Good Fences and Good Neighbors: John Locke's Positive Doctrine of Toleration

By Wilhelm, Anthony G. | Political Research Quarterly, March 1999 | Go to article overview

Good Fences and Good Neighbors: John Locke's Positive Doctrine of Toleration


Wilhelm, Anthony G., Political Research Quarterly


Often critics who decry the poverty of neutrality as a regulative ideal in contemporary liberal regimes point to John Locke as an early apologist for a kind of toleration that discourages spiritedness in the public sphere. In this paper, I interpret Locke as a thinker who advanced both a right and a duty to toleration. This reconstruction of Locke's doctrine of toleration is salutary not only because he uses a state of nature argument to ground a moral right to toleration-a right to care for one's own civil and religious ends, free from the magistrate's limited authority - but also because he proffers a duty to tolerate others by cultivating a spirit of mutual assistance, liberality, charity, and conversation among citizens of the polity Locke's educational writings show how this positive doctrine is inculcated through the cultivation of the social virtues, qualities of good character that are demonstrative of what Locke calls Ua Good Life." This positive duty of toleration supplements certain defects of the contractarian argument (defects which liberal societies continue to try to ameliorate), since the fences that secure rights are shown to be necessary but not sufficient to foster the neighborliness that invigorates a good community.

Most Locke scholars encounter in his political philosophy an essentially "negative" defense of toleration (Creppell 1996; Kraynak 1980; McClure 1990, 1996). By these accounts, toleration defines the boundaries inside of which individuals are free to pursue their own ends, even if certain words and actions are disapproved by political authority. This conception of toleration is sufficient for contemporary liberals who read back into Locke a defense of an attenuated liberal polity in which, as Jefferson put it, "it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg" (1975: 210). One effect of negative toleration however may be to contribute significantly to the impoverishment of the public sphere in which individuals are encouraged as a matter of course to refrain from public spiritedness and robust conversation. Robert Kraynak argues, for example, that Locke's use of toleration, as a strategy to manage religion, "discourages actions which disturb others out of a moral zeal" (1980: 68). Another interpreter suggests that Locke wraps civic discussion in an empiricist epistemology that effectively leaches the public sphere of discussion transcending the limits of worldly practical expression about social utility (McClure 1990: 376f.).

While these views might capture the failures of a one-dimensional reading of Locke's political philosophy, such arguments ignore Locke's "positive" duties to toleration, his numerous exhortations in his political, educational, and religious writings to engage in civil, neighborly conversation and to express goodwill and charity toward compatriots with differing religious outlooks. Several Locke scholars broach the issue of positive obligations (Ivison 1997; Marshall 1994; Simmons 1992, 1993; Tully 1993), but they fall short on two fronts. First, they fail to ground toleration in the requirements of what Locke calls "a Good Life" (1983 [1689]: 46; 1823a [1690]: 80; 1823b [1692]: 525), positive obligations to toleration being essential to its constitution and discharge. Second, none of these works details how these duties are cultivated-for example, in fostering certain social virtues, described most comprehensively in Locke's educational writings. Robert Frost expressed the problem elegantly in his poem "Mending Wall": "Before I built a wall I'd ask to know/What I was walling in or walling out/And to whom I was like to give offense" (1969: 34). In the broadest sense, Locke's positive duties of civility and charity mitigate the deficiencies of contemporary liberal regimes and their obsequious commitment to negative liberty and neutrality, underwriting the conditions for a polity in which good fences and good neighbors are respected equally. …

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