What is Equality? Equality in John Locke's Second Treatise

Essay add: 30-09-2015, 13:07   /   Views: 2 685
What is Equality? Equality in John Locke's Second Treatise

What is equality? Equality is a loaded term that can be used many different ways. It could be utilized to describe the same political rights that people may have, including males and females. Or it can be applied to describing the identical opportunity for one to accrue wealth. With a myriad of different uses and interpretations, equality is a confusing concept that can be hard to grasp. However, John Locke in the Second Treatise of Government outlines his theory of equality and how it works in his political society, known as the common-wealth. This political community, as will be discussed in greater detail, is constituted of all people because they are inherently born with the natural right to be free from subjugation. This natural equality is the foundation for civilization as it leads people out of an isolated existence into a political community. The aforementioned is envisioned through the passage of humans traveling from the state of nature into family organizations that gain properties and then ultimately towards a political society.

Prior to substantiating the argument of Locke’s theory of equality as the foundation for his common-wealth state, it must first be understood. The natural equality of all people, as written by Locke in the Second Treatise emphasizes that all men are born in an equal state. No one is greater or lesser than another and therefore subject to no one, unless one willfully permits. “A state also of equality, wherein all the power and jurisdiction is reciprocal, no one having more than another…that creatures of the same race and rank …should also be equal one amongst each other without subordination or subjection.” This type of equality stresses that all people are free from being ruled or dominated by another person or group. However, Locke writes later in the same paragraph that they are equal and free “unless the lord and master of them all should, by any manifest declaration of his will, set one above another, and confer on him, by an evident and clear appointment, and undoubted right to dominion and sovereignty.” In this passage, Locke directly refers to the monarchy. During his lifetime, it is still widely believed that the kings and queens of the world are selected by God to rule over that particular kingdom. During the coronation ceremony, for example, the sovereign is anointed with oil to symbolize this divine ordination. Besides the aforementioned, humans are inherently equal, and as such, free from subjugation by another, unless they surrender that right by choice. As naturally born people both free and equal, humans can build a common-wealth. This can begin by understanding and moving out of the state of nature.

Before entering into a civil society, John Locke writes that man exists in a ‘state of nature’ much similar to Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan. Locke describes the state of nature as: “a state of perfect freedom to order their actions and dispose of their possessions and persons, as they think fit, within the bounds of the law of nature.” However, unlike Hobbes, Locke highlights that there are natural laws that govern the state of nature. These natural laws govern how one should act. Also, it gives a person viable grounds to retaliate if he is assaulted or affected by another’s negative actions. “In transgressing the law of nature, the offender declares himself to live by another rule than that of reason and common equity, which is that measure God has set to the actions of men, for their mutual security…Every man hath a right to punish the offender and be executioner of the law of nature.” Although there are natural laws that guide people in the state of nature, it is necessary to coalesce into a community of persons, known as a society. This society creates civil laws for the security of all those that enter that common-wealth. “God, having made man such a creature, that in his own judgment, it is not good for him to be alone, puts him under strong obligations of necessity, convenience, and inclination to drive him into society, as well as fit him with understanding and language to continue and enjoy it.” With the understanding of natural equality and the state of nature that is inherent in man, one can delve into understanding how it is essential to building the commonwealth state in the Second Treatise. The first step from the state of nature towards a civil society is the family.

The family unit is essential to the construction of the common-wealth because it gathers equal men and women together to preserve the human race and allow it to progress towards a political community. “The first society is between man and wife, which gives beginning to that between parents and children.” The family is part of the natural equality in Locke’s Second Treatise because all men are created equal, thus free from the rule by another. As a result, men and women freely come together to form a basic, familial community. “Conjugal society is made by a voluntary compact between man and woman…yet it draws with it mutual assistance and a communion of interests too, as necessary not only to unite their care and affection, but also necessary to their common off-spring…” Although Locke uses the term ‘man’ as being created equal and is used throughout the book, it calls into question if women are included as well.

Women are free and equal in the state of nature and in political society. Even though the male is dominant, his influence cannot affect the female’s choices and actions. “The last determination…naturally falls to the man’s share, as the abler and the stronger. But this reaching but to the things of their common interest and property, leaves the wife in the full and free possession of what by contract is her peculiar right, and gives the husband no more power over her life than she has over his.” The males may have more influence and be physically stronger, but Locke believes that the females are still naturally equal, in his eyes. Even though a woman may not be able to perform as many actions or are restricted by men, women still share in the same inalienable rights as males. A man can not dominate a woman, take away her property, or force her into marriage or conjugal relations. Thus, man and wife join together as natural equals into the ‘first society’, from the state of nature. However, the situation is different for their children.

Locke states that all humans are born equal. However, parents have various degrees of control and authority over their children. This appears to be contrary to the egalitarian theory of equality. In response, he writes: “Children are not born in this full state of equality, though they are born to it. Their parents have a sort of rule and jurisdiction over them, when they come into the world and for some time after; but it is but a temporary one.” The parents are there to raise and educate their child of the laws, whether natural or civil. Once the child has reached an age where he or she is able to guide their actions within those boundaries of the law, he or she too will share in the full equality and freedom of their parents as well. “The power, then, that parents have over their children arises from the duty which is incumbent on them, to take care of their off-spring, during the imperfect state of childhood. To inform the mind, and govern the actions…till reason shall take its place and ease them of that trouble.” The family unit is an extension of Locke’s natural equality of freedom as families search for their own material goods and land to own.

Locke’s theory of equality, which grants human freedom from being subjects of others is applied to the family’s right to have material goods for survival. In Locke’s society, everyone has a claim to some sort of property. “The earth and all that is therein, is given to men for the support and comfort of their being.” As a man that is free from being under the rule of another man, he is able to provide for himself and his family through labour. “The labour of his body and the work of his hands, we may say, are properly his. Whatsoever then he removes out of the state that nature hath provided, and left it in, he hath mixed his labour with, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property.” This sort of labour includes the retrieval of drink, the cultivation of crops for food and the raising of cattle. With small families holding properties material goods and land, communities form as nomadic people settle down within the boundaries of their territorial property. “But as families increase and industry inlarge [sic] their stocks, their possessions inlarge [sic] with the need of them; but yet it is commonly without any fixed property in the ground…till they incorporate and settle themselves together and build cities.” Stemming from the development of families living in close proximity to each other, communities emerge and ultimately the political common-wealth of John Locke is achieved.

With property and the settling of families in a defined region, humans are able to enter the common-wealth society with structures that are rooted in the basic natural equality of persons. Locke defines the common-wealth as: “not a democracy, or any form of government, but any independent community.” This common-wealth, (whether a monarchy, oligarchy, democracy, etc…) is constructed when: “any number of men are so united into one society, as to quit every one his executive power of the law of nature, and to resign it to the public, there and there only is a political, or civil society.” These people shift from the state of nature into this civil society, with the purpose of protecting all its citizens and the property they possess. “But because no political society can be, nor subsist, without having in itself the power to preserve the property…and there only is political society, where every one of the members hath quitted this natural power, resigned it up into the hands of the community…” The protection of property - the purpose of the common-wealth, is a direct result of the natural equality that all people possess, for they have a right to property. In order to protect these properties, they give up some freedoms in the state of nature to the common-wealth government. However, in order to serve the public that submits their inalienable right, the political structure of the common-wealth must be stable and effective.

John Locke, in the Second Treatise, outlines the structure of government that best suits the people who give up natural freedoms, such as the pursuit of justice, to accumulate and secure property. All forms of common-wealth have an identical purpose. The function of the government is to preserve the property of the equal citizens. This is achieved through the establishment and enforcement of civil laws. “And this puts men out of a state of nature into that of a common-wealth, by setting up a judge on earth, with authority to determine all the controversies and redress the injuries that may happen to any member of the common-wealth.” When man is in the state of nature, they are governed only by natural laws. If anyone defies these laws, the victim exacts a proportional response to the offense. However, in Locke’s common-wealth, civil laws exist to protect the property of the citizenry. Furthermore, it is the government that prosecutes violators of these laws, as opposed to the victim personally seeking reparations. Thus the purpose of the government in the common-wealth is to protect the property of its citizens through the establishment of civil laws. As such, an understanding of Locke’s system of government that best accomplishes this can be discussed.

According to Locke, the most vital organ in the government of his political society is the legislative. The legislative, as a result of the assembling of persons in the state of nature, must represent the concerns of all it citizens, or at least the majority since it is impossible to please every person.

The legislative is not only the supreme power of the common-wealth, but sacred and unalterable in the hands where the community have once placed it; nor can any edict of any body else…have the force and obligation of a law…which the public has chosen and appointed: for without this the law could not have…the consent of society.


Thus, the legislative, acting on behalf of the citizens, create laws for their benefit. No random person or faction can appear and promulgate new ‘laws’ and expect them to be obeyed, unless the legislative is removed or altered. Laws must originate from the institution that is under the employ of the citizens to create these laws. However, the power of the legislative is not absolute or arbitrary.

Locke writes in the Second Treatise that the legislative is a construct of equal persons. Therefore, when the legislative exercises its power and creates laws, it must maintain the equality of all citizens. Thus, it cannot be absolute or arbitrary. “For it [the legislative] being but the joint power of every member of the society given up to that person, or assembly, which is legislator; it can be no more than those persons had in the state of nature before they entered into society, and give up to the community: for no body can transfer to another more power than he has in himself…” The legislative can not wield power that is greater than an individual, even when they exist in the state of nature. A prime example of the aforementioned concerns property: “The supreme power cannot take from any man any part of his property without his own consent: for the preservation of property being the end of government, and that for which men enter into society, it necessarily supposes that people should have property…” Humans in Locke’s common-wealth are equipped with the natural right to hold property. Thus, they cannot lose their property, even to the government, unless consent is given by the public. Although the legislative wing of the government is described as the ‘supreme power’ because of its role in protecting the equality of all citizens in the Second Treatise, there is another power that is necessary: the executive.

The executive has a different role in the government. Although it is subordinate to the legislative, it is just as important nonetheless. Locke states in this text that the executive continually enforces the laws that the legislative creates. “Therefore it is necessary there should be a power always in being, which should see to the execution of the laws that are made and remain in force.” Locke also writes of federative powers that are usually united with the executive, with the hope that decisions by this person or persons are done in the best interests of the citizens. “This therefore contains the power of war and peace, leagues and alliances, and all the transactions, with all persons and communities without the common-wealth.” With these distinct responsibilities and powers, the executive is an important part of Locke’s political society. It must be stressed that, similar to the legislative, the executive is subordinate to the laws of the common-wealth. Since everyone is naturally equal in the state of nature; all persons fall under the laws and must maintain that natural equality in a civil society. “No man in civil society can be exempted from the laws of it.” Although, the natural equality of the common-wealth is maintained, there are times where that equality may not be as readily seen.

Locke, in his section of the Second Treatise of Government regarding the executive, makes a concession whereby the executive can act against the laws or if no law exists for a particular situation, as long as it is for the greater public good. This is described as the executive having prerogative. “The power to act according to discretion, for the public good, without the prescription of the law, and sometimes even against it, is that which is called prerogative.” Therefore, the executive has the responsibility of enforcing the laws of the legislative and acting in its stead when it is necessary. One can find this prerogative in today’s societies with emergency measures that invest greater authority to the executive in times of crisis. As stated before, all of this is executed for the good of the equal citizens who give up their natural right in the state of nature in order to be protected.

As a result, John Locke’s theory of equality permeates humanity’s progression from the state of nature, into the family unit as it gains property and concluding in the common-wealth. In the Second Treatise, Locke writes that each person has a natural right not to be ruled by another person and to accrue property, unless it is freely waived. In the state of nature, this natural egalitarian lifestyle allows for the accumulation of property for survival. But it does not guarantee protection. Thus, man travels out of the state of nature into a civil society in order to safeguard that equality and property. John Locke, in his treatise, attempts to help readers find a political society whereby people are equal and can not be subjugated by some foreign power. The exemplification of Locke’s political theorizing is the United States of America. This country is based on Locke’s fundamental principles that all people (in the United States) are created equal and that they have a right to life, liberty and property. However, all political systems, including the aforementioned, are far from perfect. Yet, Locke understands and writes about the changes that are happening and will happen during the 18th Century and onwards. It provides a stable and effective form of governance as parts of the world shift out of the Medieval, monarchical times and into the Modern, Technological and Republican Era.

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