John Locke

Written by: Paul Thompson

Primary Source: Thornapple CSA

Newcomers to the Thornapple Blog may not know that January has been “food ethics icons month” ever since 2011. We started out with some very well-known names and by 2013 we were doing rock-star farmers. Last year the theme was population growth. This year I’ve decided to focus on some bona fide philosopher types, people that everyone would recognize as such. I’m not sure we’ve ever done one that meets these criteria, though I personally do think of Xenophon, Emerson and Malthus as philosophers. I would also include Amartya Sen, even if he is mainly thought of as an economist. Vandana Shiva has a Ph.D. in philosophy, but I have never seen her identify herself as a philosopher.

I’m starting out with John Locke. No, I’m not talking about the guy from Lost. Thankfully, you have to get at least to the second page of a Google search before you start hitting this fictional character from the series that ran for what seemed like an eternity back in the last decade. I never paid any attention to it, but the writers’ penchant for naming characters after philosophers provided many opportunities for sophomoric humor. Of course, we never indulge in sophomoric humor here in the blog, so I’ll just reiterate that I am, in fact, talking about the John Locke, who lived from 1632 to 1704.

Locke would not strike many contemporary readers as an obvious choice for a food ethics icon. He’s known on the one hand as the founder of British Empiricism, a theory of knowledge which held that at birth the mind is a blank slate latter to be filled with impressions and ideas. Knowledge accrues first through the temporal and spatial association of impressions, giving rise to ideas formed by generalization. This is a pretty skimpy (and probably) misleading account of Locke’s epistemology, but hey, you didn’t open up the blog to read about epistemology anyway. On the other hand, Locke is known as offering what is probably the most influential version of the social contract. This is the idea that our social ethic is based on our mutual need to manage the risks of life in a commonwealth. Sure, we might all get along most of the time, but there are a few bad apples out there, and things can turn nasty even when well-meaning people get into a dispute. So we set up a mutually agreed upon system of rights and duties, and we create governments to inforce that system and mange disputes.

This is also a pretty skimpy account of Locke’s social contract theory, because one of his chief aims in writing social philosophy was to provide a philosophical basis for challenging the authority of absolute monarchs. You’d hardly pick that up from my summary, and you’re still wondering what all this could have to do with food ethics. I’m not going to be able to ‘splain it all without busting my word limit, so just take a couple of items on faith. First, the disputes that Locke was thinking about mostly had to do with property rights, and in the 17th century when we’re talking property, we’re mainly talking agriculture. Locke’s pronouncements on property need to be interpreted in light of views being advocated by the diggers and levelers.

No, the diggers are not a reality-based TV show about guys with power shovels, and sadly you do have to get pretty deep into a Google search before you will turn up the political movement led by Gerrard Winstanley. They advocated for a “commons” on which anyone (by which of course, they meant, any Englishman) could farm. They were against “enclosure”, which was literally a practice of building fences and walls around fields. There was a rousing egalitarianism behind the diggers’ point of view, and it makes me think that I should probably be celebrating Winstanley as the food ethics icon, rather than Locke. The levelers were also egalitarians who were pushing against the power of the aristocrats, but that’s a tangent that we’d best not explore for now.

At any rate, Locke defended enclosure in his Second Treatise of Government, despite admitting that God gave the earth to mankind in common. I’m calling him a food ethics icon because the argument he used is still used to argue for all manner policies, practices and technologies today. Here’s the quote:

[T]he provisions serving to the support of human life, produced by one acre of inclosed and cultivated land, are (to speak much within compass) ten times more than those which are yielded by an acre of land of an equal richness lying waste in common. And therefore he that incloses land, and has a greater plenty of the conveniencies of life from ten acres, than he could have from an hundred left to nature, may truly be said to give ninety acres to mankind: for his labour now supplies him with provisions out of ten acres, which were but the product of an hundred lying in common.

We use a similar argument to defend chemical fertilizer and pesticides, African land grabs and GMOs to this day: If you can produce more food by doing something, that’s a justification for doing it. I’m not saying that Locke was the very first to come up with this, nor am I saying that I necessarily agree with it. But he’s the first I know of, and for that I’m calling him a food ethics icon.

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Paul Thompson
Paul B. Thompson holds the W. K. Kellogg Chair in Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University in East Lansing, Michigan. He formerly held positions in philosophy at Texas A&M University and Purdue University. His research has centered on ethical and philosophical questions associated with agriculture and food, and especially concerning the guidance and development of agricultural technoscience.
Paul Thompson

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