Grace Gardella, Locke’s Definition of Equality

“Though I have said above ‘That all men by nature are equal,’ I cannot be supposed to understand all sorts of ‘equality.’ Age or virtue may give men a just precedency. Excellency of parts and merit may place others above the common level. Birth may subject some, and alliance or benefits others, to pay an observance to those to whom Nature, gratitude, or other respects, may have made it due; and yet all this consists with the equality which all men are in respect of jurisdiction or dominion one over another… being that equal right that every man hath to his natural freedom, without being subjected to the will or authority of any other man.” (Paragraph 55)

When I first read this passage, I was caught off guard. Up to this point in the reading, I thought that Locke was the greatest advocate for equality. However, here, Locke provides some exceptions to this belief. Why would Locke contradict himself? How can he say that certain qualities create “precedency” while also saying that no human is “subjected to the will” of another?

To better understand this passage, I went to my notes from Prof. Quillen’s Thursday lecture which introduced Locke. In her lecture she discussed Locke’s motivations for writing his Second Treatise. Locke disagrees with the idea that power comes from God and therefore, rejects authority from divine right. It is possible that Locke only interprets equality within this context of government.

I next looked at the notes that Prof. Quillen wrote on the text. These were especially enlightening, as she clarifies that Locke’s equality does not mean that every person is the same, but that no person has authority over another. He is not looking to put an end to civil inequality, but wants to redefine the political system as one that is more democratic.

So, if people are not equal in the sense that they are the same, humans can be made distinct or differentiable, which allows for certain discrimination in Locke’s philosophy. The abstract qualifications such as age, virtue, excellency, merit, and birth create identities that can be compared and valued, similarly to previous class discussions. Locke’s philosophy may seem like a call for equality and democracy, but this passage proves otherwise. It is statements like these that allow for discrimination, which is especially interesting considering that much of the United State’s government is inspired by this very same political philosophy.

Leave a Reply