Locke and Hume on consent Notes for October 24

Main points

We began with some historical context for the discussion of consent in our three authors: Hobbes, Locke, and Hume. I gave my opinion about how Hobbes would have described the Glorious Revolution and explained why I thought Locke was pushed to tacit rather than explicit consent. Then we discussed Locke’s version of tacit consent and Hume’s objections.

Locke on tacit consent

Tacit consent is distinguished from explicit consent. Explicit consent is what it sounds like: an action whose chief purpose is to express consent to something. Tacit consent is given by actions that imply consent, even though expressing consent is not their primary purpose. If I’m playing checkers with you, for example, you could say that I tacitly consent to follow the rules of the game by the act of playing. This is so even though the actions involved in playing the game aren’t meant to communicate my consent to the rules; that may well be the farthest thing from my mind.

Locke maintained that people tacitly consent to obey the state when they enjoy any of the property in its “jurisdiction” or “dominion.”** Hobbes had a similar idea. See Leviathan, Review and Conclusion, par. 7. I complained that Locke hadn’t spelled out what he meant and that the idea appeared to be in tension with his account of property rights. But our discussion convinced me that there could be a sensible way of understanding it.

Jackie, for instance, pointed out that it’s reasonable to assume that the initial participants in the social contract would give the state some kind of control over their land in order to ensure the territorial integrity of the state. (We wouldn’t want to let people establish havens for criminal bands or rebels, for instance.) This limits property rights, but not much more than taxation does. The limit is this: you can’t pass on your property without an obligation to obey the state. That is, anyone who receives your property must also accept obligations to obey the state. That isn’t so bad. It also has the formal, legalistic feel of consent.

Hume’s objections

Hume proposed two criteria for consent, tacit or explicit. Actions can only express consent if:

  1. Those doing them believe that they have some choice in the matter. I could say I consent to the laws of gravity or that murder is wrong, but that’s not the same thing as consent that really matters, like my agreeing to mow your lawn, say.

  2. Those doing the actions have a genuine alternative to expressing consent. This is the thrust of Hume’s remarks about the peasants who lack the resources to move to another country. Since they do not have a genuine alternative, Hume said, the fact that they continue to live in the country doesn’t show that they consent to do so.

More broadly, Hume maintained that Locke had the phenomenon wrong. People assume they’re obliged to obey the government long before they own property or are old enough for their consent to be meaningful.

I had expected Hume’s arguments to clear the deck. But I have to say that our discussion convinced me that Locke isn’t in as bad a position as I thought. Well done, crew!

Hume vs. Locke

I closed quickly, so here’s what I had to say. Locke used consent to do two things:

  1. Explain why subjects are obliged to obey the state.
  2. Explain who has the right to rule.

Hume’s alternative might explain the obligation to obey the state. But he didn’t think there was any deep explanation of why anyone in particular would have the right to rule. That depends partly on social convention and largely on the contender’s strength and good luck.

Key concepts

  1. Tacit consent; contrasted with explicit consent.
  2. Hume’s criteria for an action to count as consent, tacit or otherwise.
This page was written by Michael Green for Social & Political Philosophy, Philosophy 33, Fall 2012. It was posted October 24, 2012.
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