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Rousseau’s and Locke’s Views on Property Essay (Critical Writing)

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Updated: Feb 16th, 2022

Introduction

The theories of the formation of statehood and a civilized society with a regulated system of rights and freedoms have always occupied a significant place in philosophers’ works. Moreover, both the thinkers of the ancient era and the New Age provided their reasoning. However, contrary to the older concepts of human socialization and the need for interaction with one another as a mandatory aspect of citizenship, later doctrines are associated with more pragmatic approaches. In particular, Rousseau’s ideas about the importance of striving for human self-preservation do not imply mandatory socialization and are based on a property issue as one of the main attributes of life. Locke, who also put many efforts to explain his views on the idea of ​​property, emphasized the mutual influence of freedom and ownership of property, and, unlike Rousseau, did not significantly separate these two concepts.

Rousseau’s Ideas About Property

The distinctive views of both philosophers can be explained in the context of their key theses on the formation of statehood and society. Jean-Jacques Rousseau says that a natural person lives with passions and does not follow reason; nevertheless, with the development of society, reason also develops (p. 24). Personal needs grow, and for their satisfaction, there is a necessity to enter into a diverse relationship with people. In this regard, a conflict of interests appears, and ambiguous situations arise. As a result, as Rousseau argues, people have material priorities, and the issue of private property raises sharply, which is the reason for the emergence of the state (p. 49). Thus, the first form of social inequality appears – property division, which implies the division of society into the rich and poor.

There is a struggle between the two classes, which is a natural phenomenon. The goal of the rich is to preserve their property and increase their material condition. They want to enslave the poor so that they could do not encroach on their property. To do this, they fraudulently propose to conclude a social contract and create an apparatus of public authority. As a result, Rousseau remarks that the state arose, as well as and a new type of social inequality – a political difference between the ruling and the governed (p. 198). The third form of inequality is the establishment of despotic power in the state. A political decision is needed, which aims at rebellion and creating a state designed to ensure freedom and equality on the basis of a new social contract. The issue of private property remains relevant since this phenomenon cannot be destroyed, but legislatively fixed restrictions should be established. These theses form Rousseau’s basic ideas about property and its separation from freedom.

Locke’s Response to Rousseau

When justifying the natural nature of individual freedom (including in ideological and religious spheres), Locke calls the possession of property as the main guarantee of an individual’s independence. However, unlike Rousseau, who considers property as a convention, Locke evaluates this concept much more broadly and mentions specific intangibles that are mandatory components of ownership (Cahn, p. 671). The thinker notes that the right to possession is of labor origin, and therefore, its justice is undeniable (Locke, p. 26). While speaking with counterarguments to Rousseau, Locke could note that without the emergence and recognition of private property, the progressive development of society would be impossible. The conversion of the land that an individual cultivates or the products that are obtained into private ownership does not infringe on the interests and capabilities of other individuals since land expanses are vast (Locke 13). As a result, while making efforts, everyone can achieve benefits by relying on one’s talent and hard work.

In an effort to justify the independence of property rights from state power, Locke would contrast Rousseau’s ideas with the hypothesis that ownership as a natural right arises in a pre-state society. The thinker could also add that individual appropriation does not require any consent from people who have a common right to objects of nature (Locke, p. 7). The only basis for appropriation is labor, and the social relation of ownership forms the phenomenon of personality. Property is not only one of the directions and forms of expression of freedom and human rights but rather an economic basis for them. These arguments could be contrasted with Rousseau’s pragmatic theses about class society and the exclusively material basis of any form of ownership.

Rousseau’s Response to Locke

In response to Locke’s arguments about personal freedom regarding the choice of tangible and intangible goods, Rousseau, in turn, could provide additional justification. In particular, contractual relationships between the state and people are a natural social phenomenon since the state is called upon to protect citizens and their property (Inoguchi and Le, p. 492). The thinker would not try to prove the groundlessness of democracy. Conversely, he would suggest that a formal contract that exists between the state and citizens can be terminated if the government abuses power and tries to establish its dictatorship (Inoguchi and Le, p. 491). In addition, Rousseau would mention the usefulness of restricting property in the context of achieving lofty goals and prioritizing public interests over private ones. People’s standards of living determine the competence of the authorities, and equal conditions in improving welfare may be considered the basis of a democratic system. Therefore, the provision of the complete freedom of owning property does not contribute to developing society harmoniously.

In addition to these counterarguments, Rousseau could also mention the socially ambiguous nature of capital accumulation and an increase in ownership. The thinker sees property as the cause of wars and conflicts (Pierce, p. 4). Although he does not deny the importance of the right to enjoy life benefits, he would also urge Locke to pay attention to the importance of containing the uncontrolled expansion of property. As Pierce notes, a sovereign person cannot be considered free if primitive values, ​​such as the desire for ownership, divide humanity into classes, which is aggravated by the imperfection of the forms of government (p. 4). As a result, people who do not set themselves the accumulation of property by any available means live happily and freely, unlike those who have unlimited desires and aspirations to get rich. These responses to Locke could become the basis of Rousseau’s position regarding the inadmissibility of providing complete freedom in possessing a large number of material values.

Conclusion

The discrepancies in the views of Rousseau and Locke regarding the value of property and human freedom as one of the consequences have given rise to a substantial background for philosophical reasoning. When deciding whose concept is more relevant and correct, one should take into account the nature of the society in which the concept is promoted. Today, Locke’s ideas look more natural since modern democratic society does not impede the development of personality in all directions. Inequality expressed in social classes is less pronounced than in the period of Rousseau’s activity, who, nevertheless, also offers rational ideas about equality and high values. Therefore, the time frame and the features of social development are the key reasons that determine the significance of a particular concept and its relevance.

Works Cited

  1. Cahn, Steven M., ed. Classics of Western Philosophy. 8th ed., Hackett Publishing, 2012.
  2. Inoguchi, Takashi, and Lien Thi Quynh Le. “Toward Modelling a Global Social Contract: Jean-Jacques Rousseau and John Locke.” Japanese Journal of Political Science, vol. 17, no. 3, 2016, pp. 489-522.
  3. Locke, John. The Project Gutenberg E-Book, 2012. Web.
  4. Pierce, Stephen. “Locke vs. Rousseau: Revolutions in Property.” The Histories, vol. 15, no. 1, 2018, pp. 1-5.
  5. Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. The Social Contract and Discourses by Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Translated by G. D. H. Cole, J. M. Dent and Sons, 1923.
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