John Locke’s Concept of Labor as Foundational to Private Property

An artist who primarily works in the digital medium, Griffith Robert “Griff” Littlehale has created a variety of promotional works, logos, and greeting cards. Also an avid reader, Griffith Littlehale is particularly drawn to classic works of philosophy and is interested in thinkers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau and John Locke.

A pivotal figure of the 17th century Enlightenment, Locke was also a medical researcher and Oxford University academic who helped set the foundations of Liberalism as a social value. One of Locke’s foundational formulations was in defining private property in The Second Treatise of Government.

In setting down his concept, Locke examined the “natural state,” in which all people had an equal right to the use of natural resources bestowed by the “spontaneous hand of Nature.” In this state, no one person had “private Dominion” over resources. Unfortunately, this state led to social issues, because obtaining such resources would require consent from every common person. As Locke put it, despite nature’s bounty, “universal consent” would result in underutilization of land that caused “universal starvation.”

The moral transition Locke envisioned from common dominion to private ownership is one in which the degree to which a person’s labor augments the natural state of the land defines ownership. The example he gives centers on the labor involved in picking up acorns that have fallen as defining them as being considered private property.

This formulation of labor as a foundation for claiming private property was revolutionary for its time, as it took the place of “occupation” as being a central moral tenet of ownership. Its emphasis on viewing land through a perspective of utility defined by labor would also be important in future formulations, including those that informed the US Constitution.



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Griffith Littlehale

An alumnus of St. Francis de Sales School in Toledo, Ohio, Griffith Robert “Griff” Littlehale graduated in the top 8 of his class.