John Locke has written a bold Letter that would prove to be an eructation to his critics. For Locke, church is a voluntary organization. That means if you join, you can leave–or they can kick you out. A voluntary organization leaves the people up to much freedom as to whether to join or not join said organization.

Speculative Opinion

Remember that Locke opines to end persecutions, and that the government should do only that which it is morally bound to do–regulate actions, not opinions. As a matter of speculative opinion, we are ever internally free, and no amount of persecution will truly convert someone to a religion other than the rational assent of the mind. To convert, we must first be persuaded.  There are a whole host of questions with this argument in terms of the mind’s reason being the arbiter of the Faith, but nevertheless, the point from Locke is that we are created as free and independent creatures, and this extends to our conscious, or speculative opinions. And religion falls in the realm of speculation. Perhaps one way to think of all this is that government should not be cognizant of the beliefs of anyone.

Practical Opinion

Perhaps another word for practical opinion, would be reasonable opinion. Things that deal with the virtuous living of humans is the concern of reason. These are things assessable to all who think about these matters.It is the reasonable duty of every man to be Happy, or at least strive for Happiness. He calls it our “highest obligation.” As it pertains to life on this earth, humans are to be afforded the rights all possess. This means that all labor and industry for a comfortable life are to be protected. These are means to the end, Happiness.

What is most astonishing is that Locke, after a vigorous defense of toleration, states that not all opinions are to be tolerated. Which ones? Those that are “contrary to human Society.” Those opinions which, for example, would seek the overthrow of the compact (society) may be forbidden by the magistrate. Again, he asserts this in no arbitrary way, but in terms of the reasonableness of mankind–to assert that some men, for example, should be subjugated to another human power because the mass of people are heretical, is against our natural equality and has the end of enslaving men. These opinions, may be regulated by the law.

A church that taught a teaching that would have the effect of delivering a people into the hands of a foreign power would also meet the ire of the magistrate. The reason is that these people would, in essence, be at war with their own government, and with others included in the compact. This means, that any religious organization that seeks to topple the government based on a supposed heretical belief on the part of governing officials, is not to be tolerated. Perhaps quite interestingly, Locke extends non-toleration to Atheists–people who claim there is no God. Why? No fear of punishment for lying under oath, etc. Now we could take this two ways, either Locke means literally anyone who claims to be an atheist is not to be tolerated, or he means nihilists are not to be tolerated.

What is most important here is to note that anyone espousing the violation of the natural rights of others is not to be tolerated. Why would a society take a chance that–as men are fallible and may be passionate and unreasonable–allowing for speech that would subjugate a people and likely/ultimately, kill them? The essence of good government for Locke is that “every man may enjoy the same Rights that are granted to others.”  Protecting that society from unreasonable speech would be prudent for Locke.

Now, before we react in horror to Locke’s illiberal recommendation regarding speech, we should note that we already recognize in law limitations on speech.  For example, we cannot simply assemble anytime we want where we want; we must first obtain a permit.  We cannot simply show up to, say, a city council meeting, and say what we want, when we want; the public forum of such meetings may regulate the time, manner, and place of speech.  Furthermore, we cannot falsely shout fire in a crowded theater–so Justice Holmes is famous for writing in the Schenk case.  Finally, it is immoral to slander or libel someone, and there are penalties for people who do such if they are found guilty. Preventing reputation, preventing harm, to persons is the goal here.  Locke’s aim is to preserve natural rights and right reason.

Ok, so we do not have the unlimited right to free speech.  But, let us not leave Locke on a negative note.


Locke writes some remarkable lines near the conclusion.  Take this:

Suppose this business of religion were let alone, and that there were some other distinction made between men and men upon account of their different complexions, shapes, and features, so that those who have black hair (for example) or grey eyes should not enjoy the same privileges as other citizens; that they should not be permitted either to buy or sell, or live by their callings; that parents should not have the government and education of their own children; that all should either be excluded from the benefit of the laws, or meet with partial judges; can it be doubted but these persons, thus distinguished from others by the colour of their hair and eyes, and united together by one common persecution, would be as dangerous to the magistrate as any others that had associated themselves merely upon the account of religion? Some enter into company for trade and profit, others for want of business have their clubs for claret. Neighbourhood joins some and religion others. But there is only one thing which gathers people into seditious commotions, and that is oppression.

I have said it in class: Locke does not qualify natural rights in any way.  We all possess natural rights, and no characteristic prevents us from them.  If you replace the word “hair” with “human” the principle still holds.  Locke is saying that no outward characteristic is a mark of inferiority.  Therefore, Locke is saying that all humans are equal in their rights.