John Locke occupies a central place in the contemporary philosophical literature on parental authority, and his child-centered approach has inspired a number of recognizably Lockean theories of parenthood.2 But unlike the best historically informed scholarship on other aspects of [End Page 255] Locke's thought, those interested in his account of parental rights have not yet tried to understand its connection to debates of the period or to Locke's broader theory of natural law. In particular, Locke's relation to the seventeenth-century conversation about the role of generation in grounding 'paternal power' is not well-known. Understanding this background is interesting in itself, but more importantly, it can provide us with a deeper appreciation of what Locke is actually saying, as well as a useful vantage-point for surveying current debates about parental rights.
Ultimately, Locke's political thought is of abiding interest because his basic problem is ours as well: how is it possible to rationally justify the authority of particular individuals over others — including that of parents over children — if everyone is fundamentally equal? Locke's answer relies crucially on the idea that, unlike personal property rights which exist for the benefit of the proprietor, legitimate rule over equals must exist and be exercised for the good of the governed. Although Locke is very clear that parental power is not the same as political power, they are for him nonetheless both species of this larger genus of governmental authority. Inasmuch as this constitutes a denial that children are the mere belongings of their parents, it is an attractive view. But it also raises the question as to how individuals come to be entitled, or obliged, to assume the 'office' of parent. I shall argue that Locke's own answer to that question rests heavily on his providential outlook. This is important for us to appreciate, for if we want to modernize and secularize Locke, we need to be aware of the argumentative gaps and fissures that will need filling in, once the original theological foundations have been dislodged.3
If, however, understanding the place of natural law in Locke's account of parental authority makes it seem more distant in some ways from modern thought, it also reveals it to be more coherent than interpreters have often supposed. In particular, we will be able lay to rest a widespread misunderstanding about the relationship between Locke's theories of parental rights and property acquisition. At least since Robert Nozick's influential discussion, many readers have believed that Locke provides 'a singularly unconvincing' argument (as David Archard puts it) to avoid the implication of his theory of property that parents own [End Page 256] their children because they created them (see 2T: I.52-3).4 I shall argue here that Locke's argument has only seemed so pitiful because most readers have not understood what it really is.
I shall proceed as follows. After placing Locke in the context of the seventeenth-century conversation about parental rights in section II, I consider in section III his critique of Filmer's patriarchalism and Nozick's objection that Locke's labor theory of property acquisition actually commits him to something resembling Filmer's conclusion: that parents hold proprietary dominion in the offspring they 'make.' Section IV argues that Nozick's objection rests on a failure to appreciate Locke's implicit distinction between creation and production, which helps makes clear why rational beings can have no right to exploit one another, even if they have 'made' them. But if human moral status depends on rationality, then how can children be the equals of adults? In section V, I show how Locke's theological ideas are pivotal to his way of answering that question. Having discussed the fundamental moral equality of children and adults, I turn in section VI to Locke's own account of the nature and assignment of parental authority.
Throughout I assume, somewhat controversially, that Locke's various writings shed light on one another and can be used to reconstruct a relatively coherent position. I...