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Saturday, 9 April 2016

A Short Exegesis on John Locke: John Locke and the Question of Virtue in English Liberalism


This a short exegetical essay. The question it attempted to answer was what replaces virtue in the political philosophy of John Locke. What is the alternative binding force political society. It was written for a political theory class and I hope that those interested in more specific material will find it interesting. 
Virtue was a key component of political discourse and theorizing for thousands of years. From Plato to Machiavelli discussions of virtue, and the different conceptions of the meaning of virtue, were key to political and philosophical dialogue; however, in the 17th century Thomas Hobbes and John Locke initiated a change in the way individuals understand politics: they no longer considered virtue. Instead of virtue numerous alternative concepts take the place of the notion; I argue that the concept of virtue in John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government has been replaced by a model of mutual reciprocity based on natural reason as a means to recognize the shared domains of creation, freedom, and property. Each of these elements exist pre-politically and none of these concepts require virtue, as a fundamental element of a normative political philosophy, rather they require only that individuals share mutual understanding of what constitutes their shared interest in the form of consent and reciprocity.
The basis of this argument originates in Locke’s interpretation of what constitutes nature and its relationship to political society. It is the state of nature that creates the initial conditions for political society because in the state of nature we have a pre-existing right to both ourselves and our property; coupled to our natural right to ourselves and property, is the law of nature as theorized by Locke.[1]
The law of nature is the law of reason, and holds that man shares equally in reason, which makes the order of nature intelligible and the shared condition of man recognizable.[2] The example punitive measures exercised against foreign persons informs the relationship between persons regardless of association with the political commonwealth.[3] Without the law of nature, the law of reason, one who transgresses against the commonwealth could not be punished because he would not be a party to the social contract; however, if his transgressions are against the law of reason and natural right, his mutual subordination to the local law becomes evident as all are obliged to enforce the law of nature. Such measures would be impossible were it not for the shared capacity to reason that allows for collective punishment of those who do wrong even within the state of nature because men know that it is in their own interest to prevent the exploitation of their neighbors’ resources as well as their own. Locke informs individuals of the ‘right of preserving all mankind.’[4]
This reciprocity underlies the basic assumptions of human relations. The individual acts in his own interest, but the interest of the individual is, broadly speaking, shared in common with the collective. It is man’s natural rights in the state of nature that determine the limits of civil government and allow for man’s ‘common refuge which god hath provided,’[5] and it is man’s natural reason, which makes it possible to share civil relations in the absence of political society while likewise making the convergence of men into a civil commonwealth a remedy for the ‘inconveniences of the state of nature.’[6]
It is the state of nature that is the frame of reference for Locke. It is not the ideal, but it is the origin of political relationships, for it is the capacity to exist in consideration of mutual equality that enables man to see the benefit in association.[7] Locke admits as much when he asserts that even in nature man, as well as ‘independent governments,’ partake in political relationships through compact that do not, necessarily, divorce them from the state of nature.[8] A fundamental element of the natural state of man is the inherent ‘perfect freedom’ shared by men.[9] This natural freedom precedes political convergence and is not defined in terms of what one ought to do, in terms of virtue, or what one can do, but rather by the limits of mans’ natural right. Our natural right being to self-preservation of ourselves and our property, this shared right checks the relationships between individuals and ensures that someone who impinges on such rights abdicates his own prerogatives in relation to his own natural right.[10]
This natural state of liberty changes when it is placed into a social contract between the community and the individual, but emphasized further by the fact that such sacrifice is only in the context of voluntary consent;[11] it is wilfully given by the individual, not taken, and not preceded by the commonwealth.
Locke extends these limits upon the individual, and therefore the natural protections of liberty, through his understanding and interpretation of revelation. To Locke all are equal by nature, and this principle extends to creation itself. Men are alike in their descent from Adam, and they are limited by the inability to determine their relation to the first man, therefore men are naturally equal insofar as they cannot identify the most direct descendent of Adam among human beings.[12] This obligation to creation is likewise tied to stewardship of the common stock, created by God, in that man may not diminish it for his own gain.[13] Individuals, to Locke, have no right over creation at the expense of others; this absence of right of creation is demonstrable, both in terms of property, we are not entitled to spoil it, ‘[h]e was only to . . . [use] them before they spoiled; else he took more than his share and robbed others,’[14] and in terms of the natural relation between parent and child, whereby Locke asserts that family, through consultation with ‘reason or revelation,’ has no natural dominion over children once they reach the age of majority and reason. It is only the nature of ‘natural birth’ in contrast to the spontaneous creation that produces the dependency of children, and once the child’s potential is reached the parental authority ceases.[15] The fundamental component of the relation between parental authority and the child is that a child is a creation of god, and not of man. ‘Adam and Eve, and after them all parents . . . by the law of nature [are] under . . . obligation to preserve, . . . the children they had begotten, not as their own workmanship, but the workmanship of . . . the Almighty;’[16] therefore, the child is only bound to the parents by custodianship, not absolute dominion by virtue of the way in which the child enters the world.
The same reasoning applies to the way Locke comprehends the relationship between man, labour, and private property, which only exists for the increase of ‘convenience’ and ‘comfort.’[17] The principle relationship of man to creation and divinity exists through the acquisition and cultivation of the private property through ‘mixture’ of man’s labour with the land in its natural state.[18] The object of labour upon the land is not simply acquisition, but rather the genesis of something previously not extant. Locke asserts as much when he maintains that the land in its natural state is of ‘little value, without labour.’[19] In this way man acts in a godly fashion, through the exercise of creation on his own accord, and serves the mutual benefit of others. These relationships serve as exemplars of the shared relationship between the individual and creation through revelation, not simply because the arguments Locke makes are couched in biblical exemplars, but also because each example serves as an affirmation of the shared relationship between man and God’s creation.
Locke’s interpretation of private property is therefore innovative since it reframes the understanding of possession in a non-exclusionary fashion; for Locke private property is not zero-sum but to the benefit of all,[20] and man uses the law of nature to inform him of the shared mandate to preserve it as formalized in the commonwealth. In the political society, individuals abdicate their right to judge in their own cause, and instead place their judicial rights in the community, which becomes an indifferent ‘umpire’ that eases the relations and expands the capacity for mutual protection.[21] Political society then, to Locke, is an apparatus bound through reason as a tool to increase the efficacy of the mutual obligation to defend the private property acquired through mans labour.[22]
Political relations then are only understood by individuals in the context of consent.[23] This is because the state of nature is no longer one of incomprehensibility; conversely, it is an ordered state governed by the law of nature that defines the natural right of men. It is through this understanding that the state of nature is no longer one of war by necessity, but one of inconvenience. This interpretation is stated explicitly when Locke claims, ‘we have . . . [a] plain difference between the state of nature and the state of war. . . . Men living together according to reason, without a common superior . . . is properly the state of nature’ It is only when one trespasses against the law of nature in the absence of a ‘common superior’ that is the state of war. [24] If the state, as Locke asserts, is one of reason, order, and mutual intelligibility, then then the compact of political society is subject to adherence to the same criteria established prior in the natural state. The state of nature then becomes a default.
In Locke’s model mutual consent becomes the means by which people enter a political society, the society itself being outside of nature, and not having its basis in man’s natural state. This being the case, political society is no longer self-sufficient, but instrumental, and in this way considerations of virtue begin to show their irrelevancy because the political society itself, absent its own nature, is not directed toward a singular end. This interpretation of what motivates the formation and maintenance of political community is in direct conflict with the virtue theory of the predecessors of English Liberalism and in turn raises the question of what constitutes the best government in relation to the natural right of individuals: what binds a society not directed toward considerations of the virtue?
The maintenance of the civil compact comes from utility. The acquisition of commodity and surplus for the individual benefit keeps man invested in the society, but this accumulation is more thoroughly enabled by the protection of the government. Locke expresses this sentiment when he first askes why the individual will abdicate his freedom, and responds with the principle that our freedoms in the state of nature are uncertain and precarious claiming,‘[t]he enjoyment of the property he has in this state is very unsafe.’[25] Locke highlights the defects of the state of nature each of which is remedied by the establishment of political society: firstly, the lack of a legal standard unbiased in interests and common to all; secondly, the absence of dispassionate judges; and thirdly, the state of nature, by virtue of isolation and informality, lacks the ‘power to back and support the sentence . . . and give it due execution.’[26]
However, the mandate of protection assigned to the political society is not limited strictly to the domestic sphere, but instead finds itself likewise employed through the Federative element to protect the community against conquest and the state of war initiated from beyond the society.[27] To Locke the political society being a unified body, composed of individuals but recognized as one, is singular in relation to its counterparts; the Federative element being assigned a broad entitlement conducts itself distinctly from the Legislative and Executive due to its need to respond to exterior threat and the vicissitudes of relations with mankind in general.[28]
Therefore, to Locke, men remain in the political society predominately to better protect their property: ‘lives, liberties, and estates.’[29] Being a tool of mankind, government is an expeditious method to ameliorate the natural insecurity of the state of nature, and it is by this means that man chooses to associate in a formalized community and surrender his right to act as judge in his own cause.[30] To Locke, it is not virtue that binds us, but rather the fact that we cannot as individuals fully actualize collective security without the institutions of formalized law and collective enforcement.
The flaws, or inconveniences of nature, make it difficult for individuals to protect and procure surplus on their own behalf, to ‘secure enjoyment of their properties,’[31] and this in turn limits the well being of mankind in its entirety. For it is only the security of labour and the establishment of currency that permits the growth of commodity and comfort.[32] Meanwhile, if men are confronted by actions or impositions of one political society upon another they cannot secure what is best from themselves without the institutions of government there to represent on behalf of the whole as one body in the state of nature; without a singular body acting on behalf of the whole in the form of the Federative, mankind is imposed upon due to a natural power disparity originating in the natural condition of mankind by virtue of his isolation. Locke asserts this implicitly when he speaks about the foundation of new commonwealths both in history and revelation by individuals not bound to the paternal authority and recognizes that those who establish such ‘petty’ dominions were ‘swallowed’ by the ‘stronger or more fortunate.’[33]
It is from this relationship between man, natural right, and the law of nature, that political society is formed. In turn, political society as a utility directed toward the benefit of the whole, and with recourse to the state of nature, means Locke’s political society is not constituted and bound in the same fashion as his predecessors. No longer are the ends of political society constituted within, but rather, without, and already inherent in man’s natural state of freedom, equity, and reason.[34] The law of nature instructs mankind about his potential for recourse to the state of nature, and in turn, gives cause for the restoration of the state of nature once the Legislative, Executive, and Federative bodies cease to function toward the common benefit.[35]
Locke then substitutes virtue for improvement of the communal comfort and permits the dissolution and reconstitution of the government. This dissolution can come about through opposition to usurpation and tyranny; one being the acquisition of power in absence of the consent of the ruled, and the second being the assertion of power toward the ends of the individual increase at the expense of the community.[36] This is when the government acts in a fashion inconsistent with the law as assigned by the consent of the community who are bound in contract with the government.[37] Furthermore, the replacement of the illegitimate government is justified in cases of the alteration of the legislative, whereby laws are made by individuals not assigned to do so by the consent of the society ‘they make laws without authority . . . [and] the people are not . . . bound to obey;’[38] in addition, the government is to be dissolved and the natural state restored when ‘the supreme executive’ abdicates its duty to enforce the laws of the political community; finally, the government is to be reconstituted when the government ‘act[s] contrary to their trust,’ this is the case when they invade the property of their subjects and dispose without appeal to the consent of the public of the ‘lives, liberties, or fortunes of the people.’[39]
Locke’s de facto assertion that the government is not directed toward virtue indicates that mankind’s ends are not to be determined and directed through the joining of political society, and instead of creating a normative political philosophy creates a positive one that is constituted only under considerations of its utility in relation to the common good as composed of consenting individuals working together in reciprocal obligation to best secure themselves and the fruits of their labour. It is this interpretation of the civil society that adds a new level of fluidity in government not found prior to English Liberalism. Locke’s philosophy becomes one of not what should be done to best realize the ends of mankind by living a virtuous life actualized through community, but alternatively, a philosophy were efficiency and security define the adherence to the political compact and the obligations of the individuals within it. Locke’s political society does not instruct the individual in the pursuit of virtue, but rather leaves individuals free to support each other in pursuit of their ‘lives, liberty, and estates’[40] through living in accordance with a more efficient realization of the principles of the law and right of nature, which is intelligible to mankind through the shared capacity to reason in the state of nature, which informs them of their common relation to creation, freedom, and property.
This conception determines mankind’s adherence to civil society leaving secondary questions of what form of society would develop in absence of virtue. Locke’s political society provides safety, efficiency, and fluidity, but it does not instruct the community about the constitution of the best citizens. To Locke mankind lives for ‘secure enjoyment of their properties,’ and government is dependent on comfort being self-sufficient.[41] Government then, is functional in the absence of virtue, but it is not clear that it is in anyway more fulfilling than in the state of nature, it is only more amenable to comfort and convenience.



[1] John Locke, Second Treatise of Government: An Essay Concerning the True Original, Extent, and End of Civil Government, in John Locke Political Writings, ed. David Wootton (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2003), 262-263, 274.
[2] Ibid., 263-264.
[3] Ibid., 265.
[4] Ibid., 266.
[5] Ibid., 272, 304-305, 307, 373-374.
[6] Ibid.,267.
[7] Ibid., 263, 304.
[8] Ibid., 268.
[9] Ibid., 262.
[10] Ibid., 265.
[11] Ibid., 309.
[12] Ibid., 261.
[13] Ibid., 280.
[14] Ibid., 284.
[15] Ibid., 287-288.
[16] Ibid., 288.
[17] Ibid., 273-274,279.
[18] Ibid., 274-275, 277.
[19] Ibid., 279.
[20] Ibid., 279.
[21] Ibid., 304-305.
[22] Ibid., 305.
[23] Ibid., 309.
[24] Ibid., 267, 270.
[25] Ibid., 324.
[26] Ibid., 325.
[27] Ibid., 336.
[28] Ibid., 336-337.
[29] Ibid., 325.
[30] Ibid., 324-325.
[31] Ibid., 310.
[32] Ibid., 285-286.
[33] Ibid., 320.
[34] Ibid., 262-263.
[35] Ibid., 262, 337, 340.
[36] Ibid., 362-363.
[37] Ibid., 364.
[38] Ibid., 370.
[39] Ibid., 373.
[40] Ibid., 325.
[41] Ibid., 310.