John Locke’s View on Liberty

free essayThe 1688 Glorious Revolution represented a victory for the Whig party. This was despite the fact that the uprising was not lawful with regard to the meaning of the word (Ashcraft 1987, p. 4 ). The Whigs thought they were obliged to defend their coup de etat to a country that had been fed on the doctrines of absolutists (Ashcraft 1987). John Locke’s civil government that acted in accordance with his political philosophy was really regretted for the 1688 Revolution. As a secretary and the founding father of the Whig party, John Locke gained substantial experience in practical politics. For instance, he strongly opposed the idea of kings having divine rights, which was supported by the Anglican Church. In other words, according to Ashcraft (1987, p. 7), John Locke was the main official interpreter of the Revolution. Ashcraft (1986, p. 7) also described Locke as rationalist. While these authors strongly agree with Locke, some authors, such as Chappell (1994, p. 6), have criticized Locke’s view on liberty. It is in this regard that this paper seeks to critically assess Locke’s views regarding the aspect of liberty.

According to Dunn (2003, p. 12), John Locke has written two significant treatises on the government. The first treatise appeared to be a reply to the Patriarcha of the absolutist Farrier, which resulted in a conflict of indignation among the Whig members as indicated by Al Ernon in his work titled Discourses Concerning Government (Lloyd-Thomas 1995, p. 20). Al Ernon noticed and disproved the Patriarcha by claiming that the government was an example of a human institution that had no natural or divine sanction. Al Ernon also claimed that the basis of the government was a popular agreement, and that people were the ultimate owners of their own sovereignty. Locke’s disproval of the Patriarcha was based on the lines of Al Ernon (Wood 1984, p. 46). The second treatise written by Locke was the Of Civil Government, which provided a systematic explanation of the basis and characteristic of the state. According to Gough (1973, p. 43), John Locke’s political philosophy represented an expansion of the ‘Judicious’, whom Locke must have read. From these two treatises, it is possible to examine Locke’s views on liberty.

Social Contract

Political or social contacts refer to models that characteristically attempt to address questions concerning the state’s legitimacy of authority over individuals. Social contract theories suggest that people have agreed to either tacitly or explicitly surrender some of their liberties and submit the government’s authority in exchange for safeguarding their liberties.

Locke held some views on the conception of social contract and liberty. The social instinct of human beings provides an origin for different social units, such as political society. According to social contracts, every individual consents to give up the right of interpreting and executing the law of nature. However, this right is given up to the community as a whole and not any individual or a group (Ashcraft 1987, p. 65). It naturally follows from this that Lockean social contract does not create any unlimited or absolute sovereign. The social contract is not made with the ruler, but with the community, which becomes the common political leader. However, Locke does not differentiate clearly between the state and the society. According to Locke (2009, p. 78), Lockean state is a dependent state because the contract is not general, but limited in character. The state seems to be limited by the aim for which it was created because the law of nature can be set aside if it does not meet the aim for which it was crafted. The final commitment of an individual is to the political society and not to the government. Features that result from the nature of Lockean contract typify the state of Locke. According to Locke (2009, p. 78), the state exists for the benefit of the people and not vice versa.


John Locke held that an individual becomes beholden to obey the authorities only through free and voluntary agreement (Macpherson 1962, p. 90). The problem is what should be looked upon as tacit agreement and the extent of its binding capability, which implies how far an individual should be recognized to have agreed. Therefore, a consented individual submits to political authorities, where he or she has made no communication of it all. Locke once pointed out that every individual that has any enjoyment or possession of any portion of territory of any government, therefore, provides his tacit agreement. As a result, such individuals are obliged to obey the laws of the government (Lowe 2005, p. 67).

Theory of Revolution

The theory of revolution is significant in understand Locke’s views concerning consent. This is because it is a constituent of the liberty of man to agree to the current form of government, liberty, possessions, and right to life. Therefore, any form of authority that does not conform to these standards needs to be overthrown. Locke had views concerning the conception of human nature (Ashcraft 1987, p. 12). John Locke believed that human beings were rational and social creatures able to recognize and live in a moral manner. According to Hampsher-Monk (1992, p. 24), Locke had sympathy, love, and tenderness towards other humans and was often driven by altruistic motives. In addition, Locke wanted to live in peace and harmony with others, feeling bound to people in socially cohesive manner. According to Jones (2012, p. 76), Locke’s perception of rationality was a typical characteristic of a human being. Locke’s view differed from those of other authors, such as Hobbes, because he did not consider negative sides of human nature (Macpherson 1962, p. 54).

Locke’s views with respect to the state of nature correspond to historical findings and comparative methods (Hampsher-Monk 1992, p. 54). It concurs more with customs and habits of the then primitive tribes. John Locke, like other authors, began by theorizing the state of nature, though he diverged materially from the conception of human nature (Macpherson 1962, p. 45). People who live together due to certain reasons, who have the power to judge each other and are socially equal represent one aspect of the state of nature, which is an elaboration of moral human beings having a reason. This also implies that the law of nature guides such people. According to Laslett (1967, p. 46), who was a supporter of Locke’s views, it is a state of seamless freedom for humans to order actions and dispose of possessions and people within the requirements of the law of nature. In addition, Locke also claimed that state of equality exists where all authority and jurisdiction are somewhat mutual (Wood 1984, p. 63).

According to John Locke nature’s state is a condition of goodwill, preservation, and mutual assistance (Simmons 1992, p. 76). This implies that the state of nature is of peace but not of war. In this regard, Wood (1984, p. 43) claims that Locke’s perception on the state of nature is an instance of pre-political condition instead of pre-social state. To Locke, the law of nature governs the state of nature. John Locke, like Simmons (1992, p. 89), strongly believed that the law of nature represents a moral law based upon a reason and not sheer natural instinct. This is because the law of nature needs to control the demeanour of humans in natural circumstances (Laslett 1967, p. 56). Another view is that the law of nature is not an antithesis of the civil law, though it represents a condition that is precedent to the civil law.

Negative and Positive Liberty

Doing what one wishes is what Locke terms as negative conception of liberty. Acting in a specific way, which is following the law of nature, is what Locke terms as positive conception of liberty. Locke and Hobbes provide two influential choices on how man’s desire for liberty can be reconciled with the need for authority.

Both Locke and Hobbes agree that there must be an alienated space where an individual can act freely based on his or her tastes, inclinations, and desires. According to Ashcraft (1987, p. 3), this region is the inviolable space of personal liberty. However, Locke and Hobbes believe that no society is conceivable without authority where the envisioned objective of the authority is to inhibit collisions. However, the two vary in the extent of the space of personal liberty. Hobbes took a negative perspective on human nature and maintained that a strong authority is necessary in curbing the corrupt impulses and savage of man. In Hobbes view, only an influential authority can prevent the permanent threat of lawlessness. On the other hand, Locke took a positive perspective of human nature and argued that men as a whole are good rather than wicked.

Liberty not License

According to Locke, in the state of nature, one is naturally free, though it does not imply that he or she is unquestionably free to do anything. The law of nature bounds human beings so that they do not harm each other in their life, possessions, or liberty. In addition, human beings, if anything, seek to preserve others’ life. From a critical point of view, one can identify Locke’s failure to call overtly for the widening of franchise. This might imply that most people’s liberty is truncated since they cannot take part in political decision-making process.

Almost every individual claims to be in favor of liberty (Simmons 1992, p. 34). However, everyone, including libertarians, tend to favor constraining the conduct of people. One should not be free to rape, murder, or rob another. Therefore, almost every individual carries in them a tension between constraint and freedom. The question is how this can be possible. Locke explained the tension by using the difference between license and liberty. For instance, in defining the world without a regime, Locke claimed that it is a state of liberty and not a state of license. By liberty, Locke referred to freedoms that people need to have. By license, he referred to freedoms that people need not to have. These are freedoms that are properly constrained (Seliger 1968, 67). However, this difference simply reaffirms the tension and it does not rationalize it. Similar to a building, a society has its own structure, which allows it to act in order to accomplish some things. Without structure, there will be chaos. Nevertheless, not all social structures are the same. Some societies tend to impose restrictions, which prevent instead of facilitating capability of individuals to flourish. Some societies are capable of modifying the nature of limitations to allow people pursue happiness.


John Locke’s letter about toleration presents his views on liberty. In his letter, he develops arguments that objectively attempt to establish the proper spheres politics and religion. In his view, Locke strongly suggests that the government needs not to deploy force in bringing people to the religion (Hampsher-Monk 1992, p. 90). In addition, Locke further points out that those religious societies are voluntary organization, which have no authority to deploy intimidating power over their members. Locke also argues that neither the teachings of the New Testament nor the example of Jesus provides a suggestion that force is a good way of bringing individuals to salvations. Furthermore, Locke provides three significant reasons that are more philosophical to prevent governments from deploying force in encouraging people to adhere to religious beliefs (Dunn 2003, 89). The first reason is that the care for the souls of men has not been dedicated to the judge by the consent of men or God. This view reverberates with the argument used frequently in the two treatises in establishing natural freedom. The second argument is that force is unable to bring people to the ultimate religion. The third argument is that even if the magistrate can change the mind of people, a circumstance in which everyone acknowledged the religion of the magistrate would not bring people to the ultimate religion (Chappell 1994, p. 13).

Limits of Liberty

Locke argued that there are boundaries of liberty in the appropriate political system, and according to him, the limits are comparatively reasonable (Ashcraft 1986, p. 45). These boundaries are logical since they offer for as much freedom as possible devoid of creating a chaotic society in which the private property ownership could not be guaranteed. Indeed, the view held by Locke finds a logical balance based on the belief that private property is a necessary element of a society. Apparently, according to Locke, such private property is a key feature of the society. The boundaries are also illogical since too much authority in the society is unavoidably placed in the hands of individuals owning property.

Locke views a society run by individuals with property. As such, property-owners will most likely guarantee security of property. According to Chappell (1994, p. 67), Locke wanted to delineate a government that avoids violence of the state of nature. Similarly, the government delineated by Locke will minimally cut into the freedoms that it believes individuals have from their birth. In essence, Locke did not imply only material property but also life itself.

Conclusion. Locke wrote two significant treatises on the government. The first treatises appeared to be a reply to the patriarcha of the absolutist Farrier, which resulted in a storm of indignation among the Whig members as indicated by the Al Ernon in his work titled Discourses Concerning Government. The first view of Locke concerned the conception of human nature. John Locke believed that human beings are rational and social creatures who are able to recognize and live in a moral manner. Locke’s views of the state of nature are similar to historical findings and comparative methods. To John Locke, nature’s state is a state of goodwill, preservation, and mutual assistance. This implies that the state of nature is of peace and not of war. Locke also had strong views on the property institution and on inviolability of the right of property. According to Locke, labour is the property of human beings.