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INTRODUCTION TO JOHN LOCKE

In this article, Steven Forde illuminates the central debates surrounding John Locke, one of the founders of the liberal political philosophy upon which the American Constitution is based. The greatest controversy in Locke interpretation today is whether natural rights or natural law take precedence in his philosophy. Locke argues that even in the state of nature man is bound by natural laws and has a duty to respect the rights of others. However, he qualifies this notion by arguing that the individual has a duty to respect others’ rights only when his own preservation is not threatened—and Locke can be read as suggesting that self-preservation is continually threatened. Because of this, some scholars have argued that Locke is not a natural law thinker at all. Instead, he is placed in a tradition with Thomas Hobbes where morality is based, not on duty, but on each individual’s right to preserve himself. By prioritizing individual right, Locke places man in isolation, lacking any moral ties to others in society. Other interpretations of Locke, to the contrary, argue that Lockean rights imply mutual respect among individuals in a way unseen and unformulated by Locke’s predecessor Hobbes. Those who do see Locke as a natural law thinker recognize that his theory of natural law is far more atomistic (or individualistic)—and therefore closer to that of Hobbes—than any previous theory of natural law. The debates surrounding Locke are central to understanding the character of liberalism, and a close study of Locke raises the question: can a rights-based society also incorporate an adequate and compelling account of responsibility?