Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Ecological Implications Concerning Property

The following essay was written by a student of mine, Benjamin Scott. I thought it interesting.  If you have any comments or criticisms about this essay, post them here and I will forward them to Ben for his response.


The ecological implications concerning John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government, specifically. Chapter Five on Property, manifest in three of Locke’s explications, principally: Preservation, Property and Labour, Use and Value.


The line of reasoning Locke asserts concerning preservation is essentially the following: Man must ethically preserve himself, but to preserve himself he must labour - therefore, man must labour. Locke first expounds on the duty of preservation, stating, “Every one […] is bound to preserve himself […] [and] as much as he can, preserve the rest of mankind” (Locke 9). This duty is bound to the individual by the law of nature, which wills that “the peace and preservation of all mankind, the execution of the law of nature is, in that state, put into every man’s hands” (9). The individual is bound to this the intrinsic duty, the act of preserving oneself and one’s community, that he may keep in harmony with the law of nature.


The individual actualizes the responsibility of preservation by the procurement of property, for “the earth, and all that is therein, is given to men for the support and comfort of their being” (18). The way in which the individual acquires property is through labour, which “gave a right of property” (27). The action of labour, Locke purports, is intrinsic to the human condition (22). It follows that obtaining property is a necessary action, for to do otherwise would be contrary to the aforementioned law of preservation. Therefore, the gathering of property is, within reason, an essential principle of human nature. It is at this point in Locke’s exposition that certain ecological implications become quite clear.


The first of these implications deals with the way in which the property itself is treated. Locke affirms that “the intrinsic value of things […] depends only on their usefulness to the life of man” (23). The use of an object is then treated only as an economic resource - this is shown by his idea of waste, which is, “land that is left wholly to nature, that hath no improvement of pasturage, tillage, or planting” (26). Furthermore, Nature and earth, on their own, “Furnished only the almost worthless materials, as in themselves” (27), and that without labour, land would “scarcely be worth anything” (26). When one ceases to view land as nothing other than that which should be improved upon, then any land that has been left untouched would then seem quite insignificant. This outlook is extremely narrow insofar as it does not encapsulate cultural, spiritual, and ecological value the land holds.


It is from this interpretation of property that Locke stumbles into the fallacy of the unlimited resource. His mistake in reasoning is evident in his rule of propriety, which states, “every man should have as much as he could make use of,” and that this rule “would hold still in the world, without straitening any body” (23). It is obvious that Locke did not consider population inflation in his conception of property rights. This fallacy is furthered in the discussion of individual relations concerning property:


The measure of property nature has well set by the extent of men’s labour and the conveniences of life: no man’s labour could subdue, or appropriate all; nor could his enjoyment consume more than a small part; so that it was impossible for any man, this way, to intrench upon the right of another, or acquire to himself a property, to the prejudice of his neighbour, who would still have room for as good, and as large a possession (after thither had taken out his) as before it was appropriated. (22)



The propagation of this fallacy in the dealings of property justified the rapid destruction of a majority of earth’s essential elements by the simple act of unfettered agricultural, and later, industrial development. Such infantile reasoning is undoubtedly due to the historical context in which Locke lived - the industrial revolution had yet to take place, and population inflation had not yet occurred at the rapid pace as paramount in the 19th and 20th centuries. Locke may have believed that “nothing was made by God for man to spoil or destroy” (21), but by defining nature as a resource and asserting the individual’s right to expand property, he seems to have unintentionally created an ethical paradox.

Works Cited

Locke, John. Second Treatise of Government. Ed. C. B. Macpherson. Indianapolis, Indiana:

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