John Locke’s Absolute/Arbitrary Power Dilemma

And thus, in the state of nature, one man comes by a power over another; but yet no absolute or arbitrary power, to use a criminal, when he has got him in his hands, according to the passionate heats, or boundless extravagancy of his own will; but only to retribute to him, so far as calm reason and conscience dictates, what is proportionate to his transgression, which is so much as may serve for reparation and restraint: for these two lawfully do harm to another, which is that we call punishment.

  • John Locke, True End of Civil Government

Considering that John Locke influenced the development of the United States Constitution and the founding fathers (including Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and Thomas Jefferson) and is responsible for the blank slate theory, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to examine some of his philosophical concepts from an ethical standpoint.

In “An Essay Concerning the End of Civil Government,” John Locke claims that all men (and by this it is safe to assume he means all white men – he makes a point of declaring that men have power over their children and wives in the beginning of the essay and thus classifies women and children as a separate group from men, and then later justifies slavery as not an instance of absolute power over other men) have political power. Political power is defined as the ability to make laws with penalties of everything up to and including death, and the ability to enforce those laws.

However! As referenced in the above quote, men do have power over each other – just not “absolute” or “arbitrary” power. They have the power of retribution and of restriction of criminals in proportion to the crimes that are committed against them. You can’t just take another person’s life or restrain them without appropriate justification.

But what is appropriate justification?

It seems that John Locke leaves this up to individual judgement, but different perspectives on the intensity of a crime lead to different judgement calls. Ultimately, the biggest critique that I have found of Locke is that he seems to be more concerned with defining power relations than finding ways that individuals could challenge his concepts of absolute and arbitrary power.

What do you all think?


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