Posts Tagged ‘John Locke’

Finding Our Father and Loving Our Mother: How Humility Can Contribute to an Understanding of Ecological Theology (pt. 8)

February 12, 2018

I have tried to show here that the stereotypical Christian position on ecology is not the only one, or the oldest, or even the majority opinion. It is a rather recent innovation, which has become prominent in recent years because of a well-orchestrated campaign heavily funded by business interests and driven by social-political concerns, that is, “The Culture Wars.” It is a position that owes more to John Locke than to the Biblical heritage, interpreting Scripture through the lens of Locke’s views on property and a libertarian version of Christian Dominionism. Because it is well-funded, it has a loud voice, and is currently very politically influential. However, it is not the only Christian voice. The other voice I have sought to call attention to is much older, and more widely influential. It begins with St. Augustine of Hippo, and thus is foundational for much of Western Christianity both Catholic and Protestant. While it originated in the conversation between Neoplatonism and the Christian Biblical tradition, its moral and epistemological concerns reach beyond that metaphysical framework. It is a theological vision that sees love as the fulfillment of human life, humility as the cardinal virtue to live the life of perfect love, and pride as the deadly sin that turns us away from the live of love which should be our destiny. This tradition is often drowned out today in the press, but it is not silenced; it continues to speak through Christian thinkers directly or indirectly influenced by Augustine’s insights. This theology offers Christians the best resources to contribute helpfully to facing the ecological crisis brought on by human abuse of our environment, abuse at times abetted by Christianity itself and by the same heritage of John Locke which gave us our Revolution.


Finding Our Father and Loving Our Mother: How Humility Can Contribute to an Understanding of Ecological Theology (pt. 7)

February 12, 2018

I’ve tried to lay out two significant moral traditions that express themselves in two very different Protestant theologies. One begins with the earliest days of Western Christianity, and continues through religious and even nonreligious thinkers. It is a tradition that sees the greatest moral danger as pride, the cardinal virtue as humility, and the fulfillment of human existence as loving God with all one’s heart and mind and strength and one’s neighbor as oneself. The other crystallized in the English Enlightenment, and influenced European and American thinking, most prominently in the American Revolution, which was justified by appealing to its principles. This tradition sees conflict and oppression as the greatest evils, reason as the greatest virtue, and individual liberty and happiness (understood as a calm, sustained pleasure) as the best human life. I want to point out that there are resources within the Lockean moral tradition to start a conversation on environmentalism. Specifically, Locke’s defense of private property is limited by what he calls “the law of reason.” While a person has a natural right to whatever property his or her work has acquired and he or she can use, a person does not have a right to what cannot be used before it spoils.[1] He also discusses how some lands may be held in common for the good of all the people of a village or nation, which would justify public parks, federal forests and so on, with restrictions on the use of these by individuals.[2] But in the theological current flowing from Locke through Rushdooney into today’s federal government, it rarely does so. I would suggest that there are two main reasons for this; first and most obviously, much of the theology is being funded by large corporate donors, and they donate to amplify the voices that are the most business-friendly; and second, there is a hermeneutical blindness that prevents many preachers and theologians from properly critiquing Locke’s writings. When Locke writes, for example, “God , …has given the earth to the children of men,” it is easy to see this as some sort of divine command which would therefore have no limits; the will of God transcends human reason. In fact, Locke means no such thing. His primary theological writing, The Reasonableness of Christianity, makes this clear. He vigorously rejects religious extremism, or as he calls it, “enthusiasm,” and argues for an understanding of God that is reasonable: no miracles, no arbitrary commands, no resurrections and no one person paying for the sins of everyone. The scissors Jefferson used to edit the Bible were forged by Locke. But to a fundamentalist super-patriot, like Rushdooney or Jerry Falwell, Locke’s words go from being a rational argument capable of rational limits to a divine fiat which treats any question as rebellion. And that is how environmental questions about this “subdue the earth” mentality are treated. As one example, I would point to Kathleen Hartnett White, nominated by Trump to head the Council on Environmental Quality, who claimed that the belief in global warming was “a kind of paganism.”[3]

But even at its best, a social contract philosophy like Locke’s can only treat Nature as a resource for the enjoyment of humans, since only humans enter into the contract. And that is the real problem for theology in swallowing this philosophy, or any philosophy, without some hermeneutical consciousness: that one will try to build an understanding of God on a foundation that does not fit. The Augustinian moral tradition, by contrast, begins with an essentially spiritual foundation: the Platonic belief in the reality of transcendent Good, which makes itself known to those who are willing to receive it, coupled with the Abrahamic belief in one good, loving, personal God who created the world out of love, because it was good for these things to exist. From this perspective, the extreme individualism that Enlightenment social contract theory takes as its starting point is simply the first sign of pride, not an essential reality. The reality, or as Allen puts it, the moral perspective, is that humans are one part of the created order. They do not create order out of chaos by imposing or founding a social contract; they discover their parts as particulars among billions of other particular things, each of which is good in its own way and each of which is perfectly loved by God.

As I have indicated, this is not the theology underlying current U.S. government policies or much of Evangelical thinking. But it, or something like it, does underlie the environmental ethics of other strains of Christianity. The ecumenical National Council of Churches regularly publishes Earth Day liturgical materials, including a 2011 suggested Prayer of Confession which reads:



God, in all your Creation you have revealed to us the fragile interdependence of life. We confess, at times, we have rebelled against you with ideas of self-sufficiency and extreme individualism. We reap without sowing and do harm without knowing. Open our eyes and hearts to your Creation and all who labor to offer us daily with food, water, energy, and sanitation. Help us to build a just, sustainable community of equitable sharing, solidarity and gratitude.[4]



While NCC materials tend to focus on human needs and on preserving the environment to better protect the most vulnerable of us humans, they consistently emphasize human interconnectedness, first with one another but also with the rest of Creation, versus “our individualistic culture that is set up so that we will neither notice each others’ struggles, nor bear each others’ burdens.”[5] In Allen’s theology of perfect love, this extreme individualism is the de facto perspective; as he write, “My consumption of resources is well out of proportion to the available supply for mankind, yet I rarely give serious attention to the suffering of those I have never seen, even though I know in theory that their suffering is as real as any I have ever had.”[6] In both the primary religious task is seen as decentering oneself, turning away from excessive concern for oneself and consideration for the worldwide community. This is the Augustinian virtue of humility again, pulling the individual de facto person back from prideful self-love to make room for the moral life of perfect love of others.

An even clearer call to what Allen calls “perfect love” appears in “Earth Care Congregations: A Guide to Greening Presbyterian Churches.”[7] It states:



Our faith urges us to strive for eco-justice: defending and healing creation while working to assure justice for all of creation and the human beings who live in it. This call is rooted in the human vocation of “tilling and keeping” the garden from Genesis 2:15, as well as Christ’s charge to work with and for the most vulnerable. Because of their love for Christ who is the firstborn of all creation (Colossians 1:15), churches are challenged to live in a manner consistent with God’s call to not only care for creation, but commune with creation.[8]



I don’t have any reason to think that the writers of this document had read Allen, but it seems clear they speak from the Augustinian moral tradition that he exemplifies. I find it remarkable how closely this justification for eco-justice follows Allen’s list of ethical implications of the experience of perfect love. The call to defend justice for “all creation and the human beings who live in it” reflects the humility of perfect love. Humans are to see themselves not as the beneficiaries of creation, those for whom all other things were created, but rather as one part of the vast created cosmos. The love of creation is referred back to the love of Christ, and all things done to harm or heal the Earth are seen as harming or healing Jesus himself (fourth on Allen’s list of five ethical principles). While some theologies discuss the believer in terms of ruling over Creation (an apocalyptic reference to the place of the saints in glory after the final judgment), the Earth Care statement discusses humans as servants, “tilling and keeping” God’s garden, not ruling over creation but “communing” with it as equals. As Allen said, we should not see ourselves as living in glory before our time; in this live we are de facto persons who are inclined to exploit, but in the afterlife we will be freed from this bondage to our egos and able to rule creation as God rules it—without selfish need, out of perfect love alone, as moral persons—-though of course without the omnipotence, still humble servants only.

All these documents we have examined so far have been supplementary educational materials. While all were available through my home denomination, the Presbyterian Church USA, some were originally published by the National Council of Churches and mention Episcopal, UCC and Lutheran leaders. This gives us some glimpse of the broad influence of the Augustinian moral perspective on environmental thinking within Christianity. Nature is valued and to be protected not merely because it is good for humans, but because it is good in itself. The last document I would like us to look at is the “Brief Statement of Faith” found in The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (USA) pt. 1: Book of Confessions. It states:



Ignoring God’s commandments, we violate the image of God in others and ourselves, accept lies as truth, exploit neighbor and nature, and threaten death to the planet entrusted to our care. We deserve God’s condemnation. Yet God acts with justice and mercy to redeem creation.[9]



Again, the emphasis is not solely on human interests; instead, exploitation of both human and nonhuman creation is condemned, and God is said to act to redeem all creation.

[1] John Locke, Second Treatise of Civil Government, chapter V, sect. 31-

[2] Locke, sect. 31-41

[3] Veronica Stacqualursi, “White House to Withdraw Environmental Pick’s Nomination.” CNN February 3, 2018 (


[4] National Council of Churches, “Where Two or More are Gathered: Eco-Justice as Community;” National Council of Churches Eco-Justice Programs (2011) Bulletin insert

[5] “Where Two or More are Gathered,” p. 6

[6] Allen, p. 77

[7] PC(USA), Earth Care Congregations: A Guide to Greening Presbyterian Churches, version 3, 2013 (

[8] Earth Care Congregations, “Why Should We Care for the Earth?”

[9] The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (USA) pt. 1: Book of Confessions (Louisville, KY: Office of the General Assembly, Presbyterian Church USA, 1996) 10.3: 34-40 (emphasis added)

Finding Our Father and Loving Our Mother: How Humility Can Contribute to an Understanding of Ecological Theology

January 18, 2018

This is the working draft of a paper I am preparing for a local Earth Day conference, but see no reason to wait until then to start a conversation.



Finding Our Father and Loving Our Mother: How Humility Can Contribute to an Understanding of Ecological Theology



Abstract:    In this paper I shall discuss the concept of humility, as discussed by Augustine of Hippo, Søren Kierkegaard and Diogenes Allen. In the Augustinian tradition, pride is the original and deadly sin, from which all others derive; humility is the cardinal virtue of not thinking more of oneself than is the truth. Through Kierkegaard and Allen, this theological virtue becomes an epistemological virtue as well, providing a basis for ways to think about the environment beyond the man/property/wilderness framework often found in fundamentalist theologies and libertarian economic ethics. Finally, I shall use the concept of humility to analyze and critique the environmental pronouncements and policies of my own religious tradition, the Presbyterian Church (USA).



The 18th century philosopher Johann Georg Hamann (1730-1788) once said that the fundamental mistake of modern theologies was their tendency to take over the dominant philosophies of their day, and try to talk about God based on those constraints. The problem in Hamman’s eyes was that these philosophies began from a more or less atheist starting point; building on this flawed foundation, any theological edifice was bound to be unstable. At the risk of anachronism, I would claim that much of 20th century Protestant American Fundamentalism falls into this trap. The philosophical foundation for writers such as Rousas Rushdoony and Jerry Falwell is a libertarian political philosophy rooted originally in John Locke. Locke’s philosophy, particularly as laid out in his Second Treatise on Civil Government, profoundly shaped the thinking and the direction of the American independence movement, and it would not be an exaggeration to say that he was the grandfather of the American Revolution. His thinking influences our culture still in ways most of us scarcely realize, and I am grateful for most of it. But when it comes to environmental thinking, his thought is unhelpful and, in its current incarnations, downright dangerous. I want here to briefly survey how Locke’s views on property and nature affect much American thought, including Fundamentalist theology. Next, I want to go back to the Augustinian tradition, and look at how the Augustinian concepts of pride and humility can give us a new starting point for discussing our relationship with nature. In particular, I will be discussing the book Finding Our Father, written by one of my favorite professors in seminary, Diogenes Allen. I will be writing this primarily as an exercise in or examination of Christian theology, but I hope the treatment will be interesting and helpful for others as well.

In his Second Treatise on Civil Government, John Locke lays out some very radical political theories. Having argued in the first treatise against the divine right of kings, in the second he argues that political power is in fact the expression of the will of the majority of the people. A nation, he says, is a group of people who have agreed to live together and work together to solve their disagreements peacefully and to protect each others’ life, liberty and property. They achieve this by creating a government which therefore ought to include representatives chosen by the people to make decisions on behalf of the rest, and who are subject to replacement by popular vote. In an era where the people were often treated as property of the monarch as much as the land they farmed was, the idea that the king, courts and Parliament existed to serve the people and carry out their will was quite literally revolutionary: it was born in response to the English Civil War and the Glorious Revolution, and it led to the American Revolution a generation later. Instead of considering individuals first as subjects ruled by others, Locke said each was essentially the ruler of himself or herself. No rational being owned another; rather, each owns his or her own body. Nature, by contrast, is not consciously rational, so natural resources such as water, fruit trees in the forest and so on are unowned, or common property. But if some person adds his or her own effort to the natural object, say by gathering the apples from the tree into a basket, then that formerly unowned resource is not a mixture of the natural and the efforts of some person’s body, and thus becomes by extension that person’s private property. Whenever a human shapes or changes nature, that human adds a little of his or her own body to it, and it becomes private property.

Locke does have some constraints on this natural acquisition. Importantly, he said that no one has a right to more of anything than he or she can use before it spoils. It would be irrational, a violation of the law of Reason which rules even in nature, for one person to gather all the food and hoard it until it spoils while others starve. But essentially, Locke treats the natural world as having worth only as it affects humans. People turn nature into property, and have an inalienable right to do so. Locke’s Second Treatise had a powerful influence on America’s Founding Fathers, and his philosophy both explicitly and covertly influenced our culture and still does. Explicitly, it shaped the Declaration of Independence, and Locke’s idea for a tripartite government is the foundation of our Constitution’s division into executive, legislative and judicial branches. Less explicitly, his views of property were very congenial to colonial and frontier farmers/plantation owners, justifying their wholesale conversion of wilderness to private farmland. Locke basically assumed that Nature was inexhaustible, an idea that was questionable on the British island but which seemed obviously true to the Englishmen and later Americans looking west towards apparently limitless horizons. And even today, this view of Nature is powerful, particularly in the business community: nature is raw material, and essentially limitless, unless pesky regulations get in the way.

Locke often used religious language in his political writing, referring to the law of Nature, Reason and the will of God more or less interchangeably. This made it easy for later American religious conservatives to take over his philosophy and incorporate it more or less unaltered into such theologies as Christian Reconstructionism. This represents a major and important misunderstanding of Locke’s thought, one that in turn delegitimizes this entire theological project. In his primary theological work, The Reasonableness of Christianity, Locke argues that the true heart of Christianity is a moral monotheism. He has no real use for miracle stories, or the idea that one guy could die for the sins of others; his religion and thus his God is philosophical, ethical, and like the title says, reasonable. But at least since Rousas Rushdoony and continuing through Falwell and others, as well as countless Evangelical Protestant preachers, this idea that humans have a “divine” right to treat nature as an inexhaustible source of human wealth has been treated as an Eleventh Commandment: Thou shalt not hinder private property. For Locke, saying this was divine law was the same as saying it is reason’s law; thus, we can use reason to interpret it. For some conservative Christians, the “law of God” is more like the absolute eternal pronouncement of the Divine Lawgiver, so far beyond all human reason that even to hint that we might be harming the Earth is literally said to be rebellion against the LORD. Not only is Nature treated as an unlimited resource with value only as human property, but to say otherwise is, in some theological circles, literally a sin. And while this attitude is not the majority opinion of religious people, it has an outsized influence on American politics through the influence of well-financed lobbyists and media organizations supporting and supported by religious celebrities and mega-congregations.   Returning to Hamann’s observation, rather than start with a religious standpoint, derive their ecological theology from that and then dialog with American culture, a large swath of American fundamentalism adopted a humanistic attitude towards nature derived from Locke’s views on property as these were expressed through American culture and particularly American business culture; then, tacking on a fundamentalist Divine Commander to the rationalist foundation, they derived a theological approach to Nature that severely limits what religion can say to humans that they are not already happy to say to themselves. There can be no prophetic voice when the theology is merely an echo of the interests of economic and political powers.

An Open Letter to Mitch McConnell

July 12, 2017

Dear Senator McConnell:

Republicans have been saying for many years that a nation that cannot guard its borders is no nation at all.  As a point of geography, this is not really true; there are many national borders today that are not patrolled or even fenced, where a person may wander from one country to another without realizing it, and still those nations thrive.  Why?  Because physical boundaries do not matter nearly as much as the ability to govern and control.  If a nation is able to make and enforce laws within an area, it exists.  I could live in Canada for twenty years, in a shack, thinking I was in the U.S. because the border was unguarded and I can’t read a map, and it would not threaten Canada in the slightest, so long as when I finally broke the law in some way Canadian police were able to arrest me, and Canadian courts were able to judge me according to laws made by and for the people of Canada.

Currently, in the United States, we cannot say with confidence that we are a nation.  Our ability to choose our own leaders is under attack.  Without the ability to choose our own leaders, we cannot make our own laws.  Without our own laws, our courts are reduced to enforcing the laws made by others.  When our own courts cannot enforce our own laws, our police and military are merely security guards protecting someone else’s property, following the directions of the boss who actually makes the rules.  And right now, Russia is striving to be that boss.

We know that the Russian government hacked at least 21 state election boards.  We are told that they didn’t change any votes, but we do not know that since no one has actually investigated this.  To say “we have seen no evidence that any votes were changed” when there has been no serious (or even cursory) investigation by DHS is like the “three wise monkeys” with their eyes and ears and mouths covered, so that they cannot see, here or say anything bad. (Source:  It is a farce.  But instead of investigating this very real, proven threat to our national sovereignty, you, the Republican Party, are wasting millions of taxpayer dollars investigating voter fraud, which even you, Sen. McConnell, admit never happened (sources: and  You yourself said in February of this year that no tax money should be spent on this snipe hunt; but still, a Federal government commission is demanding that state governments aid in its “investigation,” tying up millions of dollars to pay for an investigation using up the time of public servants who could be better employed preventing Russian hacking of the 2018 and 2020 elections.  The executive branch of this government has repeatedly called the entire Russian hacking investigation a “hoax” and “fake news,” with our President even repeating in Poland that “we don’t know” who was involved in hacking our election.

A nation that cannot guard its own methods of choosing its leaders is no nation at all.  The Russian hacking of our nation’s elections systems is a direct attack on our national sovereignty.  By comparison, everything else—-health care, tax reform, even military spending—is irrelevant.  What difference does it make whether we have the best military in the world, if the leaders who command that military are chosen by a foreign power?  We will simply be mercenaries for the Russians.

The Founding Fathers of this great nation, the authors of our Revolution and of our Constitution, were profoundly influenced by the philosophy of John Locke.  His was one of the first and most effective pens to be raised in defense of government of the people and by the people, at a time when England and most other nations still proclaimed the divine right of kings to absolute power.  When the leaders of the Thirteen Colonies sought to articulate the weight of their oppression and the justice of their cause, they turned to John Locke for guidance.  Here is what John Locke writes in his Second Treatise of Civil Government:


The delivery also of the people into the subjection of a foreign power, either by the prince, or by the legislative, is certainly a change of the legislative, and so a dissolution of the government: for the end why people entered into society being to be preserved one entire, free, independent society, to be governed by its own laws; this is lost, whenever they are given up into the power of another. (Second Treatise of Civil Government, Chapter XIX, sect. 217;


Since the 300 year old English can be a little clumsy to the modern ear, please allow me to rephrase:  When the leader of a nation, whether it be the Executive or the Legislative branch of the government, turns power over to a foreign government, that nation has dissolved, and the citizens are on their own to live as individuals, or to join together, take up arms to defend themselves, and to form a new government more responsive to their will.  That is the threat under which we now live:  the end of the United States of America.  And just as John Locke’s words justified a revolution on the far shores of the Atlantic eighty-six years later, there will be people who will say that they justify another one, should you, Senator McConnell, and your fellow leaders, allow this nation to hand its elections over to a foreign power.

I do not exaggerate when I say the United States faces an existential threat.  Here we are, threatened with the loss of our nation’s ability to control its own affairs in its own borders, while the Executive branch is focused instead on justifying the President’s fantasies of popularity and the Legislative branch is focused on passing legislation which the voters do not want and which don’t matter two whits if we cannot say with confidence that our nation is really ours.  Your behavior is as if the nation’s capital were again being burned to the ground by an invading army, and Congress were busy planning for the coming Cherry Blossom Festival.  What will future generations say, when our children or grandchildren ask how it came about that a mighty nation, at the height of its power, suddenly fell into subjugation and humiliation?  How will you be remembered, who allowed this to happen?

Put aside all this nonsense and distraction.  Health care will wait another year.  Tax reform will wait.  These things may flatter the Republican ego, allowing you to feel like you won over the Democrats; but only a fool fights in a burning house.  Focus your attention on something that will actually get bipartisan support, something that might actually unite our troubled nation, and something that actually matters.  Form a bipartisan, independent commission to discover what the Department of Homeland Security seems so uninterested in:  what the Russians are doing to influence state and national elections, and how to stop them.

Thank you for your time.

Should Stupid People Be Allowed to Vote? Conclusions

May 9, 2017

Should Stupid People Be Allowed to Vote? Conclusions


Platonic politics seems very distant from “the American way,” so distant that we may wonder if it has anything at all to teach us. But as one of the earliest attempts at rational political theory, it is also the source of some of our deepest principles. Most fundamentally, Republic’s politics are rooted in the notion of the leaders as public servants. Plato’s rulers were to live entirely on the public dime, and that dime was supplying their daily bread—not caviar. They were to have simple food, simple clothes, no private property of any kind. Even family was denied them; children were to be raised by the community. This may seem insane today, but in Plato’s day it wasn’t so far from the actual society of Sparta. The main difference between Sparta and Plato’s ideal society, as he himself says, is that the Spartans were no philosophers. Plato believed that philosophy was essential to full human achievement and to the sound running of a society. A society led without a moral sense would inevitably collapse into corruption and tyranny, so the leaders had to be as philosophically devout as they were socially dedicated. Furthermore, in Plato’s day “philosophy” included areas of thought that we would today consider very separate subjects: engineering, mathematics, and natural science were all areas investigated first by “philosophers.” Music is math in action, turning physical ratios such as length of string on a lyre into audible harmonies; so his philosophers had to study and practice music as well. History and drama help us understand the human condition and explore moral truths, so philosophy would include knowledge of what we broadly call “arts and humanities.” All of these would be strictly disciplined, turned to the service of promoting social order; but while actual Sparta had little use for all this art and thinking, Plato’s republic would put them at the center of education for future leaders. They would not be warrior-ascetics like the Spartans, but philosopher-warriors. But like the Spartans, Plato’s rulers would not only sacrifice their comforts, but if necessary even their lives for the good of the State, serving as guardians and auxiliaries, a lean, mean professional army to be used not for conquest, but ruthlessly in self-defense.

The second lesson Plato teaches is the importance of expertise. No one can be good at everything; different people have different abilities and different motivations. Some will be delighted by a life of public service; others will see no point in a life lived for anything except their own pleasure. In Plato’s world, those who want to make money and build businesses would do so, and their acquisitive instincts would be turned to the good of society as a whole; someone has to make the weapons the soldiers use to guard the nation, or raise the food that feeds the philosopher rulers. Those who want to serve and who crave excitement and prestige will become lifelong auxiliaries, professional soldiers and police defending and enforcing the laws created by the philosophers. And those with the philosophical temperament and mental ability to wisely lead would be given the job of thinking and making laws for the society.   One of the things that separates human society from the much less successful social structures of other primates is the notion of a division of labor. Chimpanzees work entirely on a dominance model of leadership; the bigger and stronger become alphas until deposed. Among humans, leadership often rests more on expertise and the prestige it affords; people listen to someone who knows what he or she is talking about. They also listen to the one who can bully or punish, or more broadly can impose an agenda rather than solicit one from the group; so among humans the “dominance” and the “expertise” models of leadership often compete. No alpha male chimp takes advice from a weaker subject, nor does he fear being undermined by someone who can make better tools. Human leaders may organize and rely on those with expertise in different areas, or they may see the “eggheads” as threats to be slapped down or kicked out of the group. In Plato’s world, expertise rules; the “alpha male” personality would, in his view, be too passionate and irrational to be allowed power. Better to let him be a warrior if he can obey orders, or let him build a business, so long as he doesn’t actually undermine the State.

But “the American way” is only distantly descended from Plato’s republic, as this passed through Augustine’s civitas Dei to Aquinas and Luther and other Christian political thinkers, thence to the Enlightenment and John Locke. In Locke, both dominance and expertise are modified, and in fact he is not creating an “ideal society” at all; he is proposing principles for real people living in real civil society. And in this, the government’s job is to discern and fulfill the collective will of the community. The would-be alpha must persuade others to follow; the expert must teach and sell his or her thoughts in the marketplace of ideas; both models of leadership ultimately rest on getting people to agree to be led, which means a combination of persuading them where to go and agreeing to lead them where they ultimately say they want to go. The ultimate leader is not the king, or the Prime Minister; it is the voter. As with Plato, in Locke’s view the political leader is a public servant. Despite their differences, as we saw before, they have very similar views of what the bad government, tyranny, looks like: the true leader is a public servant working for the good of society, while the tyrant expects the society to work to his (or her) own profit.

Thus, in a civil society all citizens are both subject and ruler, making and obeying the laws. No one is above the law and no one is too lowly to help write the laws all will obey. One of the inalienable rights of all human beings is liberty; we may agree to obey the will of the majority, but only because we also had a part in making the decision. Even when the citizen is outvoted, the government is still an expression of his or her will, created by the process of voting and debating in which all have their part.

Furthermore, anyone who chooses not to vote is eo ipso choosing the part of a slave, letting others make the essential decisions. If voting is the way individual liberty is expressed in a civil society, to not vote is to not be free. This idea, however, raises other questions. Logically, does freedom have to be exercised to be real, or can it be merely potential? What if one likes none of the options one is asked to choose between? Or, what if (as often happens) there is only one candidate for a position? And what if the voting rules are written or the voting maps are drawn in such a way that one’s vote is rendered powerless?

There needs to be a way to vote “none of the above” in an election. The wise parent asks the child, “Do you want your red shoes or your blue shoes?” The important point, wearing shoes, is not left to a vote. For adults, this is not acceptable, for it is no choice at all. It is “managed democracy,” not real democracy.[1] It is intended, as is the choice offered the child, to give the appearance of freedom while denying the substance. The difference is that the child is not a fully rational being, and the parent is guiding the child towards becoming a fully free and rational adult in the future by giving “practice” choices. The autocrat is trying to create the illusion of freedom while denying true choice to the citizen. Allowing voters to say “none of the above” allows them to express their displeasure. Even if this no-confidence vote has no formal sanction attached, at least it informs the leaders that the people are not in fact endorsing through silence. This is, however, only a first step. The fact is that, politically speaking, freedom is only real when there is a viable way it can be expressed. Politicians, like anyone, want job security, and generally will try to find ways to win reelection beyond simply asking what the voters want and then delivering it. Democracy is, after all, “rule by the people;” thus it is not always in the interests of the current leadership, regardless of party or factional allegiance. Democracy is, essentially, the periodic opportunity for peaceful revolution, to eliminate the need for violent transfers of power. Those who currently hold power may not want to transfer it. But democracy is always in the interests of the society itself, simply because it is a way to resolve conflicts without chaos and bloodshed. Thus, politicians will always be tempted to gerrymander, to mislead, and to obstruct the right to vote. They may not even consciously recognize that this is self-serving; instead, sometimes they say that voting is a privilege, or that some people vote “wrong” and thus should be discouraged from voting until they “grow up” and “understand better what it means to be an American.”[2] Even today, some argue that voting age should be raised back to 21 or even 25.[3] And others have argued that women should not have the right to vote.[4] The arguments in these and similar instances are that voting is a privilege which must be earned, and that people who are likely to make the wrong choices shouldn’t be granted that privilege. This is the very opposite of the idea advocated by Locke and repeated by the leaders of the American Revolution, that the right to vote is an expression of freedom and freedom is a natural right.[5]

I believe it should be clear now that these efforts at voter suppression are the very opposite of what “The United States of America” is supposedly about, and in fact could have tragic, violent consequences. The U.S. political conversation has always been controlled by the debate between paternalism, represented by Plato, versus participation as advocated by Locke. In practice, paternalistic language has often been a cover for tyrannical agendas. I would say that the paternalism/participation debate is more fundamental than the so-called “conservative” versus “liberal” polarization that gets so much press. The question of whether the people should have a voice in running things, or should be controlled by leaders who claim moral or intellectual superiority, is the first question that must be settled; after deciding how to decide, a society can then address the conservative/liberal debate. That is what the Founding Fathers believed, and that commitment to participation is an essential part of American politics. It is the air we have breathed since the Revolution itself. It is as much a part of our political DNA as the oxygen we breath is part of our blood. And the logic of participation, as bequeathed to us by John Locke, is perfectly clear: a government that does not allow you to vote is not your government. Any person or institution that seeks to deny you the right to vote, or to render that right impotent —because you are likely to vote for the “wrong” party, because you are black or poor or female or non-Christian or your parents immigrated here more recently than theirs, or for any other reason not obviously related to your incapacity as an individual person—- is your enemy, is at war against you, and you have a natural right to resist such an attack with violence if necessary. Democracy is the alternative to civil war; to try to thwart, suppress, or subvert it is to attack the peacekeeping and problem-solving ability of the society, and to leave civil war the only choice for those shut out of full participation. Currently in the U.S. the largest, best-organized, best-funded and most dedicated group working to suppress democracy is the Republican Party. Repeated investigations have found that so-called “voter I.D.” laws are aimed solely at denying legal American citizens the right to vote.[6] Repeated legal rulings and investigations have shown that these laws are not addressing any real problem but are solely intended to stop the “wrong” people from voting. Even Republicans, when faced with their President’s claim of widespread voter fraud, publicly admitted that there is no evidence that widespread fraud exists.[7] Attacks on the very concept of factual reality, reliance on “alternative truths” and other such gaslighting of the public are another way to undermine functioning democracy. And while the language of paternalism is used, the actual practice has been what both paternalists and participationists would define as tyranny: authoritarianism, cliquishness, government by power and intimidation rather than by expertise and wisdom, dishonesty, and profit-making by the ruling family and its hangers-on.

There are some who would ask, “Who cares about what some musty old philosophy book says?” Philosophy matters, especially to non-philosophers. There is a dialogue between philosophy and the wider culture. Thinkers look at the world, distil the essence of trends and notions around them, make unconscious assumptions visible and conscious, and occasionally invent novel solutions to problems and conflicts. The ideas they present are in turn taken up by law schools and courts, by seminaries and divinity schools, and by writers and other artists, and become part of the legislative processes and the popular culture. So it matters, deeply, what John Locke has to say about government by the people. These ideas are the original programming of our nation, and they will continue to run when activated, as long as America is America.

There is government that encourages the people to speak and works to give them voice, or there is tyranny, war of the government against the people. The people may tolerate a state of cold war or siege war for a long time, as long as things run smoothly; but when things turn sour, as they inevitably will, the final resolution is revolution. The only escape from future political violence is present action to strengthen democracy, even (especially!) at the risk of political and social change brought on by empowering everyone, regardless of race, religion, sexual orientation or whatever. As Thomas Jefferson said, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” The government that seeks to deny millions of its citizens these rights that Americans have been taught to regard as “inalienable” will itself alienate those citizens, and risks the same response King George received.

[1] Nicholay Petrov and Micahel McFaul, “The Essence of Putin’s Managed Democracy;” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, October 18, 2005 (

[2] For examples, see Miranda Blue, “Seven Times Conservatives Have Admitted They Don’t Want People to Vote;” Right Wing Watch: a project of People for the American Way, September 24, 2015 ( So-called liberal politicians are also inclined to such sentiments as well.

[3] Austin Frank, “We Shouldn’t Lower the Voting Age—We Should Raise It: People Under 25 Shouldn’t Vote;” Today in Politics February 9, 2017 (

[4] Mikayla Bean, “Ann Coulter says ‘Women Should Not Have the Right to Vote,’ but ‘They Can Still Write Books.’ Right Wing Watch: a project of People for the American Way, June 11, 2015 (

[5] Granted, this was not explicitly spelled out in the Constitution, and not universally held even by all the Founding Fathers. Like the right of non-whites and women to vote, the right of the poor to vote was certainly implied by that “all “men” are created equal” idea, but only made explicit later in amendments. Today, however, it is explicit: all American citizens have the right to vote, and that is what it means to be a citizen. For more discussion, see Garrett Epps, “Voting: Right or Privilege?” The Atlantic September 18, 2012 (

[6] Robert Barnes and Ann E. Marimow, “Appeals Court Strikes Down North Carolina’s Voter I.D. Law;” Washington Post June 29, 2016 (

[7] Reuters, “Republicans Unenthused Over Trump’s Voter Fraud Claims;” Newsweek January 25, 2017 (

Should Stupid People Be Allowed to Vote? Summary

March 19, 2017

Should Stupid People Be Allowed to Vote? Summary


Common sense is not so common.




The Founding Fathers of this nation were, by and large, well-read men. They knew their philosophical heritage. Interest in Aristotle declined in the 1600s and 1700s, the period known at The Enlightenment, because Aristotle was associated with medieval, Church-controlled teaching. Plato was seen as free from the ecclesiastical baggage and restrictions, and even those who did not agree with his rationalist idealism were familiar with his works. In Britain, a new school of philosophy, Empiricism, arose, devoted to a strict attention to the information given by the senses (which Plato would have despised) and to the ideal of inquiry into truth through careful conceptual analysis (which he would have approved). Plato was, in many ways, the father of Western philosophy; John Locke was the father of modern Anglo-American philosophy. It is thus fitting to consider how the political philosophies of these two very different thinkers can shed light on the nation begun by their intellectual descendents.

Democracy, or “rule by the people,” is dedicated to the ideal that all citizens should have part in running the government. That is the ideal, or the horizon; in practice, often democracies have fallen short, and limited the status of “citizen” to a smaller group. The first democracy, Athens, excluded most of its population: women, slaves, even long-time foreigners could not vote, address the assembly, or exercise even basic rights. But still, Athens extended political power from a small aristocracy to a much larger group, and later intellectuals would seek to extend the ideal of equality still further. For his part, Plato thought all this “equality” was a terrible idea. Democracy, after all, killed Socrates; Anaxagoras and other philosophers were also persecuted by “the many.” If you want something done well, you get someone who knows how to do it; a ship’s captain doesn’t take a vote from the sailors, and the captain of the ship of state shouldn’t either. Most people are simply too irrational and too uninformed to govern responsibly or effectively. Instead, government should be run by a well-educated elite, who sacrificed their own material prosperity for the duty of governing a country that would take care of its citizens, as the philosopher-king determined was best. Stupid people simply should not have a right to vote; to allow the corruptible majority that sort of power is to open the door to tyranny.

Two thousand years later, John Locke came to the opposite conclusion. In his view, all people are basically rational, and thus all should have some voice in the government; and all are also corruptible, and thus none can really be trusted with unchecked power. Therefore, he argued that the state should be run by a government with separate institutions for executive, legislative and judicial functions, independent but interacting to create and enforce laws written according to the collective will of the people. A true government is one that governs for the good of the people and protects their interests as they have expressed them through a process of voting and choosing representatives; when government starts to ignore their will, it collapses into tyranny. Therefore, it is important that as many people as possible be able to make their voices heard through some sort of democratically-elected body of representatives.

Yet, despite their differences, there are some points on which Plato and Locke can agree. In different ways, both have checks and balances on the political power of the governing powers. For Plato, political power is separated from economic power. The leaders are “public servants” in the very real sense that they are on the public payroll. They are not allowed to extort luxuries for themselves; in fact, they are to live lives of great material simplicity. For Locke, the balancing of power comes from each individual being essentially a free person, who is understood as yielding only some rights for the sake of communal life. Each has a right to the products of his or her own labor, and furthermore each has a right to vote for representatives who will speak for them all in the legislative assembly. There is an economic check on the power of the government, as well as the political one provided by the vote. Both Plato and Locke understand the danger of tyranny, and have similar descriptions of the tyrant: a person or possibly a clique, governing not for the sake of the people but primarily for the sake and benefit of the tyrant only. For the tyrant, running the government is a means of personal profit; even when the tyrant makes laws that benefit others, it is always as an expression solely of the tyrant’s own will and for the tyrant’s benefit.

A tyranny might benefit others to gain their support, as when an apartheid government caters not just to the political leaders but also to the powerful minority that supports them. It is also possible that the Leader might have whims that benefit the people. The tyrant might like growing things and establish parks where the people also can relax, or value learning and therefore establish universities. Still, the fact that Hitler gave us the autobahn does not do much to improve our view of his tyranny. The definitive element of tyranny is that the private will and interests of the Leader become the governing force of the society. Tyrants do not distinguish between personal affairs and affairs of State; the government exists to fulfill the wishes of the Leader, and the Leader and cronies feel entitled to profit from it. Personal slights or political rivalries are treated as betrayals of the State itself, prompting threats of legal and extralegal retaliation. Plato and Locke had their experiences with tyrants, and despite their very different philosophies and very different historical circumstances they agree fairly well on the nature of a tyrant.

They disagree, radically, on how to prevent tyranny, and that suggests ways in which they view tyranny differently. For Plato, the problem is money; good governments are those that strictly limit how much property the leaders can own, requiring them to live and eat together, at government expense but also control. His real-world analog was Sparta, where the political leadership lived like soldiers on campaign, wearing simple clothes and eating plain, sustaining food. When political leaders can earn profits, Plato says, they will inevitably begin to mix their personal business with the nation’s business. A democracy that allows everyone to own property and to exercise political power will have as many tyrants as it has citizens, all competing to pervert the common good for their own benefit, until finally one tyrant wins out. Instead, the political/military aspects of the society must be firmly in control, but also separated from personal profits that motivate most people.

Locke does say that the leaders of a civil society must act according to the needs of the nation, not the profits of the leadership. However, he sees the threat as coming more from the tyrant’s overreach of power. After all, everyone has a God-given right to private property. To limit the ability of any one person or group to become tyrannical, Locke seeks to divide the power of government between different institutions; and the legislative branch in particular is to be controlled by elected representatives of the people, to make laws that reflect the will of the majority. It is when this separation of powers breaks down, and one person emerges who is able to usurp and combine the legislative, judicial and executive functions, that individual (or perhaps small group) is able to bend the government to the personal profit of the tyrant. So for Plato, money corrupts, and it is the power of money that threatens to undermine government; for Locke, power corrupts, and it is that political corruption that allows profiteering and graft.

Has one or the other proved more convincing over the course of history? Plato’s ideal society, with an elite ruling over the many, has been seen as giving comfort to tyrants, who are apt to imagine themselves as the philosopher-king he describes even when their own personal lives stray far from that ideal. And in fact, tyrants and would-be tyrants did come from among the disciples of Plato, notably including the Greek tyrant in Syracuse, Dionysius II. It is easy, it seems, to find followers who will adopt Plato’s recommendations against democracy, free speech and the rest, but harder to find those who will go all the way and renounce personal comfort and wealth in return for being granted leadership.

Locke’s heritage has been more concretely successful. The United States was founded largely by students of Locke, who implemented many of his recommendations. In turn, later British and European governments began to move more towards Locke’s vision of a limited monarchy, an elected parliament and an independent judiciary, until that has become the dominant form of government in Europe and in many other industrialized countries. While Lockean democracy has often fallen short, and occasionally staggered, rarely has it utterly fallen into tyranny. And at least rhetorically, popular sovereignty is the standard which our politicians profess to follow.

In practice, though, the actual commitment of politicians to Locke’s ideals seems less at times than their professed devotion. This is not merely to say that many would-be tyrants are less than honest about their ambitions; it is to say that while many U.S. politicians may claim to adhere to Jeffersonian ideas of democracy derived largely from John Locke, in practice they seem to think they are Guardians in Plato’s Republic. Plato favored censorship of the arts to avoid arousing the passions; conservatives in the U.S. seek to classify pornography as a public health threat (more so even than childhood obesity or chronic homelessness) so it can be restricted. Plato sought to limit participation in government to an elite that would preserve the social order; conservatives in the U.S. have argued for at least thirty years that “our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down,” and thus sought to disenfranchise millions of Americans.[1] This temptation towards elitism (whether the “elite” is defined educationally, racially or whatever) is certainly not limited to conservatives; when I was in college, the most cliquish and self-serving of the student politicians were avowed liberals. They were all political science majors, looking forward to careers in politics or political law. Christopher Lasch, author of The Culture of Narcissism, was a particular favorite of theirs, based on their writing in the student newspaper. Their argument was that everyone else was such a narcissist that it was up to them, the self-sacrificing student government, to run things for our good, and the rest of the citizens should just sit back and be grateful—and quiet. I guess the difference is that conservatives in the U.S. seem to have read 1984 and The Handmaid’s Tale and thought they sounded pretty good, while liberals are more likely trying to recreate Brave New World. None, alas, are really trying to establish Plato’s ideal society, for they all lack the one essential requirement: complete denial of private property to leaders. In that regard, they all claim to be guardians but are in fact more like tyrants.

On the other hand, there is something very appealing about Plato’s advice. Shouldn’t social decisions be made by the best educated, most clever and imaginative persons possible? And shouldn’t people who agree to serve do so out of love for the country, rather than hopes of personal gain? And isn’t it a fact that “common sense is not so common,” and that in fact the majority are not either capable or inclined to be effective leaders of society?

This, in fact, is the real difference between Plato and Locke. Plato thought that rationality is pretty rare; most people are ruled by their appetites, and therefore a society that is ruled by the many will be ruled by appetite rather than reason. Locke thought that reason was, if not universal, at least common to most people. He said that reason is the law even in the state of Nature where there is no formal law; even without police and prisons, we more or less know right and wrong and are inclined to do what is right and reasonable. We may disagree, particularly in our own interests, and that is a second element in Locke’s philosophical anthropology: human nature is always mixed. Plato famously argued that the soul has three parts: appetite, spirit and reason. Reason strives for truth; appetite strives for self-gratification; and between them, spirit strives for personal honor and acclaim. Some people, he said, are motivated by their reason, a greater number by their appetite; but some are willing to forgo pleasure for the badges and parades and admiring looks that a brave, self-sacrificing life earns. Locke on the other hand assumes that people are rational and irrational at the same time, liable to self-indulgence and partisanship but also capable of social and practical reasoning. For this reason they can live in a free society where everyone has a voice, since all have something to contribute, but at the same time they need a society because in a state of complete anarchy they would find it too difficult to judge impartially between themselves and their neighbors. The civil society that Locke imagines gives a framework for the exercise of liberty, protecting it against both tyranny and selfish excess.

Since both the Platonic and the Lockean philosophies agree on the danger of tyranny, and both agree that a form of separation of powers is the best way to guard against it, we can accept this as our starting point. Plato’s model, separation of leadership from property, simply has not worked; even he admits as much when he discusses how even Sparta struggles to curb the acquisitiveness of its leaders. Locke’s plan to have separate branches of government, each checking the other so no one person can easily seize total power and become a tyrant, has had more success. Furthermore, as our history has shown by the ever-expanding right to vote, Locke’s philosophy is capable of self-correction and growth. And it is, simply, “the American way.” Our nation was founded, and our Constitution written by people who believed in Locke’s basic insights and who sought to create laws that would bring them to fruition.

Should stupid people be allowed to vote? I follow Locke here: yes! We are all stupid, at least at times, and are almost all capable of reason, at least at times. But more to the point, to deny anyone the right to vote is to put the state at war with that person. Anyone who cannot vote is little more than a conquered subject, not a citizen. A stable society is one where as many people as possible participate and have a stake in the decision, and in the success of the society as an ongoing project. And conversely, a society that denies a sizeable segment of its population the rights of citizenship, and most importantly the right to have a part in writing the laws, creates an enemy in its midst, an enemy that contributes to the economic health of the society and thus cannot simply be ignored or ejected, but who has no good reason to support that society. To be denied the vote is to be a slave, with all the injustice, and all the instability, and all the perverse dependence of the “master” on the “slave” that this entails.

[1] Miranda Blue, “Seven Times Conservatives Have Admitted They Don’t Want People To Vote;” Right Wing Watch: a project of People for the American Way, September 24, 2015 (

An Open Letter to Senator Rand Paul, Republican/KY

February 18, 2017

Hello Everyone:

I wrote Sen. Paul an e-mail, because his office has stopped picking up their phone for calls from voters and his voicemail box is full, asking him to support the movement within the Senate to investigate Donald Trump’s collusion with Russian spy services to subvert the American election the way Russia has corrupted or sought to corrupt elections throughout the free world.  In exchange, I got a newsletter ignoring my original concerns, and instead praising Sen. Paul’s efforts to weaken environmental protections (enjoy your leaded water!), to “broaden the tax base” by shifting taxes away from the rich and onto the middle class and the poor, and to ram through even the least competent of #Dolt45’s Cabinet appointees without even a tenth of the “extreme vetting” that seems appropriate for a Syrian infant escaping bombing by Russian jets.

I attempted to respond to Sen Paul’s newsletter, but, big surprise, the reply bounced.  It seems he doesn’t want to hear from his constituents in that manner either; he only wants us to shut up and listen.  Rather than let my efforts go totally to waste, I’m posting my reply to him here.

Dear Sen. Rand Paul, and whatever staffer might happen to get this message:

Should Stupid People Be Allowed to Vote? Locke, pt. 3

February 2, 2017

Should Stupid People Be Allowed to Vote? Locke, pt. 3


Whensoever therefore the legislative shall transgress this fundamental rule of society; and either by ambition, fear, folly or corruption, endeavour to grasp themselves, or put into the hands of any other, an absolute power over the lives, liberties, and estates of the people; by this breach of trust they forfeit the power the people had put into their hands for quite contrary ends, and it devolves to the people, who have a right to resume their original liberty, and, by the establishment of a new legislative, (such as they shall think fit) provide for their own safety and security, which is the end for which they are in society.


—– John Locke



We can see at least three points where Locke provides us with an answer to the question of whether stupid people should be allowed to vote. The first is the description of the state of Nature, and the common point he shares with the totalitarian Hobbes: equality. The wise and the foolish, the sage and the ignoramus are all essentially equal. For Hobbes, this contention was based on his utter pessimism; believing all people are basically irrational and nasty, he thought the clever no better than the brute. In the war of each against all, the differences between the smart and the stupid matter little; each can kill the other in the right circumstances. Thus each has as much to gain by belonging to a commonwealth, and as much to give up by accepting its restrictions. For Locke, his belief in equality rests on more optimistic grounds: a faith in the rule of reason even in the state of nature. Locke believed all people were essentially free to choose good or evil, and free to choose to employ their reason to determine the right course of action. All may not be identically capable or informed, but all are essentially educable and reasonable. Therefore, no one would enter a social contract that sacrificed that inalienable equality; each gives up only those rights that all the others give up as well.

Second, each has an inalienable right to the property that is the fruit of one’s labors. Whether one is a renowned philosopher or a simple farmer, whoever does the work has joined his or her efforts to the world and made that part of it to be private property. The government I choose to live under must agree to protect my property, regardless of how informed I am about world affairs or how inclined I am to reason passionately rather than logically. That is one of the functions of civil government: to protect private property.

Third, all proper civil government is by the will of the majority. A supporter once called out, “Governor Stevenson, all thinking people are for you!” And Adlai Stevenson answered, “That’s not enough. I need a majority.”[1] That story is often treated as an indictment of democracy, but it needn’t be. Every person has a right to have his or her needs addressed and concerns heard. Maybe I don’t know all the economics of free trade; but I do know if I am losing my job because the factory is relocating overseas. I have a right to demand that society do something to help me. My fundamental equality is expressed in each person being equal before the law. My right to my own work is guaranteed in society’s protection of my property. The inalienable right to liberty is lived out in the principle of government by the will of the majority: of the people, by the people and for the people. When we can all have our say, all make our case, and all freely agree to take a vote and work together on whatever we jointly decide, my fundamental freedom is actualized through the action of the government, which is responding not to the whims of a king or even an elite, but to the total pressure of each one of us pushing upon the levers of power.

It seems then that there are ample reasons for civil government to arise and maintain itself. It fulfills the needs of the individual members better than living in a governmentless state of nature could, and it coordinates group actions so that we can live together in peace and together achieve goals we could not on our own. Why, then, would any government ever collapse into tyranny? Plato pointed to the corrupting power of wealth, but Locke’s view of political power particularly rules this out; since civil government exists largely to protect the private property of every citizen, it can hardly be that owning property in itself should disqualify anyone from participation in government. Nor can Locke agree with Plato’s contention that only a small group should be allowed any political power; for Locke, political power flows up from the people, who explicitly or implicitly choose a government which is then obligated to act according to their collective will. Instead, Locke points to the weakness of human nature, and the tendency of some individuals to violate the laws of reason and to grasp for more than they ought. He writes:



… tyranny is the exercise of power beyond right, which no body can have a right to. And this is making use of the power any one has in his hands, not for the good of those who are under it, but for his own private separate advantage. When the governor, however intitled, makes not the law, but his will, the rule; and his commands and actions are not directed to the preservation of the properties of his people, but the satisfaction of his own ambition, revenge, covetousness, or any other irregular passion.[2]



So tyranny is not only the assumption of power by someone who is not entitled; the tyrant might be an elected official. The tyrant might not be particularly oppressive, if it suits him or her not to be. The tyrant might not even be a single person, but could in fact be a group.[3] But the tyrant is motivated not by the will and good of the people, but by personal interests and whim. The tyrant is, after all, only human, and subject to ambition, covetousness, and all the other common “irregular” passions. The tyrant may see the job of government as a chance for personal advancement, or simply believe that he/she/they know better than the majority what is “good” and thus refuse to act according to their will or needs.

Locke had a stark warning of what can happen if these inalienable rights are ignored. He writes:



The reason why men enter into society, is the preservation of their property; and the end why they chuse and authorize a legislative, is, that there may be laws made, and rules set, as guards and fences to the properties of all the members of the society, to limit the power, and moderate the dominion, of every part and member of the society: for since it can never be supposed to be the will of the society, that the legislative should have a power to destroy that which every one designs to secure, by entering into society, and for which the people submitted themselves to legislators of their own making; whenever the legislators endeavour to take away, and destroy the property of the people, or to reduce them to slavery under arbitrary power, they put themselves into a state of war with the people, who are thereupon absolved from any farther obedience, and are left to the common refuge, which God hath provided for all men, against force and violence.[4]



In case that last line isn’t clear to today’s readers, the “common refuge” is to fight back. If the government ceases to represent the majority, and instead caters only to the ruler or to a small group of supporters, it puts itself at war with its own citizens, and they in turn have the right to rise up and defend themselves and ultimately to overthrow their tyrannical masters, if necessary and possible. This is literally revolutionary stuff, both when it was published and 315 years later. This is what the Founding Fathers relied on when they explained, to themselves and to the ages, why they were declaring independence from their sovereign lord and king in England. The reasons Jefferson gives in the Declaration of Independence matches exactly the behavior of a tyrant as described by John Locke eighty-five years before: “(King George III) …has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people….He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone for the tenure of their offices,…For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent: For depriving us in many cases, of the benefit of Trial by Jury…” Denying the right of elected officials to meet, or depriving them of their independence, or refusing to enforce the laws they passed, are all things Locke singles out as reasons for the dissolution of government. Add to that the seizure of property without consent, and without due process of law as passed by representatives elected by the people themselves, and the actual acts of violent repression cited by the Declaration, and this matches Locke’s description of a government that has declared war on its own people. And in that case, Locke says, the people have every right to band together, grab whatever weapons they can find, and fight for their freedom. The government that overreaches and turns oppressor does not just risk angering the people; it loses its entire justification for being considered a “government” at all, and becomes nothing more than an alien, enemy occupation. In this circumstance, rebellion is not just possible; it is the only just and reasonable option. It is not even really a “rebellion” at all, but rather self-defense against the tyrannical power that has declared war on the citizens.

It may seem like this is a prescription for anarchy. If anyone may decide at any time to rebel, what is to stop rebellions from breaking out at any time? What stops anyone who doesn’t want to pay taxes or follow the laws the majority follow from declaring their own personal independence, gathering up an armed mob or paid militia, and going to war against society? Locke is aware of this criticism and has responses. In his discussion of this, we see him trying to walk a path between two extremes. On the one hand, he says it is clearly absurd to say that one must wait until all hope is lost before one can begin to resist tyranny.[5] On the other hand, there must be limits, and there are. First, there this the simple fact of human nature: “People are not so easily got out of their old forms, as some are apt to suggest.”[6] By and large, people will put up with a lot before they resort to the risky and uncertain path of violence. “Better the devil you know,” as they say. It is only when the government has been seriously mismanaged, or the authorities have so trampled upon the inalienable rights of the people that they have already declared war upon them, that people are likely to resort to force to defend themselves.[7] Locke is not saying that anyone has the right to take up arms simply because he (or she) happens to not like the current government’s policy on some matter. By joining together in a community, we all agreed to live by the community’s rules and to respect the will of the majority.[8] As long as there are functioning mechanisms for the people to voice their opinions and elect representatives who will make the laws all will live by, there is no need or justification for rebellion. But when the government ceases to respect those mechanisms, and the people are left with no peaceful way to resolve their grievances and the will of the majority is not the guiding principle of the state, then the people may take up arms, overthrow the tyranny and establish a new and free government.

So, should stupid people be allowed to vote? We are all created equal, whether one is a bit smarter or stronger or better-looking. We all have the same inalienable rights. Those rights are only protected and expressed in a civil society, which means a society with the rule of law and where the will of the people is the ultimate foundation of that law. Each individual’s inalienable liberty is enacted when he or she is votes for the representatives to the legislative body. To deny someone the right to vote because he or she might vote “wrong” is to deny that person’s personhood. It is tyranny and slavery. And one always has the right, by the laws of God and reason, to resist with force anyone who tries to oppress another.

[1] “Music Cues: Adlai Stevenson,” Feb. 5, 2000

[2] John Locke, Second Treatise of Civil Government, chapter XVIII, sect. 199

[3] Second Treatise sect. 201

[4] Second Treatise of Government, chapter XIX, sec. 222

[5] Second Treatise, Chapter XIX, sec. 230-33

[6] Second Treatise, Chapter XIX, sec. 223

[7] sec. 224-230

[8] sec. 243

Should Stupid People Be Allowed to Vote? Locke, pt. 2

December 16, 2016

Should Stupid People Be Allowed to Vote? Locke, pt. 2


For when any number of men have, by the consent of every individual, made a community, they have thereby made that community one body, with a power to act as one body, which is only by the will and determination of the majority


—– John Locke



How does “protecting the inalienable right to liberty” translate to obeying the laws of the government, or even paying taxes?   This is what is perhaps the most radical and transformative part of Locke’s political philosophy. Locke follows the same basic formula as Hobbes and many other social contract theorists: we imagine starting in a “state of Nature” prior to all government, and then ask why any individual would move from the perfect freedom of anarchy into an ordered (and ordering) society. How we interpret the natural state of humanity tells us about what sort of debt we owe the State, and by implication what the State owes us citizens. It assumes a quasi-historical moment when the individual voluntarily joined the society, recognizing that this was more implicit and theoretical than actual. In Locke’s view, a free and basically reasonable individual chooses to belong to a civil society because that society preserves his or her basic freedom and rationality better than simply going it alone in a state of natural anarchy.[1] However, to be a functioning society, the group has to be able to act as a coherent unit; so some sort of government must exist. Thus, we all have to agree to give up our right to just do whatever pops into our heads, and instead must cooperate. That means we need some sort of process whereby everyone can be heard, everyone’s interests can be considered, and then the group can decide to act as determined by the will of the majority. Each of us must agree to accept the will of the majority, since otherwise agreeing to live in a society was a hollow promise; either we’re all in this together, or there is no “we” and anarchy prevails. So you may have a “king” but even his policies must be expressions of the collective will of his “subjects.”[2] As part of this society, there may be some property set aside for common use; Locke assumes that every village will have a village green, where anyone may come and harvest turf as needed, for example. And if the group decides on some joint project, as Athens did when Themistocles persuaded them to build a national fleet, they may agree to pay into a common fund to do so, and all citizens are obligated to pay this tax even if the minority didn’t vote for it since it is an expression of the will of the society as a whole, of which they are a part. In exchange, the minority has the right to fight for its voice to be heard and its concerns to be addressed, and to try to persuade some portion of the others to join and support its views as policies for the group.

This really was a revolutionary thought. Most societies in Europe were governed by monarchies that ruled by a presumed divine right. When Thomas Hobbes wrote his Leviathan to propose a secular basis for government, that was already a radical notion. Hobbes acknowledged as much when he wrote that, “This is the generation of that great LEVIATHAN, or rather, to speak more reverently, of that mortal god, to which we owe under the immortal God, our peace and defence.”[3] We are not, he is saying, ruled by God; we are ruled by Leviathan, The Beast. God has left us to be ruled by this earthly master, this god that we ourselves have made by forming a social compact or commonwealth. But Hobbes still offered his philosophy as a defense of the privileges of the absolute monarch. Short of randomly torturing or murdering subjects, or failing to actually control and defend the realm, Hobbes put no limits on the sovereign’s power. Locke writes to defend not absolute monarchy, but a republic and limited monarchy. The force that is to determine national policy is not the whim of one powerful king backed by the brute force of an army; instead it is the collective will of the citizens that is to dictate to the government what it should do.

Just how revolutionary this theory is becomes clear when Locke considers the dissolution of the commonwealth.[4] There he argues that when any government attempts to usurp absolute power over its citizens, either by arbitrarily seizing their property, by enslaving them or killing them, then they are freed from their tacit agreement to abide by its laws. The government has broken the social contract, so now the citizens are back in a state of nature. And as free persons in a state of nature, they are once again free to join together for mutual defense, and to form a new government. Locke offers the intellectual and moral justification for political revolution. The government that denies its citizens their inalienable rights has violated the laws of Nature, Reason and God (which are largely equivalent terms for Locke), and thus has lost all legitimacy. It rules only by force, and thus there is no crime in resisting it and overthrowing it by force, either. Only the government that acts as directed by the will of the majority has any binding, legitimate claim to the obedience of the people.
The philosophical foundation for the American Revolution was this very notion. People felt that they were being “enslaved” by the distant crown and parliament, which imposed taxes on them without their consent or even voice. (Yes, it is a tragic irony that they knew what enslavement was so well, owning slaves themselves.) They had come to this frontier land and tamed it, raised crops, built homes and churches and whole cities, and now they felt that this was theirs. They had put their own sweat into this land; as Locke said, they had put part of themselves into it, and thus it was as much theirs as their own flesh. And now a distant government was imposing laws and taxes on them. From the English point of view, they were simply asking the colonies to pay for their own defense; but the fact remained that there were no colonial representatives in Parliament. From a Lockean point of view, they were outside the social contract, since they were denied the fundamental right of any citizen of the commonwealth to be heard. And following Locke, they felt that this gave them the right to revolt. They produced a Declaration of Independence, which detailed their justifications for their break from England, and established the beginnings of their social contract to form a new commonwealth together. This was not like Plato’s failed attempt to bring his ideal republic to life in ancient Syracuse, where conceptual perfection crashed against human realities. Nor was it like the more recent attempt to establish a divine theocracy in Münster, which fell into disorder and was destroyed by its enemies. This philosophical experiment, which we now know as the United States of America, was not based on Biblical or philosophical idealism, but on human reason, on philosophy rooted in observation, experience and reflection. Unlike Plato’s Republic or his later Laws, the empiricist philosophy of Locke did not assume that there was an ideal state which could only change by degenerating. The founders of the United States assumed that their nation would have to change and grow, and they included mechanisms for amending the social contract. They hoped that it would grow and become better as its people chose the best among them to debate and discover new solutions to unanticipated problems. And while Plato’s republic sought to eliminate social conflict, the very notion of Locke’s commonwealth assumes disagreement and conflict. Any nation based on Locke’s principles has to allow for all stakeholders to have a voice, and to resolve their competing claims in a peaceful manner. It hasn’t always worked, as we know, but the trend for over two hundred years has been to channel dissent and conflict, expanding the rights of citizens and the chorus of voices in the marketplace of ideas.

To be continued…

[1] John Locke, Second Treatise of Civil Government, chapter II, sections 4-11

[2] Locke, chapter VIII, sect. 95-99

[3] Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, chapter 17

[4] Locke, chapter XIX, sect. 222

Should Stupid People Be Allowed to Vote? Locke, pt. 1

November 30, 2016

Should Stupid People Be Allowed to Vote? Locke, pt. 1

To understand political power right, and derive it from its original, we must consider, what state all men are naturally in, and that is, 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, without asking leave, or depending upon the will of any other man.


—–John Locke



Without a doubt, John Locke had more influence on the American Revolution than any other political thinker. If Plato represents the beginning of Western political philosophy, John Locke represents the cutting edge of political thought in the early Enlightenment. And like Plato, Locke was a product of his time and schooled by the tumultuous events of his day. To understand Locke, it is helpful to first understand his background.

John Locke’s father was a captain in the Parliamentarian army during the English Civil War. For my American readers who didn’t know England HAD a civil war, here’s the short version: After the death of Queen Elizabeth I, the throne of England passed to her nearest relative, King James of Scotland, who thus became James I of England (and sponsored the King James translation of the Bible, which you may have heard about). As king of two separate but related kingdoms, he had a divided constituency to balance: Anglicans in England with their bishops and cardinals, Presbyterians in Scotland with elected church leaders, the two nations with a long history of warfare between them and religious minorities among them. King James managed to balance the two thrones pretty well, although not completely without dissent. It was during his reign that the first British colony in North America was founded in Virginia, primarily by economic adventurers; later, conservative Christians who objected to England’s overly lax religious climate founded the colony at Plymouth, Massachusetts. James I thus oversaw not only the union of England and Scotland, but also the beginnings of the transoceanic British Empire. His son, King Charles I, did not fare as well. Charles attempted to enforce religious conformity, and attempted to rule as an absolute monarch without the advise and consent of the elected Parliament. The English people revolted, with armies loyal to the king fighting against troops loyal to Parliament. The Parliamentarians included religious minorities such as the Presbyterians and Puritans, and even smaller factions such as the Levelers and other religious and political radicals. John Locke’s father fought for Parliament in the early part of this war, which eventually led to the capture and execution of the king, eleven years of control by the Puritans, the return of the dead king’s son as Charles II, his overthrow in another revolution and finally a new royal family, led by King William of Orange (of William and Mary fame). John Locke’s most important political essay, his Second Treatise of Government, was written to justify and support William’s claim to the throne of England. Thus John Locke is very much a child of the English Civil War; his father fought at its start, and he wrote its declaration of victory for liberty over the forces of absolute monarchy.

Locke’s First Treatise of Civil Government was written to refute the theory of the divine right kings. Since God commands everything, the argument went, God also commands who should be king; therefore, the king is God’s agent and to oppose the king in any way is to oppose God. Locke refutes this argument and insists that there be another, less mysterious foundation for political authority. In his Second Treatise on Civil Government he seems to focus on the social contract theory of Thomas Hobbes. Hobbes famously argued that in the “state of Nature,” outside of all government, human life would be intolerable, since human nature is greedy, selfish and utterly irrational; therefore, each person tacitly agrees to give up some of his natural rights in exchange for each other person in the community doing the same, and all agree to live under the rule of a king or other sovereign.[1] This sovereign has nearly absolute power to act as he (possibly she or they) sees fit, so long as he enforces order, protects the lives of his subjects, and does not arbitrarily kill or imprison them. Anyone who finds the sovereign unsuitable may leave the country; but having renounced the sovereign’s rule, one has also renounced his protection, and may be killed or enslaved by anyone who is able (until the refugee finds the protection of a new sovereign). Likewise, a sovereign which is unable or unwilling to establish a safe and orderly society has failed the citizens, placing them back into a state of anarchy where life is a war of every one against every one, and life is “solitary, nasty, brutish and short.”

It is in his second treatise that Locke lays out more of his own theories, rather than simply refuting the arguments of others, and for this reason his second treatise is more widely read and influential than the first. Still, it shows some influences from both the theories he is transcending. While Locke does not accept the absolute divine right of kings, he does continue to use religious language, referring to the laws of Nature as being given by God and so on. But Locke’s vision of God, and of God’s creation, is first of all rational. Thus, in the Second Treatise chapter II, section 8, Locke equates the law of Nature and reason with the will of God; to him there is no further knowledge of God than what is discoverable through God’s creation properly understood. Understanding the rational basis of government as also being God’s will may give it extra authority and motivational force, but for Locke it does not add any content; what we need to know of government must be learned through sound reasoning. This puts his theory closer to that of Hobbes. However, Locke’s view of human nature is considerably more optimistic than Hobbes’, and thus his view of how much force is required or justified to control human behavior is also very different.

In Locke’s view, outside of all government, in the hypothetical “state of Nature,” human life would still be governed by rules of reason. Human beings are emotional, but are also rational beings, and their behavior ought to be directed by their reason. We know that no one has the right to injure another, either by assault or by gathering up so much of the resources of nature that there is nothing left for anyone else. I may have a right to all the apples I find growing on a wild tree in the forest, but I don’t have a right to more than I can eat or use before they spoil; the rest must be left for others. And if there are disputes, or someone violates these rational laws of nature, then anyone and everyone has a right to step in and punish the malefactor.

Thus, our need for government is actually rather limited. Fundamentally, we need a neutral arbiter when someone violates our natural inalienable rights. Left to ourselves to punish the wrongs done us, we would be likely to go too far; so we designate a magistrate to create laws and judge violations. All other government basically flows from that beginning.

But what are those “inalienable” rights? This phrase, which appears earlier in Hobbes, is expanded and clarified in Locke. First and most fundamentally is the right to life. I have a right to live and to protect my life. I join a society largely to protect my life; therefore, I can never be understood as having renounced my right to life by becoming or remaining a citizen.[2] Second, I join a society to preserve my basic liberty. In nature each individual is completely free from all outside control, subject only to the laws of nature revealed through reason. As a citizen in a society, I may give up some of my freedoms, but I do so only to preserve my basic liberty against the threat of enslavement or oppression. Finally, I join a society to protect my property, and to adjudicate when there is a legitimate dispute as to what my property is.

How is property a natural (or what for Locke is the same thing, a divine) right? The basic property of each person is his or her own body. That, clearly, Nature gave you. Even in a state of nature, I may find all sorts of resources that would make my life better, including food and materials for making tools. Nuts lying on the forest floor belong to no one. However, when I start picking them up, I am adding something: my own effort. This effort is a part of my own body, which works on these natural products and changes them, by gathering or shaping them in some way. Thus, the nuts I gathered from the untamed forest are now nuts plus a little of me, and therefore become my property.

I always tell my students that this is intuitively true, or at least psychologically true. Legally, the goods in the shopping cart still belong to the store; but if you doubt that the person who gathered them considers them his or hers, try going through someone’s grocery cart to help yourself to a can of soup. You will hear something like, “Go get your own! I found that, now it’s mine.”

Thus, we don’t depend on the State to tell us what we can or can’t own, according to Locke. God’s own will, as revealed in the laws of nature, designates that whatever you shape or gather or improve by your own work is your natural property. The State may create laws to control or define this property-making, allowing a person to stake a claim to a particular piece of farmland or mining rights or whatever; and it may create currency and other economic structures to allow us to trade and transfer the fruits of our labors. We may even agree to be taxed, each of us contributing some portion of the fruits of our labors to accomplish some task for the good of us all. But in the final analysis, the government is there to ensure that we preserve our lives, our basic freedom and our own property. These are our inalienable rights, and the basis of the social contract. Society agrees to protect these rights, and we as citizens agree to support the society as necessary by obeying its laws and reasonable demands.

To be continued…..

[1] I say “he” deliberately; Hobbes generally treats women as one of those goods that men would fight and murder each other over, rather than as independent persons themselves.

[2] This is a rejection of the view laid out in Plato’s Crito, for example.