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Locke's Justification of Rebellion and Political Obligation

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Philosophy
Wordcount: 2131 words Published: 5th Aug 2019

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‘Locke provides a better justification of rebellion than of political obligation.’ Discuss.

‘Two Treatises of Government’ was published anonymously in 1689, but – very likely – Locke wrote it between 1681 and 1683, therefore placing at the wake of the Exclusion Crisis (1679–1681). Locke’s main scope with his ‘Treatise’ is supporting Lord Shaftesbury’s and the Whigs’ cause against Charles II. This essay will argue that – in line with the aforesaid political beliefs – Locke makes a better argument for resistance, than for political obligation. In making this argument, the essay will engage with concepts of property, consent, rebellion and resistance in Locke’s ‘Second Treatise’. The starting point will be Locke’s ‘State of Nature’ and ‘Social Contract’. It will be then assessed the case that Locke makes for consent and political obligation. Finally, the essay will engage with Locke’s legitimation for revolution.

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With the ‘Second Treatise’, Locke formulates his political theory around the idea of ‘State of Nature’, namely the state in which ‘all Men are naturally in’, prior the formation of the civil society (T II.ii.4-5; T II.vi.67; Rawls, 2005, pp. 103-174). In this condition, there are no forms of subordination or subjugation and men are perfectly equal and free to act and dispose of their properties and persons as they think is best, ‘within the bounds of the Law of Nature’ (T II.ii.6). In other words, the ‘State of Nature’ is indeed to be intended as a State of Liberty, but it is – by no means – a ‘State of Licence’. Although there is no civil authority implementing the law, the ‘State of Nature’ is not amoral. As men are rational and equal, they are equally capable to discover and respect the ‘Law of Nature’. Hence, the law exists in both pre-political and political states, playing the crucial role of establishing order and allowing freedom (T II.ii.8; T II.ii.11; cf. T II.xi.135; Ashcraft, 1999; Rawls, 2005, pp. 103-174).

Lockean ‘State of Nature’ is characterized by natural positive moral features and structured on the fundamental relationship between God and man (Ashcraft, 2005, p. 239; Rawls, 2005, pp.103-174). It is precisely God who imposes the ‘Law of Nature’, in order to refrain people from hurting one another and to promote the preservation of mankind (T II.ii.6—8). Thus, the Law of Nature grant individuals the right and duty to preserve themselves and to punish those who undermine others’ freedom. What needs to be noticed, is that the ‘right’ to use power over another individual is always concerned in preserving the whole mankind, not in favoring one individual (T II.ii.6; T II.xi.135; T II.xiv.159; T II.xv.171; T II.xvi.183; Ashcraft, 2005, p. 240).

Thanks to the ‘Law of Nature’, the Lockean pre-social condition is potentially peaceful. However, it is underpinned by what could be defined as an ‘uncertainty of reciprocity’. Every individual has the possibility comply with and enforce the natural law, but some might decide not to do so. Furthermore, even in the case in which all the individuals effectively enforce the law of nature, they do so by their own judgements, possibly resulting in confusion and conflict (Kilcullen, 1983; Dunn, 1967). Moreover, Locke argues, the right to punish offenders who ‘are not under the ties of Common Law of Reason’ could cause disorder as self-love would induce people to forgive their and their friends’ faults, while ‘Ill Nature, Passion and Revenge’ would drive them to over-punishing others (T II.iii.16; Arshcraft, 1999; Kilcullen, 1983). Hence, on one hand for men is extremely inappropriate to judge their own cases, especially if desiring and pursuing harmony and fairness; on the other, justice must be applied, and transgressors must be punished (Kilcullen, 1983; Arshcraft, 1999; Rawls, 2005, pp. 103-174).

Locke traces the remedy to these ‘inconveniences’ of the ‘State of Nature’ in the establishment of a political society or ‘commonwealth’. The Lockean social compact, therefore, is created when free people, voluntarily come together in creating a community based the enforcement of the law of nature and the mutual preservation of properties, lives and liberties (Arshcraft, 1999; Rawls, 2005, pp. 103-174). This can only be accomplished through the promulgation of a known, unbiased, and well-defined law, implemented by impartial judges or magistrates and backed by a power that ‘support the sentence when right’ and rightful execute it (T II.ii.15; Kilcullen 1983 Arshcraft, 1999; Rawls, 2005, pp. 103-174). In Locke’s view, men in civil societies do retain their freedom and natural rights in their totality. What they do surrender is their right to act for self-preservation – delegating it to the society legislative power – and their right to punish others – delegating it to the society executive power (T II.ii.15).

In giving up these rights, people agree to leave the state of nature and form ‘one body politic under one rule’, submitting themselves to the will of the majority. Locke emphasizes that the social contract is founded on free and voluntarily consent expressed by the individuals (T II.ii.15).

However, the one might contest that only the people who originally agree to the compact have actually consented to their government. This is problematic, as it would be impossible to form a legitimate government. Locke assesses this problem and solve it with the doctrine of tacit consent – i.e. individual automatically agree to the contract when reside or even simply walk the street of a country – as they are bounded to obey the laws – and when individuals inherent properties – as the original owner of the property agree to the jurisdiction of the common wealth over that property (T II.ii.120). Many scholars (Simmons, 1992; Ryan, 1965) have argued against these claims; however, as Pitkin (1965) claims, in Locke’s argument, consent is not as significant as it appears. She argues that Locke can allow for a ‘looser’ definition of consent, since the character and forms of governments and political obligation are firstly set out by the natural law. If consent was foundational in Locke’s account, then it would be expressed by the compact. Therefore, what matters, is the quality of the government before consent, political obligation and governments’ legitimacy (Pitkin, 1965).

Surely, Locke’s poorly argues consent and political obligation. However, it does so because, as mentioned, his first interest is providing a justification for legitimate revolution in supporting Shaftesbury (Dunn, 1967). In analyzing this, it will be necessary to better understand the Lockean idea of property, as the lead to a right to resistance towards a rebelling government – i.e. an unjust one.

Locke provides a first definition of property as ‘life, liberty, and estate’ (T II.vii.87). However, following this, he often interchanges the ‘property’ and ‘estate’. This created considerable debate as it is unclear if liberty and life form part of property as well as estate.

This is relevant to the scope of this essay, since as the definition of property changes, also changes the definition of justified resistance. However, Simmons argues – is restrictive, as it does not consider Locke’s full account of property, namely: “whatever a man has right to” (Simmons, 1992, p.222, see also Ryan,1965 and Tuckness, 1999). Furthermore, restricting property to estates would be arguing that who does not have estates cannot form part of the political society. However, Locke does not posit precondition on whom is allows to consent the compact (T II.vii.95, see also Ryan, 1965 and Tuckness, 1999). Considering these, property must be defined as life, liberty and estate.

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Having a precise definition of property allows to see property as a sub-category of the natural laws. Wrongly, natural rights in Locke’s work are perceived as inalienable. However, Locke states that has one transgress the law of nature, he has forfeited all his natural rights (T II.iii.16). As they are forfeitable, natural rights are not alienable. What is also confusing, it is the fact that men’s natural right to life is attributed to the ownership of God, rather than to the men themselves. Therefore, men cannot kill others or suicide, as their life belongs to God. Nevertheless, also life is alienable (Simmons, 1983, p.188).

As already mentioned, Locke argues that human beings are perfectly rational in the state of nature. From this, it can be inferred that men would not commit a crime and harm some else’s property. Nevertheless, Locke also argues that men can be biased and flawed, therefore the need for a government to regulate lives. Therefore, people entrust the ruler their executive and legislative powers, so that he can implement the law of nature. When the ruler stops enacting them, revolution is allowed. The right to revolution is not be interchanged with the right to rebellion: to rebel is to break the law of government and bring back the state of war (T II.xix.226). Locke’s ‘right to rebellion’ can be defined as concept of negative liberty (Berlin, 1958, p.122). As Locke makes clear, men are free to do as they please in those areas not controlled neither by the government, nor by the civil law. In this sense, Locke defends negative law. Therefore, he is against an absolutist ruler: liberty is part of one’s property and negative liberty is an alternative to express the right of resistance (Simmons, 1983, p.191). This is why he is so opposed to arbitrary power and committed to the rule of law. Following Locke’s argument and that one’s liberty is a part of his property; the preservation of negative liberty is certainly an alternative way of expressing the right to resistance.

Locke argues that resistance is acceptable when the king becomes a tyrant (Ashcraft, 1980, 1999). Tyranny occurs when the ruler ‘makes not the Law, but his Will, the Rule’, directing his actions and political power towards personal aims, rather than in promoting the common good (TII.xviii.199).The tyrant uses ‘force without Authority’, de facto exceeding the limits of the law (TII.xiii.155; TII.xviii.202; TI.xix.227; TII.xix.232). Formally, this bounds the exercise of political authority within the law, providing an account of political power’s nature and limits (Ashcraft, 1999). While some might argue that this gives a right to people to resist anything, Locke argues that people are not likely to easily resist forms of government, as they do not wish to get “out of their old Forms” (T II.xix.223). Therefore, people need to be “generally ill treated” before they attempt resistance (T II.xix.224). This is further expanded by Dunn, who argues that, as men enter the social contract based on a desire of security, they will accept small injustices from the ruler. Only in a destructive power, people will exercise their right to resistance (Dunn, 1969, p.183).

Locke’s expansion on themes as resistance, rebellion and tyranny provide the rightful justification for revolution, while delineating the nature and roles of the state. His focus on these ideas is product of his historical background and political beliefs. Nevertheless, it is to note that ultimately consent, political obligation, resistance and property are all crucial elements in Locke’s argument as they are all necessary in men’s self-protection.


  • Laslett, P. (1988), Introduction in Locke: Two Treatises of Government, Peter Laslett (ed). 1988: Cambridge University Press.
  • Dunn, J. (1967), Consent in the Political Theory of John Locke in The Historical Journal. (1967: X, 2, pp. 153-182).
  • John Locke 1689, Two Treatises of Government, P. Laslett (ed.), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988
  • Simmons, A. John, 1992, The Lockean Theory of Rights, Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  • –––, 1993, On The Edge of Anarchy: Locke, Consent, and the Limits of Society, Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  • Pitkin, Hanna, 1965, “Obligation and Consent I”, American Political Science Review, 59: 991–999.
  • Nozick, Robert, 1974. Anarchy, State, and Utopia, New York: Basic Books.
  • Macpherson, C.B., 1962, The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism: Hobbes to Locke, Oxford: Clarendon Press.
  • Ryan, Alan, 1965, “John Locke and the Dictatorship of the Proletariat”, Political Studies, 13: 219–230.
  • Tuckness, Alex, 1999, “The Coherence of a Mind: John Locke and the Law of Nature”, Journal of the History of Philosophy, 37: 73–90.


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