Locke, John (1632–1704)

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

11. Property, slavery and toleration

The main function of any government is to protect property, that is, the lives, liberties and possessions of all members of the political society it governs (Two Treatises of Government 2: §§124, 85). God has given the Earth to humankind in common and since no one has an original private dominion over any part of it, it is incumbent on Locke to give an account of how one comes to appropriate parts of it. First, he argues that each individual ‘has a property in his own person’ (Two Treatises of Government 2: §27). To have a property in something is to have an exclusive right of disposal: only the owner has comprehensive control over the possession within the bounds of the law (Shimokawa 2006). Next, Locke argues, given that someone has a property in their person, the labour of their hands is their property and by mixing that labour with a portion of the common possession of the Earth, that portion becomes their exclusive possession (Two Treatises of Government 2: §27). There is, however, a non-injury condition, deriving from the law of nature, on this process of appropriation, for, it must be done so as to avoid prejudice to any other individual. This is achieved by leaving resources ‘enough, and as good’ (Two Treatises of Government 2: §§33, 27). Locke’s theory of property is, therefore, a unilateralist rather than a compact theory (see Property).

Locke’s theory of property has implications for his view of slavery. While the individual has the exclusive right of disposal of their person, it is not an absolute right: a person cannot give themself into slavery (Two Treatises of Government 2: §135). The only case in which slavery is legitimate for Locke arises from the state of war. To be in a state of war is for one party, whether an individual or group, to strive for the destruction of another by a settled intention. It can precede hostilities and persist beyond the cessation of hostilities. Slavery is the state of the conquered in the state of war. It only arises between a lawful conqueror and those conquered in a just war: that is, in a war in which the conqueror is not the aggressor (Two Treatises of Government 2: §§24, 85). Once the conquered enter into an agreement with the conqueror, slavery ceases.

The general cast of Locke’s political philosophy also forms the backdrop to his view of religious toleration. There are no grounds for a civil magistrate to be intolerant of particular religious practices or beliefs, because religious organizations are another form of discrete authority structure. For, as Locke argues in A Letter Concerning Toleration, they are voluntary organizations and, unless their members give their allegiance to the head of another state (like a Muslim bound to the Mufti of Constantinople), their members pose no threat to civil society and ought to be free to believe and practice what they want. Furthermore, the nature of human understanding is such that one cannot be coerced by another into believing something. Finally, as Locke points out in his Third Letter for Toleration (Locke 1692), in the case of religious beliefs, epistemic humility should rule because, while the magistrate’s particular religious beliefs might be true, he cannot know that they are true (Locke 1823, vol. 6: 142–6).

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