John Locke (1632-1704) is still remembered as one of the most prominent new age thinkers of the Enlightenment epoch. His prolific disposition and commitment to the development of a succinct political philosophy is the reason for his rich enduring legacy and the popularity it still enjoys across the globe. Apart from continental Europe, his liberal ideas steadily spread across the Atlantic to the New World and are mirrored in the United States Declaration of Independence. The purpose of this essay is thus to discuss John Locke’s fundamental political ideology with a special focus on his stance on the state of nature, individual’s natural rights, the primary role of government and a subsequent review of founding documents that reveal these ideas.
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At the crux of Locke’s political ideology was the “state of nature” proposition. It stemmed from a hypothetical idea of how life might have been for people before the formation of organized societies and the manner in which they maneuvered various crucial facets of life. It is presumed that no rights exist in this state but persons still enjoy and have their freedoms intact. The social contract was then applied to maintain the status quo, ultimately creating space for rights and obligations to all. Locke believed that no man was above the other thus seeing there being no reason for having a “common judge” to reign superior (“Locke’s Political Philosophy (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy),” n.d. The state of nature was, therefore, one where all men were equal and lived with each other according to the rule of reason. In the event that legitimate political authority lacked in a particular jurisdiction, those co-existing in the territory would be unable to solve disputes amicably, painting a clear picture of the ideology’s divergence from political society.
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In elucidating his ideas, Locke also went forth to espouse his theory of natural law and, most importantly, the natural rights of all individuals. Central to this concept was the widely accepted principle that there were certain moral truths that existed therefore making them universally applicable. Natural rights are an offshoot of Lockean philosophy, maintaining that all persons had specific privileges that they were entitled to in addition to being inalienable. Moreover, it is vital to acknowledge that in emphasizing that all individuals had particular rights, he was also simultaneously reminding them of the duties that lay squarely on their shoulders. They were expected not to kill their fellow man, enslave or rob them off their hard earned property (Locke, Abbott, & Industrial Systems Research, 2013, p. 67). Rights went ahead to bestow a sense of responsibility unto all men and ensured that they always made informed choices in line with natural law.
John Locke also held a firm position with regard to the chief role that governments were expected to play. He believed that legitimate governments were expected to preserve the rights and liberties of its citizens in a manner that would eventually assure them of sound health and prosperity. Any individual who went against these basic tenets would hence be systematically punished for violating the rights of others. In the event that crucial decisions were to be arrived at, the government was also tasked with pursuing the common good, even if it may be in direct conflict with the rights of individual citizens.
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The result was a social contract that had allowed citizens to transfer their natural condition to the government while, at the same time, expecting it to provide them with a comfortable and secure life. As mentioned earlier, the United States Declaration of Independence and “A Summary View of the Rights of British America” were founding documents that were greatly influenced by these ideas. George Mason and Thomas Jefferson categorically claimed that Americans were, in essence, free people since their rights were derived from the laws of nature. True Lockean fashion was thus evident in the manner in which liberty was adopted in the young United States and expected to be the defining characteristic of the country.
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