Cain as His Brother's Keeper: Property Rights and Christian Doctrine in Locke's Two Treatises of Government
89 Pages Posted: 28 Mar 2011 Last revised: 6 Oct 2014
The Lockean conception of natural rights, and especially Locke’s theory of property, strongly influenced the Anglo-American legal tradition. Many contemporary scholars, however, argue that Locke’s theory depends on theological assumptions without which his argument lacks coherence. A legal tradition that rests on outmoded religious commitments would seem to have little claim to continued allegiance. Yet if the theological grounds of Locke’s political principles were so essential, it is puzzling that those principles hold sway not in Locke’s own time but in modern liberal societies that lack the same, or even any, theological commitments. One faces the paradox of Lockean principles coming to predominate just as their foundation decays.
This Article argues that scholars who regard Locke’s theory of property as a reflection of conventional Christian views pay insufficient attention to the deliberate rhetorical method of his Two Treatises of Government. Close attention to the text reveals that Locke’s reliance on the authority of scripture is more apparent than real. While Locke cites biblical teaching ostensibly to support his theory of property, his argument in fact rejects prevailing Christian doctrine. Locke’s theory supplants biblical morality by justifying material acquisition and celebrating human industry. In justifying natural rights to property, Locke aims to redirect social life from spiritual devotion to commercial development and thereby to foster individualism rather than obedience. Understanding Locke’s intention illuminates the foundations of American constitutionalism and modern liberalism and shows that some social consequences of property rights recognized by scholars were part of a conscious design.
Keywords: constitutionalism, liberalism, modernity, natural rights, property, John Locke
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