Discussion about Locke's Political Thought on "Property and Obligation" in Schochet's Work on "Guards and Fences"

Essay, 2019

8 Pages, Grade: C



Property and obligation, in Lockean political theory, are not substitutes but rather complementary, even though one (property) exists before the other (obligation). In the state of nature, humans possessed traditional natural rights which could be exercised by every member of the community. There were natural rights to life which begot, literally, rights to freedom and possession of materials from the available natural environment. These rights, however, were not explicitly promulgated by any authority in the state of nature because all men are equal and possessed equal rights to the common good. There was no higher human being or high authority to give instructions and make laws governing the use of the common good and of course, allotment of land. Every member of the community in the state of nature was aware of his natural rights only by reasoning.

The traditional natural right to property in the state of nature presupposed that human beings were given some eternal rights by God to cultivate the land, harvest consumable goods in the sea and oceans and dominate the animals in the forest. These are some of the claims of the naturalists, including Locke. Contrary to the views of some natural thinkers that there was no room for obligation in the state of nature as there was no entity or laws (before the Hobbesian law of nature) to whom men were bound. Even if one concedes to this argument, it may still be important to consider the kind of moral obligation that may arise from the individual appropriation from the communal good. If the earth was given to the occupants (human beings) to cultivate and appropriate for self-use, then the obligation to improve and protect the earth also exist, even though such obligation is implicit. When a man appropriates land to himself, he also fulfills the obligation of not causing harm to rights of others to appropriate from the common good. Therefore, one may tend to argue that the right to appropriate from the common good is constrained by the obligation to promote sufficiency. Because in the act of appropriating land for labor activities, as conceived in the Lockean theory of labor ownership, those who appropriate for self-labor must ensure that others are not deprived the right to also appropriate from the common good due to lack of abundance From State of Nature to Civil Society: right to life, labor, and appropriation

According to the naturalist approach to political thought, the principle of equality applied to all human beings. That is, people had an equal right to life, the environment, and the resources therein. In Locke's political thought, he argued that people in the state of nature enjoyed the intrinsic right to life which accorded them personal ownership over themselves. This personal ownership of their lives translated into freedom of choice which allowed them to engage in labor activities within the common environment in the state of nature. From these labor, activities emerged the appropriation of goods (usually land) to themselves for their own use from the available common good. However, Sir Robert Filmer criticized the theory of common good and equal possession of public good in the state of nature as espoused by Grotius. In his criticism on Grotius’s conception of right to property, Filmer argued that a condition of common ownership of good with equal individual right to property installed by God could not have produced unequal possession of individual property and domination by the people (Schochet, 2000:367), and that Grotius’s philosophy of property puts human beings in a position to disregard God’s law of nature and also to create law of nature not made by God; which he calls ‘dominion.’

In his response, Locke posited that humanity rests on the law of nature in accordance with God's design. Therefore, human beings in the state of nature possessed sufficient and necessary dialectic to understand the law, interpret and apply it in the context of the available common resources and right of appropriation by the inhabitant of the cosmos.1 Locke was convinced that an individual in the state of nature may exercise his or her right to property without putting any form of constraint on the collective right of everyone to ownership of the common good. What gives way for unequal possession of property is the decision of individuals to or not to put their labor into practice and not domination.

So, individuals possess the right to own property in accordance with the work of their hands. Therefore, we may argue that if an individual has right to own property in the state of nature, he or she may also be said to be bound to the reasoning of keeping the environment from whence he or she appropriates goods. Though, Locke did not envisage this possibility as there was no higher authority in the state of nature to which the people hold no obligation. However, the theory of appropriation given by Locke presupposed that humans were not equal in the state of nature. What would be the right of those that were physically challenged in the state of nature? Since appropriation of land from common ownership was precipitated on physical labor engagement, those without the capacity to physically activate their labor activities were deprived on the right to appropriate land. This then follows the logic in the argument by Filmer that a state of nature created by God where all humans were said to possess same rights could not result into asymmetrical ownership of land from the available common good.

Still, however, a moral obligation may be derived from labor activities of individuals on the common good, given equally to humankind by God. That is, the land should be maintained and improved for the betterment of humanity. The inhabitants of the state of nature were obliged to transfer a healthy environment to the coming generation of humans given the limitations on permitted ownership of property promoted by appropriation of personal good from the common good through labor activities.2 This may as well put a form of unexpressed obligation on the people living in the state of nature without the existence of a superior being or a higher authority.

Political Obligation as a function of Protection of Individual Right to Property by the State

The invention of money and development of commerce, as describe by Schochet (2000:369), brought about division of labor in the socio-economic environment of the community and widened the inequality gap existing among men in relation to their permitted labor activities within the state of nature. The glaring unequal ownership of property was worsened still by the extent to which the population of humans was growing vis-à-vis the available common good. There was serious concern about the opposite relationship between population and available common resources. One of the concerns of the unhealthy relationship between population growth and the available common good is the fear of violating the moral obligation to leave sufficient common good behind for the successive generation of man. Another point is the insecurity level of individual ownership of property that threatened the individual right to property since the resources are now limited and every man in the state of nature has a natural right to property. The competition over property ownership was becoming too tensed. And the eagerness and ambition to own property were already hitting the ceiling. The conditions highlighted above led to the need for legitimate authority,3 to which the right to property and the right to adjudicate on violation of natural rights of individuals shall be transferred.


1 Locke, in Two Treatises, II, 14: ‘For Truth and Keeping Faith belongs to Men, as Men, and not as Members of Society.’, believed that human beings in the state of nature were given the ability to reason and discern God's given law as regards the environment in which God has placed human beings which they themselves, humans, are required to improve for their own good given their equal right to the common good. (Schochet, 2000:367).

2 The ‘sufficiency’ and ‘spoilage’ principles restraining people to appropriation of goods that are enough for their use over and above which the people may violate the spoilage principle of natural law as illustrated in pages 368-369, ‘Guards and Fences’: Property and Obligation in Locke’s Political Thought (Schochet, 2000).

3 See Schochet, p.369-375 for more on the movement from the state of nature to civil society given the consent of the people

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Discussion about Locke's Political Thought on "Property and Obligation" in Schochet's Work on "Guards and Fences"
University of Catania  (Department of Political and Social Sciences)
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Mr. Sesan Adeolu Odunuga (Author), 2019, Discussion about Locke's Political Thought on "Property and Obligation" in Schochet's Work on "Guards and Fences", Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/458020


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