PHIL 41150: Political Philosophy
Dr. Robert Lane
Lecture Notes: Friday March 7, 2003

John Locke

 

[1.] Background.

 

[1.1.] Biographical Info.

 

         English, 1632-1704

         son of a Parliamentarian who had fought against Charles I

         studied at Oxford, in both philosophy and medicine

         spent some time during the 1680s in self-imposed exile in Holland; stayed there until after the Glorious Revolution of 1688, which installed William of Orange on the English throne

         for more biographical details, see "Introduction" by A. John Simmons in your textbook, pp.456-460

 

Best known philosophical works:

         An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690, 4vv.) -- a classic work of epistemology in the empiricist tradition

         Two Treatises of Government (1690)

         First Treatise: "primarily a polemic against, and a duel of scriptural interpretation with, the works of Robert Filmer" (Simmons, p.460) -- especially Patriarcha (1680), in which Filmer defended a divine right account of political authority (consistent with the Stuart monarchs' view of themselves, especially James I).

         The Second Treatise: Of Civil Government (1690 -- two years after the removal of James II from the throne of England during the Glorious Revolution, but written before that event -- part of this work concerns rebellion against existing political authority; Locke was in fact in favor of the revolutionary overthrow of James II)

         Locke sums up his arguments against Filmer's divine right theory in ch.1 of the Second Treatise (Cahn p.465). In effect, he begins this work having rejected a potential answer to Q2 (What justifies political society, i.e. what is the source of political authorityN?)-- the answer he's rejected is: divine authority.

 

[1.2.] Locke as a Founder of Liberalism.[1]

 

Locke argued for limited government and toleration of different views and lifestyles -- so Locke is one of the founders of the tradition of political liberalism -- (in the broadest sense: the political viewpoint that values individual liberty/freedom.)

 

In the tradition that follows from Locke, individual freedom is thought to be most threatened by the intrusion of government; so a Lockean liberal advocates limited government. [In this tradition, we'll soon come across the John Stuart Mill of "On Liberty," as well as Robert Nozick.]

 

There is, however, another tradition of liberalism that stems from Jean Jacques Rousseau (French, 1712-1778) that takes the greatest threat to personal freedom to be unjust distribution of resources and opportunity. According to this tradition, if you are poverty-stricken, or if you are living in a social system that favors some individuals or classes at the expense of others, then you are not free in any meaningful sense. So rather than advocating limited government, this tradition advocates government intervention to reduce poverty and right other social injustices. [In this tradition, we'll soon come across John Rawls -- but note that the John Stuart Mill of Utilitarianism gravitates towards this tradition.]

 

 

[1.3.] General Points About Locke's Political Philosophy

 

         political authority is based on popular consent

         the polity is an artificial construction the purpose of which is to serve the interests of its constituents, more specifically, to secure the peace and security of its constituents so that they can pursue their own private endeavors, to protect their rights to life, liberty, property and health

         individuals can live their private lives as they see fit, so long as they are obeying the law of nature (which is revealed by reason and derived from God)

         the products of one's own labor are one's own property

 

The first question Locke addresses in the Second Treatise: what is the "original" (source) of political power? By "political power," Locke means:

 

a right of making laws and penalties of death, and consequently all less penalties for the regulating and preserving of property, and of employing the force of the community, in the execution of such laws, and in the defence of the commonwealth from foreign injury; and all this only for the public good. (I:3, p.461)

 

This definition of political power implies two interesting things:

1.       Locke (like Plato, Aristotle and Hobbes) is interested in the source of normative political authority (authorityN) -- he want to know how a ruler gains the right of making laws, etc...

2.       He assumes that, whatever the origin of political authorityN, it has its limits -- it is exercised only for the public good (unlike Hobbes, who tried to argue that once a sovereign has authorityN, he retains it even if he's not acting in the interest of the people).

 



[1] Informed by Jean Hampton, Political Philosophy, pp.170ff.



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