Locke on Natural Law, Natural Rights, and Property


[The following is based on the very clear and useful account of Locke's theory of government by D. A. Lloyd-Thomas in Locke on Government, London: Routledge, 1995, 15-17. If you're looking for good secondary sources on Locke, this is the place to start.]


Natural Law

1. When Locke talks about natural law he's talking about something that is normative, not descriptive. In other words, natural law does not describe the way people actually behave. Rather it stipulates how people ought to behave. This also means that civil laws might not be in harmony with natural law. The two are logically independent. The trick is to get the civil laws to be consistent with the natural law.

2. The law of nature is a law of reason. We also learn what the natural law is through the use of reason.

3. Natural law is established by the will of God and is revealed in the scriptures. Human beings are required by God to act in accordance with the natural law. Thus, the natural law as understood by reason should be the same as the natural law revealed in the scriptures. The will of God is consistent with reason.

4. The law of nature is universal and applies to all people in all places at all times. However, this leaves open the possibility that different cultures will have different ways of expressing and conforming to the natural law. There is no reason to expect all social customs and laws to be identical.

Notice that this account does not say what the specific law of nature is nor how we are supposed to use our reason to discover it. According to Locke, the fundamental law of nature (FLN) is that human life, as much as possible, should be preserved. [16]

The FLN specifies an end to be achieved, but says nothing about the means to achieving that end. (In this sense, Locke's view is teleological, i.e. goal directed.) Thus, the FLN is a kind of rule to guide the determination of other, secondary or derivative laws of nature (DLN) that indicate how we should behave in order to achieve the preservation of human life and, thus, live in harmony with God's will and reason.

So, how can reason function as a guide to achieving the goal of preservation?

Since the FLN specifies only an end and not the means to an end, natural rights must follow from the derivative natural laws, not from the fundamental law of nature. The DLN follows logically from the FLN and the normal circumstances of life.

Consider, for example, Locke's views on property in section 26. All human beings have access to the earth and its fruits for their sustenance. This is a DLN since it follows from the FLN -- without such access we would perish. Therefore, it follows that people could not justly be denied access.

Locke's justification of the harm principle in §6 is another instance of a DLN following logically from the FLN. It also introduces Locke's assumption that human beings are the creation and property of God. Locke further assumes that since God created us, His intention is that we live as long as He chooses. Thus, we have no right to take our own lives or the lives of others.

Natural Rights

Natural rights are rights conferred by derivative natural laws. In general, natural rights in Locke's view seem to be rights of self-ownership. [27] These rights protect our freedom to control our own lives consistent with the rights of others to do the same.

This raises a question: Does the natural right of self-ownership contradict Locke's claim that humans are created by and are, thus, the property of God?

Self-Ownership and Property Rights

Locke seems to believe that natural rights are something one owns. Persons also own themselves.

Locke defends private property not for the sake of the rich and against the poor, but "against possible unconstrained encroachment by the state". Thus, Locke's views on property play a role in his argument for limited political authority.


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© T. R. Quigley, 1999