Locke, John (1632–1704)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DA054-2
Version: v2,  Published online: 2017
Retrieved January 16, 2019, from

10. Political philosophy

The closest Locke came to providing a demonstrative moral theory is the theory of government developed in his anonymous Two Treatises of Government which appeared in 1690, the same year as the Essay. The first of Locke’s Two Treatises is a full-frontal attack on the divine rights theory and the patriarchal theory of government advanced by Sir Robert Filmer. Locke’s main philosophical point against Filmer is that he conflates various hierarchies of authority that are largely discrete, namely: humankind’s relation to God, the citizen’s relation to civil authority and parent–child relations. Once these are separated there are no grounds for the divine rights of monarchs.

Instead of commencing political theory with supposed natural hierarchies, Locke begins with two basic relations: first, a relation of natural equality between humans, and second, a fundamental apolitical relation: the state of nature. According to Locke, all capable adult humans are equal in both freedom and power in the state of nature and this equality is the foundation of their duties to each other (Two Treatises of Government 2: §5). Furthermore, the state of nature is the symmetric relation among capable adult humans characterized by the absence of any form of political authority. It is not a description of the historical pre-civilized condition of humankind or a state of war, as it is for Thomas Hobbes. In the state of nature, familial authority is present and individuals are obligated to obey the law of nature. The princes of two independent states at peace with each other are necessarily in the state of nature with each other (Two Treatises of Government 2: §14).

The equality of freedom each person enjoys in the state of nature is a freedom to order one’s actions and manage one’s person and possessions without being subject to the authority of another, even though all are subject to the law of nature. Equality of power in the state of nature is equality to execute the law of nature. All capable adult humans have this identical power in the state of nature. Locke discusses this in terms of rights, though it must be stated that he nowhere sets out a fully developed theory of rights. The core notion of this active right to execute the law of nature is authority to exercise power. Locke also discusses what we now call passive rights, such as the right of a child to receive sustenance from its parents. Such a passive right is really the obverse of an obligation: the child has a right to be ‘nourished and maintained’ in virtue of the parents’ duty to provide for it (Two Treatises of Government 1: §§88, 89). For Locke, this right and the right to execute the law of nature are natural rights as distinct from positive rights arising from consent. They are natural rights in so far as they are possessed by those in the state of nature (see Natural law, in early modern philosophy; Rights).

The right of implementing the law of nature implies that ‘every man hath a right to punish the offender, and be executioner of the law of nature’, though punishment is to be restricted to reparation and restraint (Two Treatises of Government 2: §8). Yet this leads to great inconveniences when everyone is judge of their own actions. The establishment of civil government is the mechanism by which these inconveniencies are mitigated.

Political society is formed when all the members hand over their power relative to the law of nature to the community: ‘where-ever ... any number of men are so united into one society, as to quit every one his executive power of the law of nature, and to resign it to the publick, there and there only is a political, or civil society’ (Two Treatises of Government 2: §89). It is this quitting or handing over of one’s power to enforce the law of nature that takes people out of the state of nature and invests the executive power of the society with the authority to make and implement laws.

Quitting this pre-political power can only take place with the consent of each individual who ‘by consenting with others to make one body politick under one government, puts himself under an obligation to every one of that society, to submit to the determination of the majority’ (Two Treatises of Government 2: §97). The individual’s consent may be express or tacit. The former is relatively unproblematic: ‘an express consent, of any man, entring into any society, makes him a perfect member of that society’ (Two Treatises of Government 2: §119). Problems arise, however, with the temporal and legal scope of those who participate in the host society by tacit consent, such as resident foreigners from another civil society. Scholarly opinion agrees that Locke’s account of consent does not have the resources to resolve these problems (see Consent; Obligation, political §3).

Locke’s theory, therefore, is a social contract theory. The social contract is best understood as comprising three steps: first, the consent of the individuals to form the commonwealth; second, the determination of the type of government decided by majority, whether democracy, oligarchy or monarchy; and third, the election of office bearers to represent the people. The formation of civil society precedes and can survive the dissolution of the government. All governments are vulnerable to dissolution from external forces, such as invasion by a foreign power. Invasion, however, can dissolve not only the government but also the civil society. An important feature of Locke’s theory is the manner in which it allows for the dissolution of government from within. To the question, ‘Who shall be judge whether the prince or legislative act contrary to their [the people’s] trust?’ Locke answers ‘The people shall be judge’ (Two Treatises of Government 2: §240). Thus, while a properly functioning legislative operates with de facto supreme power, ultimately ‘there remains still in the people a supream power to remove or alter the legislative, when they find the legislative act contrary to the trust reposed in them’ (Two Treatises of Government 2: §149). (See Contractarianism §5.)

Citing this article:
Anstey, Peter. Political philosophy. Locke, John (1632–1704), 2017, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DA054-2. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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