Unit 1

The human experience versus each human’s experience.
HumanS as equal versus humans as diverse individuals.

Led by Professor (and President) Quillen, this unit introduced the class to important historical texts regarding basic human rights. This post is a response to John Locke’s Second Treatise.

John Locke’s Second Treatise

“Though I have said above ‘That all men by nature are equal,’ I cannot be supposed to understand all sorts of ‘equality.’ Age or virtue may give men a just precedency. Excellency of parts and merit may place others above the common level. Birth may subject some, and alliance or benefits others, to pay an observance to those to whom Nature, gratitude, or other respects, may have made it due; and yet all this consists with the equality which all men are in respect of jurisdiction or dominion one over another… being that equal right that every man hath to his natural freedom, without being subjected to the will or authority of any other man.” (Paragraph 55)

Up to this point in the reading, Locke appears to advocate for equality. However, here, Locke provides exceptions to this belief. Why would Locke contradict himself? How can he say that certain qualities create “precedency” while also saying that no human is “subjected to the will” of another?

Prof. Quillen’s lecture clarified the passage by explaining Locke’s motivations for writing his Second Treatise. Locke disagrees with the idea that power comes from God and therefore, rejects authority from divine right. It is possible that Locke only interprets equality within this context of government. Locke is not necessarily writing with the motivation of equality, but with the motivation to debunk divine right. By denouncing the idea that a monarch’s power is bestowed upon him by God, The Second Treatise makes a statement that is outside the current conceptual scheme. 

Professor Quillen’s notes on the text also enlightened the passage, clarifying that Locke’s equality does not mean that every person is the same, but that no person has authority over another. Locke is not looking to put an end to civil inequality, but he wants to redefine the political system as one that is more democratic.

So, if people are not equal in the sense that they are the same, humans can be made distinct or differentiable, which allows for certain discrimination in Locke’s philosophy. The abstract qualifications such as age, virtue, excellency, merit, and birth create identities that can be compared and valued. These identity classifiers or labels can be used to unify as well as separate. Locke’s general philosophy may seem like a call for equality and democracy, but this passage proves otherwise. It is statements like these that allow for discrimination, which is especially interesting considering that much of the United State’s government is inspired by this very same political philosophy, one that alienates under a mask of equality.

Locke, John, 1632-1704. Two Treatises on Civil Government. London :G. Routledge and sons, 1887.