Natural Rights of Individuals

Government is justified as the most effective way of securing the natural rights of individuals. In joining civil society, we voluntarily turn our right to protect and enforce our individual rights over to the state. The legitimate function of the state is to secure the equality liberty that people have a natural right to. This view places rather strict limits on the legitimate functions of government. The point of government is just to secure our liberty and its function should therefore be limited to that. Where a government goes beyond this liberty securing role, Locke says people are justified in rebelling against the government.

Just what are the rights and liberties government serves to protect? Self ownership is central to the natural rights equally enjoyed by all. In fact, the idea of self-ownership captures much of how Locke understand individual liberty. This clearly speaks against slavery and other forms of domination or oppression. If a person own’s herself by natural law, then clearly she can’t also be owned by another. Property rights are then justified as an extension of self ownership. Locke sees all of nature as initially held in common. When a person “mixes her labor with the stuff of the earth,” say, by planting a tree or fashioning a tool from a branch, she acquires a right to the fruits of her labor as an extension of her right of self ownership. Here Locke offers a compelling philosophical justification for property rights.

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