Locke and Land Acknowledgements 

The following is a guest post by Kyle Swan, Professor of Philosophy and Director of Center for Practical and Professional Ethics at CSU Sacramento.


Stuart Reges is suing his employer, the University of Washington, for violating his First Amendment speech rights. The University initiated an investigation into whether Reges violated its anti-harassment policy for publishing a land acknowledgement statement on his course syllabus. His read, 

“I acknowledge that by the labor theory of property the Coast Salish people can claim historical ownership of almost none of the land currently occupied by the University of Washington.” 

Reges is protesting the recommended acknowledgment circulated by the University. The protest is clearly protected speech. I hope Reges wins his suit decisively. 

But what about Reges’s statement? He appears to be serious. In a Quillette article he writes, 

“I am a Georgist, and according to the Georgist worldview, Native Americans have no special claim to any land, just like the rest of us. But since few are familiar with that economic ideology, I leaned instead on a principle described in John Locke’s Second Treatise on Government, now known as the labor theory of property or the ‘homestead principle.’ To the Georgist idea that land is owned in common by all living people, Locke added that by mixing one’s labor with the land, one encloses it from the shared property because people own the products of their labor. If, for example, you make the effort to grow corn on an acre of land, you come to own that acre of land, so long as there is still plenty of land left for others to use.” 

The labor theory Reges refers to is a theory of property acquisition. In its original state, the entire earth is given to us in common. Nobody owns stuff in the world. The question is, how can we remove things from the commons and make rightful claims to them that would allow us then to exclude others from using them? 

Locke provides some conditions. First, it has to be true that someone hasn’t already done that — the stuff has to not be already owned. Second, the person appropriating something from the commons has to do it in a way that improves it through their productive activity — gathering berries, hunting deer, growing vegetables, clearing trees — all kinds of activity counts. Finally, the way they do this has to leave enough and as good for others, so that no one would have reason to complain about the appropriation. 

Professor Reges’s acknowledgment is saying that Coastal Salish people weren’t ever in a position to claim ownership. They were never rightful owners. So when settlers came to the area in the late 1840s or whenever, he supposes these settlers were appropriating the land from the commons, rather than from a group of people. 

Professor Reges’s application of Locke’s theory is dubious. I’m a philosopher, not a historian, but it seems unlikely to me that there were no groups of native people engaged in productive activity in the relevant areas when settlers showed up. 

More importantly, though, if Reges is correct and there weren’t people there already with legitimate ownership claims, then the behavior of government authorities in the mid-19th C was very odd. Because what they were doing was negotiating treaties with the native peoples, including the Salish. Doing so suggests their recognition of legitimate claims made by these groups. Why were they making contracts to acquire land from these native peoples if they didn’t own the land? It seems incredible they would do this if they regarded the lands as unused, unoccupied, and unowned. So it looks like this was a transfer of land ownership rights, not an original appropriation of them. 

Now everything hangs on how these contracts were presented and executed. Were the negotiations above board? Were all the relevant people groups represented? Did they all sign? Were all the terms of the contract fulfilled? Again, I’m a philosopher, not a historian, but if not, if there were problems with the agreement, then there wasn’t a legitimate transfer of the Washington territories. 

If that’s right, then a different part of Locke’s theory applies, which you can find in a later chapter of the 2nd Treatise, Of Conquest. There Locke argues that an aggressor who “unjustly invades another man’s right can…never come to have a right over the conquered…. 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.” 

And so “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….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….If it be objected, This would cause endless trouble; I answer, no more than justice does.” 

Locke’s theory of acquisition has two parts. The first is a theory about how original appropriation would be legitimate. The answer has to do with labor and productive activity. But that part doesn’t seem to apply to this case, since it looks like the Salish already had an existing claim. The second part of the theory is about how acquisition by transfer would be legitimate. The answer here has to do with agreement, and everything depends on the quality of the agreement and how it was or wasn’t honored. But we see there’s more to the story. When there has been no agreement, no just transfer and only conquest, Locke says that people retain “the native right of their ancestors.” 

Locke has long been accused of providing intellectual and justificatory cover for the (mis)appropriation of Indigenous people’s land in America and around the world. But it seems like it’s been Locke’s views that have been misappropriated.

Libertarianism and Abortion

I offer this as a tentative foray into a discussion about abortion, obviously spurred by the recent SCOTUS decision, Dobbs v. Jackson.  I note that I have long been convinced that as brilliant as Judith Jarvis Thomson’s contribution to the debate was, it doesn’t actually solve anything. (For more on that, see the chapter Lauren Hall and I co-authored in The Routledge Companion to Libertarianism.)

Different libertarians define their political ideology in different ways.  (No surprise; different egalitarians do this, different socialists do this, different welfare liberals do this; in short, all political ideologies are multiply defined.  Presumably those adopting the same name have at least a family resemblance.)  

Some libertarians adopt the Non-Aggression Principle. Others adopt a view that indicates simply that individual liberty is the predominant value, never set aside to promote any other value. Others accept that natural rights are the foundation for the view. Others adopt some form of consequentialism. My own libertarianism is defined by commitment to the harm principle: no interference with an individual or consensual group is permissible except to rectify or prevent genuine significant harm.

What does this my form of libertarianism say about abortion? If the principle was only about harm to persons, abortion would presumably be clearly permissible since the fetus is not a person even though it is human. Of course, religious libertarians are likely to believe that all human life is sacred and that the intentional ending of such is necessarily wrongful. While I do not believe that, the harm principle in my view is not only about persons or humans. Genuine significant harm can occur to non-humans and merit interference, so whether or not the fetus is a person is not all that matters.

The question then is: is abortion a genuine significant harm? To clarify, I use the term “significant” to indicate that de minimis harms are not the sorts of things we interfere with (the cost of doing so may be a greater loss than the harm itself). I use the term “genuine” to indicate we are not discussing mere hurts or offenses, but hurts that wrongfully set back the interests of another (for more on this, see Feinberg or chapter 3 of my 2018). Once this is recognized, it should be clear that some abortions may well be genuine significant harms and some may not. Aborting an 8 month old fetus merely because one decided on the spur of the moment to take a world tour is, I think, wrongful. It would also be significant—ending the life of a human that could have been very good. On the other hand, aborting a 6 week old fetus because one was raped is unlikely to be wrongful and is at least plausibly less significant since at that stage spontaneous abortions are not uncommon.

Some will now likely object that what is wrongful is subjective. I basically think this is false—it is at least false if meant in anyway that is troubling for what I am saying here. People do not simply decide for themselves what is wrongful.   For more on this, see this BHL post and this one.

Assume I am right thus far: some abortions are genuinely and significantly harmful and some are not. What does that mean for law? On my view, answering this means first recognizing that law is a blunt instrument and as such has to wielded carefully. Perhaps making all abortions illegal after 8 months pregnant is reasonable. Making all abortions illegal is not. If a clear set of guidelines for wrongfulness can be decided upon, perhaps laws against abortions that are wrongful would be reasonable. I can’t here work out what such a list would include, but I do think a law against aborting 8 month old fetuses reasonable. Perhaps also a law against aborting a fetus on a whim (perhaps have a 5 day waiting period). Laws requiring parental (or spousal) consent might sound good but are likely to run up against significant objections, including the real possibility of rape and incest and unacceptable familial pressure. The final list will be difficult to determine and absent a final list, jurisdictions may adopt differing lists (as SCOTUS allows).

Importantly, the jurisdiction issue is more complicated than some recognize. Philosophers have long debated what would give a government legitimate jurisdiction over a group of people. I won’t be able to delve into that here, but will simply assert that I do not believe any of the US state governments is likely to have genuine legitimacy over all people within their borders. For that reason, it strikes me as perfectly acceptable for the federal government or other state governments to aid an abortion-seeker in a state wherein they are unable to get an abortion legally. (For one way this can work, see this interesting story.)