John Locke was born on August 22, 1632, in Wrington, Somerset, a small village in England. Locke grew up with both parents Puritans and as such, he was raised that way. His religion believed that everyone was born into a state of nature and that everyone had the right to pursue happiness. His father’s connections and allegiance to the English government allowed Locke to receive an impeccable education. Throughout his childhood, he was homeschooled. He then had the opportunity to attend Westminster high school furthering his education at the Christ Church of the University of Oxford. At Oxford, Locke studied medicine, which played a heavy role in his future as he soon thereafter became a physician. He also studied philosophy, learning the classical material of Plato, Socrates, and Aristotle, however finding the works of more modern philosophers like Descartes, more intriguing. Although growing up in a household of Puritans, Locke had a more liberal standpoint on life. Locke became a teacher at Christ Church, but his dislike of theology and his interest in medicine and science caused him to follow the advice of his scientific mentor Robert Boyle, who recommended that Locke concentrate on scientific research instead. In the summer of 1667, Locke befriended Anthony Ashley Cooper; the Earl of Shaftsbury, and was hired as his physician. As the Earl was involved in the government, this helped Locke integrate into the role as a government official charged with collecting information about trade and colonies which later helped him become an economic writer, a political activist, and a revolutionary whose cause triumphed in the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Having varying stances on important topics, Locke became a highly influential philosopher, writing essays and treatises on topics such as political philosophy, education, and the government. Many of Locke’s writings helped found modern western philosophy and he became known as the father of classical liberalism. He is best known for his three works; Essay Concerning Human Understanding where he discussed the principle of religion, morality, and science, The Letter Concerning Toleration which pertained to the separation of the church and the state and The Second Treatise on Civil Government where he challenged the law of Divine Right of Kings by arguing that sovereignty resided in the people. In 1704, Locke died from a decline in his health after living a long and fulfilling life in Essex, England.
Locke’s Philosophy on Law
John Locke was a strong believer in natural law. He strongly believed in natural rights; rights that cannot be restrained by human-enacted laws and were therefore universal and inalienable. These rights should be protected in the constitution, falling under the boundaries of positive law.
He believed that humans, who were god’s property were entitled by god to the natural rights of life, liberty, and property. Locke believed in the existence of natural law and held it to the best indicator of what was considered ‘right’. He held to the fact that people were decent beings and were prone to being naturally good and peaceful, however, Locke knew that a social contract was needed because he knew that at times, people could be selfish. Locke believed that the ownership of property was created by the application of labor to achieve it, and humans make objects into their property by applying labor. When someone picked an apple, it was theirs, when someone found gold, it was theirs and so thus, anyone who worked for something was entitled to own the outcome. Locke believed that property laws existed naturally before the formation of the social contract and that property preceded government. Thus the government cannot “dispose of the estates of the subjects arbitrarily” (Locke, Second Treatise) and shouldn’t be allowed to infringe on an individual’s right to own property or obstruct the use of it. Even nowadays, in modern society, people still feel strongly about their right to property. For example, one phrase that John Locke would have supported is “Do you have a search warrant?” which would prevent the authorities from barging into private property and taking an individual’s property without reason. To add on, Locke believed that people should be free to do as they pleased and the government should only intervene when it is necessary to protect someone/someone’s property. The government cannot arbitrarily act to infringe people’s rights and freedoms and thus believed in minimal government involvement. He used that claim to justify the idea of a single legitimate government as the result of a social contract where people in the state of nature would freely transfer some of their rights to the government in order to better ensure the comfortable enjoyment of their lives, liberty, and property. However, this was only conditionally as if the people did not feel that the government was doing its duties, they had the moral duty and right to withdraw the governmental power from the government to either themselves or to a better replacement.
Locke wrote The Second Treatise on Civil Government (also known as the Social Contract) which talked about natural rights and the role of the government. This was highly influential on Thomas Jefferson in terms of forming the basis for the Declaration of Independence as well as the civil rights granted by the US Constitution. In regards to the government, Locke thought that the government consisting of the monarchy, Parliament, and church was too powerful at that time. He supported the idea of the separation of the different powers of the monarchy, Parliament, and the church and proposed that there should be a public authority that should enforce laws instead of the government. Through this, he hoped that people would more say in the creation of laws than just everyone listening blindly to the state. His ideas on the government heavily influenced, both the American and French Revolutions, and his ideas of people’s rights and the role of civil government provided strong support for the intellectual movements of both revolutions. He also believed in secularism with his essays on religious tolerance within the government providing an early outline for the separation of church and state. Adding on, Locke felt that when you violate someone else’s natural rights, you forfeit your own rights. If an individual did so, they should be punished by the people- not the state and the punishment should seek restitution for the victim, and deter the crime from happening again. Later on, he thought of the idea of an impartial judge with the authority to determine the severity of the crime and to set a punishment proportionate to the crime, according to the established law would help the legal system be fairer. Furthermore, Locke believed in ‘Tabula Rasa’ which means Blank Slate in Latin. This theory stated that every individual born, was born with no prior knowledge, destiny, or concept of human behavior. This went against most views of the 17th century as many believed that one was born with their fate already determined by God. Locke argued that all perception of human behavior is formed after birth via the senses and therefore everyone was created equal. Regarding religion, Locke stated that people had no right to judge the truths of religion because humans did not know the absolute truth. He argued as religion was against violence, the religious wars occurring in his era in accordance with religion were wrong. Locke, however, supported the idea of letting people believe in their own religion as it would help keep order in society. In today’s society, we see a lot of Locke’s views on our laws.
Like all theories, Locke’s philosophy was both heavily praised and critiqued revealing its many strengths as well as its flaws. Many of the strengths of Locke’s philosophy of law come from natural law. In natural law, it is believed that law is made for the common good and similarly, Canada’s legal system incorporates this within our society and tries to treat every citizen equally. However, as Locke believed in natural law, he also believed in a social contract as he knew that while it is good, there is also bad. This can also be seen within our society and justice system as while laws are put into place to prevent people from stealing, it is common knowledge and an unspoken rule that if it isn’t yours, then you wouldn’t take it. This is an example of natural law and how people are inherently good, however, there are instances where people would disregard this and see something lying around that isn’t theirs and take it. This is why Locke also believed in the aspect of positive law; to deter people from committing these unlawful actions. Locke was also praised for this work Second Treatise of Government, which influenced many laws around the world. For instance, The Charter of Rights and Freedoms, Section 7 states: ‘Everyone has the right to life, liberty, and security of the person and the right not to be deprived thereof except in accordance with the principles of fundamental justice.’ And in 1948, Canada signed the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 17 of which reads: Everyone has the right to own property alone as well as in association with others. No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his property.” Many other western countries followed in creating laws regarding Locke’s philosophy on the law. Locke also believed in the pursuit of happiness that everyone was born in a state of nature and given the opportunity to achieve happiness. No one can stop another person from achieving their own happiness as long as it doesn’t cause harm to other people. For example, if a person wanted to marry a person of their own gender, same-marriage, they should be able to, even if it went against Locke’s personal beliefs, as an individual should pursue their happiness. Additionally, Locke’s idea of separating powers is used in our current day legal system. He believed that the legislative power should be divided between the monarch and the parliament and that no one should have absolute authority. His philosophy can be seen in our modern-day government as the powers of government are divided between municipal, provincial, and federal with the monarch also playing a role. However, every system has its flaws. Locke’s theories had just as many weaknesses as their strengths.
Locke believed in the system of majority rules seen through his belief in an election of the government in which many would be happy. He believed that the views of the majority of the population overruled the opinions of the minority’s which can be a con unto itself as this could be unfair to some of the minority groups, who wouldn’t get to have their opinion heard at all. Even if the majority voted for an idea, it also doesn’t mean that the idea is necessarily correct or morally right. For example, when Hilter commandeered the Holocaust, many of the German citizens at the beginning thought that blaming the Jews for all the wrongs of Germany was a good idea. With many of these Germans citizens, non- Jewish, in favor of retaliation against the Jews, the Jewish people who were the minority had no say in the decision at all. Thus, it can be seen that while the majority ruled theory was followed, it was not necessarily right. He also believed in minimal government involvement, which also had its downfalls as then people would have to govern themselves, which related to his belief in natural law. However, it can be seen in modern society that it cannot be assumed that all individuals are good, as people have different morals. Government involvement in civil matters also ensured that everyone was treated equally and equity was present. As not all citizens have the same social standing and some need help more than others, the government help provides food stamps, community housing, etc. Taxes based on social standing and funded programs for the needy helped out people that were in need of help. With Locke’s ideology, it was believed that people would just naturally help each other out in times of need, however with not everyone being naturally selfless and kind, many people are left behind in times of need. Thus, with active government involvement, it is ensured that people are treated equally and that everyone benefits in society. Furthermore, regarding Locke’s views on letting people control how people were punished for the crimes they’ve committed, and not having a higher power set our guidelines for the offense, punishments would vary in terms of severity for similar crimes with no precedence to make the punishment standard.
Locke’s Position on Assisted Suicide
Locke would support the idea of assisted suicide, according to his philosophical ideas. First off, he strongly believed in the right to property and one’s body is self property. Thus, it can be said that an individual should be able to make their own decision to willfully die as they possess ownership of their own body. Furthermore, Locke believed in the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. and the fact that people suffer from terminal illnesses is no happiness to them, it is inhumane to deny someone a humane way to die peacefully. As long as people are capable of making the decision, they should have the right to decide whether they want to live or die and choose what is best for them. For example, regarding the Rodriguez v. British Columbia case, Locke would’ve been on the side of Sue Rodriguez, who was a woman suffering from ALS and had requested the right to assisted suicide with the help of a physician. She has argued that the prohibition of assisted suicide violated section 7 of the charter which states that ‘Everyone has the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,’ which is what Locke had, in fact, created. Ultimately, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that this law would remain as it was and euthanasia in Canada remained illegal up until 2016, where the Supreme court finally ruled that the prohibition of euthanasia was unconstitutional. Locke’s stance on this would reflect that Sue was not happy and that her pursuit of happiness was a right that she had. If she was suffering away the rest of her life, then there was no reason to live. Furthermore, he would’ve stated that the decision for her euthanasia was not up to the government- The Supreme Court- as Locke believed in minimal government involvement and that the government shouldn’t infringe on an individual’s right to property, in which Sue’s body was her own property. As stated by Locke, “We are free to do those things which we both will to do and are physically capable of doing” (Locke, Essay Concerning Human Understanding) and this argument can be applied in regards to the controversial issue of assisted suicide.
Locke’s Stance on Civil Disobedience
John Locke would have supported the idea of civil disobedience to its full extent. He believed that civil society was a contract. The people would give up some of their individual rights and surrender certain freedoms enjoyed under the state of nature, in return for the government’s protection and guarantee of life, liberty, and property; exercised according to the rule of law. However, if the government failed to protect these rights, acted against the interests of the citizens, and instead infringed on people’s rights, then the contract established was void. If this contract was broken, the people then were morally obligated and had the right to revolt and overthrow the government, replacing it with one that would better reflect society’s needs as they see fit. He believed that citizens would be able to withdraw their obligation to obey through elections or any other means necessary, which would include rebellions and violence. Thus, while Locke would wholeheartedly support the idea of civil disobedience, if civil disobedience did not yield the right results, Locke would want to take it two steps further and use further means such as violence to achieve the intended results. He believed that the right of revolution essentially acts as a safeguard against tyranny and should always be an option.