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Essay: Locke’s Two Treatise of Government

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  • Subject area(s): Philosophy essays Politics essays
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  • Published: September 13, 2021*
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  • Locke's Two Treatise of Government
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In 1689, Locke introduced his Theory of Government which was controversial to British thinkers, defending and summarising bourgeois rule and its new system in theory. The whole book is divided into two parts, which separates in to critical and constructive. The rationalism spirit which differs from his philosophy empiricism has laid the keynote of modern western philosophy of natural law.

After nearly half a century of repeated struggles between class forces and regime changes, the 17th century British bourgeois revolution finally moved towards capitalism through compromise between the feudal aristocracy and the bourgeoisie and the new aristocracy. Along with the fierce struggle in the political, economic and military fields, there are long-standing differences in the ideological and theoretical circles, as well as the tit-for-tat debates among various representatives. The Treatise of Government is almost the epitome of this controversy. In his book, Locke criticizes Philmeier’s proposition of theocracy of monarchy and hereditary throne, which represents the rights and interests of the king.

Machiavelli and Hobbes invite God from political philosophy and base politics on secularity. It is generally believed that Locke’s political philosophy is to criticize the concept of divinity of monarchy. Like his predecessors, Locke seeks political basis in the secular world. This is based on the text. But we believe that God has a special place in Locke’s political philosophy.

Let’s start with his ethics. Locke’s ethics is unified with his epistemology. His whiteboard theory holds that human beings have no innate cognitive principles. Similarly, in ethics, human beings also have no innate practical principles. “Seeking profits and avoiding disadvantages” is not the principle of human’s natural practice, because it is only a “constant and universal tendency… It’s not the impression of truth in understanding. (Human Understanding: P30) This means that moral rules are not only valuable for their own sake, but “need to be proved” (Human Understanding: P30). This is Locke’s conformity theory in moral philosophy. In epistemology, since there is no innate truth and experience is deterministic, truth should be realistic in Locke’s view. Furthermore, in ethics, moral principles also need proof. “Benefits and disadvantages” is a reference experience. When we say that people have a natural tendency to seek benefits and avoid disadvantages, we have already involved experience, so seeking benefits and avoiding disadvantages is not a natural practice principle.

There are a few key principles that the book Two Treatise of Government represents:

Natural state. Human beings were originally in a purely natural state. Natural state is a state of complete freedom and equality. Natural law plays a dominant role in the natural state. Rationality, that is, natural law, teaches all human beings to obey rationality intentionally: since people are equal and independent, no one can infringe upon the lives, health, freedom and property of others. In the state of nature, the enforcement right of natural law belongs to everyone, that is to say, everyone has the right to punish those who violate natural law. This right of punishment is not unlimited, it is limited to the prevention of violations of natural law.

The origin of political society. Natural life is so beautiful. Why do people join the political society and be bound by political power? This is because there are three kinds of defects in the natural state: firstly, in the natural state, there is a lack of a formulated, stable and well-known law, which is the common standard of right and wrong and the common yardstick for judging all disputes between them. Secondly, In the natural state, there is a lack of a well-known and impartial judge who has the power to adjudicate all disputes in accordance with the established law. Thirdly, In the natural state, there is often a lack of power to support the correct judgment and make it properly enforced. Therefore, people are willing to give up the right of punishment which they exercise independently and leave it to the designated person among them to exercise it exclusively. The exercise of this power of punishment can not be arbitrary, but must be exercised in accordance with the rules of political and social consensus, or the rules of unanimous consent of their authorized representatives. This is the origin of legislative and administrative power, and the reason for the emergence of the government and the political society itself.

The purpose of the government is to protect private property. As long as a man separates anything from its natural state of existence, it has been mingled with his labor, that is, with all his own things, and thus it becomes his property. In other words, labor adds something to the natural things so that they become the private property of workers. Labor creates wealth, and money expands wealth. People have property rights in the natural state. The purpose of the government after its establishment is to protect private property, and it must not be infringed on. Therefore, without the consent of the people themselves or their representatives, the government should never impose taxes on the people’s property.

Rule of law and decentralization. The state must be governed by formally promulgated, long-term and effective laws, rather than by temporary arbitrary orders. Once the law is enacted, everyone must obey it equally, no matter whether rich or poor, noble or low. No one can evade the restraint and sanction of the law under any pretext. There are three kinds of state power: legislative power, executive power and foreign power. Legislative power is the supreme power of the state, but it is not, nor can it be absolutely arbitrary with regard to people’s lives and property, and can not take any part of anyone’s property without his consent. Because the same group of people have the power to formulate and enforce laws at the same time, it will tempt people’s weaknesses to seize power, so the legislative power and executive power should be separated. Although there are differences between executive power and foreign power, the two powers are almost always united.

“Non-secular morality” and “secular morality” are my terms. “Non-secular morality” can be described as the morality that does not talk about interests but only about virtue itself; “secular morality” is the morality that needs to be proved by reference to public welfare. In my analysis, Locke separated God’s “law enforcement power” by distinguishing the two kinds of morals. The “right of reward and punishment” in “God exercises the right of reward and punishment” is mainly based on “confidence” to reward and punish, not on “interests” to reward and punish. It is not in Protestant ethics that God punishes a man if he does not continue to work and earn benefits to glorify God, but in the framework of Locke’s theory of decentralization, that once someone infringes upon public interests, the power to administer rewards and punishments to him may not be God, but a secular force. There is no interest problem in the kingdom of heaven. Interest is a human problem. God endows human with the legislative power and law enforcement power when dealing with interest issues. Hobbes also advocates that once a man is evil, he needs Leviathan as a secular thing to punish him. Locke and Hobbes are identical in transferring the basis of law enforcement to the secular.

So, after confining God to the kingdom of heaven, what position does God have in Locke’s philosophy? Locke once compared God to a “legislator” (Human Understanding: P33). God himself is perfect, omnipotent and perfect, so the legislator can and does have the power to enforce the law. But God only deals with faith and not with interests, so “natural law is given to everyone in that state (natural state)” (The Treatise of Government (Part Two): P5). Man is not God. Man will face the problems brought about by non-decentralization. Locke holds that human beings have “inherent inferiority” (see “The Treatise of Government (Part II)). The root of this nature is that people tend to infringe on the interests of others. This is based on epistemology.

Christianity in the Middle Ages believed that cognitive errors were caused by judgments. There were no errors in human sensory impressions, but judgments could lead to errors. Because God has endowed man with unlimited free will, but not with sound knowledge, the combination of unlimited free will and limited knowledge may lead to wrong judgment. The human will will will expand unreasonably. This is the root of people’s inferiority in understanding. The distinction between intellect and will was clearly proposed by Locke’s descendant Berkeley, and Locke himself did not make a clear distinction between them. But Berkeley’s development of Locke is logical. Under Locke’s framework, the concept of intellectuality can be understood as perceiving external things, and then passively generating simple ideas. Intellectuality “can’t be made up of simple concepts”, “When the human mind forms complex concepts, it inevitably has some freedom” (Human Understanding: P378). Because Kant’s exposition of intellectuality is so famous, we should pay attention to the difference between it and that in Kant’s philosophy. The intellect here is more like the perception in Kant’s philosophy.

The improper infringement of will can be compared to the practical field, which is embodied in Locke’s primitive liberal economics. This kind of economics holds that free labor should occupy all its income. It is also reasonably based on private ownership and has not developed into the later criticized national economics. Economics holds that man is an animal in pursuit of wealth. “Property” and “life” are almost synonyms in Locke’s philosophy, which is the embodiment of Hobbes’direct inheritance of his thoughts. Hobbes believes that “man is a wolf to man” and that everyone has an attempt to violate other people’s lives and kill others. Locke transformed “homicide” into “property infringement” and moderated “man to man is a wolf”. Locke thinks that people and people are in harmony, but people have the potential to infringe on other people’s property. God created man and made man imperfect. The mistakes that man will make in the field of knowledge may also be made in the field of practice. But just as it is impossible for people not to judge, it is impossible for people to prevent mistakes by not working or by abolishing private ownership. For Locke, private ownership is beyond doubt. Without private ownership, it is unreasonable that labor should possess its income.

In order to prevent the occurrence of errors or to impose reasonable punishment after the event, it is necessary to limit people’s “free will”. Leaving aside Locke’s own discourse on the state of nature, we try to make a new argument for “restricting free will” from our point of view. Locke believes that it is possible for people to restrict their own free will on the premise that family is the typical representative in an environment of undegraded benevolence. “In the early days of the establishment of the government, the number of the state was not much different from that of the family, nor was the number of laws much different from that of the family; since the rulers cared for them for their happiness like their fathers, the rule of the government was almost entirely privileged.” Locke introduced “privilege” here and linked privilege with benevolence. “Privilege is a kind of power to act for the benefit of the public according to discretion without legal provisions, sometimes even in violation of the law.” (The Treatise of Government (Part Two): P102) Kant believes that this kind of rule is absolute. “If a government is based on the principle of benevolence to the people as a father does to his children, that is to say, a father’s government, the subjects here are forced to adopt a passive attitude just as they can’t tell what is really good or bad for their children, so that they can only expect the head of state’s happiness. Judgment, and if the head of state is willing to do so, only his goodwill is expected; such a government is the greatest authoritarianism imaginable.” (Volume 8 of Kant’s Complete Works: Papers after 1781: P294) We do not quote Kant’s statement that Kant supports Locke, but that Kant also opposes Hobbes. Locke believes that human happiness can only be measured by external public welfare. Kant denies this, which is the fundamental difference between them. But the source of Kant’s refutation of Hobbes may be related to Locke. In short, when the benevolent family finally degenerates, it is necessary to restrict power, because the father-like leader is no longer the father, he has no inherent motive for benevolence to benefit the public, on the contrary, he may infringe on public welfare. Benevolence is the internal means of restricting power. Since this internal means has failed, it is necessary to restrict power through external means. Legislative power and law enforcement power should be separated. Locke himself logically disintegrated patriarchy by refuting the Theocracy of monarchy, which not only made the disintegration of patriarchy a historical process, but also a logical argument.

So far, politics is only related to one kind of morality, that is, secular morality and public welfare, which is also the focus of Locke’s argument. But when he retains God, he also retains the morality of faith. Although God no longer exercises the power to punish those who violate secular morality, he still exercises the power to punish those who violate beliefs. It can be seen as Locke defending the church, or as Locke’s unwillingness to drive God out of People’s lives so easily.

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