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UCSD PHIL 13 - Introduction to John Locke

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1 Introduction to John Locke, Second Treatise of Government Chapters 1-4. For Philosophy 13 Dick Arneson John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government were written to defend armed resistance to the English king by English subjects in the years preceding the Whig revolution, the Glorious Revolution of 1689 (as it’s called). Involved in plots, Locke fled from England to Holland in 1683 and stayed there until 1689. The First Treatise is an attack on the theory of absolute monarchy defended by Sir Robert Filmer. The Filmer theory traces the rights of the monarch to the establishment of monarchical power in Adam (the first man of the Bible) by God. This absolute authority to rule then gets passed along down to the present king of England. So the king is answerable only to God and the subjects are obligated to obey the king’s commands come what may. So says Filmer. Locke in both of his treatises on government asserts a theory that sets moral limits on the authority of rulers over their subjects. The moral basis of these limits is a doctrine fo natural law and natural rights. This is a theological doctrine. God proclaims the natural law to all humans, and ought to be accepted, in Locke’s view, because what God commands, the recipients of the commands ought to do. The natural law doctrine includes a doctrine of natural rights. Why we are reading Locke in this course: Locke is interested in political questions that other course authors including J. S. Mill and Judith Thomson and others are not concerned about. So we are switching gears, in a way, in moving to Locke. His doctrine of natural moral rights provides a worked-out example of a nonconsequentialist ethics, and offers a useful contrast to Mill’s utilitarianism and to the broader family of consequentialist moral principles. Also, Locke addresses basic questions about the justification and limits of political authority that arise also for us in modern times. Locke appeals to theological premises to support his political principles. These appeals raise interesting questions. Can Locke’s position succeed as a freestanding doctrine, independent of his theological premises? Locke’s position aside, must the principles underlying a legitimate government be justifiable by reasons that all can share regardless of their sectarian convictions? Although Locke is clearly responding to the issues of his place and time, his arguments are not limited in that way. He does not say, my arguments and conclusions are intended to apply only to English people in the 1680s. They claim universal validity. I take Locke’s words at face value and assess them as applying across the board, including to us, now. According to Locke, natural rights are moral rights that each person has independently of social arrangements, conventions, or common beliefs. You might live in a society whose institutions do not accord people natural rights. You still possess the rights, and people still ought to respect them. Social conventions and social norms entrenched in the society one inhabits may contradict Locke’s claims about rights or presume their falsity. No matter, according to Locke. Nor according to Locke is any person’s status as a moral rightholder conditional on the acceptance of these claims about moral status in common opinion. Common opinion on these matters may be just false. These basic moral rights are claimed by Locke to be natural as opposed to artificial. They are not brought about by human creation and no person or group of persons can abolish or amend them. Laws generally, according to Locke, are rules of conduct whose conduct is promulgated, made known to those whose behavior they regulate. The laws must be promulgated by a legitimate authority, not just anyone can make something a law by assertion. But laws must be made known to those who are claimed to be subject to them; the king’s merely whispering a command into his empty closet does not establish a law. Same goes for natural laws. Their content is available to any (adult) person. To know what the natural laws command, all one has to do is consult one’s conscience. The natural laws as it were are written on everyone’s heart. God does the writing, and promulgates natural laws by giving humans the capacity to reason our way to knowledge of them. Locke clearly supposes the natural laws are simple and easy to understand, but this point does not seem to me to be essential to his doctrine, and is anyway dubious.2 You could hold that we learn about natural laws/natural rights by consulting conscience, that is by reason and reflection, but hold also that the content of natural laws might be complicated not simple, and the process of coming to understand them might require a long historical process, decades or centuries of discussion and argument. On this picture (which is not Locke’s) , different cultures and societies might arrive at different understandings of natural moral rights. Maybe there is gradual growth of moral knowledge just as there is gradual growth of scientific knowledge. A problem of Locke’s view as stated is that it seems to neglect the fact that the natural rights as he interprets them are not available in some cultures, or available only in truncated or inchoate form. And there seems to be learning, or at least change of views, within any single culture across time. Rights, what are they? Locke doesn’t give a full account, you have to piece together his ideas from sideways comments here and there in his writings. Some assertions of right may just amount to denials of obligation. To say I have a right to defend myself may just mean that I am under no moral obligation not to defend myself from attack. Such a right need not involve others being under any obligations or duties in this regard. These are sometimes called liberty-rights. Most basic natural rights in Locke’s scheme are what are sometimes called claim-rights—here rights and duties are two sides of the same coin. My right to acquire property in unowned land corresponds to duties to me owed by all other persons, duties not to interfere with my attempts to acquire property in certain ways. (Maybe the right to acquire property includes both a liberty right (I am under no obligation not to seek to acquire property) plus the claim right just described.) Some other natural rights may have their source in underlying moral duties. Parents are


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