Saturday, August 8, 2009

Life, Liberty, and Property

The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which obliges every one: and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind, who will but consult it,that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions. [John Locke, Two Treatises of Government]

Locke [1632-1704] is the source of the slogan that heads this post. The words of the slogan are a modification of the quote shown above. In that same book Locke uses much the same phrase three times more. In one case he speaks of “life, liberty, or estate,” in another of “a power…to preserve his property, that is, his life, liberty and estate,” and finally he speaks of “life, liberty, or possessions” again, but this time leaving out health. From this we get Jefferson’s elegant edit in the Declaration of Independence: “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” The modified phrase also appears twice in the U.S. constitution, in the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments. Both prohibit depriving persons of “life, liberty, or property”; in both cases the same qualifying phrase also appears: “without due process of law.”


In thinking about government and rights, Locke relied on natural law doctrines that find their rootings in antiquity. His own intention was to erect rational fences to defend the people against arbitrary government and offered justification for overthrowing rulers who violated natural law.

But natural law also deals with humanity in the collective, thus with communities and states, both of which, it turns out, are necessary features of individual liberty. Collectives also have rights, and these in turn limit individuals rights. Collectives may restrain some to protect others; they may defend themselves and, in the process, cause (at least indirectly) the death of their warriors; and they can require contributions necessary to maintain their activities. Life, liberty, and property, therefore, are not absolute rights but delimited in complex ways when the one and the many must both be accommodated in our thought.

Taxation is not theft. Extreme forms of right-wing thought maintain that it is, but what such advocates demonstrate is their own irrationality. We do have anarchists among us. But when such modes of thought begin to influence the masses, one begins to see the consequence of neglecting or outright banning ethics in school in favor of “social studies.”

1 comment:

  1. Oh, I like the way you used the picture of a fence here. Very nice.

    It is also interesting that you speak of those who support social studies over ethics... The divide I fear we have now in this regard is one that pits those who favor humanism (social studies) against those who favor a course of study based on a rigid religious doctrine… and neither recognizes ethics as particularly important.

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