arguments against rationalism and his contributions to empiricism. In his political philosophy, he argues for tolerance and liberalism. He accepts Hobbes’ argument for a social contract, but he defines it differently. The problem that Hobbes faces is how the social contract can ever be created, when people are only in a state of war with each other. If humans relate to each other only through mistrust, aggression, and fear, then how is it possible to create a lasting social contract in the midst of civil war?

Locke overcomes this problem by suggesting a different definition of human nature.[1] Yes, the state of nature can be understood as a form of war, but Locke sees very different ingredients for this. Hobbes claimed that human beings are naturally free and equal; this leads to the fighting. Locke asserts that humans in the natural state have a right to defend themselves, their freedom, and their property. They have morality and reason even in the state of nature, and this motivates them to overcome the fear they have towards each other: “The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which obliges every one: and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind, who will but consult it.[2]

What differentiates Locke from the view of Hobbes is a different understanding of human nature. Both assume that the human being is naturally free, but for Locke we also have morality and reason as a “law of nature” in us, and because of this we rationally overcome the fear and form a society, whose main function is to protect these values, and to secure them as our property.[3]

A slightly different starting point in the conception of the state of nature leads to a very different political philosophy. There is less need in Locke for the state to be coercive, and to secure its own power, because it is based on the free will of the people. The power of the state originates in the will of the people who enter into the social contract, they can also revoke this contract if the state does not protect the individual and works towards the common good. These ideas had a profound influence on the American Revolution a hundred years later. Whereas Hobbes argued for an absolute monarchy, Locke calls for a separation between two branches of Government, the legislative and the executive powers. The creation of laws, or the legislative branch, should be done by a parliament that expresses the will of the people, and the king, who represents the executive branch, is charged with the administration and the application of the law, and he is also in charge of the judicative branch. Since the king is also bound by the common law, Locke argues for a constitutional monarchy; his philosophy cannot be seen as a defense of democracy.

It is interesting to note that Marxists see John Locke as a founder of bourgeois capitalism, since he argues for a natural right to property. From a Marxist point of view, a state of nature would be a state where there is no private property, but everything is held in common. But for John Locke, people enter into the social contract because they want better protection for their property, which he understands as “life, liberty, and possessions.” Property rights therefore exist already in the state of nature and they come into existence and are legitimized through the efforts and the work of the individual. Since everybody is originally free and equal, everyone already has a natural ownership of oneself, and therefore also ownership over the fruits of their labor.

[1] In: Two Treatises of Government, 1689. Locke never refers to Hobbes by name, but he critically discusses his philosophy, more than a hundred years after Hobbes’ Leviathan.

[2] Locke, John: Second Treatise on Government, §6.

[3]If man in the state of nature be so free, as has been said; if he be absolute lord of his own person and possessions, equal to the greatest, and subject to no body, why will he part with his freedom? Why will he give up this empire, and subject himself to the dominion and control of any other power? To which it is obvious to answer, that though in the state of nature he hath such a right, yet the enjoyment of it is very uncertain, and constantly exposed to the invasion of others: for all being kings as much as he, every man his equal, and the greater part no strict observers of equity and justice, the enjoyment of the property he has in this state is very unsafe, very unsecure. This makes him willing to quit a condition, which, however free, is full of fears and continual dangers: and it is not without reason, that he seeks out, and is willing to join in society with others, who are already united, or have a mind to unite, for the mutual preservation of their lives, liberties and estates, which I call by the general name, property.” Locke, John: Second Treatise on Government, §123



  • POLITICAL POWER, then, I take to be a RIGHT of making laws with penalties of death, and consequently all less penalties, for the regulating and preserving of property, and of employing the force of the community, in the execution of such laws, and in the defence of the common-wealth from foreign injury; and all this only for the public good.(Second Treatise of Government. Chapter 1, sec. 3)

1 Response

  1. May 17, 2016

    […] probably the most important class of rights, because they define political systems as well. (see John Locke)  Hohfeld aims at a formal definition of rights in general, and he uses eight terms that can be […]

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