Natural Law, Property, and Justice: The General Justification of Property in John Locke

Journal of Religious Ethics 19 (1):119 - 149 (1991)


This essay examines the justification of property offered by John Locke, considered as the locus classicus of the modern liberal understanding of natural law. I argue that Locke's account of property must be understood in light of the Scholastic discussion of property-in-common, especially in the writings of Thomas Aquinas and Francisco Suarez. Despite very different historical and intellectual settings, I suggest that the Scholastic and Lockean justifications of property share several themes: 1) both discuss the institution of property within the context of foundationally social natural law directives; (2) both emphasize the moral priority of individual access to property-in-common according to need; and (3) both employ the language of justice rather than discretionary charity to describe the social constraints upon private acquisition. I conclude by considering the relevance of this interpretation of Locke to recent debates on distributive justice between Nozick and Rawls, as well as its affinities with the understanding of the social obligations of property in Catholic social teaching.

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