John Locke’s Ideas of Consent, Resistance and Toleration – Essay

“If you begin by assuming that only consent creates a duty of obedience, you are only too ready to conclude that whatever creates that duty must be consent.”

“We consent to obey by obeying. Obedience creates the obligation to obey. But this is absurd.”

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John Dunn also finds fault with the notions of consent as the basis of freedom in the state.

“The Two Treatises is an attempt to argue for limitations on the possible scope of political obligation. The notion of consent is a key term in the expository structure of this argument, but it is not a term which exerts any very precise control over the application of the argument to particular cases in the world. Its role is as a formal component of the logical structure of the argument, not as a practical criterion of its applicability in particular cases. Consent is a necessary condition for the legitimacy of a political society, but the consent which creates such legitimacy is not a sufficient condition for the obligatory force of any particular act of authority in such a society”.

It is generally believed that Locke is above all an apologist of the Glorious Revolution, perhaps the most conservative of all revolutions. As such, resistance or a right to rebellion Locke seldom uses the word ‘revolution’ is an essential part of his political philosophy.

A ruler who usurps power or forfeits the trust of the people and acts according to his own arbitrary will in contravention of the law of nature and against the good of the people, has no legitimate authority to govern and can be removed, if necessary, by force. Government is dissolved also in case of conquest by a foreign power, in the event of assembly being prevented from meeting and deliberating by the prince or on a dislocation of legislative authority.

The dissolution of government, however, does not involve dissolution of society. As to who has a right of rebellion or resistance, Locke does not give a clear answer. Generally, it is only the majority which has a right to revolt. Though Locke was the champion of revolutionary action, he was essentially a conservative by temperament. He was of the view that revolution was to be resorted to only in extreme cases.

According to Sabine,

“In spite of his insistence on right to revolutions, Locke was not a revolutionary. Many critics have held the view that Locke gives the right of revolution only to the aristocratic class, that is, the owners of property.

“It seemed natural to him, as it seemed nearly to all his contemporaries, that the right to resist rulers who have abused their authority should in practice be confined to the educated and propertied classes, to the section of the community alone capable of an intelligent and responsible judgement in such a matter”.

Aslicraft does not agree with this view and finds in Locke a more radical revolutionary spirit. In this connection he notes the difference between Locke and the Whig oligarchy which was behind the Revolution of 1688. “Resistance to tyranny is everyone’s business”, says Ascliraft summing up Locke’s views on the subject.

Religious toleration was a topic of great importance in Locke’s time, and in consonance with his general philosophy and political theory he placed great emphasis on it. Conscience, he held, cannot be a subject of external control. A man is free to profess any religion he likes. The state should not in any case resort to religious persecution.

It should not enforce practices relating to faith. However, Locke imposes certain limitations on religious tolerance. “No opinions, contrary to human society, or to those moral rules which are necessary for the preservation of civil society are to be tolerated by the magistrate.” Again, atheists should riot be tolerated because “promises, covenants, and oaths, which are the bonds of human society, can have no hold upon an atheist. The taking away of God, though but even in thought, dissolves all.”

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