Locke’s Strange Notions on Acquiring Property

This week, I read the entire Second Treatise by John Locke.  I’ve read it before, so reading it again was a nice way for not only of review, but also delving into the complexities of the treatise. I particularly concentrated on Chapter V: On Property.  It was intriguing, but I found that there were a lot of openings that could easily be critiqued.

To start, we are in a state of nature (a situation where there is no government, nor even a real society), and Locke wants to talk about property.  For him, we have a right to property before there’s a government, even before there is a full society.  So how do we get property?  Once we’re born, we have the right to our preservation, and thus we have the right to the things that nature provides for us.  Locke states that it’s clear that God has given the earth to mankind in common.  But with this supposition, how does an individual obtain the right to own something?  How do we gain property, in other words?  Since God has given the earth to all of mankind in common, He’s also given mankind reason and to make good use of it.  So the fruits, the beasts (meat), and everything belongs to everyone in common.  No one has an original private ownership of something.  In other words, you aren’t born owning something.  There must be a way to gain property.  Again, how can God give the earth to mankind in common yet you still have the ability to obtain private property?  Locke’s answer is labor.

Your body is something you own.  Thus, your body is private property.  No one can use it or take it without your permission. You own property if you’ve mixed your labor with the stuff out there.  Thus, if you find a stick and you whittle it down to a spear.  You now own that spear/stick because you’ve put your labor into it.  It’s your sweat, blood, and tears and that’s what makes it yours.  When you mix your labor into it, you remove it from the state of common property and you make it yours.  Your labor removes that thing out of common property.  Thus, by doing that, no one has the right to use that thing without your permission. Locke’s example is that if you’re in the forest and you see some acorns or some apples, those things were originally belonging to all of mankind.  If you went out and picked them up, they now all of the sudden become yours.

This is where the problem comes in: these acorns or apples, they belonged to everyone in common.  If you take them, don’t you first need permission from everyone to take them?  No one has consented for you to take them, so isn’t this robbery?  Now Locke’s answer is that you don’t need their consent.  Your labor makes it yours.  However, this makes more sense if the earth belonged to no one originally. If the earth belonged to everyone originally, then it seems you do need permission from everyone in order to makes object x your private property.

First of all, it seems strange that is something is commonly owned, it now becomes yours simply because you put labor into it.  It seems that if something is commonly owned by everyone, then you need everyone’s permission to obtain that object.  Locke’s reply in section 28 is that if “such consent as that was necessary, man had starved.”  How odd that we are allowed to not gain permission from everyone else because we would starve if we did not.  Perhaps a better solution is to say that the earth was originally unowned instead of commonly owned.  Or perhaps commonly owned means something else where everyone does not have equal joint ownership of the earth.  Rather, it seems that it is more about everyone having equal accessibility.

However, there are some puzzling metaphysics behind this: exactly how does the thing become yours metaphysically?  There are some more strange things metaphysically when he talks about getting too much where the things you have begin to spoil.  If spoilage happens, then this is unjustified because it is as if you have stolen from everyone.  Intuitively, if I go some unowned land and pick a whole bushel of apples, and then they eventually spoil, I do not consider them stealing from mankind.  Instead, I feel like I have wasted my time picking apples because they have spoiled.  At any rate, let us suppose that Locke is correct that spoilage is considered stealing from mankind in general.  If so, the apples that I have picked (which were mine because I put labor into them), now belong to everyone in common.  Now that I have them, it is theft.  Exactly how does spoilage cause my private property to become common property?

What is the philosophical–perhaps metaphysical–justification of this: ?

Locke originally states that the earth belongs to everyone in common because we cannot “determine which is the right heir in all cases that may arise” from the heirs of Adam, and so finding out who is the proper owner “could not have been certainly determined” (section 3).  This barrier is epistemic, not metaphysical.  We simply do not know who’s land belongs to whom (especially now in the 21st century).  Moreover, Locke’s solution could be considered a categorical mistake: his solution is to acquire land by labor (which is somehow a metaphysical switch from common property to private property).  But if the original barrier was epistemic, the solution, it seems, must also be epistemic as well.

Finally, Locke states there are limits accumulating “natural property”:

  1. It does not spoil in its accumulation.
  2. Enough has been left for others.
  3. Its accumulation is not harmful to others.

With the invention of money, this replaces labor.  And we can take as much as we want because money doesn’t spoil.  By the tacit consent of mankind, they become a form of money (one accepts gold in exchange for apples with the understanding that someone else will accept that gold in exchange for wheat). One can therefore avoid the spoilage limitation by selling all that one has amassed before it rots; the limits on acquisition thus disappear.

So is there any where to fix these gaps, are should we abandon this theory and start over on how one can obtain property?

About shaunmiller

I have just completed a visiting position as an assistant professor at Dalhousie University. My ideas are not associated with my employer; they are expressions of my own thoughts and ideas. Some of them are just musings while others could be serious discussions that could turn into a bigger project. Besides philosophy, I enjoy martial arts (Kuk Sool Won), playing my violin, enjoying coffee around town, and experimenting with new food.
This entry was posted in Government, Locke, Politics, Rights. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Locke’s Strange Notions on Acquiring Property

  1. Handsome Matt says:

    I think the idea of spoilage was to prevent hoarding. Theoretically a person could spend a day and collect an entire orchards’ worth of apples and through their labor prevent anyone else from eating apples. Even with good intentions taking more than one needs is stealing. When the apples spoil, no one was able to use them, so in a sense it’s stealing.

    With the advent of money, we can now have specialization. People can work hard at what they do best,and not worry about the limitations of spoiling or of themselves. The apple picker can pick enough apples for the community, and the farmer can grow enough wheat, and so on.

    The contemporary issue I think, is we now have whole fields and careers that actually provide no real world worth. John C. Bogle points out this out in his book “Enough” (Which I highly recommend) when he discusses financial engineering.

    On a second topic:

    Saw this article in the NY Times, thought you might enjoy it.


    • shaunmiller says:

      Locke says that this is natural. Therefore, it has some metaphysical support. But that is exactly my question: how does an item metaphysically become yours when you put labor into it? And again, how do certain items metaphysically becomes part of the common when said items start to spoil?

      The article is very interesting by the way.

  2. Handsome Matt says:

    i think his idea is that everyone’s needs are equal, and that the natural order provides enough for everyone to live well. By taking you are merely using what has been already provided for you. When you take more than that, you’ve disrupted the natural order. Your want now prevents others from meeting their needs.

    It’s one thing to store up for a lean time, it’s quite another to be wasteful. Especially given the fact that X number of other people now go without. Spoilage means that in addition to you not using something, no one is able to use it.

    • shaunmiller says:

      That’s a good point about the natural order of things. It makes sense given his view that property is natural and so that may help bring out his metaphysical necessities on owning property.

  3. Pingback: What I’ve Learned this Past Year — 2010 Edition « Shaun Miller’s Weblog

  4. Pingback: Particular Interests of Mine | Shaun Miller's Ideas

  5. Daniel Ehinger says:

    I have not listened to the book for some time but from what I remember he said that the the thing became your property because of your labor, not because of the labor itself but because you transfer a ‘property’ that belonged to you to the item. When you gave it your property it became yours by that exchange. It is not just labor it is also ideas and motivation inspiration ect. In other words it is the transfer of your properties to the item that make it yours. His is a pretty flawless argument in my estimation. He is more stating what is than inventing.

    I think, in regard to taking too much, he is pointing out a natural occurrence and he is talking about hoarding food. I think we all can agree that taking more food than we need and letting it rot while others go hungry is wrong.

    • shaunmiller says:

      I can see the appeal, but I’m wondering about certain features that makes it problematic. For example, suppose you have a prosthetic arm. You’re climbing a try and somehow, your arm falls off and it’s caught in the branches. Locke would say since it’s your arm, the tree is yours. However, I would respond by saying you just lost your arm. Likewise, Nozick makes the remark that if you have a can of soup that is yours and you spill it in the ocean, it’s not as if the whole ocean is yours. Rather, you just lost your soup.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s