Key Concepts of the Philosophy of John Locke
John Locke was a 17th-century British philosopher who contributed both to modern political discourse and the foundations of empiricism. He would influence George Berkley and David Hume and a modification of social contract theory that would lay the foundation of the ideas of liberal democracy and classical republicanism. Locke would be an enormously influential figure in the formation of the early government of the United States and the drafting of that country's constitution. His political theory would also be an influence on the ideas of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Immanuel Kant, John Rawls, and Robert Nozick. Many consider Locke's views to be similar to modern libertarian thoughts; though, like most political philosophers, it is difficult to pigeonhole him into a single ideology.
Locke is considered the first of the three great British Empiricists. He objected strongly to the claims made by René Descartes that there are a priori principles from which knowledge can be derived. Locke insisted instead that human beings are born as blank slates or as a “tabula rasa,” as later philosophers would refer to it. Locke denied that there was an essential human nature and claimed that everything that a human being is comes from the senses. He made a distinction between simple ideas, like color sensations, tastes, sounds, shapes (these are similar to what David Hume would call impressions) and complex ideas such as cause and effect, identity, mathematics and any abstract concept.
Though his writing served as the foundation of the Empiricist school of thought, it is now considered far too simplistic, and while his writing received critiques from rationalists, it is often thought that the most devastating critiques came from empiricists themselves. For instance, Locke objected to the idea that Descartes put forth that a triangle is an a priori concept. He said that instead that the idea of a triangle was merely a reflection on the physical form of a triangle. George Berkley pointed out that in order for this to be true, you would have to simultaneously imagine a triangle that is equilateral, isosceles and scalene.
While David Hume was heavily influenced by Locke, he took his ideas to their utmost logical extreme. Hume did reject the idea of there being no human nature; however, his moral theory was based on the concept that human intuitions form the basis of morality and this is a refutation of Locke’s basic claims of the human mind being a blank slate.
Locke’s Political Philosophy
Locke based the foundation of his political theory on the idea of inalienable rights. Locke said that these rights came from God as the creator of human beings. Human beings were the property of God, and Locke claimed that the denial of the rights of human beings that God had given them was an affront to God. In this way, Locke had established “negative rights” for all human beings. Humans had the inalienable rights of life, liberty, property and the pursuit of their own goals. This is in contrast to “positive rights” such as the right to equality, health care or a living wage that have been claimed as rights by political philosophers since Locke.
Locke adopted the idea of social contract theory to form the basis of what he considered to be a legitimate government. The most famous previous version of social contract theory was that of Thomas Hobbes where he used the theory to form the basis of a monarchy. Locke found this form of government to be in contradiction to his ideas of inalienable rights and while he agreed with the idea that governments were formed by the agreement of society he disagreed with the idea that they were looking for security as the primary goal of society. Locke instead based his primary value of government on the idea of liberty, and he claimed that the only legitimate form of government was one that operated on the explicit consent of the governed.
This is where Locke’s philosophy becomes a bit complex. His ideal government was that of a Democratic Republic where policy was dictated by the will of the majority, but individual rights were to be respected. Contemporary governments have accomplished this through a series of checks and balances. Locke believed that the rights that I have described above had come from God, but at the same time, he also believed that Democracy could result in some of the property of the citizens to be redistributed. His justification for this was that once a government was formed it had to function as a ruling body and as functioning as a single body majority rules was the most fair way to implement any policy.
However, because each individual in the body politic would know that while sometimes they would be on the winning side of the majority other times they may not, the urge to wield tyranny against their fellow citizens would be somewhat curbed. In this way, what Locke was saying was that while the majority could become an oppressive force the individual’s fear of that force justified the upholding of certain rights among the citizens. The majority would respect the rights of others on the basis of wanting their own rights to be respected on similar issues and Locke felt that “the golden rule” would ultimately dictate action.
This proved wrong in the short term but governments that have formed on these principals have been essentially progressive and the rights of individuals have increased over time as Democratic Republics have developed. Still, both the ideas of individual liberty and democratic principles are often at odds with each other and the question of positive rights instead of Locke’s strictly negative rights still remain. Future social contract theorists Jean-Jacques Rousseau and John Rawls would both expand on this concept.