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John Locke on the rights to life, liberty, and property of ourselves and others (1689)

John Locke (1632-1704) argued that the law of nature obliged all human beings not to harm “the life, the liberty, health, limb, or goods of another”:

The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which obliges every one: and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind, who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions… (and) when his own preservation comes not in competition, ought he, as much as he can, to preserve the rest of mankind, and may not, unless it be to do justice on an offender, take away, or impair the life, or what tends to the preservation of the life, the liberty, health, limb, or goods of another.

§. 6. But though this be a state of liberty, yet it is not a state of licence: though man in that state have an uncontroulable liberty to dispose of his person or possessions, yet he has not liberty to destroy himself, or so much as any creature in his possession, but where some nobler use than its bare preservation calls for it. The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which obliges every one: and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind, who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions: for men being all the workmanship of one omnipotent, and infinitely wise maker; all the servants of one sovereign master, sent into the world by his order, and about his business; they are his property, whose workmanship they are, made to last during his, not one another’s pleasure: and being furnished with like faculties, sharing all in one community of nature, there cannot be supposed any such subordination among us, that may authorize us to destroy one another, as if we were made for one another’s uses, as the inferior ranks of creatures are for our’s. Every one, as he is bound to preserve himself, and not to quit his station wilfully, so by the like reason, when his own preservation comes not in competition, ought he, as much as he can, to preserve the rest of mankind, and may not, unless it be to do justice on an offender, take away, or impair the life, or what tends to the preservation of the life, the liberty, health, limb, or goods of another.

§. 7. And that all men may be restrained from invading others rights, and from doing hurt to one another, and the law of nature be observed, which willeth the peace and preservation of all mankind, the execution of the law of nature is, in that state, put into every man’s hands, whereby every one has a right to punish the transgressors of that law to such a degree, as may hinder its violation: for the law of nature would, as all other laws that concern men in this world, be in vain, if there were no body that in the state of nature had a power to execute that law, and thereby preserve the innocent and restrain offenders. And if any one in the state of nature may punish another for any evil he has [199] done, every one may do so: for in that state of perfect equality, where naturally there is no superiority or jurisdiction of one over another, what any may do in prosecution of that law, every one must needs have a right to do.

About this Quotation:

This passage from Locke is one of the foundation stones of the classical liberal notion of private property as a natural right which all individuals have. What is often overlooked by critics is the importance Locke places on the corresponding duty of the individual to respect the equal rights of others, and to thus refrain from “tak(ing) away, or impair(ing) the life, or what tends to the preservation of the life, the liberty, health, limb, or goods of another”. Less convincingly, he argues that we are all “the property” and “the servants” of his god who are duty bound not “to quit (our) station wilfully” as this would be an act of disobedience to our “sovereign master”. However, once one goes beyond this feudal and monarchical view of the relationship between men and god, between men themselves there can be no “subordination” of one to another, no using another person as one’s own servant or property, and “no superiority or jurisdiction of one over another.” These were the liberal sentiments which lay behind the idea of a limited, constitutional government which was accountable to the people.

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