Welcome to Philosopher Fridays, where I look at what I find more interesting about a given philosophical figure in an introductory way. These installments are not meant to provide a comprehensive overview, but instead show how these figures have informed and influenced my thoughts on reason, writing, and experience.
LOCKE: John Locke (1632 – 1704) was a British philosopher known for his influence on empiricism and the enlightenment movement. He wrote on the state of nature and the social contract, the use and development of monetary systems, the tabula rasa (the idea that we are born as blank slates upon which our personalities are written in experience), and more. For more about Locke’s life and work, check out the Stanford Encyclopedia entry on the subject.
Where I find most interesting about Locke is the influence of his views on humanity and nature, found most famously in his Second Treatise on Government.
According to Locke, we start in a State of Nature wherein we have perfect freedom; no one is subjected to another person’s rule, but we are also subject to the laws of nature and of God. These laws come in two forms: what we now know of as the laws of physics, and the hierarchy of reason. The law of reason, for Locke, is that humans were not made for use by other humans, so we ought not harm each other. There are lower creatures that were made for our use, however – those who cannot or do not follow the laws of reason. The aim of reason is preservation of human life, and so the State of Nature can persist in peace so long as all act for the sake of preserving humankind.
It’s a simple enough dictum, but of course, that isn’t how things play out. As soon as someone fails to organize their behavior around the end goal of preserving all of humanity, the natural law of reason is violated, and in this moment the rules become more flexible. While it may seem like nothing can be done within the State of Nature, Locke says there is recourse to keep order; one may break the law of nature to stop others from breaking that law. This is the beginning of a legitimate hierarchy between humans; one man can have power over another, but only in so far as the man being punished has broken the natural law, and forfeited his status of equality. To harm another man on his property – or even merely threaten to do so – is to recuse oneself from the ranks of humanity:
In transgressing the law of nature, the offender declares himself to live by another rule than that of reason and common equity (Section 8).
Besides the crime which consists in violating the law, and varying from the right rule of reason, whereby a man so far becomes degenerate, and declares himself to quit the principles of human nature… (Section 10).
But this system is tenuous. For Locke, all have the right to punish someone who has broken the laws of nature and disturbed the peace of the state of nature, and so once the laws of nature are disobeyed, anyone in the State of Nature might have cause to fear for the safety of his natural rights to freedom, life, liberty, and property.
When this freedom is even just threatened, the offender is essentially violating the laws of nature. S/he is not using reason, and substitutes for the law of reason abject fear and irrational behavior, which are both unpredictable and against the best interests of all. Once the natural order has been thus disrupted, we are no longer in the State of Nature, but have entered the State of War. To avoid this it is then necessary to form an agreement to enter into a common society.
Enter the famous Social Contract. Essentially, for Locke, it’s goal is to restore natural order and impose the laws of reason upon the community by creating a common authority on earth to govern and adjudicate disputes so that people may rest easy, knowing that our freedom is protected.
Entering into this new state of society/government on earth changes the laws that we must follow – not natural laws, but man-made ones that serve the preservation of natural rights in the face of this threat. We get from this a new version of freedom: in society, to be free is to be equally subject to a set of rules to which all consent by entering into a protected state of being. An offender of human-made laws has two choices for punishment: death or servitude (for Locke, the proper punishment for nearly any transgression is death).
This is justified, according to Locke, because in violating the laws of nature, the offender showed themselves to be unreasonable – in seeing him or herself as above the law, the offending person effectively removed themselves from the ranks of humanity, and are thus to be treated as though they below the law along side animals as slaves, the property of their masters.
Speaking of property, in nature “God… has given the earth to children of men; given it to mankind in common” (Section 25). And so, according to Locke, a person can come to own a particular thing by taking it out of the state of nature. This can be done in two ways: through the application of reason, and through the labor of human hands. If you pick an apple from a tree, your labor transforms that object into your property. If you turn a wild field into a farm, then you own the whole field. Essentially, when you labor make something work to its best advantage (through reason) it becomes yours, so long as you have the consent of your fellow commoners.
There are some limitations to this, however. The laws of nature stipulate that owners make reasonable use of that which they remove from nature. If we let something go to waste, either by spoilage (which can be attended to by converting the resources into money), or by neglecting to cultivate it to its most efficient use, it is no longer properly ours.
God gave the world to men in common; but since he gave it them for their benefit, and the greatest conveniences of life they were capable to draw from it, it cannot be supposed he meant it should always remain common and uncultivated. He gave it to the use of the industrious and rational, (and labor was to be his title to it;) not to the fancy of the covetous or the quarrelsome and contentious. He that had as good left for his improvement, as was already taken up, needed not complain, ought no to meddle with what was already improved by another’s labour… (Section 34).
And so in the end, Locke’s vision of a law of fairness and rationality depends upon what counts as “industrious” and “reasonable use” and what counts as “waste”. For Locke, to keep the land in common is wasting it – to stop someone from removing resources from the State of Nature is theft, which is tantamount to a declaration of war. To leave the land in its natural state is to deprive humanity of its worth and value:
…he who appropriates land to himself by his labour, does not lesses, but increase the common stock of mankind: for the provisions serving to the support of human life, produced by one acre of inclosed and cultivated land, are (to speak much within compass) ten times more than those which are yielded by an acre of land of and equal richness lying waste in common (Section 37).
He goes on further to ask:
…whether in the wild woods and uncultivated waste of America, left to nature, without any improvement, tillage or husbandry, a thousand acres yield the needy and wretched inhabitants as many conveniencies of life, as ten acres of equally fertile land do in Devonshire, where they are well cultivated (Section 37)?
The conclusions we can draw from this is that for Locke, value is outside of embodied life. A person may be considered more or less human depending on not just their treatment of others, but by their attitude toward nature. Resources that are converted to money or ideas or systems can last forever as a metaphysical ideal of value, while natural items can easily spoil; people who leave the land in its natural state effectively rob humanity of potential metaphysical value.
While I could easily critique Locke’s logic, his conclusions are, for me, more significant and more important to examine. It’s easy to see Locke’s influence reach beyond our political and economic systems to the elitist tendency to look down upon those who are closer to nature and embodiment, devaluing any repetitive physical and domestic labor – our modern equivalents of unglamorous, life-sustaining work (childcare, farming, hunting, retail work, sanitation services, and more). This isn’t a truly sustainable way to live, as those repetitive tasks provide the necessary foundation for the “higher” uses of reason that Locke prizes.