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The Private Society and the Liberal Public Good in John Locke's Thought


Eric R. Claeys


George Mason University

August 23, 2007

Social Philosophy and Policy, Vol. 25, No. 2, July 2008, pp. 201-234
George Mason Law & Economics Research Paper No. 07-43
FREEDOM ON ASSOCIATION, Paul Miller, ed., Cambridge U. Press, 2008

Abstract:     
This Essay interprets John Locke's teachings about "private societies," or free private associations. The Essay interprets as an integrated whole Locke's mature writings on ethics, politics, and philosophy, particularly his Two Treatises of Government, A Letter Concerning Toleration, and An Essay Concerning Human Understanding.

Although Locke wrote about private societies primarily in the course of arguing for religious toleration, throughout his mature corpus Locke develops an internally consistent general theory of associational freedom. At first glance, Locke seems to suggest that all citizens are entitled to associate for any end of their choosing, to control admission into and expulsion from their organizations, and to enforce their own internal rules of governance. Locke qualifies this broad right, however, to bar societies from organizing around ends that are inconsistent with the minimal moral and political conditions of liberalism. Ultimately, on Locke's view, citizens deserve a broad right of free association only to the extent that they are well enough formed by their social order and its private institutions to be capable of governing themselves in both public and private life.

The Essay illustrates Locke's teachings by comparing Locke's justification of the right of free association with contemporary understandings. Locke's justification is broader in some respects and narrower in others. On one hand, Locke's teachings may justify limiting the scope of antidiscrimination laws. An association's refusal to admit an individual as a member does not constitute harm to that individual: his liberty and property are left intact, and he is left free to join other associations. On the other hand, Locke's teachings may justify enlarging the scope of government efforts to dissolve seditious associations, on the grounds that they threaten public morals or advance foreign interests.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 54

Keywords: Locke, toleration, freedom of religion, freedom of association, liberalism, seditious association, anti-discrimination, constitutionalism

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Date posted: November 7, 2007 ; Last revised: July 14, 2008

Suggested Citation

Claeys, Eric R., The Private Society and the Liberal Public Good in John Locke's Thought (August 23, 2007). Social Philosophy and Policy, Vol. 25, No. 2, July 2008, pp. 201-234; George Mason Law & Economics Research Paper No. 07-43; FREEDOM ON ASSOCIATION, Paul Miller, ed., Cambridge U. Press, 2008. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1027965 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.1027965

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Eric R. Claeys (Contact Author)
George Mason University ( email )
3301 Fairfax Drive
Room 420
Arlington, VA 22201
United States
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