Contradictions in Locke's "Second Treatise"

It’s been a while since I have posted anything of significant value. I have been overwhelmed with hellish clients wanting all sorts of web design work as well as this sudden urge to finish paintings which have been sitting untouched for months. I’m approaching a calm for the next month and I’ll be posting all sorts of nifty things.

There seems to be a startling contradiction in the work of Locke’s influential 1960 “Second Treatise of Civil Government.” The inalienable rights Locke uses as the root of natural moral law directly contradict his justification for private property. After giving a brief outline of my understanding of Locke I’ll then give the specifics of the contradiction. If there are any disagreements with my assessment on Locke please correct me. The contradiction I am about to mention rests on this understanding of Locke, which indecently is taken solely from the STCG. Perhaps other works may clarify or redefine these ideas further. Please keep in mind that I am only interested in the historical philosophy of Locke and perhaps a few of his contemporaries. I am not interested in reading non-related personal opinions on the matter; only those interested in Locke need reply.

In chapter two of the STCG Locke writes that there is a natural moral law which is more than a set of practical principles for survival. According to Locke, man was created by God and is thus God’s “property,” because man is God’s man must behave in accordance to God’s will. Using a rather unconvincing leap (my opinion) he claims that we as individuals are obliged to preserve ourselves and, as far as possible, the rest of humankind. Accordingly, except for the sake of just punishment, no person may take away or impair another’s “life, liberty, health, limbs or goods,” or anything on which these “inalienable rights” may depend. As a result since we have a right to our limbs we have a right to our body’s labor. Using this Locke goes on to create a justification for private ownership; it works like this: It logically follows that since God created man- man is the property of God. Then what Man creates or “mixes his labor with”- is the property of man. To put it more simply creation implies the right of ownership, so long as the creation and ownership of property does not conflict with our basic inalienable rights. Private property must not already belong to or be needed to sustain someone else; in addition property cannot exceed in amount what can be used before spoiling. Money is an abstract representation of property and is thus not susceptible to spoiling so one may be allowed to “heap up as much of it” as one desires. This is Locke’s method to explain unequal distributions of wealth in societies, attributing lawful acquisition of property with qualities of ingenuity and industriousness.

If it is true that we have God given inalienable rights to “life, liberty, health, limbs or goods,” and all things those rights may depend upon. Then one would have to agree that food is an inalienable right because it is something on which “health” depends. How would Locke’s theory account for the practice by large agricultural corporations and small farmers alike when large tonnages of crop are allowed to go to waist so that it raises the market value of the surplus crop?

An example is in 1999 India produced 73.5 million tons of wheat. This was a tripling of the record in production causing the Indian economy to grow nine fold. This was accomplished by raising the price of Indian crops by allowing a staggering 60% of its surplus to go to waist. This 60% could have easily been distributed to the hungry of Indian however the mass of the population lacked the purchasing power to counter balance western agribusiness.

"…If one takes survival as the end, then we may ask what are the means necessary to that end. On Locke’s account, these turn out to be life, liberty, health and property. Since the end is set by God, on Locke’s view we have a right to the means to that end. So we have rights to life, liberty, health and property. These are natural rights, that is they are rights that we have in a state of nature before the introduction of civil government, and all people have these rights equally.

If God’s purpose for me on earth is my survival and that of my species, and the means to that survival are my life, health, liberty and property – then clearly I don’t want anyone to violate my rights to these things. Equally, considering other people, who are my natural equals, I should conclude that I should not violate their rights to life, liberty, health and property. This is the law of nature. It is the Golden Rule, interpreted in terms of natural rights. Thus Locke writes: “The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which obliges everyone: and reason which is that law, teaches all mankind who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty or possessions…” (II, 6) Locke tells us that the law of nature is revealed by reason. Locke makes the point about the law that it commands what is best for us. If it did not, he says, the law would vanish for it would not be obeyed. It is in this sense, I think, that Locke means that reason reveals the law. If you reflect on what is best for yourself and others, given the goal of survival and our natural equality, you will come to this conclusion.

Locke does not intend his account of the state of nature as a sort of utopia. Rather it serves as an analytical device that explains why it becomes necessary to introduce civil government and what the legitimate function of civil government is. Thus, as Locke conceives it, there are problems with life in the state of nature. The law of nature, like civil laws can be violated. There are no police, prosecutors or judges in the state of nature as these are all representatives of a government with full political power. The victims, then, must enforce the law of nature in the state of nature. In addition to our other rights in the state of nature, we have the rights to enforce the law and to judge on our own behalf. We may, Locke tells us, help one another. We may intervene in cases where our own interests are not directly under threat to help enforce the law of nature. Still, the person who is most likely to enforce the law under these circumstances is the person who has been wronged. The basic principle of justice is that the punishment should be proportionate to the crime. But when the victims are judging the seriousness of the crime, they are more likely to judge it of greater severity than might an impartial judge. As a result, there will be regular miscarriages of justice. This is perhaps the most important problem with the state of nature…"

the problem is solved by the creation of government to insure the “will of god…”


Impenitent, I appreciate your helping me clarify my post, most insightful. However I don’t feel that the root of the question was addressed. I’ll restate…

Is it within Locke’s permissive range to allow producers (or buyers) of a crop to store surplus amounts so that the market value rises as the surplus crop spoils?

To remain consistent with Locke’s writing, it is my opinioin that, this practice would not be permissable. However I believe that Locke would probably find some methodology to allow such behavior.

I thought I answered your question… locke would argue that keeping the surplus would be against the will of god…

in order to prevent that from occuring, a government that enforces the will of god must be established…

what the exact will of god is and who interprets it - are seperate questions entirely…


Ah ha! I see what you mean on a re-read.

This topic is a good example of why Heavy Philosophy was awesome. This may (or may not) have gotten more interest.

This the most coherant discussion I’ve read on ILP thus far, involving well read and well spoken points of view about the essence of freedom,i.e ownership of creation. Forgive me if I bring the intellectual level down a notch.

Locke’s flaw in his reasoning is his dependence on the concept of God as a premise to justify mankinds individual right to ownership, and the “will” of God to be the determining factor of what he does with what he (man) created. The notion of God “creating” man is, at best, possible, while the notion of man “creating” agriculture is provable.

The right to ownership of creation is fundamental to the individual’s survival and thus his/her freedom. We survive by our ability to think (create or produce) and our economic/physical freedom depends upon the the ability to reap the benefits of our thoughts (creation or production). And what we do with what we created should not be subject to the will of another consciousness (natural or supernatural). Let the creators of wheat in India decide what to do with what they created.

Individual rights are not God given, nor man given, they are the metaphysically given.

I agree with Locke on his golden rule, however government should not “insure the will of god”-which could lead to subjective interpretation on the nature of reality- but rather insure the right to survive, one individual at a time- which should lead to an objective understanding of man’s relationship with the nature of reality.

would love to continue this discussion…