Locke is regarded as one of the founding fathers of America in virtue of the fact that Jefferson incorporated his ideas into the American constitution: “life liberty and the pursuit of happiness” is a modification of Locke’s claim that man has a natural right to life, liberty and the possession of his estate(property). The basis of this latter claim is a belief in natural law theory that regards man as a product of divine workmanship in possession of a body which no one can own(because it belongs to God?). Even the products of the body, mans work, cannot be owned by anyone other than himself but they can perhaps be sold and rented with his consent. Smith argues that Locke combines Christian ideas with those of Stoicism. But it is the ownership of our body which generates the rights to it and its work and this is an idea that may actually be taken from some other source. Value, Locke argues, is generated by our work. The value of an apple is largely constituted of the labour involved in growing the tree and nurturing it and then finally picking the apple and whatever is done with the apple before it is bought and eaten. Professor Smith elaborates upon this point:
“The Natural Law dictates a right to private property and it is to secure this right that governments are ultimately established..”The World was created in order to be cultivated and improved.”(Locke) “God gave the world to man in common…for our convenience”(Locke). He gave it for the use of the industrious and the rational and not to the fanciful and covetous, or the quarrelsome and contentious” Locke seems to be suggesting that the state will be a commercial state or Republic. Plato and Aristotle in many ways considered commerce to be of subordinate importance in the life of the citizen. Plato would have instituted a kind of communism for a part of the populace, the guardians of the Callipolis. Economics was always subordinate to the Polity. Locke turns this doctrine on its head.”
I don’t know when and why the apple became the Biblical symbol of knowledge but Plato’s Republic is an ode to the hypothetical state that is built on the foundations of knowledge. The Greeks of this time and we may suppose Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle among them considered the earning of money to be a secondary art necessary for the maintenance of the private household(oikonomous). The Primary art was connected to areté and the doing of the right thing at the right time in the right way and this was the standard man was measured against in the public realm. He could be a pauper and wander the streets barefoot but if he fought bravely in defense of his polis and did philosophy in the marketplace he was subjected to the standards of the primary art and judged thereafter(Socrates). One’s life might be at stake but that was why a man needed to know himself if he was to end his life prematurely in dignity. Attending to one’s body for no other reason than it is one’s body would have struck these philosophers as narcissistic. Claiming that the origin of value lies in our bodies would have been considered egotistical. It was this vision of life in the Greek state that Locke was attempting to overturn.
One wonders whether what we are reading here is Hobbesian, whether what we are witnessing with these two Philosophers was the logical consequence of the Reformation and the proposal of a Protestant work ethic as a central concern of the emerging middle class(the bourgeoisie). Hobbes and Locke arrived at their respective positions from radically different starting points, Hobbes from a scientific perspective which would regard the body as a mere machine running on the fuel of pride and fear, and Locke from a religious natural law perspective in which ones body is one’s temple because it housed God and was created by him. This was what Jefferson presumably was thinking of too when he claimed that we were all created by God with the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It is a poorly kept secret that natural law theory cannot generate an acceptable idea of the common good logically located in the domain of ought judgments: the good is what we ought to bring about(in the right way, at the right time). The domain of the good is the domain of prescriptive judgments. Natural law theory focuses on how things are and makes an inexplicable leap into the domain of the prescriptive via an action which it can only characterize descriptively. Yet it is action characterized prescriptively that should be the major premise of an argument which has an ought as a conclusion.
The major puzzle with Locke’s position is how he begins his reasoning in the realm of natural law and religion and ends in the domain of the polis, in the domain of the government which is the institution whose reasoning always begins with an ought major premise: for example, the people ought to know, the people ought to be free, the people ought to be treated equally. Smith articulates this transitional step elegantly in terms of the idea of the origin of value:
“For him, the world belongs to the industrious and the rational who through their labour and work increase the plenty for all. It is but a short step from Locke to Adam Smith(a century later). There are no natural limits on property acquisition. The introduction of money makes capital accumulation not merely possible but a kind of moral duty. By enrichening ourselves we unintentionally work for the benefit of others. Labour, not human nature becomes the source of all value.”
There seem to be two sides to the fence of commerce. On the one side is the working man renting out his body and skills, and on the other, there is the man of commerce from the middle class who owns the capital and the means of production and it is clear from Smiths next quote which side of the fence Locke is on:
“Commerce softens manners and makes us less warlike, it does not require us to spill blood or risk life–it is a thoroughly middle-class pursuit. The task of government is to protect not just the right to property but the right to acquire and build upon the property we already own.”
Smith portrays Locke as a libertarian who demands the government serves an almost entrepreneurial role. Without government, given the fact that man is this property acquiring animal, there is no property, and nature is available for all to do with what they will. In such circumstances, disputes arise and the government’s role is to set up an apparatus whose purpose it is to resolve such disputes:
“The great and chief end of men uniting into commonwealth is the protection of their property.”(Locke Two Treatises of Government)
For Locke, it is not the war of all against all in the state of nature that leads to the social contract with the government. It is rather the state of affairs of the restlessness of the human spirit and the haphazardness of social events where expectations are continually flouted, that demands an organizing agency. The contract is between the middle class and the government as if the upper and working class had disappeared into thin air or had been absorbed by the middle class. Given Arendt’s analysis of the Origins of Totalitarianism and her reference to mass movements emerging from the organization of mobs, one can wonder whether this idea of classes absorbing other classes was truly the beginning of the dismantling of the idea of an authority which would use knowledge and phronesis to rule. The social contract did not seem to have any paragraph pertaining to the right to education or the right to be led by educated leaders. Arendt pointed to the risks of a tyrannical rule when the political party system representing the interests of various classes collapses and a mass movement takes its place. Locke is traditionally regarded as in favour of a commercially founded meritocracy that largely governs itself, looking to government for legislation to regulate commerce and crime and provide a peaceful environment for business activity. He either uses or abuses(depending upon one’s view) an Aristotelian assumption relating to the advantages of “the many” in the process of decision making of all kinds. A feast in which many contribute is superior to the feast arranged by one cook argues Aristotle at a time when a 500 citizen jury had relatively recently sentenced Socrates to death and was waiting in the wings to try any other Philosopher who dared to challenge the comfortable relationship between the state and the gods. Could Aristotle see through current events to a time when there would be supporting procedures and practices which would minimize miscarriages of justice? Could he see through current events to a time when philosophical argumentation integrated into educational systems would produce a middle class that would via the Lockean mechanism of the consent of the majority ensure stable and enduring government? Without these Aristotelian institutions and assumptions, Lockean consent of the majority could just as well refer to the mass movements of the 20th century which helped produce two world wars, the use of weapons of mass destruction and a cold war in one “terrible century”(Arendt)
Professor Smith discusses this issue in relation to Lincoln on the slave issue:
“Lincoln felt that the doctrine of consent did not constitute a blank cheque, rather it implied a set of moral limits or restraints on what a people might consent to. Consent was inconsistent with slavery because no one can rule another without that others consent (Informed consent or rational consent?) We have seen throughout history popular majorities choose by will, whim, and arbitrary passion and we do not approve. There must be moral restraints on what majorities can consent to–otherwise what is to prevent a majority from acting despotically?”
Locke’s notion of consent is obviously tied up with his conception of the social contract and this raises the question of how this consent arose, or, in other words, at which point in a citizens life is consent to the current regime given? Being born in a country is not sufficient, according to Locke, to create the consent and subsequent allegiance to the regime of the country one is born into. Smith argues the following:
“It is only when the child reaches the age of discretion, 18, or 21, that they are obligated to choose through some sign or mark of agreement to accept the authority of government. Locke, however, is not altogether clear about how such a sign or mark is to be given. One suspects that from what he is saying that he is referring to some sort of oath or pledge of allegiance so that once you have given your promise, word, or agreement, you are perpetually and indispensably obligated to that state.”
Locke does not commit himself to the above concrete manifestation of consent. Instead, he maintains that a concept of “tacit consent” is operating, a concept similar to but different from that embraced by Socrates in the dialogue”Crito”. For Socrates protection under the law suffices to owe allegiance to the law. For Locke, if you enjoy the protection of the law for a sustained period of time and your property is secure this is tacit agreement and is sufficient to constitute the social contract between yourself and the state. There is still, however, some ambiguity as to exactly when this moment of constitution arrives.
In line with empirical skepticism, Locke affirms the risk of being devoured by the Hobbesian Lion of the sovereign who will inevitably become licentious because he is not subject to the law and this requires an organization of the government in terms of a principle of a separation of the executive and legislative powers. This measure introduces a failsafe mechanism into the system of government, i.e. provides insurance against tyrannical rule. The executive power is there, argues Locke, merely to carry out the will of the legislative authority. Smith points out a strength in the Lockean account insofar as the occurrence of special emergency circumstances require swift action which the legislative authority with all its emphasis on “due process” is incapable of. In such circumstances, the executive branch of the government through so-called prerogative powers can suspend for example habeas corpus and even take the country to war. The people, in turn, can deem these actions to be a breach of the contract and begin a revolution as an “appeal to heaven”, which presumably means as part of an appeal to the divine legislative system which governs natural law.
Smith points out that many commentators including Louis Hartz
“have complained of America’s irrational Lockeanism, its closed commitment to Lockean principles. Why has there not been any socialism in the USA, no Labour or workers party?—because of the commitment to Locke Hartz argued.”
In the same spirit Smith refers to Rawls’ book “A Theory of Justice” in which Rawls opposes the Lockean Body/property principle with a principle derived from the Kantian moral law:
“Each person possesses an inviolability founded on justice that even the welfare of the society as a whole cannot override. For this reason, justice denies that the loss of freedom for some is made right by a greater good shared by others.”
This juxtaposition of Locke and Kant and of the different foundations of our human rights are a fascinating conclusion to this lecture. Smith summarizes Locke’s position in the following way:
“A person has an identity–a Moral Personality by the fact that we alone are responsible for making ourselves through our own actions. We are literally the products of our own making. We create ourselves through our own actions and our most characteristic activity is our work. Locke’s fundamental doctrine is that the world is the product of our own free activity.. not nature, but the self, the individual is the source of all value for Locke–the “I”, the “me” which is the unique source of rights.”
The above seems to be a curious combination of the Protestant work ethic and existentialism which we know from the work of Sartre had great difficulty in producing an ethical Philosophy. The individual being referred to, however, is not the lonely existential I trying to make sense of its own existence but rather the I that is not subject to any idea of the truth or the good, the I that regulates its possessions with contracts. Locke’s idea of the middle-class man is indeed a far cry from the Aristotelian conception of the middle-class man driven by areté and the common good. Both Locke and Aristotle support meritocracies but the differences between them could not be greater. The major difference being that the Lockean system would be implemented in the coming centuries and the Aristotelian system would have to stand in the wings of the world theatre waiting its turn to manifest its virtues.
Smith asks us to compare the Lockean position to Rawls who is counter-arguing that we are not in possession of our talents and abilities or the advantages and disadvantages which create my fortune, but rather we are the recipients of these characteristics as part of an arbitrary haphazard process, an unjust lottery in which the fortunate prosper and the unfortunate are left helpless. Smith summarizes this well:
“No one has the moral right to interfere with the products of our labour, which may also include what we do with our endowments such as our intelligence. Rawls, on the other hand, claims that our endowments are never our own, to begin with:they are part of a common or collective possession to be shared by society as a whole: your capacities for hard work, ambition, intelligence, and good luck do not really belong to you, they result from upbringing and genetics and are not yours or mine in any strong sense–they are a collective possession that can or should be distributed to society as a whole”
This has concrete consequences for government which must be structured for the least advantaged in this “genetic lottery of society” The structure would involve a hypothetical thought experiment in which no one would know the result of this lottery as far as they were concerned but would be called upon to organize society in accordance with the principle of benefitting the least advantaged of the society:
“according to this theory, redistributing our common assets does not involve the sanctity of the individual because the fruits of our labour were never really ours, to begin with. Unlike Locke, whose theory of self-ownership provides a justification–Rawls maintains we never owned ourselves and that we are always part of a larger social weave, a social collective.”
Modern European government is rights-based government and part of the expression of this is the attitude toward the least advantaged workers in terms of ensuring political representation for their interests in the party system. There is also a concern for those who do not have work and the state steps in to help the helpless who have lost their jobs. There is consensus on this Rawlsian position. It is clear that these ideas have been more influential in Europe but not necessarily because of Rawls’ book. The route to the European position may have been connected to the Greek emphasis on a philosophical education and Kant’s, moral law which for the European mind appears to be the ultimate foundation for any system of rights. Rawls claims that his position is Kantian but this should be taken with a pinch of salt. It is Kantian in its denial of the self-ownership thesis but it still has an emphasis on the contract and a form of instrumental reasoning which is not the basis of the Kantian Categorical Imperative.
PS: According to Locke we “possess” our bodies. This obviously flies in the face of Aristotelian theory, common sense and Phenomenological Philosophy. Merleau-Ponty claims in his work “The Phenomenology of Perception” that the body does not have the unity of a physical object. It resembles more the unity of a work of art which can only be interpreted in terms of the phenomenological concept of meaning. The body is that which creates my relation to physical objects through an “Eros or a Libido which breathes life into an original world, gives sexual value or meaning to external stimuli and outlines for each subject the use he shall make of his objective body.”(Phenomenology of Perception p180) This use for Merleau-Ponty is “lived” and it breathes life into the world enabling us to engage with and represent objects which we can possess. The body is not to be found among such “possessions”. Linguistic philosophers would also object to the use of this term. One can lose a possession. Does it make sense to say that one can lose ones body? Only if one is a dualist and believe that the soul possesses the body and can lose its relation to the body at death. If there is possession there must be an owner separable from the possession. We do not find this dualism in the Philosophy of Aristotle which Locke was so keen to turn upside down. It is indeed paradoxical that in his attempt to correct Hobbes and his mechanistic view of the body Locke should fall back into the Catholic position of Descartes in his use of this concept of “possession”. Phenomenology was also reacting to the causal analyses of science and was inspired by Descartes but it fixated on the concepts of meaning and intentionality in order to resolve the philosophical problem of the relation that I have to my body. Yet it has to be said that even the Phenomenological solutions to this problem are less convincing than the original solutions provided by Aristotle’s hylomorphic theory.