Locke on Rights Notes for March 24

Main points

We discussed three broad points.

  1. Where rights come from.
  2. What rights do we have, (especially concerning enforcement).
  3. Background on the problem Locke’s theory of property rights was meant to solve.

Where do rights come from?

God. That was easy!

We followed Chris’s suggestion and tried to strip God out of the argument in chapter II, section 6. What we wound up with wasn’t that impressive: people are similar to one another therefore they should be treated similarly. There may be something to that. But as it stands, it doesn’t explain why it’s so bad to harm one another, much less the various other rights that Locke says we have.

The divine origin of rights enables Locke to reach conclusions at odds with absolutism. It’s an open question whether we could reach the same conclusion with different premises, as Dan suggested we might. Let’s keep our collective eye on that.

Another interesting question is whether Hobbes, or anyone else, is in a significantly better position than Locke was. For instance, did Hobbes really explain where the right of nature comes from in a more satisfying way than Locke did?

What rights do we have?

There’s a bit of a split in Locke’s account that I’ll come back to when we get to utilitarianism.

On the one hand, he clearly thinks that we have rights to personal security and in our ability to labor.** The latter is relevant for property rights, which we haven’t come to yet. We also have rights to enforce these rights. These enforcement rights are transferred to the state in the social contract. It’s an interesting fact that they parallel our criminal and civil law.

On the other hand, Locke sometimes suggests that the purpose of rights is the preservation of mankind as a whole. If so, perhaps we have rights to more than just personal security and property acquisition. Perhaps we have rights to aid if, say, we’re starving. You could see where this would easily follow from Locke’s assumptions about the origins of rights: God wants his creation preserved and one way of preserving it is to help people in need.

This second category is more controversial than the first. Everyone agrees that Locke has the first set of rights. This is not so with the second set. We’ll talk more about this in discussing property and, later, utilitarianism.

Background on property

The problem: how did we move from common ownership of the earth’s resources to private ownership of some of them?†† See the handout for evidence.

One answer is consent: people agreed to disband their corporate ownership of the earth and allow private ownership. That’s what Selden, Grotius, and Pufendorf said. But Filmer argued pretty convincingly that this isn’t plausible.

A second answer is that there are no natural property rights, where “natural” means prior to the state and its laws. That is the answer given by absolutists such as Hobbes and Filmer.

Locke agreed with Filmer’s criticism of the first answer. But he rejected Filmer’s own answer, the second one. So the problem for Locke was: how can we reconcile these three points?

  1. There was common ownership of the earth’s resources.
  2. This common ownership was not surrendered by consent.
  3. There is such a thing as natural private property rights.

We’ll see how he tried to do that next time when we discuss chapter V.

This page was written by Michael Green for Social and Political Philosophy, Philosophy 33, Spring 2008. It was posted March 25, 2008.
Name of website