Locke on Rights and Property Notes for March 9–11

Main points

The class on Monday, March 9 was devoted to two topics:

  1. Natural rights: their origin and content, according to Locke.
  2. The problem that his account of property rights was meant to solve.

On Wednesday, March 11, we talked about his account of property rights.


Locke’s account of the origin of rights is disappointing. He has an argument that cannot survive having its theological premises stripped out. We tried doing so and I had trouble seeing how the conclusions followed from the premises.

Seth added that the most we would get out of it is that people are equal and should be treated equally: that doesn’t mean you can’t harm them, just that you have to be equal about it. Clever!

Fowler noted that if the argument is just about our natural abilities, then it won’t sustain the distinction between human beings and vegetables or non-human animals that Locke makes so much of. Well, there would be a distinction, but it wouldn’t do the work that Locke wanted it to. You’re just as capable of hurting a person as you are of hurting a broccoli stalk. It’s a little more difficult, but the end result can be the same: see Hobbes, Leviathan Ch. 13.

If we put aside questions about why we have any rights at all, Locke had a lot of interesting things to say about what those rights are. Specifically, he claimed that we have “executive” rights to punish and seek reparations from those who violate the laws of nature. The former is handed over to the state in the social contract while the latter is retained by individuals. In that way, Locke’s description of the rights to punishment held by the state and individuals neatly corresponds with our distinction between the criminal and civil law. Nifty!


The problem was simple. Locke granted that the earth’s resources had been owned in common at one point although they were clearly divided up among private owners at the time he wrote. How did we get from the one point to the other?

Well, maybe the current owners are beneficiaries of theft. Heck, quite a few probably were … and are! But Locke didn’t pursue that sort of question. He was interested in how there could be any legitimate private property at all.

His answer had to avoid two alternatives: the implausible claim that the common owners consented to private ownership at some point in history and the absolutists’ claim that individuals have no property rights against the state. Grotius and Selden said the first thing; Hobbes and Filmer said the second.

I won’t go through the details of our discussion of his answer. Here are a few points.

First, Locke clearly thought that the property rights were limited, regardless of how much labor a would-be owner mixed with the stuff the WBO hoped to own. There are several qualifications leaving room for the needs of others (see the last section of the handout, for instance), forbidding spoilage, and requiring that “enough and as good” be left over for others. All of these limits mean that those who are needy, want to take what would otherwise spoil, or want to take enough so that they will have access to enough and as good can do so. And they can do so even though that means taking the bits of my labor that I mixed with them.

Second, there is a danger that Locke will either prove too much or too little. If laboring on something is a way of transferring ownership from one owner to another, then Fowler could own my house (part of my house?) just by working on it. That’s not the way property rights usually work; usually, the owner has much more control over transfers. Daniel was right to say that Locke needs to say that common ownership is different than private ownership. And the difference has to be that laboring on something removes it from common owners but cannot do so from private owners. But why would ownership differ in this way?

Third, there are a variety of questions about just how the labor story works. I asked whether you can ever just lose your labor, much as you can lose your ice cream cone by dropping it in the ocean. Josh asked whether there’s some requirement of proportionality: do I get to own the cave if I just push some leaves into its mouth?

Finally, Richard noted that inheritance is an interesting case. The person inheriting property did not labor on it, after all. Inheritance comes up again, in Locke’s theory of tacit consent (see §120). Richard’s point actually helps Locke a bit. It might explain why Locke thinks it’s OK for the state to put a limit on property rights, such that it can only be inherited along with an obligation to obey the state.

This page was written by Michael Green for Social & Political Philosophy, Philosophy 33, Spring 2009. It was posted March 26, 2009.
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