John Locke (1632−1704)
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Last updated 2 Jun 2020
This study note provides a summary of key thinker John Locke.
The essentials on the social contract:
The most lasting contribution offered by Locke towards the field of political theory is that of the social contract. To fully comprehend his work on the social contract, it is important to recognise that he aims to construct a liberal framework centred upon limited government, individual rights and government by consent. In seeking to achieve this, Locke begins with the assumption that individuals are rational entities. When offering their consent to the state, they are at the same time promoting their own self-interest. As rational entities, we fully acknowledge that our liberties are best protected via governance by the state. It is only the state that can properly uphold our basic liberties and protect us from the threat of foreign invasion and social disorder.
According to Locke, consent may be provided on a formal basis via an election or on an informal setting as a consequence of tacit consent. The former is easily recognisable to those with even a cursory understanding of politics. Within a liberal democratic regime, the government seeks a mandate from the people during a nationwide election. It is said to be legitimate on this basis. In terms of the latter, Locke declared that consent could be taken as assumed from the general behaviour of the people and the absence of major social disorder.
As with all legal relationships, the social contract imposes duties on both sides. The state is obliged to protect its citizens whilst we in turn must accept the laws of the land. If we do not, a sanction may be imposed. However, if the state were to act in violation of the contract, the people are entitled to withdraw their consent. As befits a liberal theorist, legitimacy is based upon the consent of the people rather than say divine providence.
Locke was the first liberal theorist to outline the social contract, and for that he is rightly considered to be a pioneer. He outlines in a clear and succinct manner how we might leave a state of nature and create a system that maintains our fundamental liberties. Lockean notions can be identified throughout the liberal democratic world, not least when the ruling government seeks to renew their mandate during an election. Locke’s ideas also explain why the people accept the legitimacy of the government and obey laws that they might disagree with.
In terms of influence, Locke’s depiction of the social contract provided the theoretical basis for the American Declaration of Independence and to a lesser extent the glorious revolution in the UK (which Locke supported). It also had some influence upon the Rights of Man drawn up soon after the French Revolution. As well as the social contract and the question of representative government, John Locke was also deeply concerned with the issue of religious tolerance. Taking a solidly liberal line, he argued that using force to change someone’s beliefs is irrational. Whilst they may say that they have changed their beliefs to avoid further torture, this does not mean they’ve changed their beliefs. Locke was commenting at a time when Catholics and Protestants were tortured for their religious beliefs, and his understanding of tolerance is primarily located within the broader issue of religion. That said, Locke’s argument is applicable towards the post-9/11 debate concerning the use of torture in relation to the ‘war against terror.’ Locke’s insights would also explain why religious persecution is at odds with a liberal society.
The essentials on limited government:
Another important element of Locke’s work is his concept of limited government. He firmly believed that we need a state to protect our freedom. In doing so, Locke rejects the anarchist perspective. According to Locke, a stateless society is one in which we would be devoid of freedom. This is encapsulated in arguably his most famous comment “where laws do not exist, man has no freedom.” It is only the state that can ever hope to adequately protect us from harm. This Lockean conception of the state could be said to place the rights of individual as secondary to the majority will. Locke might therefore be considered a collectivist in that he subordinates the purposes of the individual for the needs of society. As such, Locke could be seen as something of a forerunner to Rousseau’s notion of the general will.
In common with other liberal figures of the time, Locke placed great emphasis upon property rights. In his second treatise on government; he boldly states that “the chief end of people placing themselves under government is the preservation of property.” It must be understood here that Locke’s understanding of property encapsulates “life, liberty and estate.” Locke even stipulates that the law of nature requires that no-one should harm another in regard to his life, liberty or propositions. However, this is largely taken as a given. In addition, Locke claims that the natural right to property derives from the right to one’s life and labour. Men also have a right to preserve their life and that a man’s labour is his own.