John Locke: How to Resist Tyrants without Causing Anarchy

In the first half of Chapter XVIII of his 2d Treatise on Government: Of Civil Government, “Of Tyranny,” John Locke describes how tyrants differ from lawful rulers. (See “John Locke: How to Recognize a Tyrant.”) In the second half of that chapter, he lays out an argument he must confront. What if his interlocutor said something like this:

§. 203. May the commands then of a prince be opposed? may he be resisted as often as any one shall find himself aggrieved, and but imagine he has not right done him? This will unhinge and overturn all polities, and, instead of government and order, leave nothing but anarchy and confusion. 

John Lock gives a subtle answer, laying out how to appropriately oppose a tyrant.

John Locke’s Rules for those Who Would Oppose Tyrants

1. Don’t escalate the use of force; don’t start by physically attacking the tyrant.

§. 204.  To this I answer, that force is to be opposed to nothing, but to unjust and unlawful force; whoever makes any opposition in any other case, draws on himself a just condemnation both from God and man; and so no danger or confusion will follow, as is often suggested, for,  

§. 205. First, As, in some countries, the person of the prince by the law is sacred; and so, whatever he commands or does, his person is still free from all question or violence, not liable to force, or any judicial censure or condemnation. … unless he will, by actually putting himself into a state of war with his people, dissolve the government, and leave them to that defence which belongs to every one in the state of nature: for of such things who can tell what the end will be? and a neighbour kingdom has shewed the world an odd example. In all other cases the sacredness of the person exempts him from all inconveniences, whereby he is secure, whilst the government stands, from all violence and harm, whatsoever; than which there cannot be a wiser constitution: for the harm he can do in his own person not being likely to happen often, nor to extend itself far; nor being able by his single strength to subvert the laws, nor oppress the body of the people, should any prince have so much weakness, and ill-nature, as to be willing to do it, the inconveniency of some particular mischiefs, that may happen sometimes, when a heady prince comes to the throne, are well recompensed by the peace of the public, and security of the government, in the person of the chief magistrate, thus set out of the reach of danger: it being safer for the body, that some few private men should be sometimes in danger to suffer, than that the head of the republic should be easily, and upon slight occasions, exposed.

Any kind of immunity of a tyrant can seem galling, but John Locke points out that personal immunity typically typically does not, by itself, allow a tyrant to do a huge amount of harm.

2. Question, oppose and resist unjust, illegal acts, regardless of a tyrant’s endorsement of them, while continuing to respect and obey just and legal actions of the tyrant.

§. 206. Secondly, But this privilege, belonging only to the king’s person, hinders not, but they may be questioned, opposed, and resisted, who use unjust force, though they pretend a commission from him, which the law authorizes not; as is plain in the case of him that has the king’s writ to arrest a man, which is a full commission from the king; and yet he that has it cannot break open a man’s house to do it, nor execute this command of the king upon certain days, nor in certain places, though this commission have no such exception in it; but they are the limitations of the law, which if any one transgress, the king’s commission excuses him not: for the king’s authority being given him only by the law, he cannot impower any one to act against the law, or justify him, by his commission, in so doing; the commission, or command of any magistrate, where he has no authority, being as void and insignificant, as that of any private man; the difference between the one and the other being that the magistrate has some authority so far, and to such ends, and the private man has none at all: for it is not the commission, but the authority, that gives the right of acting; and against the laws there can be no authority. But, notwithstanding such resistance, the king’s person and authority are still both secured, and so no danger to governor or government.  

For those on a tyrant’s staff, one of the best ways to resist an unjust or illegal command of the tyrant is to do nothing. Whenever doing nothing can stop the tyrant in his tracks, this is a very attractive option.

3. Exhaust opportunities for appeal before taking up arms.

§. 207. Thirdly, Supposing a government wherein the person of the chief magistrate is not thus sacred; yet this doctrine of the lawfulness of resisting all unlawful exercises of his power, will not upon every slight occasion indanger him, or imbroil the government: for where the injured party may be relieved, and his damages repaired by appeal to the law, there can be no pretence for force, which is only to be used where a man is intercepted from appealing to the law: for nothing is to be accounted hostile force, but where it leaves not the remedy of such an appeal; and it is such force alone, that puts him that uses it into a state of war, and makes it lawful to resist him. A man with a sword in his hand demands my purse on the highway, when perhaps I have not twelve pence in my pocket: this man I may lawfully kill. To another I deliver 100l. to hold only whilst I alight, which he refuses to restore me, when I am got up again, but draws his sword to defend the possession of it by force, if I endeavour to retake it. The mischief this man does me is a hundred, or possibly a thousand times more than the other perhaps intended me (whom I killed before he really did me any;) and yet I might lawfully kill the one, and cannot so much as hurt the other lawfully. The reason whereof is plain; because the one using force, which threatened my life, I could not have time to appeal to the law to secure it: and when it was gone, it was too late to appeal. The law could not restore life to my dead carcass: the loss was irreparable; which to prevent, the law of nature gave me a right to destroy him, who had put himself into a state of war with me, and threatened my destruction. But in the other case, my life not being in danger, I may have the benefit of appealing to the law, and have reparation for my 100l. that way.  

A key test of how bad a tyrant is is whether the tyrant tries to interfere with an appeal of his decision to a court of law.

4. Enforce the law yourself before taking up arms in civil war.

§. 208. Fourthly, But if the unlawful acts done by the magistrate be maintained (by the power he has got,) and the remedy which is due by law be by the same power obstructed; yet the right of resisting, even in such manifest acts of tyranny, will not suddenly, or on slight occasions, disturb the government: for if it reach no farther than some private men’s cases, though they have a right to defend themselves, and to recover by force what by unlawful force is taken from them; yet the right to do so will not easily engage them in a contest, wherein they are sure to perish; it being as impossible for one, or a few oppressed men to disturb the government, where the body of the people do not think themselves concerned in it, as for a raving madman, or heady malcontent to overturn a well-settled state: the people being as little apt to follow the one, as the other.  

To distil this into a maxim: “Don’t be a rebel when you can be a vigilante instead.”

5. Take up arms in civil war only if the tyranny is systematic.

§. 209. But if either these illegal acts have extended to the majority of the people; or if the mischief and oppression has lighted only on some few, but in such cases, as the precedent, and consequences seem to threaten all; and they are persuaded in their consciences, that their laws, and with them their estates, liberties, and lives are in danger, and perhaps their religion too; how they will be hindered from resisting illegal force, used against them, I cannot tell. This is an inconvenience, I confess, that attends all governments whatsoever, when the governors have brought it to this pass, to be generally suspected of their people; the most dangerous state which they can possibly put themselves in; wherein they are the less to be pitied, because it is so easy to be avoided; it being as impossible for a governor, if he really means the good of his people, and the preservation of them, and their laws together, not to make them see and feel it, as it is for the father of a family, not to let his children see he loves, and takes care of them.  

§. 210. But if all the world shall observe pretences of one kind, and actions of another; arts used to elude the law, and the trust of prerogative (which is an arbitrary power in some things left in the prince’s hand to do good, not harm to the people) employed contrary to the end for which it was given: if the people shall find the ministers and subordinate magistrates chosen suitable to such ends, and favoured, or laid by, proportionably as they promote or oppose them: if they see several experiments made of arbitrary power, and that religion underhand favoured, (though publicly proclaimed against) which is readiest to introduce it; and the operators in it supported, as much as may be; and when that cannot be done, yet approved still, and liked the better: if a long train of actions shew the councils all tending that way; how can a man any more hinder himself from being persuaded in his own mind, which way things are going; or from casting about how to save himself, than he could from believing the captain of the ship he was in was carrying him, and the rest of his company to Algiers, when he found him always steering that course, though cross winds, leaks in his ship, and want of men and provisions did often force him to turn his course another way for some time, which he steadily returned to again, as soon as the wind, weather, and other circumstances would let him?

To me, a key sign of whether the tyranny is systematic is whether resisting often leads the tyrant to give in and do better, or whether resisting leads to an escalation on the part of the tyrant against those who are resisting. Escalation by a tyrant goes a long way toward making the tyranny systematic, which, if carried far enough, may justify taking up arms against the tyrant.

For links to other John Locke posts, see these John Locke aggregator posts: 

Who Leaves Mormonism?

Stephen Cranney’s BYU Studies article “Who Is Leaving the Church? Demographic Predictors of Ex–Latter-day Saint Status in the Pew Religious Landscape Survey” not only answers an interesting question, but also provides some basic lessons on interpreting statistics. In as close to a representative sample of the US population as any survey that provides the needed data, he compares 191 people who grew up Mormon who no longer self-identify as Mormons and 379 who grew up Mormon and still think of themselves as Mormons. (Let me say that I refuse to accommodate current Mormon Church President Russell Nelson’s disavowal of the nickname “Mormon.” An earlier Mormon Church President Gordon B. Hinckley embraced the nickname “Mormon.”)

On overall numbers leaving, Stephen points out that it is roughly the same as the number of converts, so that growth of Mormonism in the US is largely from natural increase: births minus deaths. (Mormons still have relatively high fertility and are younger than population averages, so natural increase is substantial.)

Stephen asks the interesting question of what religious status ex-Mormons go to. The answer (with some sampling error in it) is:

  • 58% went to “no religion” or unaffiliated

  • 18% went to evangelical Protestant denominations

  • 8% went to Mainline Protestant denominations

  • 10% went to generic Christianity

  • That leaves about 6%, about equally split between becoming Buddhists, joining a Mormon splinter group or going to some other religion not listed above.

Stephen’s Table 2 in this article gives a logit for predictors of leaving Mormonism rather than staying, among this sample of individuals who all grew up in Mormonism. I favor the logit that includes all covariates at once: the rightmost column. Stephen makes no multiple hypothesis testing correction, but the hypotheses he is testing are natural enough that at least I am not worried about a lot of hidden hypotheses that are not reported.

In my own research with coauthors, I have found using a false-discovery-rate (FDR) threshold to be so convenient and practical that there isn’t much of an excuse for anyone to neglect making multiple-hypothesis-testing corrections any more. (I hope to do a blog post in the future on using the false discovery rate approach.) A false discovery rate of x% means that on average no more than x% of the claims made are likely to be false. The more claims made, the more total claims are likely to be false, but the percentage of claims that are false in expectation is below the threshold.

Doing the false-discovery-rate approach myself, I can see that in the rightmost column of Table 2, everything with *** is significant with a false-discovery-rate threshold of no more than 1.5%, everything with ** is significant with a false-discovery-rate threshold of no more than 3.75%, and everything with * is significant with a false-discovery-rate threshold of no more than 15%. (Mechanically, take the p-value for which the significance level reported in the table is a ceiling, multiply by the number of hypotheses tested—15—then divide by the number of claims made up to that point, including the current claim, when they are made starting from the lowest p-value and going up. One of the ***s is the first claim. The ** is the fourth claim. The * with the lowest p-value is the fifth claim. There are some caveats to this procedure, but it is generally quite accurate.)

Given that in this case am not worried about hidden hypotheses that were tested, found wanting and then put in a drawer, these significance levels are adequate.

Here are the results, from ones we are more sure of, to those we are less sure of, with some of Stephen’s interpretative comments.

FDR threshold of no more than 1.5%

Cohabiting and divorce are correlated with leaving Mormonism. Stephen is admirably cautious about interpreting this:

Because there is no information on when people left the Church, it is difficult to speculate about why ex–Latter-day Saints tend to be divorced more than those who remain in the Church. It is theoretically plausible that the trauma of undergoing a divorce led to a loss of faith, activity, and ultimately identification with the Church; it is also possible that a loss of faith led to intermarital strife with a member spouse; finally, it is possible that Latter-day Saint marriages tend to have lower divorce rates overall. Some incidental support exists for this last point in the fact that the Latter-day Saint sample here has a significantly lower chance of being in the divorced category than the general non–Latter-day Saint PRLS sample, whereas the ex–Latter-day Saint sample does not show a statistically significant difference with the general sample. This suggests that ex-members may simply lose whatever Latter-day Saint–specific protections against divorce that may exist.

Political liberalism is correlated with leaving Mormonism. Stephen is careful to put things in perspective:

Ex–Latter-day Saints do appear to be more liberal than those who stay (see tables 1 and 2). However, the political switch may be less of a switch from “conservative” to “liberal” than from “conservative” to “moderate.” Contrary to stereotypes about liberal ex–Latter-day Saints, many ex–Latter-day Saints (27 percent) still identify as politically conservative, with 39 percent identifying as political moderates, and only a minority (35 percent) identifying as politically liberal.

While on their face the political findings support the familiar narrative of liberal latter-day Saints leaving over social issues, the fact that only a minority of ex–Latter-day Saints identify as liberals and that hardly any of them switch to liberal Protestant denominations nuances this perspective. While social issues are undoubtedly salient for some people’s exodus from the Church, it is likely that this narrative receives a disproportion- ate amount of attention in informal and online discourse on this subject, and the size of the liberal Latter-day Saint exodus over social issues should not be exaggerated.

FDR threshold of no more than 3.75%

High education predicts a lower probability of leaving Mormonism. Again, Stephen is admirably cautious in interpreting this result:

In the summary statistics, ex–Latter-day Saints tend to be less educated, with lower income. While distinct, these findings conceptually support prior research that has shown that, unlike most religions, for Latter-day Saints education is positively associated with activity.4 However, when education is controlled for, income becomes insignificant, suggesting that those who stay in the Church are wealthier because they are more educated.

… there are a number of theoretically plausible stories for why ex–Latter-day Saints tend to be less educated and have lower incomes. It could be that there is a Latter-day Saint emphasis on education and occupational success that leads to higher incomes and more education, or it could be that people are more likely to stay in the Church if the lifestyle is working out for them socioeconomically.

FDR threshold of no more than 15%

Men are less likely to leave Mormonism. For most of those who grow up in Mormonism, gender can be taken as fairly exogenous. Given the controversies about how Mormonism treats women, one might have thought that women would be more likely to leave. Here is what Stephen says about that:

Related to the issue of leaving over social issues is the question of gender. For a religion with an all-male priesthood that treats the notion of gender seriously, it is worth investigating whether women are more likely to leave than men. In this sample, men are overrepresented among those who have left; these results comport with prior findings in the large American Religious Identification Survey that men tend to disproportionately leave the Church.2 This difference may be a Latter-day Saint– specific manifestation of the fact that in the United States men tend to be less religious than women.

Older people are more likely to have left Mormonism. Stephen tends to dismiss this finding because he focuses less than I do on the logit with everything in it. I think this is real, because a simple hazard model would suggest that if one is ever going to leave Mormonism, having more time pass makes that more likely to have happened already. (Even if some people return to Mormonism after having left, when starting with a group that are 100% Mormon in childhood, there is likely to be convergence—which is most likely to be monotonic—to a higher fraction non-Mormon.)

Those living in Utah are less likely to have left Mormonism. Stephen explains the interpretive issues:

Ex–Latter-day Saints also appear to be less likely to reside in Utah in the summary statistics (34 percent versus 26 percent, but this barely misses the cutoff for significance at p = .065), and the Utah effect is sporadically significant in the regression analysis, suggesting that, whether because they are more likely to leave when growing up outside of Utah or because they are more likely to move outside of Utah after they leave (or a combination of both), ex–Latter-day Saints are disproportionately found outside of Utah compared to Latter-day Saints who did not leave.

Being Hispanic is not associated with leaving Mormonism (in a sizeable enough way to be reliably detected in this size of sample), but being Black non-Hispanic or of a race other than White, Black or non-Black Hispanic is correlated with leaving Mormonism. Here is what Stephen writes about that:

Finally, the racial effects found here lend themselves to any number of interpretations, but perhaps the most reasonable is that being a racial minority in a predominantly white Church may cause its own stresses that make continued activity and identification with the Church less likely.

A bit of background here that Stephen doesn’t here is that the Mormon Church is thriving in Latin American countries and the Mormon Church has many congregations with church services conducted in Spanish in the US, so that Hispanics in the US may feel somewhat less like outsider minorities in the Mormon Church than their raw numbers (4%) suggest.

Update May 20, 2019: A reader asks on Twitter “I'd be interested to know if your experience aligns with the paper.” My reply:

I left Mormonism. Positively correlated with that: I am politically moderate, male, older and have lived outside of Utah since age 24. Negatively correlated with leaving: I'm married (1st time), highly educated (with a PhD in Economics, which never challenges religion) & white.

Don't miss these posts on Mormonism:

Also see the links in "Hal Boyd: The Ignorance of Mocking Mormonism."

Don’t miss these Unitarian-Universalist sermons by Miles:

By self-identification, I left Mormonism for Unitarian Universalism in 2000, at the age of 40. I have had the good fortune to be a lay preacher in Unitarian Universalism. I have posted many of my Unitarian-Universalist sermons on this blog.

Don’t miss these guest posts on Mormonism by my brother Chris Kimball:

In addition, Chris is my coauthor for

John Locke: How to Recognize a Tyrant

Chapter XVIII of John Locke’s 2d Treatise on Government: Of Civil Government, “Of Tyranny,” discusses two marks of a tyrant: going beyond the law and working for their own (often unenlightened) self-interest rather than for the good of the people. John Locke says this several times in sections 199-202. I especially like this formulation:

… the difference betwixt a king and a tyrant to consist only in this, that one makes the laws the bounds of his power, and the good of the public, the end of his government; the other makes all give way to his own will and appetite.  

Drawing from sections 199-202, which you can see below, let me collect descriptors for a lawful ruler and a tyrant here:

Lawful Ruler(s):

  • making use of power for the good of those who are under it

  • commands and actions directed to the preservation of the properties of his people

  • the law as the rule

  • acknowledges himself to be ordained for the procuring of the wealth and property of his people

  • bound to protect as well the people, as the laws of his kingdom

  • glad to bound themselves within the limits of their laws

  • makes the laws the bounds of his power, and the good of the public, the end of his government

  • uses power for the preservation of the properties of the people


  • exercise of power beyond right

  • making use of power for private separate advantage

  • his will the rule

  • commands and actions for the satisfaction of his own ambition, revenge, covetousness, or any other irregular passion.  

  • thinks his kingdom and people are only ordained for satisfaction of his desires and unreasonable appetites

  • makes all give way to his own will and appetite

  • uses power to impoverish, harass, or subdue them to the arbitrary and irregular commands of those that have it

  • transgresses law to another’s harm

  • exceeds the power given him by the law, and makes use of the force he has under his command, to compass that upon the subject, which the law allows not

In section 202, John Locke argues that rulers bear a greater responsibility to obey the law and further the public good the more power they have. Great power does not absolve them of responsibility:

… the exceeding the bounds of authority is no more a right in a great, than in a petty officer; no more justifiable in a king than a constable; but is so much the worse in him, in that he has more trust put in him, has already a much greater share than the rest of his brethren, and is supposed, from the advantages of his education, employment, and counsellors, to be more knowing in the measures of right and wrong.

Below is the context for all of these points I have drawn out:

§. 199. AS usurpation is the exercise of power, which another hath a right to; so tyranny is the exercise of power beyond right, which nobody can have a right to. And this is making use of the power any one has in his hands, not for the good of those who are under it, but for his own private separate advantage. When the governor, however intitled, makes not the law, but his will the rule; and his commands and actions are not directed to the preservation of the properties of his people, but the satisfaction of his own ambition, revenge, covetousness, or any other irregular passion.  

§. 200. If one can doubt this to be truth, or reason, because it comes from the obscure hand of a subject, I hope the authority of a king will make it pass with him. King James the First, in his speech to the parliament, 1603, tells them thus, “I will ever prefer the weal of the public, and of the whole commonwealth, in making of good laws and constitutions, to any particular and private ends of mine; thinking ever the wealth and weal of the commonwealth to be my greatest weal and worldly felicity; a point wherein a lawful king doth directly differ from a tyrant: for I do acknowledge that the special and greatest point of difference that is between a rightful king and an usurping tyrant, is this, that whereas the proud and ambitious tyrant doth think his kingdom and people are only ordained for satisfaction of his desires and unreasonable appetites, the righteous and just king doth by the contrary acknowledge himself to be ordained for the procuring of the wealth and property of his people.” And again, in his speech to the parliament, 1609, he hath these words, “The king binds himself by a double oath, to the observation of the fundamental laws of his kingdom; tacitly, as by being a king, and so bound to protect as well the people, as the laws of his kingdom; and expressly, by his oath at his coronation; so as every just king, in a settled kingdom, is bound to observe that paction to his people, by his laws, in framing his government agreeable thereunto, according to that paction which God made with Noah after the deluge. Hereafter, seed-time and harvest, and cold and heat, and summer and winter, and day and night, shall not cease while the earth remaineth. And therefore a king governing in a settled kingdom, leaves to be a king, and degenerates into a tyrant, as soon as he leaves off to rule according to his laws.” And a little after, “Therefore all kings that are not tyrants, or perjured, will be glad to bound themselves within the limits of their laws; and they that persuade them the contrary, are vipers, and pests both against them and the commonwealth.” Thus that learned king, who well understood the notion of things, makes the difference betwixt a king and a tyrant to consist only in this, that one makes the laws the bounds of his power, and the good of the public, the end of his government; the other makes all give way to his own will and appetite.  

§. 201. It is a mistake, to think this fault is proper only to monarchies: other forms of government are liable to it, as well as that: for wherever the power, that is put in any hands for the government of the people, and the preservation of their properties, is applied to other ends, and made use of to impoverish, harass, or subdue them to the arbitrary and irregular commands of those that have it; there it presently becomes tyranny, whether those that thus use it are one or many. Thus we read of the thirty tyrants at Athens, as well as one at Syracuse; and the intolerable dominion of the Decemviri at Rome was nothing better.  

§. 202. Wherever law ends, tyranny begins, if the law be transgressed to another’s harm; and him whosoever in authority exceeds the power given him by the law, and makes use of the force he has under his command, to compass that upon the subject, which the law allows not, ceases in that to be a magistrate; and, acting without authority, may be opposed, as any other man, who by force invades the right of another. This is acknowledged in subordinate magistrates. He that hath authority to seize my person in the street, may be opposed as a thief and a robber, if he endeavours to break into my house to execute a writ, notwithstanding that I know he has such a warrant, and such a legal authority, as will impower him to arrest me abroad. And why this should not hold in the highest, as well as in the most inferior magistrate, I would gladly be informed. Is it reasonable, that the eldest brother, because he has the greatest part of his father’s estate, should thereby have a right to take away any of his younger brothers’ portions? or that a rich man, who possessed a whole country, should from thence have a right to seize, when he pleased, the cottage and garden of his poor neighbour? The being rightfully possessed of great power and riches, exceedingly beyond the greatest part of the sons of Adam, is so far from being an excuse, much less a reason, for rapine and oppression, which the endamaging another without authority is, that it is a great aggravation of it: for the exceeding the bounds of authority is no more a right in a great, than in a petty officer; no more justifiable in a king than a constable; but is so much the worse in him, in that he has more trust put in him, has already a much greater share than the rest of his brethren, and is supposed, from the advantages of his education, employment, and counsellors, to be more knowing in the measures of right and wrong.

For links to other John Locke posts, see these John Locke aggregator posts: 

Chris Kimball on `A Liberal Turn in the Mormon Church'

Chris Kimball and his grandson

Chris Kimball and his grandson

When I wrote “A Liberal Turn in the Mormon Church” I had already arranged with my brother Chris that he would write a guest post as a response. I was reassured to know that any errors of fact or emphasis I made because of my increasing distance in time from being a Mormon would be corrected. Below is Chris’s response.

In my own defense vis a vis one of his themes, let me point out that I had previously written about some of the other important changes Russell Nelson has made in the Mormon Church besides those I mentioned in “A Liberal Turn in the Mormon Church.” See the links to other related posts at the bottom of this post.

A letter to my brother in response to “A Liberal Turn in the Mormon Church”

Dear Miles:

I read with interest “A Liberal Turn in the Mormon Church” two weeks ago. In the friendliest and most loving way (a standard opening for sharp disagreement), I have a couple of things to say.

Before diving in, let me say that this is a letter between brothers chock full of personal opinion and 50% confidence statements. Knowing you are going to publish it, but not caveating every other sentence to make this some kind of pronouncement or “truth” or careful lawyer’s brief. Just one brother talking to another. 

Now diving in, my first observation is that you increasingly write as an outsider to the Church. I think you would acknowledge that (and hopefully not take umbrage). On the flip side I am conscious of the fact that my most recent piece (generously referenced in your “Liberal Turn”) was so much an insider view that we both agreed it was unpublishable outside the Bloggernacle--the segment of the blogosphere focused on Mormon issues. 

“Outsider” means several things for my review. First, it means that you select and give attention to changes you notice, which is an interesting and revealing subset of the whole. Second, it means that your characterization of Church leaders seems more resume-based than listening based. Third, it means that your “liberal” label is an outside-looking-in label.

You highlight changes in the temple ceremony, calling an African-American General Authority, and reversing the 2015 policy on people in same-sex marriages and their children. No question these are newsworthy changes, and I have written extensively about the third so I can’t honestly downplay them. However, I will argue that they are somewhat less important than you make them out to be, and only three among many.

Less important in the following ways—

Changes in the temple ceremony occur from time to time. They are seldom talked about much, out of respect for the temple, strong secret/sacred bonds on certain parts of the ceremonies that make insiders cautious about discussing any parts, and a mystique that the ceremonies are “revealed truth” in ancient, unchanged, and unchangeable form (which is obviously not true in the strong sense, for anybody who pays attention, but is a valuable myth that many would like to preserve). In addition, the observant among us report particular instructions not to discuss these recent changes. But for all the quietness around the temple ceremony, it is relatively well known that changes do occur—and the Church said so in the context of these recent changes—and probably will continue.

With respect to the changes having to do with “sexist” language, my perspective is rather more cautious or measured than some of the excited reports in the Salt Lake Tribune. My perspective is that the changes I know about have been needed and talked about for forty years at least. They have been identified in focus group and survey results. Furthermore, the changes were only part of the work that seems needed. (All my opinion, of course.) The interesting questions to me are not “where did this come from?” but “why now?” and “why not finish the job?”

Calling an African-American General Authority is wonderful. But inevitable. From the first days after the 1978 inclusion of all men in priesthood roles and all men and women in temple activities without respect to race, there have been highly qualified African-American men available and holding responsible positions. As a practical matter (not theological or doctrinal) there is a very long “working up” ladder for high Church callings and I didn’t expect an African-American General Authority right away. However, 40+ years later the inclusion of the first African-American General Authority speaks to me of absolutely no affirmative action, no inclusive outreach, but simply business-as-usual. Notice that Elder Johnson joined the Church in 1986 at age 19. He is now 52, having spent his entire adult life in a  Church that fully recognized his value and worth. From what little I know he is highly qualified and well respected, but just like all the new General Authorities with a lifetime of experience and service in the Church. Remarkable in that select company only for his skin color. Again, the interesting questions to me are not “why Peter Johnson?” but “why now (and not sooner)?” and “why just one?”

Reversing the Exclusion Policy had to happen. It was a blot on the Church. I know very well there is a large constituency of Church members who maintain the Church never makes a mistake. However, in this case there is an unusually large contra group, who believe—without regard to the Church’s attitudes and practices regarding LGBTQ persons—that the Policy was a mistake. For myself, I believe the reversal was a 39-month exercise of internal consultation and consideration at the highest levels, from a baseline of recognizing the Policy as a mistake. What is interesting is not that the Policy was reversed, but that it was reversed relatively quickly and without doing the full job. The full job meaning to squarely address the civil marriage parity question (which I argue has only one acceptable workable outcome). For the third time, “why now?” and “why not more?”

Three among many in that the changes in the first 15 months of the Russell M. Nelson presidency are stunning in number and breadth. In addition to the three you focus on, we have seen:

·       New attention to the name of the Church. The naming conventions change from time to time, including change to the scripture that is often cited for the official name of the Church. But I thought this was reasonably settled in 1990. A 30-year type change.

·       A new Sunday School curriculum, a change to the system I have been familiar with since 1986. A  30-year or 35-year change.

·       A two-hour block for Church meetings. Although meeting schedule tinkering happens from time to time, this is the biggest change since 1980. A 40-year change.

·       A collapse of adult priesthood quorums into one at the local level. The last change of this magnitude was the 1986 elimination of Stake-level 70s quorums. Another 30-35 year change.

·       Adopting a ministering program in place of home teaching and visiting teaching. “Ward teaching” was the 1912 program. “Home teaching” was the 1963 version. A 50-year change.

·       Missionaries allowed to call home weekly and on special occasions. This may seem small, but it is extraordinarily meaningful for missionaries and families of missionaries. The mission programs change regularly, but I don’t remember a time when missionaries were free to contact family like they are today. A more than 60-year change.

·       Young men can now be ordained to the Aaronic Priesthood as early as age 11, and the correlative change for young women means that 11 year-olds can now attend the temple for the first time. The prior 12-year-old schedule was set in 1908, and probably believed to be inviolable by most people alive today. A more than century change.

There are far-reaching consequences of these changes. Some are apparent already. Some will play out in the decades to come.

Why Now?

I think the most interesting question you raise is why now? I think your analysis of leadership change, policies that don’t work, and declining numbers, is reasonable but skewed by viewing through the lens of “liberalizing” practice. When I remove the “liberalizing” lens and ask myself about change more broadly, I conclude that it is all about President Nelson.

But I should explain.

There are traditional Mormons declaring that President Nelson is a visionary of a sort we haven’t seen since Joseph Smith, as though the heavens have opened and dropped revelation after revelation. Or maybe I should say “dreamer” as in “And it shall come to pass in the last days, saith God, I will pour out of my Spirit upon all flesh: and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.” Acts 2:17. And yes, I have heard “last days” talk. It won’t surprise you when I say this isn’t me. With all due respect to President Nelson, I look for more ordinary earth-bound explanations.

I grant that the numbers are not looking good. I assume this is a constant concern; it should be. The growth rate is down, the birth rate is down, there is reason to believe tithing receipts have declined (although there are no reliable numbers outside the Church, to my knowledge). For all that, my deepest concern would be changing numbers and attitudes in younger generations. As noted by Jana Reiss in her new book The Next Mormons: How Millennials Are Changing the Mormon Church, “Mormonism used to keep about three quarters of its adherents. Among young adults it is now retaining less than half.” With respect to same-sex marriage, an important tell-tale of attitudes by generation, Reiss shows that 58% of Mormons of our generation strongly agreed with the now-reversed policy, but only 40% of Mormon millennials strongly agreed. More telling (to my mind) former Mormons strongly disagreed with the policy in even higher numbers and with little generational difference.

I do believe President Dallin Oaks is an instrument of change himself. I know he is typecast by many as an ultra-conservative disciplinarian. But I see him as strongly inclined conservative but more importantly a deep thinker able to learn and change his mind and work effectively in a dynamic world. Persuadable, in other words.

Also, it should be noted that there are pressures from several years when former President Thomas Monson was either unwilling or unable to direct needed change, leading inevitably to an accumulation or backlog of changes and decisions and a likely spike in the number of significant changes with any new and decisive President.

All this I grant, but I still think the greatest reason for change is President Nelson himself. I think he is the key to the current dynamism in the Church. I see this in the following characteristics:

·       He is vigorous but at 94 years old it can’t last. He is in a hurry for good reason. While it may be a small additional impetus, I believe he looked up to Spencer W. Kimball who called him as an apostle in 1984, and recognizes the early years of SWK’s presidency as an example he would like to emulate, and the later years as a fear he is racing.

·       He is self-confident—he believes in himself in that he pays attention to and has confidence in the promptings and nudgings and visions and dreams, and he believes in himself in that he makes decisions.

·       I view him as a pragmatic problem solver before an ideologue. I suspect he is politically conservative, I am fairly confident his social policy views are conservative, and I hear from the pulpit conservative theology and doctrine (in a mid-20th century conservative sense). But I think he solves problems first. 

·       Most remarkably, especially for the leader of a large institution that has historically been slow to change and never apologize, he seems able and ready to experiment, to make a decision, watch it play out, and make another. If I were to choose one characteristic only, it would be this.

So why now? Because there is a need, it’s the right thing to do, and there is a man in place who is ready and able.

Love from your brother,


P.S. It occurs to me that you and I have discussed some of these changes with varying degrees of approval or dismay, and  I do have strong opinions about some of the changes. But this letter is really about the high rate of change and the reasons for that high rate of change. 

Don't miss these posts on Mormonism:

Also see the links in "Hal Boyd: The Ignorance of Mocking Mormonism."

Don’t miss these other guest posts by Chris:

In addition, Chris is my coauthor for

Don’t miss these Unitarian-Universalist sermons by Miles:

By self-identification, I left Mormonism for Unitarian Universalism in 2000, at the age of 40. I have had the good fortune to be a lay preacher in Unitarian Universalism. I have posted many of my Unitarian-Universalist sermons on this blog.

John Locke: Usurpation is a Kind of Domestic Conquest, with this Difference, that an Usurper Can Never Have Right on His Side

Chapter XVII of John Locke’s 2d Treatise on Government: Of Civil Government, “Of Usurpation,” has a very simply point, expressed in the title above. By simple usurpation, John Locke means taking a role in a government one is not entitled to, without otherwise changing the form of the government. Increasing the power of that role beyond what that role is entitled to would be tyranny added to usurpation:

§. 197. AS conquest may be called a foreign usurpation, so usurpation is a kind of domestic conquest, with this difference, that an usurper can never have right on his side, it being no usurpation, but where one is got into the possession of what another has a right to. This, so far as it is usurpation, is a change only of persons, but not of the forms and rules of the government: for if the usurper extend his power beyond what of right belonged to the lawful princes, or governors of the commonwealth, it is tyranny added to usurpation.  

Even simple usurpation is a serious violation of the principle of consent. Indeed, John Locke repeatedly compares a violation of the method a state has for choosing its leaders as being akin to anarchy:

§. 198. In all lawful governments, the designation of the persons, who are to bear rule, is as natural and necessary a part as the form of the government itself, and is that which had its establishment originally from the people; the anarchy being much alike, to have no form of government at all; or to agree, that it shall be monarchical, but to appoint no way to design the person that shall have the power, and be the monarch. Hence all commonwealths, with the form of government established, have rules also of appointing those who are to have any share in the public authority, and settled methods of conveying the right to them: for the anarchy is much alike, to have no form of government at all: or to agree that it shall be monarchical, but to appoint no way to know or design the person that shall have the power, and be the monarch. Whoever gets into the exercise of any part of the power, by other ways than what the laws of the community have prescribed, hath no right to be obeyed, though the form of the commonwealth be still preserved; since he is not the person the laws have appointed, and consequently not the person the people have consented to. Nor can such an usurper, or any deriving from him, ever have a title, till the people are both at liberty to consent, and have actually consented to allow, and confirm in him the power he hath till then usurped.

I find John Locke’s comparison of usurpation to anarchy puzzling. Even in the Roman Empire, where usurpation occurred with stunning frequency, the situation was much better than anarchy. And if usurpation occurred only occasionally, the improvement over anarchy might be quite substantial, assuming those usurpations were not combined with tyranny. (It is possible that the word anarchy did not have quite the same connotations in John Locke’s day as it does now.)

For links to other John Locke posts, see these John Locke aggregator posts: 

A Liberal Turn in the Mormon Church

The dictum “Everything is relative” can sometimes steer people wrong, but seeing things in relative terms is one important perspective. Using “liberal” and “conservative” to mean socially liberal and socially conservative in the usual political sense, the Mormon Church remains quite socially conservative, but it has recently taken a liberal turn.

One of the most important recent changes is one that is not easily visible to non-Mormons and has probably been in the works for some time: a change in the language of the Mormon temple ceremonies to be more nearly gender-neutral.

Highly gender-asymmetric language had been a stone in the shoe of many Mormon women for a long time. Things are now improved. in order to appreciate the magnitude of this change, I highly recommend reading Peggy Fletcher Stack and David Noyce’s Salt Lake Tribune article “LDS Church changes temple ceremony; faithful feminists will see revisions and additions as a ‘leap forward’”:

Another recent change is a continuing widening of the racial and ethnic diversity of Mormon Church leaders. Ideologically, Mormonism is universalistic, so this is an easy evolution, but it is one that could have positive effects over time. (Gender balance is another matter entirely. See “Will Women Ever Get the Mormon Priesthood?” There are a few women in relatively high leadership positions in the Mormon Church, but beyond being few in number, in all practical terms there is no question that every one of them ranks behind at least 15 male Mormon leaders—the 3 men in the First Presidency and the 12 men in the Quorum of the 12 Apostles—in power and influence.)

But perhaps the most remarkable recent change in the Mormon Church has been the downgrading of gay marriage what I described in a November, 2015 post as “The Mormon Church Decides to Treat Gay Marriage as Rebellion on a Par with Polygamy” to gay marriage being officially on a par with heterosexual premarital sex (which is a serious sin in Mormonism). From the article flagged below:

Previously, our Handbook characterized same-gender marriage by a member as apostasy. While we still consider such a marriage to be a serious transgression, it will not be treated as apostasy for purposes of Church discipline," leaders wrote. "Instead, the immoral conduct in heterosexual or homosexual relationships will be treated in the same way."

Many of the headlines emphasize the repeal of a particular unjust part of the policy that existed for three and a half years: when gay marriage was treated as rebellion on a par with polygamy, the children of a gay marriage were treated as inherently suspect. That is now gone.

But there are many other consequences of downgrading gay marriage from high rebellion to a serious sin. In particular, it gives local Church leaders a lot of leeway (if they choose) to make married gay couples feel more welcome in a Mormon congregation.

One of the reasons this is a remarkable change is that it repeals a policy that is not even 4 years old. My brother Chris emphasizes this in his guest post “The No-Longer Policy: Where Do We Go From Here?” on By Common Consent shown below:

… the Policy’s reversal has challenged our collective ideas of “revelation” alongside the near infallibility halo our culture casts over our religious leaders. 

Chris elaborates on this view in the comments section, referencing my post “Flexible Dogmatism: The Mormon Position on Infallibility”:

With respect to revelation and correctness, I am bemused by arguments that speak of “flexible dogmatism” (a coinage I attribute to my brother and he attributes to a friend). Flexible dogmatism is the idea that the Church can renounce past policies and practices, even past doctrines and theologies, but it cannot renounce the rightness of past policies at the time they were in effect. Flexible dogmatism is a common practice in rationalizing the Church. I think it is sorely tested (I believe to the point of breaking) by 180-degree turns in just a few years.

How did the Mormon Church end up with a policy it wanted to back away from after just a few years? My post “The Mormon Church Decides to Treat Gay Marriage as Rebellion on a Par with Polygamy” gives one perspective. Here is Chris’s description of the dynamic in “The No-Longer Policy: Where Do We Go From Here?”:

The Exclusion Policy seemed like a response to the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision in Obergefell v. Hodges (decided June 26, 2015) which guaranteed the fundamental right to marry to same-sex couples. The Obergefell decision could have been predicted 10 years earlier. Not the date or the case, but the ultimate outcome. The trend line was clear in a series of cases in the federal courts, and a series of decisions by state legislatures in the United States, and by changes to laws in other countries. Same-sex marriage was coming.

Notwithstanding the writing on the wall, the Church seemed ill-prepared for it.  It seemed to me (and this was a source of overwhelming frustration and anger to me personally) the Exclusion Policy as implemented was the worst choice, the most damaging, the least Christian, of all the Church’s reasonably conceivable options.

Then how and why did the policy of treating gay marriage as high rebellion that tainted even the children of a gay marriate get reversed? Here is Chris’s description of the how:

 I believe if the Church had internalized the virtual certainty of public disclosure, there would have been recognition that the Policy was a mistake before it was promulgated. As November 2015 happened, I believe there was almost immediate widespread recognition that the Policy was a mistake. I believe the recognition was early enough that we have just lived through 39 months of puzzlement about how to fix it.  I view now—President Nelson’s foray into assigning the “revelation” label was a trial balloon for the “shore it up” method of fixing a problem. Once that failed, pragmatic reality required the Church to immerse itself in nuanced and involved dialogue in order to seek consensus at the highest levels as well as some amount of membership support.  

Let me give three possible reasons why. The first is a change in personnel. The previous President, Thomas S. Monson, died on January 2, 2018. Russell Nelson has made major changes since then, see “New Mormon Prophet Russell Nelson Shakes Things Up and “Less is More in Mormon Church Meetings.” The degree of deference to the President of the Mormon Church is so great that it is often difficult for those outside the inner circles to know what the views of another apostle are until they ascend to the Presidency. This is actually true not just for Russell Nelson, whose views are finally being revealed, but especially true for the other 2 in the top 3 leaders in the organizational chart: Dallin Oaks (a former colleague of my Dad’s in the Brigham Young University Law School) who is currently both the #2 in the organization chart and the designated successor if Russell Nelson should die and the #3 in the organization chart, my Dad’s first cousin Henry B. Eyring. Both Dallin Oaks and Henry B. Eyring are very much good soldiers, who will fall in line with whatever policy has been decided on by those more senior then he is. In other words, the views of the entire First Presidency—the troika at the top of the Mormon Church—have been to an important extent hidden by their high levels of loyalty. There is some reason to hope that their views are reasonably liberal when those views are not trumped by loyalty, despite the fact that they have on many occasions publicly espoused extremely conservative views in lockstep with policy. I had not thought of Russell Nelson himself as particularly liberal, but I do think of Russell Nelson as being non-monarchical. Deliberating as a group of three, the combination of Russell Nelson, Dallin Oaks and Henry B. Eyring is plausibly quite a bit more liberal than Thomas S. Monson.

Further down in the line of succession, I don’t have a good sense of the views of 90-year-old M. Russell Ballard. But 78-year-old Jeffrey R. Holland (who attended the same congregation as my family when I was a teenager and he was the President of Brigham Young University) and 78-year-old Dieter F. Uchtdorf are likely to be relatively liberal. (Both of these apostles are higher in the line of succession than Henry B. Eyring.) I emphasize the ages not only as a predictor of vigor but also because other than being appointed an apostle at a young age, long life is the key to become President of the Mormon Church.

The second possible reason for the reversal is that many local leaders may have complained about having to implement the initial harsh policy. In the comments section of Chris’s post, you can find these reports:

  • cat: I concur. I know of more than a few Bishops and Stake Presidents who publicly announced that the Policy of Exclusion would not be enforced under their stewardship.

  • Christian Kimball: I too have heard of Bishops and Stake Presidents who worked to minimize the effects of the Exclusion Policy within their scope of influence.

My sense is that, in general, high Mormon Church leaders have a great deal of respect for the local Church leaders, whom they themselves have often personally chosen and appointed out of the set of almost all the adult male members of the Church in a given area.

The third possible reason for the reversal is that the Church has become worried about the slowdown in its growth rate. The article flagged at the top of this post reports that, in the US, the worldwide growth rate of the Mormon Church has slowed from 3 to 8 % per year from 1960 to 2000 to about 1.5% per year now, with the growth rate in the US only 3/4 of a percent per year now. Mormon Church leaders care deeply about the growth rate of the Church. They wouldn’t sacrifice key doctrinal tenets for the sake of growth, but they might be willing to soften their approach toward gay married couples.

Mormon Church leaders care deeply about the growth rate of the Church for many reasons. First, they see it as their job, given them by Jesus, who said to his disciples before ascending to heaven:

Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you …

Notice that this doesn’t just say “teach all nations” but baptize them. Mormon baptism makes one a member of the Mormon Church. So under a Mormon interpretation, this amounts to a command to convert people and bring them into the Mormon Church. In addition to a keen awareness of Jesus’ Great Commission, in its “the-Mormon-Church-is-the-only-true-church” interpretation, many Mormon Church leaders have a business background, in which growth is often a key goal. Finally, at a gut level, most Mormon leaders care about growth as do rank-and-file Mormons because for a long time the fast growth rate of the Mormon Church was seen by those in the Church as a validation of the Church’s claims to have been established by God. The article flagged just below gives a nice description of this mindset, which resonates with my own 40 years as a Mormon during those high-growth years, before I left Mormonism in 2000.

Screen Shot 2019-04-13 at 10.18.30 PM.png

Without any doctrinal change, there is much further that the Mormon Church could go to liberalize. The Mormon Church’s has historically been hard on gays, feminists and free-thinking intellectuals. In relation to gay marriage, Chris suggests that the Mormon Church could continue to consider gay marriages religiously invalid (as, indeed, it considers all marriages not done by the Mormon church in any case), but to be civilly valid, and sufficient to make sex within that marriage something other than a serious sin:

If two men marry, before God and country and friends and family, are they married in the Church’s eyes? Not the question “Will the Church perform the marriages?” Not the question “Will the Church encourage or recommend or celebrate the marriages?” But the very basic question “Does the Church respect the marriages?” In essence, is same-sex marriage a real marriage?

In relation to feminism, without any change in doctrine, and without given women the Mormon priesthood the Mormon Church’s leaders could direct that women be in all the key meetings for the governance of each individual congregation.

For free-thinking intellectuals, it would be a big step forward if Mormon Church leaders simply left them alone to say their piece. No doctrine requires that a particular person be excommunicated for what they have written or said. There is enormous discretion in decisions of whether or not to excommunicate a particular intellectual.

Don't miss these posts on Mormonism:

Also see the links in "Hal Boyd: The Ignorance of Mocking Mormonism."

Don’t miss these Unitarian-Universalist sermons by Miles:

By self-identification, I left Mormonism for Unitarian Universalism in 2000, at the age of 40. I have had the good fortune to be a lay preacher in Unitarian Universalism. I have posted many of my Unitarian-Universalist sermons on this blog.

Even a Just War Cannot Make It Right to Govern without the Consent of the Governed or to Dispossess Those in Conquered Territory

In the first two sections of Chapter XVI of John Locke’s 2d Treatise on Government: Of Civil Government, “Of Conquest,” he makes the easy case that “An Unjust War Cannot Win Any True Right to Rule,” as I wrote about two weeks ago. In the remainder of Chapter XVI, John Locke makes the more complicated case that a just war cannot make it right to govern without the consent of the governed or to dispossess those in conquered territory.

This puts John Locke on the other side of the argument from Bibi Netanyahu. Bibi hopes to have his coalition prevail again so he can be the Prime Minister of Israel for the fifth time. If he gets a fifth term, he says he will apply Israeli sovereignty to big chunks of the West Bank, to bit a little Israeli settlements that are now there. Bibi’s justification is especially interesting. Felicia Schwartz reports this in her April 6, 2019 Wall Street Journal article “Netanyahu Says He Will Extend Israeli Sovereignty Over West Bank If Re-Elected”:

In recent weeks, Mr. Netanyahu has become more strident in speaking about lands seized in the 1967 war, saying territory taken in a defensive war need not be returned.

This makes it sound as if states own territory that is, in fact, land owned by people—people whose consent must be obtained to make governing them legitimate.

To be clear, John Locke recognizes the virtue of recognizing a status quo that keeps conflict down. But if conflict is unavoidable—as it is in a defensive war—and previous political arrangements fall apart in some region, or need to be deconstructed because they led to aggression, then it is reasonable for a government that is still intact or a political entrepreneur to seek the consent of those in the area where previous political arrangements have fallen apart. Thus, Israel could legitimately have tried to win the hearts and minds of those resident in the West Bank and Gaza to become part of Israel. Alternatively, it could have tried to encourage a political entrepreneur to organize the West Bank and Gaza in a way that would be nonthreatening to Israel. Letting all of those in the conquered territories is undesired by the government of Israel because it would change the political equilibrium too much with that many new citizens with different views. And getting a peaceful democratic government in place in the conquered territories seems difficult to the point of near impossibility.

Barring being able to get a democratic government in place in the conquered territories that leaves Israel safe, good arguments can be made that Israel is justified in keeping a security presence when the government of a nearby territory repeatedly attacks. Finally, if residents of the West Bank, feeling 100% confident of their property rights, with no coercion whatsoever, chose to voluntarily sell land to Israeli settlers, the government of Israel would then need to seek the consent of those Israeli landowners if it wanted to govern that territory.

But in all cases, it is the consent of the governed that gives the right to rule, not conquering—even if that conquering is in a just war. Conquering a territory is more like the situation in a constitutional monarchy in which the king asks someone to attempt to form a government. The government must still be voted in: in that system the nomination by the king of someone to try to get together a majority coalition does not give one the right to rule; actually getting together the majority coalition gives one the right to rule.

Leaders who started a war of aggression can be punished severely, and underlings can be punished for war crimes and other rights violations. But those in the conquered territories who voted against conducting the war of aggression or were not allowed any say about the decision, and did as little as possible to further the war, and committed no rights violations, retain their full rights. (Here there is an important and difficult question about exactly how much attempted coercion one is expected to endure to avoid aiding an unjust war or committing rights violations of a certain gravity.)

John Locke’s argument that even a just war cannot make it right to govern without the consent of the governed or to dispossess those in conquered territory is very difficult to wade through, but its relevance to Israel’s situation makes it worth the trouble. Try to keep slogging through.

John Locke’s Argument

Let’s imagine a just war—say a defensive war. John Locke begins by saying that the leader of a victorious country in a just war still has to seek the consent of those in the conquering army and the rest of the people in the victorious country.

§. 177. But supposing victory favours the right side, let us consider a conqueror in a lawful war, and see what power he gets, and over whom.  First, It is plain he gets no power by his conquest over those that conquered with him.They that fought on his side cannot suffer by the conquest, but must at least be as much freemen as they were before. And most commonly they serve upon terms, and on condition to share with their leader, and enjoy a part of the spoil, and other advantages that attend the conquering sword; or at least have a part of the subdued country bestowed upon them. And the conquering people are not, I hope, to be slaves by conquest, and wear their laurels only to shew they are sacrifices to their leader’s triumph. They, that found absolute monarchy upon the title of the sword, make their heroes, who are the founders of such monarchies, arrant Drawcansirs, and forget they had any officers and soldiers that fought on their side in the battles they won, or assisted them in the subduing, or shared in possessing, the countries they mastered. We are told by some, that the English monarchy is founded in the Norman conquest, and that our princes have thereby a title to absolute dominion: which if it were true, (as by the history it appears otherwise) and that William had a right to make war on this island: yet his dominion by conquest could reach no farther than to the Saxons and Britons, that were then inhabitants of this country. The Normans that came with him, and helped to conquer, and all descended from them, are freemen, and no subjects by conquest; let that give what dominion it will. And if I, or any body else, shall claim freedom, as derived from them, it will be very hard to prove the contrary: and it is plain, the law, that has made no distinction between the one and the other, intends not there should be any difference in their freedom or privileges.  

If there is enough intermarriage between the people of the victorious, conquering country and those in the conquered country, soon, this principle alone goes a long way to make clear that conquest does not give one the right to be a dictator.

John Locke then goes on to talk about punishing the leaders of those that started the war of aggression, who are now conquered. His ideas on punishment do not match modern ideas, but the basic idea that the leaders of a country that begins an unjust war can be punished is sound:

§. 178. But supposing, which seldom happens, that the conquerors and conquered never incorporate into one people, under the same laws and freedom; let us see next what power a lawful conqueror has over the subdued: and that I say is purely despotical. He has an absolute power over the lives of those who by an unjust war have forfeited them; but not over the lives or fortunes of those who engaged not in the war, nor over the possessions even of those who were actually engaged in it.  

Those beneath the leaders have a duty to resist the unjust war and any other rights violations. How far that duty goes is a difficult question, but enthusiastically helping leaders leading an unjust war is not fulfilling that duty:

§. 179. Secondly, I say then the conqueror gets no power but only over those who have actually assisted, concurred, or consented to that unjust force that is used against him: for the people having given to their governors no power to do an unjust thing, such as is to make an unjust war, (for they never had such a power in themselves) they ought not to be charged as guilty of the violence and injustice that is committed in an unjust war, any farther than they actually abet it: no more than they are to be thought guilty of any violence or oppression their governors should use upon the people themselves, or any part of their fellow-subjects, they having impowered them no more to the one than to the other. Conquerors, it is true, seldom trouble themselves to make the distinction, but they willingly permit the confusion of war to sweep all together: but yet this alters not the right; for the conqueror’s power over the lives of the conquered, being only because they have used force to do, or maintain an injustice, he can have that power only over those who have concurred in that force; all the rest are innocent; and he has no more title over the people of that country, who have done him no injury, and so have made no forfeiture of their lives, than he has over any other, who, without any injuries or provocations, have lived upon fair terms with him.  

The appropriateness of punishing the leaders of the country that started the unjust war does not mean one can punish their families. If the families were enriched by ill-gotten gains, surely it is OK to take those away and use those riches to make restitution to those who were harmed. And making restitution for war damage from the possessions of a leader will almost unavoidably hurt the family of the leader. But much of this restitution will be to those who were part of the now conquered country that began a war of aggression. And John Locke argues that the damage done to the now victorious country and its citizens is unlikely to be enough to justify large-scale dispossession of large numbers of people as reparations. John Locke emphasizes how much land is likely to be worth compared to the value of the damages from a war. I would emphasize the human capital an individual has—which if the innocent son of a leader rather than the leader, cannot justly be taken away.

§. 180. Thirdly, The power a conqueror gets, over those he overcomes in a just war, is perfectly despotical: he has an absolute power over the lives of those, who by putting themselves in a state of war, have forfeited them; but he has not thereby a right and title to their possessions. This I doubt not, but at first sight will seem a strange doctrine, it being so quite contrary to the practice of the world; there being nothing more familiar in speaking of the dominion of countries, than to say such an one conquered it: as if the conquest, without any more ado, conveyed a right of possession. But when we consider, that the practice of the strong and powerful, how universal soever it may be, is seldom the rule of right, however it be one part of the subjection of the conquered, not to argue against the conditions cut out to them by the conquering sword.  

§. 181. Though in all war there be usually a complication of force and damage, and the aggressor seldom fails to harm the estate, when he uses force against the persons of those he makes war upon, yet it is the use of force only that puts a man into the state of war: for whether by force he begins the injury, or else having quietly, and by fraud, done the injury, he refuses to make reparation, and by force maintains it, (which is the same thing, as at first to have done it by force) it is the unjust use of force, that makes the war: for he that breaks open my house, and violently turns me out of doors; or having peaceably got in, by force keeps me out, does in effect the same thing; supposing we are in such a state, that we have no common judge on earth, whom I may appeal to, and to whom we are both obliged to submit: for of such I am now speaking. It is the unjust use of force then, that puts a man into the state of war with another; and thereby he that is guilty of it makes a forfeiture of his life: for quitting reason, which is the rule given between man and man, and using force, the way of beasts, he becomes liable to be destroyed by him he uses force against, as any savage ravenous beast, that is dangerous to his being.  

§. 182. But because the miscarriages of the father are no faults of the children, and they may be rational and peaceable, notwithstanding the brutishness and injustice of the father; the father, by his miscarriages and violence, can forfeit but his own life, but involves not his children in his guilt or destruction. His goods, which nature, that willeth the preservation of all mankind as much as is possible, hath made to belong to the children to keep them from perishing, do still continue to belong to his children: for supposing them not to have joined in the war, either through infancy, absence, or choice, they have done nothing to forfeit them: nor has the conqueror any right to take them away, by the bare title of having subdued him that by force attempted his destruction; though perhaps he may have some right to them, to repair the damages he has sustained by the war, and the defence of his own right; which how far it reaches to the possessions of the conquered, we shall see by-and-by. So that he that by conquest has a right over a man’s person to destroy him if he pleases, has not thereby a right over his estate to possess and enjoy it: for it is the brutal force the aggressor has used, that gives his adversary a right to take away his life, and destroy him if he pleases, as a noxious creature; but it is damage sustained that alone gives him title to another man’s goods: for though I may kill a thief that sets on me in the highway, yet I may not (which seems less) take away his money, and let him go: this would be robbery on my side. His force, and the state of war he put himself in, made him forfeit his life, but gave me no title to his goods. The right then of conquest extends only to the lives of those who joined in the war, not to their estates, but only in order to make reparation for the damages received, and the charges of the war, and that too with reservation of the right of the innocent wife and children.  

§. 183. Let the conqueror have as much justice on his side, as could be supposed, he has no right to seize more than the vanquished could forfeit: his life is at the victor’s mercy; and his service and goods he may appropriate, to make himself reparation; but he cannot take the goods of his wife and children; they too had a title to the goods he enjoyed, and their shares in the estate he possessed: for example, I in the state of nature (and all commonwealths are in the state of nature one with another) have injured another man, and refusing to give satisfaction, it comes to a state of war, wherein my defending by force what I had gotten unjustly, makes me the aggressor. I am conquered: my life, it is true, as forfeit, is at mercy, but not my wife’s and children’s. They made not war, nor assisted in it. I could not forfeit their lives; they were not mine to forfeit. My wife had a share in my estate; that neither could I forfeit. And my children also, being born of me, had a right to be maintained out of my labour or substance. Here then is the case: the conqueror has a title to reparation for damages received, and the children have a title to their father’s estate for their subsistence: for as to the wife’s share, whether her own labour or compact, gave her a title to it, it is plain, her husband could not forfeit what was her’s. What must be done in the case? I answer; the fundamental law of nature being, that all, as much as may be, should be preserved, it follows, that if there be not enough fully to satisfy both, viz. for the conqueror’s losses, and children’s maintenance, he that hath, and to spare, must remit something of his full satisfaction, and give way to the pressing and preferable title of those who are in danger to perish without it.  

§. 184. But supposing the charge and damages of the war are to be made up to the conqueror, to the utmost farthing; and that the children of the vanquished, spoiled of all their father’s goods, are to be left to starve and perish: yet the satisfying of what shall, on this score, be due to the conqueror, will scarce give him a title to any country he should conquer: for the damages of war can scarce amount to the value of any considerable tract of land, in any part of the world, where all the land is possessed, and none lies waste. And if I have not taken away the conqueror’s land, which, being vanquished, it is impossible I should; scarce any other spoil I have done him can amount to the value of mine, supposing it equally cultivated, and of an extent any way coming near what I had over-run of his. The destruction of a year’s product or two (for it seldom reaches four or five) is the utmost spoil that usually can be done: for as to money, and such riches and treasure taken away, these are none of nature’s goods, they have but a fantastical imaginary value: nature has put no such upon them: they are of no more account by her standard, than the wampompeke of the Americans to an European prince, or the silver money of Europe would have been formerly to an American. And five years product is not worth the perpetual inheritance of land, where all is possessed, and none remains waste, to be taken up by him that is disseized; which will be easily granted, if one do but take away the imaginary value of money, the disproportion being more than between five and five hundred; though, at the same time, half a year’s product is more worth than the inheritance, where there being more land than the inhabitants possess and make use of, any one has liberty to make use of the waste: but there conquerors take little care to possess themselves of the lands of the vanquished. No damage therefore, that men in the state of nature (as all princes and governments are in reference to one another) suffer from one another, can give a conqueror power to dispossess the posterity of the vanquished, and turn them out of that inheritance, which ought to be the possession of them and their descendants to all generations. The conqueror indeed will be apt to think himself master: and it is the very condition of the subdued not to be able to dispute their right. But if that be all, it gives no other title than what bare force gives to the stronger over the weaker: and, by this reason, he that is strongest will have a right to whatever he pleases to seize on. 

In Section 185, John Locke makes a nice summary of his argument up to that point:

§. 185. Over those then that joined with him in the war, and over those of the subdued country that opposed him not, and the posterity even of those that did, the conqueror, even in a just war, hath, by his conquest, no right of dominion: they are free from any subjection to him, and if their former government be dissolved, they are at liberty to begin and erect another to themselves. 

Some conquerors try to claim they have received the consent of the conquered when that supposed consent is made under coercion:

§. 186. The conqueror, it is true, usually by the force he has over them, compels them, with a sword at their breasts, to stoop to his conditions, and submit to such a government as he pleases to afford them; but the enquiry is, what right he has to do so? If it be said, they submit by their own consent, then this allows their own consent to be necessary to give the conqueror a title to rule over them. It remains only to be considered, whether promises extorted by force, without right, can be thought consent, and how far they bind. To which I shall say, they bind not at all; because whatsoever another gets from me by force, I still retain the right of, and he is obliged presently to restore. He that forces my horse from me, ought presently to restore him, and I have still a right to retake him. By the same reason, he that forced a promise from me, ought presently to restore it, i. e. quit me of the obligation of it; or I may resume it myself, i. e. chuse whether I will perform it: for the law of nature laying an obligation on me only by the rules she prescribes, cannot oblige me by the violation of her rules: such is the extorting any thing from me by force. Nor does it all alter the case to say, I gave my promise, no more than it excuses the force, and passes the right, when I put my hand in my pocket, and deliver my purse myself to a thief, who demands it with a pistol at my breast.  

§. 187. From all which it follows that the government of a conqueror, imposed by force on the subdued, against whom he had no right of war, or who joined not in the war against him, where he had right, has no obligation upon them.  

John Locke returns to the innocence of children in the conquered country. Even though that country was conquered in a just war, innocent children have not forfeited any of their rights:

§. 188. But let us suppose, that all the men of that community, being all members of the same body politic, may be taken to have joined in that unjust war wherein they are subdued, and so their lives are at the mercy of the conqueror.  

§. 189. I say, this concerns not their children who are in their minority: for since a father hath not, in himself, a power over the life or liberty of his child, no act of his can possibly forfeit it. So that the children, whatever may have happened to the fathers, are freemen, and the absolute power of the conqueror reaches no farther than the persons of the men that were subdued by him, and dies with them: and should he govern them as slaves, subjected to his absolute arbitrary power, he has no such right of dominion over their children. He can have no power over them but by their own consent, whatever he may drive them to say or do, and he has no lawful authority, whilst force, and not choice, compels them to submission.  

What are the rights of those innocent children? First, each individuall has the right to be free. Second, John Locke has a complicated argument that they have a right to their ancestral land that cannot be altered by the laws of a government they collectively do not assent to.

§. 190. Every man is born with a double right: First, a right of freedom to his person, which no other man has a power over, but the free disposal of it lies in himself. Secondly, right, before any other man, to inherit with his brethren his father’s goods.  

§. 191. By the first of these, a man is naturally free from subjection to any government, though he be born in a place under its jurisdiction; but if he disclaim the lawful government of the country he was born in, he must also quit the right that belonged to him by the laws of it, and the possessions there descending to him from his ancestors, if it were a government made by their consent. 

§. 192. By the second, the inhabitants of any country, who are descended, and derive a title to their estates from those who are subdued, and had a government forced upon them against their free consents, retain a right to the possession of their ancestors, though they consent not freely to the government, whose hard conditions were by force imposed on the possessors of that country: for the first conqueror never having had a title to the land of that country, the people who are the descendants of, or claim under those who were forced to submit to the yoke of a government by constraint, have always a right to shake it off, and free themselves from the usurpation or tyranny which the sword hath brought in upon them, till their rulers put them under such a frame of government, as they willingly and of choice consent to. Who doubts but the Grecian christians, descendants of the ancient possessors of that country, may justly cast off the Turkish yoke, which they have so long groaned under, whenever they have an opportunity to do it? For no government can have a right to obedience from a people who have not freely consented to it; which they can never be supposed to do, till either they are put in a full state of liberty to chuse their government and governors, or at least till they have such standing laws, to which they have by themselves or their representatives given their free consent, and also till they are allowed their due property, which is so to be proprietors of what they have, that nobody can take away any part of it without their own consent, without which, men under any government are not in the state of freemen, but are direct slaves under the force of law.  

Even if the leader of a conquering country did own a conquered country lock, stock and barrel—which John Locke has been disputing—to create good incentives, he or she would need to bestow some property of some sort. That property then becomes subject to natural law. In particular, one of the most basic principles of natural law is that one must keep one’s promises when these are made freely. And the kind of leader we are talking about has so much power, that we know the promises are made freely:

§. 193. But granting that the conqueror in a just war has a right to the estates, as well as power over the persons, of the conquered; which, it is plain, he hath not: nothing of absolute power will follow from hence, in the continuance of the government; because the descendants of these being all freemen, if he grants them estates and possessions to inhabit his country, (without which it would be worth nothing) whatsoever he grants them, they have, so far as it is granted, property in. The nature whereof is, that without a man’s own consent it cannot be taken from him.  

§. 194. Their persons are free by a native right, and their properties, be they more or less, are their own, and at their own disposal, and not at his; or else it is no property.Supposing the conqueror gives to one man a thousand acres, to him and his heirs for ever; to another he lets a thousand acres for his life, under the rent of 50l. or 500l. per ann. has not the one of these a right to his thousand acres for ever, and the other, during his life, paying the said rent? and hath not the tenant for life a property in all that he gets over and above his rent, by his labour and industry during the said term, supposing it be double the rent? Can any one say, the king, or conqueror, after his grant, may by his power of conqueror take away all, or part of the land from the heirs of one, or from the other during his life, he paying the rent? or can he take away from either the goods or money they have got upon the said land, at his pleasure? If he can, then all free and voluntary contracts cease, and are void in the world; there needs nothing to dissolve them at any time, but power enough: and the grants and promises of men in power are but mockery and collusion: for can there be any thing more ridiculous than to say, I give you and yours this for ever, and that in the surest and most solemn way of conveyance can be devised; and yet it is to be understood, that I have right, if I please, to take it away from you again to-morrow?  

§. 195. I will not dispute now whether princes are exempt from the laws of their country; but this I am sure, they owe subjection to the laws of God and nature, Nobody, no power, can exempt them from the obligations of that eternal law. Those are so great, and so strong, in the case of promises, that omnipotency itself can be tied by them. Grants, promises, and oaths, are bonds that hold the Almighty: whatever some flatterers say to princes of the world, who altogether, with all their people joined to them, are, in comparison of the great God, but as a drop of the bucket, or a dust on the balance, inconsiderable, nothing!  

John Locke’s argument is a complex one, so it good that he makes a finally summary:

§. 196. The short of the case in conquest is this: the conqueror, if he have a just cause, has a despotical right over the persons of all, that actually aided, and concurred in the war against him, and a right to make up his damage and cost out of their labour and estates, so he injure not the right of any other. Over the rest of the people, if there were any that consented not to the war, and over the children of the captives themselves, or the possessions of either, he has no power; and so can have, by virtue of conquest, no lawful title himself to dominion over them, or derive it to his posterity; but is an aggressor, if he attempts upon their properties, and thereby puts himself in a state of war against them, and has no better a right of principality, he, nor any of his successors, than Hingar, or Hubba, the Danes, had here in England; or Spartacus, had he conquered Italy, would have had; which is to have their yoke cast off, as soon as God shall give those under their subjection courage and opportunity to do it. Thus, notwithstanding whatever title the kings of Assyria had over Judah by the sword, God assisted Hezekiah to throw off the dominion of that conquering empire. “And the Lord was with Hezekiah, and he prospered; wherefore he went forth, and he rebelled against the king of Assyria, and served him not,” 2 Kings xviii. 7. Whence it is plain, that shaking off a power, which force, and not right, hath set over any one, though it hath the name of rebellion, yet is no offence before God, but is that which he allows and countenances, though even promises and covenants, when obtained by force, have intervened: for it is very probable, to any one that reads the story of Ahaz and Hezekiah attentively, that the Assyrians subdued Ahaz, and deposed him, and made Hezekiah king in his father’s life-time; and that Hezekiah by agreement had done him homage, and paid him tribute all this time.

1689, when the Second Treatise was published, is a long time ago. But in their application, the arguments are literally as current as yesterday’s news. I have read a lot about the situation in Israel and its conquered territories in my 58 years. I can say that John Locke’s arguments offers a fresher and deeper take on that situation than almost all the commentators I have read.

For links to other John Locke posts, see these John Locke aggregator posts: 

Teens are Too Suspicious for Anything But the Truth about Drugs to Work

Link to the article above

Link to the article above

In The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell tells the story of a very promising proto-campaign against teen smoking that took advantage of teenagers’ desire to show their independence of the norms of adult society. The ads highlighted how tobacco executives lie and deceive, so that not smoking is a way to stick it to the Man. Why would you want to smoke when evil liars are trying to get you to?

In Malcolm Gladwell’s story, the campaign never got off the ground because it was deemed too offensive to tobacco executives. But this story showcases the importance of telling teens something they will actually believe when you are trying to get them to do something. Teenagers are wired to be alert to the possibility that their interests might diverge from the interests of the adults who are trying to get them to do or not do something. This makes it difficult to get teens to do something by giving them a slanted account of how the world works. That slanted account won’t ring true and will be discounted.

Tobacco, alcohol, marijuana and illegal drugs, like almost everything, have both pluses and minuses. Most teens won’t believe you if you say drugs only have minuses. And if you exaggerate the harms, then one or two cases of friends taking drugs without apparent harm can falsify your portrayal.

David Scheff, in the essay shown above, gives these measured things to say about legal and illegal drugs (all eight quotations are from his essay shown above, “Teens Need the Truth About Drugs”):

  1. Nine out of 10 people who become addicted tried drugs before the age of 18

  2. About 17% of teenagers who smoke [marijuana] develop substance-use disorders, according to two Cambridge University studies. 

  3. … most adolescents who drink won’t become alcoholics, but according to research by the National Academy of Medicine, 15% will.

  4. Teenagers with blood-alcohol content of .08% are 17 times more likely to die in a car crash, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

  5. … brains are changing more in youth and adolescence than they ever will again and that drug use at their age can hurt that development. Drugs really do change the brain, which is a big reason that people take them. But while some changes are temporary, others can be permanent. 

  6. Using drugs to cope with difficult experiences in school or relationships can set a dangerous pattern for adulthood.

  7. Those with a family history of addiction are more likely to use drugs and become addicted themselves. … Those with untreated mental illness, learning disorders or behavioral disorders are also at an elevated risk, as are those who’ve experienced traumas such as physical or sexual abuse, bullying, poverty, family discord or loss of a loved one.

  8. … the more you stress mice, flies or monkeys, the more they choose drugs, even over food and sex. A comprehensive 2008 report in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences confirmed that humans use drugs to alleviate stress, too, and that there is a correlation between stress and drug use among teens.

Whether adults like it or not, teens are likely to make their own decisions. And they are not that easy to successfully deceive into believing drugs are worse than drugs actually are. The truth often rings truer than falsehood. So telling teens the truth about drugs without exaggeration is a reasonable strategy.

Don’t miss these other posts about drug use:

John Locke: An Unjust War Cannot Win Any True Right to Rule

Link to the Wikipedia article “Gallic Wars”

Link to the Wikipedia article “Gallic Wars”

Later on in Chapter XVI of John Locke’s 2d Treatise on Government: Of Civil Government, “Of Conquest,” John Locke makes the more complicated case that a just war cannot win any true right to rule. I’ll blog about that in a couple of weeks. The case that an unjust war cannot win any true right to rule is easier; John Locke accomplishes it in two eloquent paragraphs:

§. 175. THOUGH governments can originally have no other rise than that before mentioned, nor polities be founded on any thing but the consent of the people; yet such have been the disorders ambition has filled the world with, that in the noise of war, which makes so great a part of the history of mankind, this consent is little taken notice of: and therefore many have mistaken the force of arms for the consent of the people, and reckon conquest as one of the originals of government. But conquest is as far from setting up any government, as demolishing an house is from building a new one in the place. Indeed, it often makes way for a new frame of a commonwealth, by destroying the former; but, without the consent of the people, can never erect a new one.

§. 176. That the aggressor, who puts himself into the state of war with another, and unjustly invades another man’s right, can, by such an unjust war, never come to have a right over the conquered, will be easily agreed by all men, who will not think, that robbers and pirates have a right of empire over whomsoever they have force enough to master; or that men are bound by promises, which unlawful force extorts from them. Should a robber break into my house, and with a dagger at my throat make me seal deeds to convey my estate to him, would this give him any title? Just such a title, by his sword, has an unjust conqueror, who forces me into submission. The injury and the crime is equal, whether committed by the wearer of a crown, or some petty villain. The title of the offender, and the number of his followers, make no difference in the offence, unless it be to aggravate it. The only difference is, great robbers punish little ones, to keep them in their obedience; but the great ones are rewarded with laurels and triumphs, because they are too big for the weak hands of justice in this world, and have the power in their own possession, which should punish offenders. What is my remedy against a robber, that so broke into my house? Appeal to the law for justice. But perhaps justice is denied, or I am crippled and cannot stir, robbed and have not the means to do it. If God has taken away all means of seeking remedy, there is nothing left but patience. But my son, when able, may seek the relief of the law, which I am denied: he or his son may renew his appeal, till he recover his right. But the conquered, or their children, have no court, no arbitrator on earth to appeal to. Then they may appeal, as Jephtha did, to heaven, and repeat their appeal till they have recovered the native right of their ancestors, which was, to have such a legislative over them, as the majority should approve, and freely acquiesce in. If it be objected, This would cause endless trouble; I answer, no more than justice does, where she lies open to all that appeal to her. He that troubles his neighbour without a cause, is punished for it by the justice of the court he appeals to: and he that appeals to heaven must be sure he has right on his side; and a right too that is worth the trouble and cost of the appeal, as he will answer at a tribunal that cannot be deceived, and will be sure to retribute to every one according to the mischiefs he hath created to his fellow-subjects; that is, any part of mankind; from whence it is plain, that he that conquers in an unjust war, can thereby have no title to the subjection and obedience of the conquered.

At bottom, John Locke is arguing that might does not make right. Might may secure submission for a time. But it always leaves open the possibility of justified rebellion, whenever a good opportunity arises. And since that right of rebellion against unjust power is a perpetual right of rebellion, it is likely that after enough generations a good opportunity will arise, if originally unjust power does not legitimize itself by obtaining the consent of the governed.

John Locke shows his stripes as an early economist in saying that a good opportunity is needed to make a rebellion justified, because a rebellion even against unjust power must meet a cost-benefit test:

… he that appeals to heaven must be sure he has right on his side; and a right too that is worth the trouble and cost of the appeal, as he will answer at a tribunal that cannot be deceived, and will be sure to retribute to every one according to the mischiefs he hath created to his fellow-subjects;

A type of rebellion that easily meets the benefit-cost test is rebellion in one’s own heart. It may sometimes be appropriate to give tyrants outward obedience for pragmatic reasons. But no one needs to give a tyrant their heart.

For links to other John Locke posts, see these John Locke aggregator posts: 

On Despotism

Being under someone else’s power is the result of some kind of lack on one’s own part. This is the gist of Chapter XV of John Locke’s 2d Treatise on Government: Of Civil Government: “Of Paternal, Political, and Despotical Power, considered together.”

Parental Power. Being under parental power results from the disabilities inherent in childhood. Looking to the other end of the age spectrum, parental power can be compared to the medical or financial power of attorney those people often give others in their old age. Knowing, or suspecting, that they will become unable to make good decisions for themselves, many people voluntary sign documents in advance saying that another can make decisions for them if they are not in a position to make a good decision for themselves.

The situation for children differs when children are young enough, there is no earlier time at which they were more competent to make good decisions. So it is not possible to get a fully informed, well-considered assent from children in advance to a document giving parents leave to make decisions for their children. Because of this practical difficulty, we treat children—or at least young children—as if they had signed such a power of attorney over to their parent. Nevertheless, just as in the case of an explicit power of attorney for someone older who can no longer make good decisions for themself, the power parents have vis a vis their child should be considered a power to be used for the benefit of the child. And it is a power to be used by the parent only to the extend that a child is, indeed, unable to make good decisions for herhimself.

Political Power. Being under the power of a ruler or magistrate or judge results first from the disability almost all human beings have in being an impartial judge in their own case. As a defendant, most of us are likely understate the magnitude of our transgression and the appropriate penalty. (A few might overstate it.) As a victim, most of us are likely to overstate the magnitude of the perpetrator’s transgression and the appropriate penalty. To get an impartial judgment, defendants and victims must submit to third-party judgment.

Our willingness to so submit has a lot to do with the overwhelming force that can come from joining in a compact to deal with another disability: the inability most of us have to enforce the law of nature on our own. We join in society so that law can be enforced, because for most of us, however much we fear the law being enforced against us, we have even more to fear from others violating our rights in the absence of enforceable law.

Despotical Power. Being under the power of a despot results from the fact that one sometimes lose wars—whether international wars or civil wars—or have a strong enough expectation of losing a war that we give in before engaging in a war.

John Locke emphasizes too much the case of losing a war in which the other side has justice and right on its side. Losing a war in which on has justice and right on one’s side can just as easily put one under despotic power.

A key element of being under despotic power is that, ethically, after losing a war in which one had right on one’s side, one remains in the state of nature and in a state of war with the despot. Contrary to some of what John Locke says, those under despotic rule can sometimes have a semblance of property, but that semblance of property is, in effect, a matter of foreign affairs—a treaty that can be broken. It is all a matter of what the despot can get away with without serious reprisal.

Conclusion. The bottom line is that the justice of power should not be taken for granted. Any kind of power over another person needs to be justified, and that justification will often involve strong limitations on that power. Power is needed in society because of human weakness. But power should not take advantage of human weakness. John Locke’s words in his chapter “Of Paternal, Political, and Despotical Power, considered together” reinforce this message:

§. 169. Though I have had occasion to speak of these separately before, yet the great mistakes of late about government having, as I suppose, arisen from confounding these distinct powers one with another, it may not, perhaps, be amiss to consider them here together.  

§. 170. First, then, Paternal or parental power is nothing but that which parents have over their children, to govern them for the children’s good, till they come to the use of reason, or a state of knowledge, wherein they may be supposed capable to understand that rule, whether it be the law of nature, or the municipal law of their country, they are to govern themselves by: capable, I say, to know it, as well as several others, who live as freemen under that law. The affection and tenderness which God hath planted in the breast of parents towards their children, makes it evident, that this is not intended to be a severe arbitrary government, but only for the help, instruction, and preservation of their offspring. But happen it as it will, there is, as I have proved, no reason why it should be thought to extend to life and death, at any time, over their children, more than over any body else; neither can there be any pretence why this parental power should keep the child, when grown to a man, in subjection to the will of his parents, any farther than having received life and education from his parents, obliges him to respect, honour, gratitude, assistance and support, all his life, to both father and mother. And thus, ’tis true, the paternal is a natural government, but not at all extending itself to the ends and jurisdictions of that which is political. The power of the father doth not reach at all to the property of the child, which is only in his own disposing.  

§. 171. Secondly, Political power is that power, which every man having in the state of nature, has given up into the hands of the society, and therein to the governors, whom the society hath set over itself, with this express or tacit trust, that it shall be employed for their good, and the preservation of their property: now this power, which every man has in the state of nature, and which he parts with to the society in all such cases where the society can secure him, is to use such means, for the preserving of his own property, as he thinks good, and nature allows him; and to punish the breach of the law of nature in others, so as (according to the best of his reason) may most conduce to the preservation of himself, and the rest of mankind. So that the end and measure of this power, when in every man’s hands in the state of nature, being the preservation of all of his society, that is, all mankind in general, it can have no other end or measure, when in the hands of the magistrate, but to preserve the members of that society in their lives, liberties, and possessions; and so cannot be an absolute, arbitrary power over their lives and fortunes, which are as much as possible to be preserved; but a power to make laws, and annex such penalties to them, as may tend to the preservation of the whole, by cutting off those parts, and those only, which are so corrupt, that they threaten the sound and healthy, without which no severity is lawful. And this power has its original only from compact and agreement, and the mutual consent of those who make up the community.  

§. 172. Thirdly, Despotical power is an absolute, arbitrary power one man has over another, to take away his life whenever he pleases. This is a power, which neither nature gives, for it has made no such distinction between one man and another; nor compact can convey: for man not having such an arbitrary power over his own life, cannot give another man such a power over it; but it is the effect only of forfeiture, which the aggressor makes of his own life, when he puts himself into the state of war with another: for having quitted reason, which God hath given to be the rule betwixt man and man, and the common bond whereby human kind is united into one fellowship and society; and having renounced the way of peace which that teaches, and made use of the force of war, to compass his unjust ends upon another, where he has no right; and so revolting from his own kind to that of beasts, by making force, which is theirs, to be his rule of right, he renders himself liable to be destroyed by the injured person, and the rest of mankind that will join with him in the execution of justice, as any other wild beast, or noxious brute, with whom mankind can have neither society nor security.  [Another copy corrected by Mr. Locke, has it thus, Noxious brute that is destructive to their being.] And thus captives, taken in a just and lawful war, and such only, are subject to a despotical power, which, as it arises not from compact, so neither is it capable of any, but is the state of war continued: for what compact can be made with a man that is not master of his own life? what condition can he perform? and if he be once allowed to be master of his own life, the despotical, arbitrary power of his master ceases. He that is master of himself, and his own life, has a right too to the means of preserving it; so that as soon as compact enters, slavery ceases, and he so far quits his absolute power, and puts an end to the state of war, who enters into conditions with his captive.  

§. 173. Nature gives the first of these, viz. paternal power to parents for the benefit of their children during their minority, to supply their want of ability, and understanding how to manage their property. (By property I must be understood here, as in other places, to mean that property which men have in their persons as well as goods.) Voluntary agreement gives the second, viz. political power to governors for the benefit of their subjects, to secure them in the possession and use of their properties. And forfeiture gives the third, despotical power to lords for their own benefit, over those who are stripped of all property.  

§. 174. He that shall consider the distinct rise and extent, and the different ends of these several powers, will plainly see, that paternal power comes as far short of that of the magistrate, as despotical exceeds it; and that absolute dominion, however placed, is so far from being one kind of civil society, that it is as inconsistent with it, as slavery is with property. Paternal power is only where minority makes the child incapable to manage his property; political, where men have property in their own disposal; and despotical, over such as have no property at all.

For links to other John Locke posts, see these John Locke aggregator posts: 

Against Narcissism

I have been consistent in speaking of the past as the “bad old days” rather than the “good old days.” Overall, things are much better now than they used to be. (In my first three months of blogging, I posted “Things are Getting Better: 3 Videos.”) But it would be quite surprising if there weren’t a few dimensions of our national life getting worse. One negative trend is the rise in obesity, that I talk about in my diet and health posts every Tuesday. Another negative trend is the rise in midlife “deaths of despair” by non-Hispanic Whites who never attended college that Anne Case and Angus Deaton have documented. A third negative trend is the decline in a sense of “noblesse oblige.”

Noblesse oblige can be summed up in the this line from Luke 12:48 in the New Testament: “For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required.” It is no use pretending that some people don’t have much more than others. Our natural tendency to think on a logarithmic scale makes it hard to comprehend just how much more it is to have $10 billion vs $1 billion, how much more it is to have $1 billion than $100 million, and how much more it is to have $100 million than $10 million. (The best way I know to get a greater comprehension of this is to read Richistan, by Robert Frank.) There are two basic approaches to such inequality at the top. One is to bring those at the top down; the other is to inculcate in those at the top a sense of responsibility to make the world better. Because it is hard to bring those at the top all the way down without bad consequences, these approaches are not mutually exclusive. We may need both. (You can see my approach to doing both at the same time without too big an expansion of the government in “How and Why to Expand the Nonprofit Sector as a Partial Alternative to Government: A Reader’s Guide.”)

In the Democratic Party, Franklin Delano Roosevelt set a good example of noblesse oblige. In the Republican Party, George H. W. Bush set a good example of noblesse oblige. Here is Ross Douthat on George H. W. Bush, writing soon after George H. W. Bush’s death on November 30, 2018:

The nostalgia flowing since the passing of George H.W. Bush has many wellsprings: admiration for the World War II generation and its dying breed of warrior-politicians, the usual belated media affection for moderate Republicans, the contrast between the elder Bush’s foreign policy successes and the failures of his son, and the contrast between any honorable politician and the current occupant of the Oval Office.

But two of the more critical takes on Bush nostalgia got closer to the heart of what was being mourned, in distant hindsight, with his death. Writing in The Atlantic, Peter Beinart described the elder Bush as the last president deemed “legitimate” by both of our country’s warring tribes — before the age of presidential sex scandals, plurality-winning and popular-vote-losing chief executives, and white resentment of the first black president. Also in The Atlantic, Franklin Foer described “the subtext” of Bush nostalgia as a “fondness for a bygone institution known as the Establishment … sent off to the world with a sense of noblesse oblige.

There are many ways in which the younger generations now are better than the older generations in society. In particular, on the whole they have less of the intertwined racism and nativism that continue to bedevil our society. And the idea of social action for the sake of social betterment is still there. But the idea that it takes a lot of good people doing good things with skill to keep things from getting worse seems less visible in our culture. This is, in part, the idea that there is a role for an elite. Ross writes this about a strategic wrong turn of the elite in America:

So it’s possible to imagine adaptation rather than surrender as a different WASP strategy across the 1960s and 1970s. In such a world the establishment would have still admitted more blacks, Jews, Catholics and Hispanics (and more women) to its ranks … but it would have done so as a self-consciously elite-crafting strategy, rather than under the pseudo-democratic auspices of the SAT and the high school resume and the dubious ideal of “merit.” … The goal would have been to keep piety and discipline embedded in the culture of a place like Harvard, rather than the mix of performative self-righteousness and raw ambition that replaced them.

Most psychological traits and conditions have a continuous spectrum. And culture can shift the mean of the distribution of people on that spectrum. While our current era has shifted people away from other disfunctions, it encourages people to flirt with narcissism. What is narcissism? Here is what the current version of the Wikipedia article for “Narcissistic Personality Disorder” says:

The DSM-5 indicates that persons with NPD usually display some or all of the following symptoms, typically without the commensurate qualities or accomplishments:[6][9]

  1. Grandiosity with expectations of superior treatment from other people

  2. Fixated on fantasies of power, success, intelligence, attractiveness, etc.

  3. Self-perception of being unique, superior, and associated with high-status people and institutions

  4. Needing continual admiration from others

  5. Sense of entitlement to special treatment and to obedience from others

  6. Exploitative of others to achieve personal gain

  7. Unwilling to empathize with the feelings, wishes, and needs of other people

  8. Intensely envious of others, and the belief that others are equally envious of them

  9. Pompous and arrogant demeanor

Note that the standards for a formal diagnosis of narcissistic personality disorder shift over time: “The DSM-5 indicates that the traits manifested by the person must substantially differ from cultural norms, in order to qualify as symptoms of NPD.” That is, even if you are indeed narcissistic, you will only be diagnosed as having narcissistic personality disorder if you are more a lot more narcissistic than average. The worse the average is, the more people will be narcissistic without being tagged as having narcissistic personality disorder. It is worth being concerned about the undesirable narcissistic tendencies people at the median level of narcissism in our society have. And of course, at least half of everyone is above median in narcissism.

To me, some notion of noblesse oblige seems helpful in fighting the narcissism within us. The message of noblesse oblige is this:

If you think you are special, that means you have a duty to serve and take care of other people more. It doesn’t mean that other people should do more for you! If you do genuinely good things, you can legitimately expect that 10% of the time when you do good things, someone will make some expression of thanks. But that is the main entitlement you can expect—not more. In particular, nothing entitles you to step on other people to get ahead. The only thing that can justify breaking rules is either helping other people directly or setting an example that will help other people along the lines of Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative: “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.”

If you do try to do something that will make a big difference to society, you should expect a rocky road. And, with rare exceptions, you will not succeed without a lot of patience and fortitude and courage. Leaving aside whatever he may have accomplished supernaturally, Jesus got his message across only by dying on the cross. Doing good isn’t easy! And if you aren’t doing good, you don’t deserve admiration from others.

Finally, some aspects of narcissism are simply bad strategy. A pompous and arrogant demeanor is unlikely to get you ahead in life. Being envious of others can easily get in the way of alliances that could make your career. If you are exploitative and get caught, it can destroy your career even if you have been successful by conventional standards up to that point.

Few of us are entirely free of aspects of narcissism that are damaging to us and to those around us. I hope that we can not only fight the narcissism within ourselves, but that we can be able to talk about our efforts to fight our own narcissism, so that we don’t have to fight this fight alone.

Don’t miss these other posts that have a similar message:

Getting Away with Doing Good

As I noted in “John Locke: Revolutions are Always Motivated by Misrule as Well as Procedural Violations,” in my experience, Department Chairs can get away with procedural violations as long as everyone agrees with what they are doing. On a larger stage, people didn’t get that upset with Thomas Jefferson for making the Lousiana purchase, even though that action arguably exceeded his constitutional powers.

John Locke, in Chapter XIV, “Of Prerogative,” of his 2d Treatise on Government: Of Civil Government explains that doing good for the people appropriately allows a ruler to bend the rules, while no constitutional provision can justify a ruler in doing harm to the people. Constitutional provisions come into their own only when the people are sorely divided about whether a measure is good for them or not. Here is how John Locke makes the case:

§. 159. WHERE the legislative and executive power are in distinct hands, (as they are in all moderated monarchies, and well-framed governments) there the good of the society requires, that several things should be left to the discretion of him that has the executive power: for the legislators not being able to foresee, and provide by laws, for all that may be useful to the community, the executor of the laws, having the power in his hands, has by the common law of nature a right to make use of it for the good of the society, in many cases, where the municipal law has given no direction, till the legislative can conveniently be assembled to provide for it. Many things there are, which the law can by no means provide for; and those must necessarily be left to the discretion of him that has the executive power in his hands, to be ordered by him as the public good and advantage shall require: nay, it is fit that the laws themselves should in some cases give way to the executive power, or rather to this fundamental law of nature and government, viz. That as much as may be all the members of the society are to be preserved: for since many accidents may happen, wherein a strict and rigid observation of the laws may do harm; (as not to pull down an innocent man’s house to stop the fire, when the next to it is burning) and a man may come sometimes within the reach of the law, which makes no distinction of persons, by an action that may deserve reward and pardon; ’tis fit the ruler should have a power, in many cases, to mitigate the severity of the law, and pardon some offenders: for the end of government being the preservation of all, as much as may be, even the guilty are to be spared, where it can prove no prejudice to the innocent.

§. 160. This power to act according to discretion, for the public good, without the prescription of the law, and sometimes even against it, is that which is called prerogative:for since in some governments the law-making power is not always in being, and is usually too numerous, and so too slow, for the dispatch requisite to execution; and because also it is impossible to foresee, and so by laws to provide for, all accidents and necessities that may concern the public, or to make such laws as will do no harm, if they are executed with an inflexible rigour, on all occasions, and upon all persons that may come in their way; therefore there is a latitude left to the executive power, to do many things of choice which the laws do not prescribe.  

§. 161. This power, whilst employed for the benefit of the community, and suitably to the trust and ends of the government, is undoubted prerogative, and never is questioned: for the people are very seldom or never scrupulous or nice in the point; they are far from examining prerogative, whilst it is in any tolerable degree employed for the use it was meant, that is, for the good of the people, and not manifestly against it; but if there comes to be a question between the executive power and the people, about a thing claimed as a prerogative; the tendency of the exercise of such prerogative to the good or hurt of the people, will easily decide that question.  

§. 162. It is easy to conceive, that in the infancy of governments, when commonwealths differed little from families in number of people, they differed from them too but little in number of laws: and the governors, being as the fathers of them, watching over them for their good, the government was almost all prerogative. A few established laws served the turn, and the discretion and care of the ruler supplied the rest. But when mistake or flattery prevailed with weak princes to make use of this power for private ends of their own, and not for the public good, the people were fain by express laws to get prerogative determined in those points wherein they found disadvantage from it: and thus declared limitations of prerogative were by the people found necessary in cases which they and their ancestors had left, in the utmost latitude, to the wisdom of those princes who made no other but a right use of it, that is, for the good of their people.  4

§. 163. And therefore they have a very wrong notion of government, who say, that the people have incroached upon the prerogative, when they have got any part of it to be defined by positive laws: for in so doing they have not pulled from the prince any thing that of right belonged to him, but only declared, that that power which they indefinitely left in his or his ancestors’ hands, to be exercised for their good, was not a thing which they intended him when he used it otherwise: for the end of government being the good of the community, whatsoever alterations are made in it, tending to that end, cannot be an incroachment upon any body, since no body in government can have a right tending to any other end: and those only are incroachments which prejudice or hinder the public good. Those who say otherwise, speak as if the prince had a distinct and separate interest from the good of the community, and was not made for it; the root and source from which spring almost all those evils and disorders which happen in kingly governments. And indeed, if that be so, the people under his government are not a society of rational creatures, entered into a community for their mutual good; they are not such as have set rulers over themselves, to guard, and promote that good; but are to be looked on as an herd of inferior creatures under the dominion of a master, who keeps them and works them for his own pleasure or profit. If men were so void of reason, and brutish, as to enter into society upon such terms, prerogative might indeed be, what some men would have it, an arbitrary power to do things hurtful to the people.  

§. 164. But since a rational creature cannot be supposed, when free, to put himself into subjection to another, for his own harm; (though, where he finds a good and wise ruler, he may not perhaps think it either necessary or useful to set precise bounds to his power in all things) prerogative can be nothing but the people’s permitting their rulers to do several things, of their own free choice, where the law was silent, and sometimes too against the direct letter of the law, for the public good; and their acquiescing in it when so done: for as a good prince, who is mindful of the trust put into his hands, and careful of the good of his people, cannot have too much prerogative, that is, power to do good; so a weak and ill prince, who would claim that power which his predecessors exercised without the direction of the law, as a prerogative belonging to him by right of his office, which he may exercise at his pleasure, to make or promote an interest distinct from that of the public, gives the people an occasion to claim their right, and limit that power, which, whilst it was exercised for their good, they were content should be tacitly allowed.  

§. 165. And therefore he that will look into the History of England, will find, that prerogative was always largest in the hands of our wisest and best princes; because the people, observing the whole tendency of their actions to be the public good, contested not what was done without law to that end: or, if any human frailty or mistake (for princes are but men, made as others) appeared in some small declinations from that end; yet it was visible, the main of their conduct tended to nothing but the care of the public. The people therefore, finding reason to be satisfied with these princes, whenever they acted without, or contrary to the letter of the law, acquiesced in what they did, and, without the least complaint, let them enlarge their prerogative as they pleased, judging rightly, that they did nothing herein to the prejudice of their laws, since they acted conformable to the foundation and end of all laws, the public good.  

§. 166. Such godlike princes indeed had some title to arbitrary power by that argument, that would prove absolute monarchy the best government, as that which God himself governs the universe by; because such kings partake of his wisdom and goodness. Upon this is founded that saying, That the reigns of good princes have been always most dangerous to the liberties of their people: for when their successors, managing the government with different thoughts, would draw the actions of those good rulers into precedent, and make them the standard of their prerogative: as if what had been done only for the good of the people was a right in them to do, for the harm of the people, if they so pleased; it has often occasioned contest, and sometimes public disorders, before the people could recover their original right, and get that to be declared not to be prerogative, which truly was never so; since it is impossible that any body in the society should ever have a right to do the people harm; though it be very possible, and reasonable, that the people should not go about to set any bounds to the prerogative of those kings, or rulers, who themselves transgressed not the bounds of the public good: for prerogative is nothing but the power of doing public good without a rule.  

§. 167. The power of calling parliaments in England, as to precise time, place, and duration, is certainly a prerogative of the king, but still with this trust, that it shall be made use of for the good of the nation, as the exigencies of the times, and variety of occasions, shall require; for it being impossible to foresee which should always be the fittest place for them to assemble in, and what the best season; the choice of these was left with the executive power, as might be most subservient to the public good, and best suit the ends of parliaments.  

§. 168. The old question will be asked in this matter of prerogative, But who shall be judge when this power is made a right use of? I answer: between an executive power in being, with such a prerogative, and a legislative that depends upon his will for their convening, there can be no judge on earth; as there can be none between the legislative and the people, should either the executive, or the legislative, when they have got the power in their hands, design, or go about to enslave or destroy them. The people have no other remedy in this, as in all other cases where they have no judge on earth, but to appeal to heaven: for the rulers, in such attempts, exercising a power the people never put into their hands, (who can never be supposed to consent that any body should rule over them for their harm) do that which they have not a right to do. And where the body of the people, or any single man, is deprived of their right, or is under the exercise of a power without right, and have no appeal on earth, then they have a liberty to appeal to heaven, whenever they judge the cause of sufficient moment. And therefore, though the people cannot be judge, so as to have, by the constitution of that society, any superior power, to determine and give effective sentence in the case; yet they have, by a law antecedent and paramount to all positive laws of men, reserved that ultimate determination to themselves which belongs to all mankind, where there lies no appeal on earth, viz. to judge, whether they have just cause to make their appeal to heaven. And this judgment they cannot part with, it being out of a man’s power so to submit himself to another, as to give him a liberty to destroy him; God and nature never allowing a man so to abandon himself, as to neglect his own preservation: and since he cannot take away his own life, neither can he give another power to take it. Nor let any one think, this lays a perpetual foundation for disorder: for this operates not, till the inconveniency is so great, that the majority feel it, and are weary of it, and find a necessity to have it amended. But this the executive power, or wise princes, never need come in the danger of: and it is the thing, of all others, they have most need to avoid, as of all others the most perilous.

I find John Locke’s emphasis on the principle that the government is meant to benefit its people refreshing. Constitutional provisions are in service to the end of benefitting people.

The great revolutions in government over time have been in expanding the set of people who count—roughly speaking, first the nobility, then rich men, then poor men of favored ethnic backgrounds, then women, then others of disfavored ethnic backgrounds, and finally those within all of those groups who had not counted because they had been considered deviant in some way. Now the great battle is whether other human beings who, because they were born elsewhere and so do not have citizenship count.

Here the fact that many of these people would gladly take on all the duties of citizenship is highly relevant. Indeed, many would gladly take on all the duties of citizenship plus a host of additional requirements, as long as those requirements were humanly possible for them to meet. To me, it seems much better to add stiff requirements that new entrants to our republic need to meet (but most have the ability to meet) than to consign them irredeemably to the relative nonpersonhood of noncitizenship. Saying everyone has their own nation already is not a great answer when nations differ so widely in quality. It is better for those of us who are already citizens of a rich and relatively well-run nation to drive a hard bargain than to simply exclude people without giving them any recourse.

Of course, showing care for those who are noncitizens is likely to incite jealousy from some of the worst off of those who already are citizens, and those who feel they have been on a downward trajectory. There is an enlightened answer to that: care about them and vigorously pursue policies that benefit them as well. The opposite—an elite that relegates all of those who do not have the lifestyle and views of the elite to the category of those who don’t count—is disgusting and repellent, but common.

For links to other John Locke posts, see these John Locke aggregator posts: 

John Locke on the Supremacy of the People, the Supremacy of the Legislature over the Executive, and the Power of the Executive to Deal with Rotten Boroughs

In Chapter XIII, “Of the Subordination of the Powers of the Commonwealth,” of his 2d Treatise on Government: Of Civil Government, John Locke argues for the supremacy of the people over the legislature, and for the supremacy of the legislature over the executive. But he looks to the executive to act on behalf of the people in dealing with rotten boroughs.

First, on the supremacy of the people over the legislatures, John Locke writes:

§. 149. THOUGH in a constituted commonwealth, standing upon its own basis, and acting according to its own nature, that is, acting for the preservation of the community, there can be but one supreme power, which is the legislative, to which all the rest are and must be subordinate, yet the legislative being only a fiduciary power to act for certain ends, there remains still in the people a supreme power to remove or alter the legislative, when they find the legislative act contrary to the trust reposed in them: for all power given with trust for the attaining an end, being limited by that end, whenever that end is manifestly neglected, or opposed, the trust must necessarily be forfeited, and the power devolve into the hands of those that gave it, who may place it anew where they shall think best for their safety and security. And thus the community perpetually retains a supreme power of saving themselves from the attempts and designs of any body, even of their legislators, whenever they shall be so foolish, or so wicked, as to lay and carry on designs against the liberties and properties of the subject: for no man or society of men, having a power to deliver up their preservation, or consequently the means of it, to the absolute will and arbitrary dominion of another; whenever any one shall go about to bring them into such a slavish condition, they will always have a right to preserve what they have not a power to part with: and to rid themselves of those who invade this fundamental, sacred, and unalterable law of self-preservation, for which they entered into society. And thus the community may be said in this respect to be always the supreme power, but not as considered under any form of government, because this power of the people can never take place till the government be dissolved. 

I see this as saying that one cannot expect people to give up their self-interest. And if the self-interest of the vast majority of people in a nation is being trampled on by the government, then they have the right to abolish that government. Of course, in some cases the cost of abolishing the government may be so high that they don’t do it, but they have the right to.

On the supremacy of the legislature over the executive, John Locke is careful to distinguish between (a) the ceremonial role of the executive as a symbol of the will of the legislature (and behind that, the will of the people), (b) the executive as someone with the fiduciary duty to realize the will of the legislature (and behind that the will of the people) and (c) the executive as a particular person with whims of his or her own. As long as the executive isn’t also the sole legislator, these distinctions hold even when the executive has a role in legislation (such as veto power).

§. 150. In all cases, whilst the government subsists, the legislative is the supreme power: for what can give laws to another, must needs be superior to him; and since the legislative is no otherwise legislative of the society, but by the right it has to make laws for all the parts, and for every member of the society, prescribing rules to their actions, and giving power of execution, where they are transgressed, the legislative must needs be the supreme, and all other powers, in any members or parts of the society, derived from and subordinate to it.  

§. 151. In some commonwealths, where the legislative is not always in being, and the executive is vested in a single person, who has also a share in the legislative; there that single person in a very tolerable sense may also be called supreme: not that he has in himself all the supreme power, which is that of law-making; but because he has in him the supreme execution, from whom all inferior magistrates derive all their several subordinate powers, or at least the greatest part of them: having also no legislative superior to him, there being no law to be made without his consent, which cannot be expected should ever subject him to the other part of the legislative, he is properly enough in this sense supreme. But yet it is to be observed that though oaths of allegiance and fealty are taken to him, it is not to him as supreme legislator, but as supreme executor of the law, made by a joint power of him with others; allegiance being nothing but an obedience according to law, which when he violates, he has no right to obedience, nor can claim it otherwise than as the public person vested with the power of the law, and so is to be considered as the image, phantom, or representative of the commonwealth, acted by the will of the society, declared in its laws; and thus he has no will, no power, but that of the law. But when he quits this representation, this public will, and acts by his own private will, he degrades himself, and is but a single private person without power, and without will, that has any right to obedience; the members owing no obedience but to the public will of the society.

John Locke points out that sometime the subordination of the executive to the legislature is clear—as it would be in a city-state where the city council hired a city manager—but other times one must be careful to see the subordination of the executive to the legislature despite the executive having a large share of legislative power:

§. 152. The executive power, placed anywhere but in a person that has also a share in the legislative, is visibly subordinate and accountable to it, and may be at pleasure changed and displaced; so that it is not the supreme executive power, that is exempt from subordination, but the supreme executive power vested in one, who having a share in the legislative, has no distinct superior legislative to be subordinate and accountable to, farther than he himself shall join and consent; so that he is no more subordinate than he himself shall think fit, which one may certainly conclude will be but very little.

Immediately following that, in Section 152, he asserts the ultimate subordination of all other arms of the government to the legislature, and under that to the chief executive:

Of other ministerial and subordinate powers in a commonwealth, we need not speak, they being so multiplied with infinite variety, in the different customs and constitutions of distinct commonwealths, that it is impossible to give a particular account of them all. Only thus much, which is necessary to our present purpose, we may take notice of concerning them, that they have no manner of authority, any of them, beyond what is by positive grant and commission delegated to them, and are all of them accountable to some other power in the commonwealth. 

With the rise in the power of independent agencies in the US and other countries, this is a meaningful stipulation.

After asserting this hierarchy, John Locke turns to two possible abuses: one of the executive, one of the legislature: the executive might try to avoid calling the legislature into session, while the legislature might not fix rotten boroughs because the rotten boroughs help incumbents.

In general, John Locke likes the idea of the executive choosing when the legislature should meet, because otherwise the legislature might meet too often and make too many needless laws. But if the executive doesn’t call the legislature when it should be called (because of business arising)—or worse, tried to actively prevent the legislature from meeting—that would violate the supremacy of the legislature, and put the executive at war with the people as well:

§. 153. It is not necessary, no, nor so much as convenient, that the legislative should be always in being; but absolutely necessary that the executive power should, because there is not always need of new laws to be made, but always need of execution of the laws that are made. When the legislative hath put the execution of the laws, they make, into other hands, they have a power still to resume it out of those hands, when they find cause, and to punish for any mal-administration against the laws. The same holds also in regard of the federative power, that and the executive being both ministerial and subordinate to the legislative, which, as has been shewed, in a constituted commonwealth is the supreme. The legislative also in this case being supposed to consist of several persons, (for if it be a single person, it cannot but be always in being, and so will, as supreme, naturally have the supreme executive power, together with the legislative) may assemble, and exercise their legislature, at the times that either their original constitution, or their own adjournment, appoints, or when they please; if neither of these hath appointed any time, or there be no other way prescribed to convoke them: for the supreme power being placed in them by the people, it is always in them, and they may exercise it when they please, unless by their original constitution, they are limited to certain seasons, or by an act of their supreme power they have adjourned to a certain time; and when that time comes, they have a right to assemble and act again.  

§. 154. If the legislative, or any part of it, be made up of representatives chosen for that time by the people, which afterwards return into the ordinary state of subjects, and have no share in the legislature but upon a new choice, this power of chusing must also be exercised by the people, either at certain appointed seasons, or else when they are summoned to it; and in this latter case, the power of convoking the legislative is ordinarily placed in the executive, and has one of these two limitations in respect of time: that either the original constitution requires their assembling and acting at certain intervals, and then the executive power does nothing but ministerially issue directions for their electing and assembling, according to due forms; or else it is left to his prudence to call them by new elections, when the occasions or exigencies of the public require the amendment of old, or making of new laws, or the redress or prevention of any inconveniences, that lie on, or threaten the people.  

§. 155. It may be demanded here, What if the executive power, being possessed of the force of the commonwealth, shall make use of that force to hinder the meeting and acting of the legislative, when the original constitution, or the public exigencies require it? I say, using force upon the people without authority, and contrary to the trust put in him that does so, is a state of war with the people, who have a right to reinstate their legislative in the exercise of their power: for having erected a legislative, with an intent they should exercise the power of making laws, either at certain set times, or when there is need of it, when they are hindered by any force from what is so necessary to the society, and wherein the safety and preservation of the people consists, the people have a right to remove it by force. In all states and conditions, the true remedy of force without authority, is to oppose force to it. The use of force without authority, always puts him that uses it into a state of war, as the aggressor, and renders him liable to be treated accordingly.  

§. 156. The power of assembling and dismissing the legislative, placed in the executive, gives not the executive a superiority over it, but is a fiduciary trust placed in him, for the safety of the people, in a case where the uncertainty and variableness of human affairs could not bear a steady fixed rule: for it not being possible, that the first framers of the government should, by any foresight, be so much masters of future events, as to be able to prefix so just periods of return and duration to the assemblies of the legislative, in all times to come, that might exactly answer all the exigencies of the commonwealth; the best remedy could be found for this defect, was to trust this to the prudence of one who was always to be present, and whose business it was to watch over the public good. Constant frequent meetings of the legislative, and long continuations of their assemblies, without necessary occasion, could not but be burdensome to the people, and must necessarily in time produce more dangerous inconveniences, and yet the quick turn of affairs might be sometimes such as to need their present help: any delay of their convening might endanger the public; and sometimes too their business might be so great, that the limited time of their sitting might be too short for their work, and rob the public of that benefit which could be had only from their mature deliberation. What then could be done in this case to prevent the community from being exposed some time or other to eminent hazard, on one side or the other, by fixed intervals and periods, set to the meeting and acting of the legislative, but to intrust it to the prudence of some, who being present, and acquainted with the state of public affairs, might make use of this prerogative for the public good? and where else could this be so well placed as in his hands, who was intrusted with the execution of the laws for the same end? Thus supposing the regulation of times for the assembling and sitting of the legislative, not settled by the original constitution, it naturally fell into the hands of the executive, not as an arbitrary power depending on his good pleasure, but with this trust always to have it exercised only for the public weal, as the occurrences of times and change of affairs might require. Whether settled periods of their convening, or a liberty left to the prince for convoking the legislative, or perhaps a mixture of both, hath the least inconvenience attending it, it is not my business here to enquire, but only to shew, that though the executive power may have the prerogative of convoking and dissolving such conventions of the legislative, yet it is not thereby superior to it.  

The US Constitution lets Congress determine its own meeting times, with the stipulation that it meet at least once a year. Here is the relevant clause in Article I, Section 4 of the US Constitution:

The Congress shall assemble at least once in every Year, and such Meeting shall be on the first Monday in December, unless they shall by Law appoint a different Day.

Redistricting to deal with rotten boroughs that have a lower population than other districts is something for which John Locke trusts the executive more than the legislature:

§. 157. Things of this world are in so constant a flux, that nothing remains long in the same state. Thus people, riches, trade, power, change their stations, flourishing mighty cities come to ruin, and prove in time neglected desolate corners, whilst other unfrequented places grow into populous countries, filled with wealth and inhabitants. But things not always changing equally, and private interest often keeping up customs and privileges, when the reasons of them are ceased, it often comes to pass, that in governments, where part of the legislative consists of representatives chosen by the people, that in tract of time this representation becomes very unequal and disproportionate to the reasons it was at first established upon. To what gross absurdities the following of custom, when reason has left it, may lead, we may be satisfied, when we see the bare name of a town, of which there remains not so much as the ruins, where scarce so much housing as a sheepcote, or more inhabitants than a shepherd is to be found, sends as many representatives to the grand assembly of law-makers, as a whole county numerous in people, and powerful in riches. This strangers stand amazed at, and every one must confess needs a remedy; though most think it hard to find one, because the constitution of the legislative being the original and supreme act of the society, antecedent to all positive laws in it, and depending wholly on the people, no inferior power can alter it. And therefore the people, when the legislative is once constituted, having, in such a government as we have been speaking of, no power to act as long as the government stands; this inconvenience is thought incapable of a remedy.  

§. 158. Salus populi suprema lex, is certainly so just and fundamental a rule, that he, who sincerely follows it, cannot dangerously err. If therefore the executive, who has the power of convoking the legislative, observing rather the true proportion, than fashion of representation, regulates, not by old custom, but true reason, the number of members, in all places that have a right to be distinctly represented, which no part of the people however incorporated can pretend to, but in proportion to the assistance which it affords to the public, it cannot be judged to have set up a new legislative, but to have restored the old and true one, and to have rectified the disorders which succession of time had insensibly, as well as inevitably introduced: For it being the interest as well as intention of the people, to have a fair and equal representative; whoever brings it nearest to that, is an undoubted friend to, and establisher of the government, and cannot miss the consent and approbation of the community; prerogative being nothing but a power in the hands of the prince, to provide for the public good, in such cases, which depending upon unforeseen and uncertain occurrences, certain and unalterable laws could not safely direct; whatsoever shall be done manifestly for the good of the people, and the establishing the government upon its true foundations, is and always will be, just prerogative. The power of erecting new corporations, and therewith new representatives, carries with it a supposition, that in time the measures of representation might vary, and those places have a just right to be represented which before had none; and by the same reason, those cease to have a right, and be too inconsiderable for such a privilege, which before had it. ’Tis not a change from the present state, which perhaps corruption or decay has introduced, that makes an inroad upon the government, but the tendency of it to injure or oppress the people, and to set up one part or party, with a distinction from, and an unequal subjection of the rest. Whatsoever cannot but be acknowledged to be of advantage to the society, and people in general, upon just and lasting measures, will always, when done, justify itself; and whenever the people shall chuse their representatives upon just and undeniably equal measures, suitable to the original frame of the government, it cannot be doubted to be the will and act of the society, whoever permitted or caused them so to do.

In John Locke’s day, there was a real issue of whether redistricting to reflect population shifts would happen at all. The US Constitution worries about the problem or rotten boroughs, by requiring redistricting in accordance with a census ever 10 years in Article 1, Section 2:

The actual Enumeration shall be made within three Years after the first Meeting of the Congress of the United States, and within every subsequent Term of ten Years, in such Manner as they shall by Law direct. The Number of Representatives shall not exceed one for every thirty Thousand, but each State shall have at Least one Representative;

In the US Constitutional system, redistricting happens, but is often done in a way that is both (a) partisan and (b) protective of incumbents. And nowadays, we don’t trust the executive to do impartial redistricting either; the movement for nonpartisan redistricting often puts the redistricting in the hands of a panel of retired judges, for example.

Both of the issues John Locke raises at the end of the chapter: the executive trying to keep the legislature from meeting and the problem of rotten boroughs John Locke address according to the principles that the people are superior to the legislature, which is superior to the executive. Those seem wise principles to me.

For links to other John Locke posts, see these John Locke aggregator posts: 

Silvio Gesell's Plan for Negative Nominal Interest Rates Meets the Mormons

JP Koning tweets this interesting article about Mormon stamp scrip during the Great Depression. It wasn’t just the town of Woergl that employed Silvio Gesell’s plan for negative nominal interest rates to at least some extent! JP Koning also points to Irving Fisher’s explanation of how to manage such a scrip. Ryan Decker then tweets this Cleveland Fed blog post about stamp scrip, highlighting this paragraph:

What made stamp scrip unique among scrip schemes was a series of boxes on the reverse side of the note. Stamp scrip took two basic forms—dated and undated (often called “transaction stamp scrip”). Typically, 52 boxes appeared on the back of dated stamp scrip, one for each week of the year. In order to spend the dated scrip, the stamps on the back had to be current. Each week, a two-cent stamp needed to be purchased from the issuer and affixed over the corresponding week’s box on the back of the scrip. Over the coming week, the scrip could be spent freely within the community. Whoever was caught holding the scrip at week’s end was required to attach a new stamp before spending the scrip. In this scheme, money became a hot potato, with individuals passing it quickly to avoid having to pay for the next stamp.

John Locke on Why the Executive and Legislative Power Should Be Separated, but the Executive and Foreign Policy Power Should Be Combined

Schoolchildren in the US are taught about the division of the US government into three branches: the legislative branch, the executive branch, and the judicial branch. Where did this idea of three separate branches come from? Part of the path is likely to be through John Locke: many of the framers of the US Constitution were well-versed in the works of John Locke.

In Sections 143-144 of his 2d Treatise on Government: Of Civil Government, in Chapter XII, “Of the Legislative, Executive, and Federative Power of the Commonwealth,” John Locke makes the case for separating the Legislative from the Executive power. The centerpiece of his case is that combining the Legislative and Executive power in the same people is too great a temptation for misrule, because it guarantees that those who hold both of these power can avoid being subject to the laws themselves. If the two powers are separated, the Executive can ensure that the members of the legislature are subject to the laws—and, unstated by John Locke in this chapter, there is at least the hope that the legislature can hold the executive accountable through some power of impeachment or vote of no confidence.

Intriguingly, John Locke’s case for separating the executive and legislative power contains an argument for legislatures being out of session most of the time (bolding added below), threaded within his argument that combining the legislative and executive powers is too great a temptation for a ruler or rulers:

§. 143. The legislative power is that, which has a right to direct how the force of the commonwealth shall be employed for preserving the community and the members of it. But because those laws which are constantly to be executed, and whose force is always to continue, may be made in a little time; therefore there is no need, that the legislative should be always in being, not having always business to do. And because it may be too great a temptation to human frailty, apt to grasp at power, for the same persons, who have the power of making laws, to have also in their hands the power to execute them, whereby they may exempt themselves from obedience to the laws they make, and suit the law, both in its making, and execution, to their own private advantage, and thereby come to have a distinct interest from the rest of the community, contrary to the end of society and government: therefore in well-ordered commonwealths, where the good of the whole is so considered, as it ought, the legislative power is put into the hands of divers persons, who duly assembled, have by themselves, or jointly with others, a power to make laws, which when they have done, being separated again, they are themselves subject to the laws they have made; which is a new and near tie upon them, to take care, that they make them for the public good.

144. But because the laws, that are at once, and in a short time made, have a constant and lasting force, and need a perpetual execution, or an attendance thereunto; therefore it is necessary there should be a power always in being, which should see to the execution of the laws that are made, and remain in force. And thus the legislative and executive power come often to be separated.  

John Locke follows this argument for separating the legislative and executive power with an argument for combining the executive and foreign policy power in the same agent. The executive power and foreign policy power differ because, by the idiosyncratic nature of interactions with foreign powers, it is hard to constrain the foreign policy power by legislation to the same extent that the executive power can be constrained by legislation. But both the executive and foreign policy power involve someone acting as an agent for the “public good”: the interests of the people of the commonwealth as a whole. Along the way, John Locke gives a nice description of foreign policy from a philosophical point of view:

§. 145. There is another power in every commonwealth, which one may call natural, because it is that which answers to the power every man naturally had before he entered into society: for though in a commonwealth the members of it are distinct persons still in reference to one another, and as such are governed by the laws of the society; yet in reference to the rest of mankind, they make one body, which is, as every member of it before was, still in the state of nature with the rest of mankind. Hence it is, that the controversies that happen between any man of the society with those that are out of it, are managed by the public; and an injury done to a member of their body, engages the whole in the reparation of it. So that under this consideration, the whole community is one body in the state of nature, in respect of all other states or persons out of its community.  

§. 146. This therefore contains the power of war and peace, leagues and alliances, and all the transactions, with all persons and communities without the commonwealth, and may be called federative, if any one pleases. So the thing be understood, I am indifferent as to the name.  

§. 147. These two powers, executive and federative, though they be really distinct in themselves, yet one comprehending the execution of the municipal laws of the society within itself, upon all that are parts of it; the other the management of the security and interest of the public without, with all those that it may receive benefit or damage from, yet they are always almost united. And though this federative power in the well or ill management of it be of great moment to the commonwealth, yet it is much less capable to be directed by antecedent, standing, positive laws, than the executive; and so must necessarily be left to the prudence and wisdom of those, whose hands it is in, to be managed for the public good: for the laws that concern subjects one amongst another, being to direct their actions, may well enough precede them. But what is to be done in reference to foreigners, depending much upon their actions, and the variation of designs and interests, must be left in great part to the prudence of those, who have this power committed to them, to be managed by the best of their skill, for the advantage of the commonwealth.  

§. 148. Though, as I said, the executive and federative power of every community be really distinct in themselves, yet they are hardly to be separated, and placed at the same time, in the hands of distinct persons: for both of them requiring the force of the society for their exercise, it is almost impracticable to place the force of the commonwealth in distinct, and not subordinate hands; or that the executive and federative power should be placed in persons, that might act separately, whereby the force of the public would be under different commands: which would be apt some time or other to cause disorder and ruin.

For links to other John Locke posts, see these John Locke aggregator posts: 

Kenneth W. Phifer: Is Death Meaningful?

When I left Mormonism for the Unitarian Universalism in 2000, Ken Phifer was the minister of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He gave beautiful sermons. I am grateful for his permission to reprint one of them here: “Is Death Meaningful,” his June 10, 2007 sermon.

Ken’s sermons “The Faith of a Humanist and “My Sermon” also appear on And you will find links to some of my own UU sermons here. Also, Noah Smith has a related guest religion post here on “You Are Already in the Afterlife.”

Below are Ken’s words.

Is death meaningful? 

Is there meaning in the fact that I shall die and you shall die and almost all life forms shall die?

Is there meaning in the decay of the flesh and blood and bone of which we are made, in the end of brain wave activity, in the cessation of breath?

Was the Talmud right when it declared that “whosoever speculates on these four things, it were better for him if he had not come into the world—what is above? What is beneath? What was beforetime? And what will be hereafter?”

How shall we answer Lev Tolstoy’s question: “What is the purpose of this strife and struggle if, in the end, I shall disappear like a soap bubble?” 

In Philip Roth’s recent meditation on death, Everyman, he reminds us that “life’s most disturbing intensity is death,” and that intensity, that inescapable fact of our existence, “overwhelms everything.” 

Knowing from a fairly early age onward that we shall die, that I shall die—I was six when my two year old cousin who bore my name was run over by a car, and even before that I was surrounded by death because I was born in 1938 and tales of war and dying filled the air around me as the Second World War began and then our nation became involved and families I knew in my church sent men off to fight and some of them did not return alive—knowing from a fairly early age onwards that we shall die, we grope, inadequately, for some sort of reason for this cutting off of life. We struggle for meaning in the face of that which seems to negate meaning.

If I am not alive, how can there be meaning? If those I love are taken from me, how can there be meaning?

Milan Kundera, in his novel, IMMORTALITY, comments that “to be mortal is the most basic human experience, and yet we have never been able to accept it, grasp it, and behave accordingly. We don’t know how to be mortal.” 

We don’t know, that is, how to live with death, how to find meaning in what seems to destroy meaning. But we have long tried to do so.

One hundred thousand years ago or perhaps even longer ago than that, human beings began to treat their dead with reverence. Bodies were not left to rot where they fell mortally wounded or mortally ill. They were buried. Rituals were created to honor the dead and ease the sorrow of the living. The continuing connection of the living and dead was asserted, and ways of remembering those who had gone were established. Every known human society has such rituals, and they are at the very least an attempt to place meaningfulness in the context of death.

Among ancient peoples, death was usually considered to be an abrupt, unnatural end of life which would otherwise have continued naturally. Those who did die—by violence or because of a disease caused by magic—simply continued existence in another realm, but one in which the bodily needs of this existence went on. That is why so often food and clothing and religious artifacts and weapons and other necessities of daily life were buried with the deceased. Death was more change—from one mode of existence to another—than it was the end of existence. 

The first evidence we have of humanity understanding death not just as inevitable but as final, the cutting off of existence, is found in the 3500 year old Epic of Gilgamesh. In this epic, the king of a Mesopotamian city seeks immortality only to be forced by the gods into a painful recognition of his mortal limits.

Across the centuries since then, numerous efforts have been made to address the question of human meaning in the face of death. The answers have ranged from the darkly pessimistic to the glibly optimistic. 

Many of the Mediterranean peoples, noting the hardships and corruptions of this life, assumed that such misery would continue for almost everyone after death. The Elysian Fields of the Greeks, the direct ascension into heaven of such figures as Elijah and Jesus among the Hebrew people, and other tales of a glorious life post mortem were exceptions to the dismal fate imagined for most human beings.

For all but a few very special people, death was a gateway into a continued unhappy existence.

To offset the gloomy view of death as a transition to further suffering, four types of theories were brought forward. They were developed in many different cultures across many centuries, but all of them in one way or another offered comfort in the face of death. Death would not be just another round of suffering, but something a little or a lot better than this life.

One set of theories argued that death is the end of pain, the end of suffering, the end of any kind of unpleasantness. Epicurus, for example, argued that death should cause no worry because death is the “deprivation of sensation…(It) is nothing to us, since so long as we exist, death is not with us, and when death comes, then we do not exist.”

Death may not be sensation but it is also not misery. Death in this view is eternal rest, eternal peace, eternal unknowingness.

A second and very popular set of theories was first stated by Plato. It involves a dualism of the body and the soul. The soul, Plato believed, is temporarily united with the body in this earthly existence. When the mortal flesh has ended its day, the soul is set free. This freedom is a genuine liberation, and is very pleasurable. Modern versions of this dualistic notion are found in the writings of Kant, Bergson, and William James.

There were people who believed in the resurrection of the body. Various Greek mystery cults, for example, held such a view, and the Jewish group that was so instrumental in shaping Rabbinic Judaism, the Pharisees, had a doctrine of the resurrection of the body. Christianity, of course, in almost all of its creed, has from its earliest days held to the conviction that the body will be resurrected at some future point. 

The fourth type of belief about death that was designed to show that death does not destroy meaning is reincarnation. Hinduism and Buddhism are the two most prominent religions that embrace such a doctrine, but there are others, especially among indigenous peoples. It is a simple and compelling idea: How we live now helps to determine in what form we live in the next life. It could be human or animal or in some religions even vegetable. The point of all these transformations is for us to grow spiritually. Death is the mechanism by which we are transformed so that we can grow, eventually to be released from the cycle of growing and all its cares and responsibilities. We shall have attained Nothingness/Oneness/Nirvana.

These are the four main ways in which humanity down to the 20th century has asserted either that death does not destroy meaning or that death is part of a meaningful process by which we are able to go on with some form of conscious existence.

For more than a century, these traditions have been under attack, not because better ideas have been brought forward but because death has come to seem not just horrifying but random, not just needless but in such numbers as to render meaningfulness impossible. 

The poet and critic Sandra Gilbert, in her extended meditation on death, Death’s Door: Modern Dying and the Ways We Grieve, writes of the transition to another way of looking at death, from expiration to termination. She describes how the 19th century looked at death as an expiration, a breathing out or breathing one’s last, breathing out the soul into another realm of spiritual existence. Termination, on the other hand, is an ending, a cessation of everything.

Gilbert along with many others charts the change from expiration to termination as following the path of our dreadful modern wars. The Civil War began the shift in understanding, 600,000 dead in a huge charnel house of grievous agony and slaughter of brother against brother. Almost for the first time, the murderous nature of war was captured on camera. It was hard to romanticize war—that is, give it a meaning in glory and sacrifice-- after seeing its terrible toll in stark photographic outline.

The First World War added an unspeakable misery to western consciousness by showing us the ease with which huge numbers—millions, in fact—could be killed for no reason worthy of the name. Then came the Second World War with its 60 million soldiers and civilians dead, the new strategic assault on civilians at Guernica and Dresden and Tokyo and Hiroshima, the Holocaust. Death was so ubiquitous, meaning was stripped from it. What has come since has not comforted us—Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, Iraq, and too many other killing fields.

Wallace Stevens captured this new mood of death as termination, a final closing out of possibility and hope, in his poem, “The Death of a Soldier.”

The Death of a Soldier

by Wallace Stevens

Life contracts and death is expected,
As in a season of autumn.
The soldier falls.

He does not become a three-days personage,
Imposing his separation,
Calling for pomp.

Death is absolute and without memorial,
As in a season of autumn,
When the wind stops,

When the wind stops and, over the heavens,
The clouds go, nevertheless,
In their direction. 

Last September, in a weekly column called, ‘Life, With Cancer,’ Lauren Terrazzano, a Newsday reporter dying of cancer, wrote: “I have seen people like my grandfather live simple but happy long lives. He died when he was 93. On the opposite end, in my job as a reporter, I have seen 3-year olds die at the hands of abusive parents. Nothing really makes sense when it comes to death.”

Is Terrazzano right? Does death really never make any sense? Is death the path into meaninglessness?

For some of us, the traditional answers suffice to bring us a sense of purpose and comfort in the face of death, whether the stoical view of death as eternal rest or the Jewish view of a Messianic Age where lions and lambs lie down together or the Christian and Muslim view of eternal union with God in paradise for the worthy and eternal suffering for the unworthy in some form of hell or the Hindu and Buddhist understanding of reincarnation into another life along the road to spiritual Enlightenment and Oneness. These views are well known and need no further elaboration.

For many, though, the ancient answers do not satisfy and there is no sure answer that does. Edna St. Vincent Millay spoke for the confusion and the courage of many in her “Dirge Without Music.”

Dirge Without Music

Edna St. Vincent Millay

I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving hearts in the hard ground.
So it is, and so it will be, for so it has been, time out of mind:
Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely. Crowned
With lilies and with laurel they go; but I am not resigned.

Lovers and thinkers, into the earth with you.
Be one with the dull, the indiscriminate dust.
A fragment of what you felt, of what you knew,
A formula, a phrase remains,—but the best is lost.

The answers quick and keen, the honest look, the laughter, the
They are gone. They are gone to feed the roses. Elegant and curled
Is the blossom. Fragrant is the blossom. I know. But I do not
More precious was the light in your eyes than all the roses in the

Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave
Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;
Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.
I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned. 

There is a tension in many of us between the knowledge of our mortality and our resistance to that knowledge. If we cannot fully or even partially agree with Cardinal Basil Hume that “to go through life and think there is nothing after death…is a totally inhuman thought,” we also do not find it especially comforting to dwell on Bertrand Russell’s matter-of-fact statement that “I believe that when I die I shall rot and nothing of my ego will survive.”

Where and how can we find meaning in death given what we know of life, given the human propensity for violence, given our own inability to accept answers that our forebears found sensible, given what we know of the world and how it works?

Whatever our answer, it must be asserted with modesty. There is no hard evidence about death, only our gaze upon it from without. All statements about death are statements of faith. I want to make two such statements.                                                                                                       

First, in an age of relativity, death remains an absolute. An individual may believe in God or not believe in God. An individual may believe in good and evil or not do so. An individual may accept the theories of science about the Big Bang and Evolution or imagine other explanatory schemes for the way the world came into being and the world as it is now came to be.

No individual can deny death.  The fourth century Chinese sage Zhuangzi spoke of death as simply part of the endless cycle of change, flux, what is now becoming something different. Life and death are the rhythm of the universe, the forms of being manifesting in alternative ways. Death is a reality, the most real thing we know.

Not that we do not try to deny death’s ultimate claim on us. Martin Heidegger noted that when we use the phrase that every human being is mortal, we silently add to it, “but not I.” We spend most of our waking and sleeping hours not focused on the reality of death. But it never leaves us.

Sooner or later—and in our media saturated age, it is likely to be ten minutes from now—death will enter our lives. It could be a tv or radio broadcast about the Sudan or the Middle East or an earthquake or a hurricane. It could be a parent or child or friend who receives a bad diagnosis. It could be strange symptoms of our own that cause us to wonder if this is the moment when we get the Bad News.

In a period of history when all the epistemological foundations have been eroded, when all the wounded languages of authority are radically at odds with each other, we are all forced to agree on one fact, the Fact of Death. Death is our Absolute.

That is my first assertion. My second is this: death is necessary.

Death is necessary if life is to be in the form that we are and that we know. To form the complex elements that our bodies are made of requires the death and explosion of stars, sending the atoms that comprise us our way. Robinson Jeffers was right, “the tides are in our veins, we still mirror the stars.” Single celled life forms endure without death, but I suspect they do not have nearly as much fun as we do!

The whole process of change, of mutation and the development of diversity, depends on one generation dying to allow for the changes to spread to more than just the individuals in whom they have first occurred. This requires death, our leaving in order to make room for future generations. 

Jalaja Bonheim states this more graphically: “Life did not intend for us to be inviolable, but to be used for fodder for its workings. We are meant to be chewed up and digested and transformed into the blood and sinew of the world.”

So it is that 60 million of us perish each year around the world. We humans are not alone in our dying. Millions of animals and insects and plants also die every day. We are not alone when we die because life is constantly changing into death everywhere. Transformation from one form into another is the nature of the universe. Death is the mechanism. Death is necessary.

Two things we know for sure about death: death is an absolute, perhaps our only absolute, and death is necessary in our world and for us to be as we are. 

Grounded in these two facts, I believe that death points us towards meaning, and does so in at least three ways.

First of all, death forces us to take life seriously now.

It is certainly typical of human beings to put off till tomorrow almost anything that is not absolutely required for survival today. We forget or deny so easily that we shall not live forever. We do not always remember that we do not have all the time in the world to do the things we want and need to do: to love our family and friends, to pursue justice, to improve our skills, to learn something new. All we have is this brief interlude between birth and death that to the longest-lived among us will seem short.

When we older folk lament that youth is wasted on the young, we are in part expressing our own regret at not using the abundant energy of our younger years in more fruitful and significant ways. We older folk know in our own bodies and in the loss of too many friends and relatives that death is always near. When we are young, that is not always clear. To be young is to feel immortal, even if we are not, to feel the energy of the universe, to feel that we can accomplish anything: world peace, an end to hunger, justice for all; to feel that we simply cannot die.

We tarry then, too many of us and all of us in some ways, and youth flies.

When death intrudes upon our lives, we are brought up short, suddenly realizing all that we should have done: to discipline ourselves and develop better habits, to use our time more wisely, to have taken care of those we love more fully and joyously, to have used our talents in more creative ways.

Guilt at our slothfulness almost invariably accompanies the experiences of dying and death, our own dying and death or the dying and death of someone we love.

It is when we come to full consciousness of death—our own and that of others—that we realize that we cannot postpone the search for goodness and beauty. We cannot put off doing deeds of kindness. We cannot hesitate about plunging into the depths of life to find out who we really are. We cannot avoid facing our own selves.

We have all known people who have hidden themselves, hidden their abilities, hidden their desires—perhaps we have done so—until death intruded upon their lives: the death of a parent, a mate, a close friend, or their own diagnosis of a mortal illness. The fact of death wakes them up, wakes us up!, brings them alive, gives them a purpose and an energy that even they never knew they had.

Like ducking one’s sleepy morning head into a basin of cold water, confronting death can be bracing. Even the most reckless or lethargic of us can be charged with a new commitment to responsible living when we see death face to face.

Such an encounter teaches us an important lesson: that immortality is not about an endless stream of days and hours and minutes stretching into infinity. Immortality is about the depth of this moment. It is about living fully in what Karen Armstrong calls “the Eternal Now.”

If time stretched out infinitely before us, what difference would it make when, or even if, we ever did anything? There would always be a tomorrow on which we could turn our lives around, stop being indolent, start doing good. Death reminds us that the only life we truly have is the life we live today, in this moment.

Petru Dumitriu has it right: “If we are conscious of the divine nature of every happening and of every fact, then everything is miraculous.” Every moment of life then becomes full of meaning. Our lives become full of meaning. 

Death as the end of all conscious existence drives us back into life to find or to create meanings to satisfy our hungry souls.

Another way that death points us towards meaning is that it shapes the way we think of life.

Death as the absolute and necessary fact of our existence demands of us an answer to the question: how shall I live in the face of my eventual, all too soon extinction? How we answer that question tells a great deal about our character, our integrity, what we think life is all about. 

How we answer that question describes our philosophy of life, our religion as it were. John Bowker has pointed out, in his study of the meanings of death, that religion began as “an assertion of value in human life and relationships which does not deny, and is not denied by, the absolute fact and reality of death.” Issues of love and trust and loyalty, issues of caring and faithfulness and hope are all bound up in the way we address death, and thus in the way we address life.

Emily Dickinson faced the fact of death and said gently “That it will never come again/Is what makes life so sweet.”  And Wallace Stevens said that “Death is the mother of beauty,” because it teaches us to value the sweetness of life to which Dickinson refers.

But let us take not just the poet’s words, because poets can do tricks with words that may deceive us. Let us look at the life of Nancy Mairs. Nancy Mairs is a woman in her middle years who has contended with multiple sclerosis for several decades. She has been declining in  health for some years. Her husband, George, has had several bouts with cancer. In the midst of these maladies that keep both of them on the edge of mortality, they have also struggled with each other’s adulterous ways. Her description of the pain they have caused each other is almost unreadable.

She knows that facing death frankly is necessary if we are to understand and embrace life. She writes with disdain of “the terrorism of cheerfulness” by which some people feel that they can “grin their way out of death.” That is no more possible, she says, than grumping your way into it.

Mairs recognizes a hard but profound truth: “thoughts of death can darken one’s spirit, to be sure, but they also deepen it.”

That is why and how she can say to George when he reveals his adulterous affair of several years standing as he also tells her of the return of his melanoma, “I can safely promise you that…I will always love you.”

It is out of the depths of her spirit that she is able to see that love, not rage or fear or a sense of defeat, is the strongest, wisest answer we have to the question of death, and the best way we have to live, even when love is very painful and very hard to practice.

When George asks how she could ever believe him again after his infidelity, she tells him that she prefers to do so, because that affirms his goodness. “Belief,” she writes, then “becomes an act of love.” This remarkable love story of a couple who for years have every day faced the prospect of death has been strengthened by their encounters with death. Death has taught them about love.

Nancy Mairs writes: “Coming to death, then, is a conversion experience, a turning away from old angers and infidelities, a turning toward this moment, and this moment, and this, and this. Death has moved into our household—not a welcome guest, oh, no, our courtesy doesn’t extend that far…and its presence, far from rendering us morose, has made us spiritually alert and vigorous. One might almost say we need death in order to live this fully.”

Michel de Montaigne wrote that “one who would teach us how to die would teach us how to live.” Nancy and George Mairs fit that description very well.

How and what we think of death profoundly influences how and what we think of life. As the Mairs instruct us, death can add rich layers of meaning to our lives.

A third way in which death points us towards meaningfulness is by asking of us the question: what did you do with your life? How have you contributed to life? Of what use were you? In answering this question, we shall learn much about what life has meant, at least for us. The sooner we begin to answer it, the clearer and more firm the answer will be.

Because death ends our existence, it matters to us that in some way in our brief span of days we have made a difference. That is part of the anguish and the glory of being human. More than any other condition or event in our lives, death places the question squarely before us: what good have I done? How have I helped? Did I change my world for the better even a little?

Lewis Thomas, in an interview he gave a few weeks before his death, spoke of the importance of usefulness in comprehending life and death. Being useful, he suggested, is far more important than obtaining goods or knowledge. “Contemplate the times when you’ve been useful, even indispensable, to other people,” he said. In that contemplation can be found a plenitude of meaning.

John Lithgow, the actor, in a Commencement Address he gave at Harvard a few years ago, cited usefulness as one of the essential qualities of the happy and successful people he knew. Montaigne thought the value of a life lay in the use that is made of it. Meaning can be found in doing things that help other people, doing things that beautify the world, doing things that need doing.

Consider the experience of  Sadie Virginia Smithson.

She was a seamstress in Johnson Falls, Virginia, who grew to young girlhood before she discovered that she did not belong in the upper crust society of her small town. Upon graduation from high school, she was denied admission into the Laurel Literary Society, the pinnacle of high society in Johnson Falls.. She was turned away because she took in sewing and her father ran the livery stable.

She decided to save her money, take a trip to Europe, return and write a paper about her experience, which a century ago was still a bit unusual for a young woman. This would be the means by which she would be welcomed into the Literary Society. The ladies would want her to come and read her paper there.

When she had saved enough, she took her trip, only to have war break out shortly after her arrival. Being driven from Belgium to Paris in the grim late summer of 1914, she came upon the scene of a battle just concluded. She heard a man moaning for water, and then others crying out in pain. She leapt out of the car and began to offer what succor she could to these wounded and dying men. Refusing to go on with her party, she stayed there, as she later put it, “holding Hell back all night.”

She told her story to a sympathetic listener on the voyage going home. This new friend said that she would surely be invited to join the Laurel Literary Society now, to which Sadie Virginia replied, “But you don’t understand. I’ve been face to face with war and death and hell and God. None of the things I once thought important matter now.”

“What does matter to you, then?” asked her friend.

“God and love and doing things for folks.”

An encounter with death brought a new dimension of meaning into the life of Sadie Virginia Smithson, a dimension of usefulness that gave her life a meaning it could not otherwise have had.

Death points us towards the meaningfulness to be found in usefulness. 

As a public speaker since I was 12 years of age, I have learned that talks of any kind, certainly including sermons, have a soporific tendency for some folks that simply cannot be resisted. Indeed, I recall a young man once telling me that he slept better listening to my sermons than he did at night in his own bed! For this reason, I have made it a practice briefly to recapitulate what I have said so that sleepers will have a chance to evaluate my remarks as well as those who managed to stay awake.

The question of this presentation was: Is death meaningful?

I suggested that that question is fundamental to our humanity, and that for at least 100,000 years we have given various answers to it. Those answers began to change in the last century or so. Wars now made more horrible and more visible because of modern technology drained the faith of many people in the traditional answers to the apparent senselessness of death.

Two facts remain through all the centuries: that death is for humanity and almost all life an absolute and that in our universe death is necessary.

I believe that, regardless of our theology, death drives us towards meaningfulness in three ways.

Death forces us to take life seriously right now. 

Death shapes the way we think of life.

Death reminds us that meaning is found in usefulness.

In these ways death is revealed not as the negation but as the beginning of all meaning.

John Locke's Argument for Limited Government

In Chapters VIII-XI of his 2d Treatise on Government: Of Civil Government, John Locke makes his central argument for limited government. In Chapters VIII and IX, he argues that governments arise out of a situation with no government, and so derive their powers from the intentions of those in that initial situation of no government. In Chapters X and XI, he lays out his views on the most basic rules for appropriate government constitutions.

Below, I give links to all of my posts on these chapters, as well as links at the bottom to the aggregator posts for earlier chapters. Of the posts on Chapters VIII-XI, the most important five are these:

  1. We Are All Born Free

  2. Defense against the Black Hats is the Origin of the State

  3. The Public Good

  4. The Only Legitimate Power of Governments is to Articulate the Law of Nature

  5. No One is Above the Law, which Must Be Established and Promulgated and Designed for the Good of the People; Taxes and Governmental Succession Require Approval of Elected Representatives

Here are all the posts on Chapters VIII-XI:

Chapter VIII: Of the Beginning of Political Societies

Chapter IX: Of the Ends of Political Society and Government

Chapter X: Of the Forms of a Commonwealth

Chapter XI: Of the Extent of the Legislative Power

Links to posts on the earlier chapters of John Locke's 2d Treatise can be found here:

Posts on Chapters I-III:  John Locke's State of Nature and State of War 

Posts on Chapters IV-V:  On the Achilles Heel of John Locke's Second Treatise: Slavery and Land Ownership

Posts on Chapters VI-VII : John Locke Against Natural Hierarchy

Links to posts on later chapters so far:

Chapter XII: Of the Legislative, Executive, and Federative Power of the Commonwealth

Chapter XIII: Of the Subordination of the Powers of the Commonwealth

Chapter XIV: Of Prerogative

Chapter XV: Of Paternal, Political, and Despotical Power, considered together

Chapter XVI: Of Conquest

Chapter XVII: Of Usurpation

Chapter XVIII: Of Tyranny

Christian Kimball on Middle-Way Mormonism

Although his spiritual journey has been different from mine, my brother Chris has also wrestled with the question of what to think of Mormonism. One of the other guest posts by Chris that I list at the bottom is “Chris Kimball: Having a Prophet in the Family, which makes clear why neither of us could escape that question. Below are Chris’s words:

There has been an unusual flurry of talk lately about “Middle Way Mormons.” The Salt Lake Tribune (Peggy Fletcher Stack); By Common Consent (Sam Brunson); Wheat and Tares (a series); and even Times and Seasons ran a piece.  I commented, I provided background, I was quoted, but I have resisted doing my own “how it is” counter-essay until now.

I am a “Middle Way Mormon” by everybody’s definition.  It is not my label—I prefer “Christian who practices with Mormons.”  But it’s better than the alternatives on offer. This is not a to-be-wished-for designation—a high ranking Church leader sympathized with me about “living on a knife edge.”  It’s just a label for a modern reality.

Somewhere in the middle of all the commentary, George Andrew Spriggs observed that “successful Middle Way Mormons . . . undercut the traditional boundaries and truth claims about the church.”  This observation challenged me to describe the church I belong to.  I have tried this before, and the reaction has been “no—doesn’t exist, you’re wrong, that isn’t a thing—just no.” Because of this history, exposing myself this way is scary.

This is long.  This is personal.  This is my opinion.  For today--although reasonably stable for more than 20 years now.  This is also my life, the real stuff.  Reportage, not polemic.  You should not be like me.  You have been warned.

* * *

As a Christian who practices with members and at the meetings of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, sometimes my choices come down to tradition and a hymnal. At the same time, I am officially a member of the Church.  I haven’t resigned.  I value my baptism.  I take the sacrament with intent.

So what is this Church I belong to?  As I see it.  As I live it.

I view Joseph Smith as one of the religious geniuses of the 19th century, a man who had a theophany, from whom and through whom several books of scripture came to be, who experimented and collected and assembled a religious vision. And a prophet, in the sense of receiving the word of God and a charge to speak it.

Not necessarily a good man.  Not right all the time.  Not necessarily true to his own insights.  Not always consistent.

I view founding a church, restoring priesthood, organizing ordinances and sacraments, and developing temple practices, as 19th century syncretic work by well-meaning men choosing from among existing Christian traditions.

I view the Book of Mormon as a 19th century creation.  I read it as scripture.  I find the subtitle “Another Testament of Jesus Christ” the most correct and useful description.  The Church uses the Book of Mormon as a ‘proof of history.’  I don’t find value in that approach.  The Church does not (very much) rely on the Book of Mormon for administration or theology.  But I do read the Book of Mormon for theology and Christology and more.  What I read impresses me as certain versions of New Testament Christian, Pauline, and even Trinitarian traditions, with flourishes.

For better or worse, I don’t find much value or spend much time with the Doctrine & Covenants or the Pearl of Great Price.  I try to remain conversant, but in the limited sense of staying relevant in the community and not as a religious or devotional practice.

My understanding of prophets is that their job is to speak the words God gives them (not to speak “for God”).  In that vein I consider Joseph Smith and other Church leaders as prophets.  My operating assumption is that when a person is called to be a prophet, a tiny percentage of his or her words will turn out to be God’s words, they won’t necessarily know which are which themselves, and they may not understand the meaning or relevance of the words they are directed to say.

As a practical consequence, I apply a 50/50 skepticism even to statements labeled “the word of the Lord,” which looks like a cafeteria approach to General Conference talks and to the Doctrine & Covenants.  For example, I view D&C 1:30 as an exaggeration, D&C 22 as the natural human expression of a restorationist mindset, and D&C 132 as a mistake—a confusing version of a Joseph Smith insight driven by a mixture of Bible study, wishful thinking, and domestic conflict.

Because I understand prophets (historically) to be mostly misunderstood outsiders with a revolutionary message, I think the Church’s practice of combining the prophet and president roles is problematic.  I look for other prophets in addition to Church leaders.

I do not have a sense of divine destiny about the Church.  The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the survivor of a series of existential crises.  A succession crisis.  A crisis over polygamy.  A crisis over financial viability.  A crisis over the participation of men and women of relatively recent African descent.  We tell the survival story after the fact, but I don’t view survival as predetermined.  I can imagine the Church failing any one of the past crises. I can imagine the Church failing the next one.

I see the Church in crisis now.  It is dealing with challenges to an identity myth built on a heavily manipulated white-washed history, alongside a theology built around eternal gender essentialism which makes it difficult to incorporate principles of feminism and to include non-binary persons in the Plan.  I do not know whether the Church will survive. More accurately, I don’t know what the survivor will look like and how I will relate to it.

The Church offers a rich selection of Sacraments (ordinances) and a variety of rituals, which belong in a Christian practice and which I appreciate and celebrate.  Not as unique or indispensable, but as valuable and inspiring.

On the other hand, embedded in Church practice are secret loyalty oath covenants, and an interview and disciplinary system serving up bishops as judges, that make idols of the institutional Church and its human leaders.  I reject and avoid these parts of Church practice.

I view the institutional and administrative practices as built on good intentions (“guided by the spirit”).  Most leaders are sincere and trying to do right.  I have seen some frauds and some thieves, and too much abuse—ecclesiastical, emotional, sexual—but the most common sin of Church leaders is sucking up (managing up or making the boss happy or working for the next promotion).

I observe that good intentions are not the same as decision by principle, or decision by consensus or vote, or decision by systematic observation and experiment.  Good intentions do not guarantee results.  I do not see evidence of unusual foresight in Church decision making.  I do not see a better than ordinary record of good decisions.  I do see some very bad decisions.

Finally, the Church has almost nothing to do with my lived and living experience with God (the real thing, not doctrine or description, philosophy or religion) or my personal devotional life including my prayers.  I consider them separate worlds.