Locke’s Philosophy on Material Rights = Common Sense

There is absolutely nothing profound in this paper, and unlike virtually any other philosophy paper I’ve ever written the trick was stretching it to 5 pages rather than limiting it to said length.

The CliffsNotes version: regarding material rights Locke “astonishingly” (insert sarcasm here) believes (1) If there is an unlimited amount of resources, a person has the right to take as much as he or she can use (2) If there is a limited amount of resources (which is almost always the case) a person has the right to take the smallest amount that he or she can make use of.

Granted there are exceptions and special circumstances but on the whole this is pretty basic stuff that’s already fairly well covered under the Golden Rule.

That said, if anyone has the fortitude to actually read this paper have at it. I apologize in advance to both of you.

Locke’s Provisio as Independent of Abundance

This paper will argue that Locke’s provisio given in section 27 of the Second Treatise does not depend on abundance. The provisio states: every man has a right to what he is or once was joined to, at least where there is enough, and as good, left in common for others. First I’ll explain exactly what this means and then turn to the issue at hand.

A bit about Locke and his philosophy regarding a person’s right to property. It seems self evident (or at least reasonable to believe) that every man has a right to the property of his own person. Locke ascribes to this position but to Locke “his own person” includes both the physical body and the labor of the body[1]. So the crops a farmer harvests are also personal property to which the farmer has a right to. Additionally, in Locke’s metaphysical view humans are privileged beings, superior to all except God, and “the earth and all inferior creatures”[2] are property common to all men. Thus, by saying every man has the right to his own person Locke actually means every man has a right to himself and all that he gathers.

But taken at face value this seems far too broad so Locke qualifies his position with a provisio – every man has a right to himself and all that he gathers at least where there is enough, and as good, left in common for others

We can see the consequences of adding the proviso by observing the form of Locke’s position with and without the provisio. His thesis with the provisio is a conditional – If x then y – in which x represents “where there is enough left for others” and y is “every man has a right to himself.” However, without the provisio Locke’s position is a categorical statement “y” which is significantly stronger. Thus, the provisio acts to weaken Locke’s strong categorical assertion that every man has a right to himself and all he gathers.

Now it should be clear (1) what Locke’s provisio is (2) the role this provisio plays in Locke’s philosophy. With these formalities addressed we can now investigate the issue of abundance.

Taken at face value, Locke’s provisio does depend on abundance. Simply put it states: if there is an unlimited amount of resources, a man has a right to all he can gather. However, it is never the case in our world that there is an unlimited amount of resources, so if the provisio is only given this very narrow reading it would be meaningless. Locke obviously knew this so what was he trying to accomplish with this passage? I believe the correct way to view the provisio is as something like a jumping off point for Locke’s position on the subject of man’s right to material possessions. It signals the beginning of his investigation, hardly the definitive conclusion. My point is, yes literally the provisio depends on abundance but it is clearly wrong to view it as a stand-alone part of Locke’s philosophy. It is the introduction to his theory on a man’s right to material possessions and that theory can be applied to all situations regardless of the abundance of resources, which is the real question at hand. Again, this is the correct interpretation because:

1. The provisio by itself is meaningless and does not apply to our world. Locke knew this, therefore he did not intend it to be taken or evaluated on its own.

2. This is further evidenced by “At least” as in “at least where there is enough, and as good, left in common for others.” Adding “at least” makes it so certain criteria must be met before a man has a right to himself and what he gathers, and the following example (when there is enough left for others) is one instance in which a man has this right but there may be others or further qualifications.

3. Finally, after putting forth the provisio in Section 27 Locke continues on to develop his theory on material rights through (at least) Section 33.

In the above section I hope to have established (1) it is wrong to evalutate Locke’s provisio outside of his larger theory on material rights (2) why this is so. I will now provide support for an assertion I made in the previous paragraph – that Locke’s theory on material rights can be applied to all situations regardless of the abundance of resources. I will outline Locke’s theory and then explain why this is the case.

As I have said previously, the provisio is the beginning of Locke’s position, so we start with:

1. Every man has a right to his own body

2. God is supreme, men were created in his likeness and the earth and all its creatures were made for man

3. Thus, man has a right to his own body and the fruits of his body (what he gathers/creates) so long as it doesn’t interfere with the rights of other men (aka Locke’s provisio – every man has a right to himself and all that he gathers at least where there is enough, and as good, left in common for others).

But even with the provisio this is still rather strong. What about waste? Even if there are enough, let’s say deer, for everyone is it right to kill more than one can use? Locke doesn’t think so.

4. “If gathering the fruits of the earth… makes a right to them then any one may ingross as much as he will. To which I answer, not so.” One can take “as much as any one can make use of… before it spoils”[3].

So Locke clearly isn’t holding to his provisio literally, for a few paragraphs later he begins refining it. He notes here that it’s not enough to simply avoid infringing on the rights of others when gathering material possessions, but one must also not be wasteful. This seems like a reasonable provision. But now we are back at the question of abundance. Locke’s theory is all well and good up to this point but it says nothing about how we should manage living in a reality of scarce resources. He finally gets to this point two paragraphs later in Section 33.

5. “He that leaves as much as another can make use of, does as good as take nothing at all”[4]. I understand this passage like – if there is enough X for 10 people then I have a right to take 1/10th of the total amount. If I take less than 1/10th it is of no use to me, and if I take more I am not leaving “enough and as good in common for others” (again, from the provisio). Obviously this isn’t an exact or perfect system and should be taken in the spirit intended rather than the literal words. It would be absurd to say to people, “before taking anything measure the total amount of resources and divide it by the number of people who want or need it”; and Locke isn’t suggesting this. His point is simply, when we recognize there is a limited amount of whatever we are taking, then we only have the right to take the smallest amount we can use. Yes there may be exceptions and special circumstances (Utilitarian philosophy comes first to mind) but on the whole this is a reasonable rule by which to live.

Thus, Locke’s position regarding material rights can be succinctly put as:

a. If there is an abundance of resources a man has the right to take as much as he can use

b. If there is a limited amount of resources a man has the right to take the smallest amount he can make use of.

So now I hope to have explained (1) what Locke’s provisio is and its significance (2) how the provisio should be properly viewed in relation to Locke’s theory of material rights on the whole (3) what Locke’s theory of material rights entails (4) why this theory is reasonable and does not depend on abundance.


[1] Second Treatise Sec. 27

[2] Second Treatise Sec. 27

[3] Second Treatise Sec. 31

[4] Second Treatise Sec. 33

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