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Nick Fletcher PH307

Does Locke offer a single, coherent justification of the acquisition of private


property in Chapter V of the Second Treatise? Or does he offer a plurality of
conflicting justifications?

Revelations dictates that God ‘has given the earth to the children of
men’ (Psal. CXV. Xvj.; quoted by Locke, 1968; §25). Locke, who based much of
his philosophy upon the bible, wrote that this passage could be interpreted
that God gave the earth to Adam and his successors in the fashion of
primogeniture1. Under this interpretation, only a single universal monarch
would be able to have property, and mankind in general could not stake claim
to any thing. However, Locke argues against this interpretation earlier in the
first treatise, as he believed that God gave the earth to Adam and to all his
descendants equally; which would suggest that even the concept of property
could not exist, as every thing would be everyone’s. Nonetheless, Locke also
points out that reason clearly dictates that every man must have the right to
self-preservation, including the necessities of life (§25), of which Locke gives
food, drink, clothing and shelter as regular examples. Thus, once it is
assumed that any man has a right to such things, it follows that it must be
possible for any man to have property in the sense of items that a single man
has exclusive rights to. The philosophical problem that Locke attends to in
chapter 5 of the second treatise is thus how individuals can claim rights over
private property without the consent of other men in a world that God gave
to mankind in common (Tully, 1995).
Locke argues that it is unquestionable that a man owns himself, that
no other man can have any right to another mans person. Thus, ‘the labour of
his body and the work of his hands’ (§27) must also be his property. This
forms the basis of Locke’s argument for the justification of private property;
any thing that a man has removed from what was common and ‘mixed’ (§27)
with his labour becomes his property. As Locke puts it, the man’s labour is
‘annexed’ to it (§27), and he thus comes to have rights to it over any other
man. In this way, Locke’s argument remains consistent with the idea that all
things in the state of nature belong to all men whilst showing that it is
possible for men to have private property. Using examples of a man gathering
acorns and apples (§28), Locke argues that it is undeniable that the gathered

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Nick Fletcher PH307

food belongs to the man, and that other men no longer have rights to the
food once it has been gathered. The man’s labour, the act of gathering the
food, was what added something, albeit something intangible, to the food
and took it out of what was common and ‘fixed’ his property in them (§28).
However, many commentators on Locke’s philosophy, from Hume to
Nozick, have argued that it is unclear why the mixing of labour with raw
materials entails ownership of the product by the labourer, rather than simply
the loss of his labour (Shrader-Frechette, 1993). A common counter-example
to Locke’s argument is that if someone were to pour a can of tomato juice
into the sea, they do not come to own the sea but simply lose the juice.
Locke’s bases his belief in this is on four ideas (Shrader-Frechette, 1993).
Firstly, Locke argues that without appropriation based on labour the time it
takes to gain consensual agreements would mean members of the
community might die of starvation before appropriation could take place
(§28). Following from this, Locke argues that it is efficient to base
appropriation on labour, arguing that a man who encloses ten acres and
receives the benefits of a hundred uncultivated acres can be said ‘to have
given ninety acres to mankind’ (§37). Thirdly, Locke argues that those who
are ‘industrious and rational persons’ (Shrader-Frechette, 1993; pp. 204)
deserve the benefit of the products of their labour. Those who do not labour
may desire the product of the industrious mans labour, but they certainly do
not have any rights to it. Finally, Locke argues that labour increases the value
of a thing so much, usually 99% of value (§40). Because of this, a far greater
part the product is composed of labour than raw material, and the labourer
must therefore have rights over the product ‘in much the same way as a
creator is entitled to his creation’ (Shrader-Frechette, 1993; pp. 205). Thus,
Locke bases his justification of the acquisition of private property on need,
efficiency, merit (or desert) and labour (Shrader-Frechette, 1993). This is a
singular and coherent justification of the acquisition of private property. The
mixing of labour with an object justifies its acquisition as property, but only in
virtue of the need of such labour, the extra efficiency gained from such
labour and the desert of the labourer due to such labour.
However, Locke’s arguments concerning the application of labour to
things in common, and the subsequent rights held by the labourer, so far only

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justify exclusive rights to possession, management and use (Christman,


1986). Full ownership of property also requires the right to the transfer of
goods and the rights to income from goods (Christman, 1986; pp.161). In
terms of income, Christman asserts that Locke is ‘explicit’ in his argument
that the rights to income from property are not justified by labour investment
(Christman, 1986; pp. 161). Locke writes ‘the invention of money, and the
tacit agreement of men to put a value on it, introduced (by consent) larger
possessions, and a right to them’ (§36). As money does not spoil, an infinite
amount of such property can be acquired as Locke allows for any man to
acquire as many things ‘as anyone can make use of to any advantage of life
before it spoils’ (§31). With this in mind, Christman asserts that Locke
explicitly states in §36 that the accumulation of more property than one man
can make use of cannot be justified in an appeal to natural rights through
labour, only through the consent of men that justifies the use of money
(1986). Thus, Christman argues that, according to Locke, rights to private
property acquired through the use of money are conventional rights (1986).
This would suggest that there is indeed a plurality of conflicting
justifications in Locke’s argument: on the one hand, private property is
justified in virtue of labour without requiring the consent of other men, but on
the other private property is justified in virtue of the consent of men in the
creation of money. These two justifications conflict because one appeals to
the personal relationship between a person and the product of their labour,
whilst the other appeals to a tacit relationship between people. However, it is
surely not the tacit agreement of men that justifies the right to these larger
possessions as Christman argues, this consent merely facilitates the
acquisition of them. Becker uses Locke’s argument that the addition of this
labour increases the value of the thing, perhaps, a hundredfold (§40) to
assert that the man is surely entitled to ‘the whole’ of the benefits from his
newly acquired property (Becker, 1977; pp.35). According to Becker, income
is surely a benefit gained from the property, and thus Locke’s argument does
justify income. With these two points in mind, Locke’s argument for the
justification of income remains singular and consistent.
To complete the analysis of Locke’s justification of private property, we
must finally turn to the issue of justification of transferability. As Locke argues

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that the acquisition of private property involves a change in the ‘natural


constitution’ (Rapaczynski, 1981) of the object itself, it is hard to see how
transferability, which involves alienation of goods, can be justified. One
possible solution to this appeals to the vagueness of the terms ‘mixing’ and
‘annexing’ that Locke uses to describe the interaction of labour and objects in
the world. From this, one can argue that Locke does not justify private
property by appeal to labour, but private use; ‘property inheres, not in a
particular person but rather in the abstract humanity that resides in each
human being’ (Rapaczynski, 1981; pp. 309). Therefore, acquisition of private
property can occur in virtue of the private nature of usage of property rather
than in virtue of the binding of an object to a particular person; meaning that
transfer or alienation of goods causes no problems to Locke’s justification.
However, as Rapaczynski (1981) argues, Locke’s concept of the ‘tabula rasa’
is not merely an explanatory devise but refers to a real subject; thus the
appeal to a ‘communal humanity’ (Rapaczynski, 1981; pp 309) cannot be
made consistent with Locke’s nominalism. Furthermore, analysis of the words
Locke uses suggests that he did not draw a distinction between communal
and private property. Rapaczynski argues that Locke never uses the word
property to refer to man’s God given claim to the use of the earth and its raw
materials, he uses the word ‘dominion’2. Although the words may be used
interchangeably, Locke’s consistent differentiation between them suggests
that Locke did not believe that mans dominion over the world comes from a
sort of communal property.
A much better solution to the problem comes from Macpherson’s
(1962) claim that Locke considered personal attributes and abilities, such as
labour, to be themselves alienable. Whilst some have argue that this
assumption causes Locke’s explanation to beg the question (Rapaczynski,
1981), as it requires that a persons property in terms of his own person is the
same as his property in external objects, there seems to be no reason why we
should assume that this is not the case. Indeed, Locke at no point suggests
that he believes labour to be inalienable, as he never feels the need to
explain how a person can sell his labour in the form of paid work for another
person. Thus, as labour is alienable, there is no problem in justifying
transferability, and Locke’s justification of the acquisition of private property

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is singular, coherent and complete in that all aspects of ownership can be


justified in an appeal to labour and the value it adds to raw materials.
To conclude, Locke provides a singular and coherent justification of
private property in chapter V of the second treatise. Although in society the
consent of men through the creation of laws and boundaries may serve to
artificially create other justifications that may conflict with and overpower
Locke’s, the basic, natural right to acquire property is justified by him in
virtue of his ‘labour principle’, that every man has property in his own labour
and through the application or ‘mixing’ of labour to raw materials he comes
to have property in his products.

1
His mention of this interpretation and his subsequent argument against it
can be found in the first treatise §31.

2
Rapaczynski cites the following passages for this analysis: First Treatise,
§§24, 29, 30, 40, 88 and 90; Second Treatise, §§6, 25-26, 27, 28, 29-30, 32,
34, 38, 39-40, 44-46, 48 and 83.

Christman, J. (1986). ‘Can Ownership be Justified by Natural Rights?’, in


Philosophy and Public Affairs. Princeton University Press.
Becker, L. (1977). Property Rights; Philosophic Foundations. London:
Routeledge.
Tully, J. (1995). ‘Property, Self-Government and Consent, a Review’, in
Canadian Journal of Political Science. Canadian Political Science Association.

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