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Consent and Conventional Acts in John Locke* FRANK SNARE WHILE IT IS GENERALLYAGREEDthat the notion of consent is crucial to the understanding of Locke's political theory in the Two Treatises oy Government, the interpreters of Locke have not, with only a few exceptions, attempted to give any analysis of this concept .1Nor, in the use of this term in their interpretations, have they been especially clear as to which of the several uses of this word they themselves have been employing. The fact that there are several ordinary uses for this word has made, generally, for an ambiguity in the phrase "government by consent." This paper has the following purposes. First, to distinguish several relevant uses of "consent." By implication I will also be distinguishing several quite different doctrines called "government by consent." Second, I will be concerned to isolate that use of "consent" which is fundamental to the basic argument in the Two Treatises. As we shall see, it is true that in other contexts Locke uses "consent" (as we do) in other ways, but in the context of political argument he is fairly consistent--more consistent than most of his interpreters----in using the word in the particular way which I shall outline. This bit of textual interpretation turns out to be crucial to a number of issues in Locke which cannot all be discussed in a short paper, e.g., the issue of whether representative government is really central and basic to Locke's theory. Does government by consent imply representative government?2 Third, I would like to give the be~nning of an analysis of that use of "consent" basic to Locke, not only because it is of some help in the interpretation of Locke, but also because it is of interest to the moral philosopher to investigate the claim that rights and obligations (whether political or otherwise) can arise from consent. I. CONSENT AS A PASSIVE STATE OF MIND A rather crucial distinction is to be made between those views which treat consent as an action--something one does--and those which treat it as a passion--something one has (e.g., an attitude, sentiment, opinion, belief, etc.). This is not the distinction between those properties of persons which continue over time and those which do not. Both actions and passive states of mind may either continue over time or only happen momentarily. I mention this obvious point because I think that some philosophers in their talk of "continual consent" have, in spite of this * I would like to thank Professor John W. Yolton of York University who read a longer version of this paper and made a number of detailed comments which were very helpful in my inquiry. 1 As far as I know, Professor Plamenatz is alone in doing any workmanlike analysis of this concept. Cf. Consent, Freedom and Political Obligation, 2nd ed. (Oxford, 1968),chap. 1. See also, Man and Society, 2 vols. (London, 1963), I, chap. 6. I shall discuss my objections to Plamenatz' analyses in section H below. Others of Locke's interpreters will be mentioned in the footnotes throughout. Cf. J. W. Gough, lohn Locke's Political Philosophy (Oxford, 1950), pp. 59, 72. [27] 28 HISTORY OF PHILOSOPHY terminology, really meant to indicate thereby a special passive state of mind? It is quite natural to use the phrase "continual consent" to distinguish consent as a passive state of mind from consent as an act, since no one imagines the theory of government by consent to mean that a government has legitimate authority over me as long as I continue in the performance of a certain act cal/ed "consenting." No one seriously thinks consenting is a frequentive act, such as singing is, which might endure indefinitely. Rather, everyone has tended to assume that either it is a particular act performed at some time in the past or else it is a passive psychological state (usually a disposition) which has to endure if government is to continue to remain legitimate.4 It is important to be clear about the distinction between these two different notions of "consent," primarily because the interpreters of Locke have often remained systematically obscure with...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1538-4586
Print ISSN
0022-5053
Pages
pp. 27-36
Launched on MUSE
2008-01-01
Open Access
No
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