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John Locke And Political Authority Essay

1888 words - 8 pages

In this paper I will look at how Locke uses of the idea of private property to justify coercive political authority, by using concepts such as the state of nature to frame the argument. I will also look at the strengths and weaknesses with Locke’s position, namely weaknesses relating to the lack of consideration given to the poor, and strengths relating to the rationality of his state of nature, his advocacy for democracy and his distinction between property establishing set boundaries. Finally I will suggest that his theory of government while providing a solid framework, does not account for everyone within society, and as a result lacks persuasiveness.

Before we look at how Locke manages to use the conception of private property to justify coercive political authority, we must understand Locke’s state of nature and what he meant by the term – private property. Locke begins by making reference to the state of nature. The state of nature, as he defines it, refers to a state that “all men are naturally in”. This is to say, a state where individuals are in perfect freedom and equality, where no one holds power over anyone else. The state of nature is governed by the law of nature, which requires individuals not to harm each or bring harm to another person’s “life, health, liberty or possessions”. This law of nature gives an individual the right to punish anyone who transgresses this law.

Locke’s conception of private property is grounded by his understanding of public property. Natural reason, he says, tells us that once a person is born, they have “a right to their preservation” – to food and drink. In the same way, Biblical accounts speak of the earth being given by God to the “children of men”. These give an account of the earth as the property of the people, which can be used for their benefit. However, neither of them give an account of how a person “should ever come to have a property of anything”. This is to say, how an individual comes to have ownership of another thing. Locke’s response to this begins with the notion of self-ownership. He states that “every man has a property in his own person: this nobody has a right to but himself”. In addition to this, the labour performed by the individual is also “properly his”. Locke contends that individuals have ownership over their body and the work of their body. When an individual adds their labour, that is, their property, to another object, then that thing according to Locke then becomes the property of the individual. Locke uses the picking of apples to illustrate this principle. The act of picking an apple involves me adding my labour to it. As a result, the apple becomes my property. The one condition he places on this type of acquisition is that an individual can go on acquiring things in this fashion but only as long as the amount remains one that the individual can use without spoiling or being destroyed. Going back to the apple example, if an individual were to pluck a thousand...

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