Many perspectives, 1 simple etiquette

Equating Liberty with Justice: John Locke's Enduring Mistake

Created: 15 January, 2015
Updated: 15 October, 2022
5 min read
John Locke’s account of justice, featuring equality and liberty, is surely the philosophical work with the greatest influence on Modern culture. The triumph of parliamentarianism in England, the “truths” held to be “self-evident” in the Declaration of Independence, and the “

Liberté” and “Egalité” of the French Revolution attest to it.

Moreover, virtually every Western philosopher of ethics since Locke has followed his lead. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a proto-collectivist; Immanuel Kant, an idealist; G.W.F. Hegel, both a collectivist and an idealist; and John Stuart Mill, the ultimate Utilitarian, made liberty paramount in their conceptions of justice.

As recently as the 1970’s, John Rawls assumed without comment human equality and made liberty the penultimate (“lexically prior”) “social value.” Even Karl Marx, the great materialist, agreed partly with Locke’s construct of justice; though he condemned the “bourgeois” ethics of individualism -- “exploitation” does presuppose moral equality.

In defining justice, Locke’s starting point was that injustice is being “subject to the arbitrary will of another man.” Thus, not being subject to the arbitrary will of another “man” would be a state of justice. Since such a condition is a state of liberty, Locke concluded that justice is liberty.

Genderism aside, that last step was his mistake. How can people running around doing whatever they want have anything to do with justice?

Locke did evince a very positive view of human nature, as evidenced by his conception of a “State of Nature.” Locke’s immediate predecessor, Thomas Hobbes, famously described life for humans in a world without communities, with individual human beings living on their own, as being “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Locke conceived of a vastly more benign State of Nature. Though separate and independent beings, people would interact, engaging in trade, etc. Most of all, they would be living a life of maximum liberty.

Still, Locke had to account for the observation that human beings have always lived together in organized communities. Locke surmised that (despite his idyllic Sate of Nature) human beings surrendered maximal liberty in exchange for greater security and more prosperity (his version of the social contract).

The demonstrated social nature of human beings makes any notion of ‘surrendering’ a radically individualized existence utterly absurd. Still, Locke insisted that the Lost Cause of such an existence must inform our communal relations.

In order to assure the benefits of communal life for all, there must be law and order. The laws of a community must conform, said Locke, with the “Natural Law.” The idea of the Natural Law can be traced back to the ancient Greeks. It was endorsed by scholars of the Church during Europe’s Middle Ages, as the ethics ‘written on the hearts’ of human beings by God.

Locke, though he made frequent references to God in his writing, characterized the Natural Law more secularly, as the precepts consistent with the good, virtuous, noble impulses of humankind. Within the Natural Law, liberty is a “Natural Right” and is constrained by the Natural Rights of (for Locke) person and property: Every person’s liberty ends at the person and property of any other individual. Locke emphasized the applicability of that constraint on liberty across socioeconomic lines —with unrecognized implications for government.

For him, maximizing liberty must be the organizing principle of a community, accomplished by having the minimum laws possible. That proposition is conveyed in another of his famous phrases -- government as “Night Watchman.”

Consider, however, this illustration of that analogy: If one were in a sketchy part of town late at night and saw, to one’s relief, an officer of the law on the corner, would one prefer that individual look like an NFL linebacker or a ballerina? Pursuant to Locke’s logic, to secure the blessings of communal life for all members of the community, government must be big enough and strong enough to protect the most vulnerable members of the community from any predations of the most powerful in it.

Today, the most powerful entities in most nations are large corporations. Within Locke’s way of thinking, the existence of such large, powerful bodies

requires a big, strong government. Yet, for Locke, a big, strong government necessarily constitutes a threat to liberty. That conundrum is a spike in the heart of Locke’s thought. [Note to U.S. Supreme Court: money is power; power is the enemy of rights.]

Finally, basing justice on Rights is inherently self-centered — my Rights: my liberty, my property, etc. Perhaps the sorry state of communal civility in the U.S. these days reflects more than two centuries of such egocentrism. Much of postmodernists’ critique of modernity generally and the ‘Enlightenment project’ specifically centers on a lack of regard for ‘the other’ in all contexts -- concerning ethics that refer to other people (although Kant and Hegel did include mutual respect in their ethics).

So, we see that making liberty the predicate of justice was Locke’s mistake. For starters, he directly contradicts our social nature. He then proceeds from one unresolved, problematic position to another. (Bertrand Russell wrote of Locke that when he saw a contradiction or other problem looming in a line of thought he was pursuing, he simply stopped that one and started on something else.) Subsequent material and theoretical developments have brought Locke's error into sharp relief.

Interestingly, an alternative approach to justice beginning with Locke’s definition of injustice and proceeding to his second point is possible. Instead of predicating justice on liberty, however, it requires that everyone refrain from subjecting any other person to one’s own arbitrary will. That would create the maximum liberty that co-existing people can share simultaneously—among other good things.


Author's note: For more information, you may also want to check out the page "Real Justice" at www.ajustsolution.com.