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Locke’s Thoughts on Spoiling

November 2, 2010

In Chapter V: Of Property, in John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government, Locke says, “The earth, and all that is therein, is given to men for the support and comfort of their being.” (Locke, Second Treatise of Government, 293). This basically means that the earth is the property of man as it can allow them to flourish and survive. In the paragraph after this, Locke brings up the idea that each man is entitled to, and owns his own body and the toil of his hands. In addition, any foreign object that a man applies his own labor too, ultimately becomes his own property. Locke continues to discuss the idea of how much property one can acquire without wasting or spoiling it. According to Locke, a man is entitled to and can call his own property as much land that he can till, improve, and cultivate. This is within reason, because as soon as you acquire more land than you can take care, you are spoiling or wasting it. Based on his ideas, there are a number of scenarios that would be interesting to see what Locke thinks about them.
Suppose a Man A puts his own labor into a piece of land, cultivating and improving it, to the point where he no longer has to work the land in order to survive. Based on Locke’s ideologies, it is clear that Man A who has put his own property (his body and labor) into the land has “thereby [made] it his property.” (Locke, Second Treatise of Government, 293). Since he no longer needs to work and improve the land, is Man A spoiling the land he has acquired? I believe that Locke would agree that Man A is not spoiling the land because he is not trying to acquire more land, simply has applied his labor in such a way that he no longer has to work his land.
However, if his neighbor Man B is in need of more land, and has the will and means of labor to improve the land; is it appropriate for him to take some of Man A’s land on the grounds that he is spoiling it? I believe Man B would not be entitled to Man A’s land because according to Locke, God commanded man to “improve [the land] for the benefit of life” (Locke, Second Treatise of Government, 294).

Locke, John. “Second Treatise of Government.” Modern Political Thought: Readings from Machiavelli to Nietzsche. By David Wootton. Indianapolis: Hackett Pub., 2008. Print.

  1. mattwax permalink
    November 4, 2010 4:17 AM

    It seems as if more details would be needed to respond fully. Man A could be using that “extra” land to hedge his bets and ensure he has sufficient food in the scenario where his primary parcel of land somehow becomes barren. If the land was in A’s dominion but was not needed, and B was in need, then it would most certainly be going to waste for A would not be leaving a sufficient amount of land to be used by others. Locke does say that one should take so much as to leave enough for others, this seems only fair. Working the land does not give A the right to continue to accumulate more land, for at that point it is superfluous.

  2. Katelyn Salowitz permalink
    November 4, 2010 9:20 AM

    I have to agree with mattwax that more details might be needed to fully answer this question. However, to me it seems that Man B should be allowed to have Man A’s land if Man B is going to improve the land and that would help him improve himself and his family’s well-being. In this case, he would not be spoiling the land because we actually has a need for the land. In this way, I feel it is okay and I think Locke would agree. As mentioned, the tricky part comes when one needs to decide in Man B actually needs this land, in which case, more information is needed. One also needs to consider if Man A’s land is just sitting empty or if farming is still occurring. Regardless, I think arguments could be made Man A was still spoiling the land if he did not need it.

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