Locke on rights and property Notes for March 3

Main points

We talked about two things:

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


Locke held that we have a set of natural rights. A natural right is a right that people have independent of social rules or individual agreements. They are very much like what we call human rights: rights that people have simply by virtue of being human.

Locke’s natural rights are different from Hobbes’s right of nature in a few ways.

First, Locke explicitly derived his natural rights from theological premises: God created human beings, for this reason he owns them, and God has specific desires about how human beings are allowed to treat his property, that is, one another.

Second, Locke’s natural rights are what we called “claim rights.” That is, they impose obligations on all other people. Hobbes’s proprietary rights are like that. But proprietary rights, for Hobbes, come only through the state’s laws. The main natural right for Hobbes is the right of nature. That doesn’t impose any obligations on anyone. It just says that people lack obligations to others; specifically, they have no obligations that prevent them from doing anything important for their survival.

These two features of Locke’s natural rights have advantages and disadvantages. The second feature makes Locke’s view much more congenial to us than Hobbes’s view is. The first feature raises difficulties for those of us who do not believe God created us. Without God, Locke has no explanation of why there are natural rights at all. (Of course, this is a problem for those of us who believe in human rights too.)

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!

Finally, there is a question about the relationship between having natural rights and the argument for the state. If having natural rights were enough to guarantee protection from others, all by themselves, then there would not be a pressing need for the state. I pointed out that Locke’s story about the disadvantages of life without the state is similar to the one Diamond told about the Highland tribes in Papua New Guinea: individual enforcement of rights is inefficient and leads to a high level of violence. Compare Locke’s §123 with Diamond’s article and the thirteenth chapter of Hobbes’s Leviathan.


In the last third of the class, I set out the problem that Locke’s theory of property in chapter five was meant to solve. Locke granted that the earth’s resources had been owned in common at one point. At some point, humanity moved from common ownership of the world to individual ownership of parts. Locke thought that this move was completely legitimate: there really are individual property rights now. The question is how we got 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.

This page was written by Michael Green for Social & Political Philosophy, Philosophy 33, Spring 2010. It was posted March 6, 2010.
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