a comparison of Locke and Wollstonecraft

Locke and Wollstonecraft are often invoked today in favor of dominant liberal ideals of human rights and equality. but both these authors base their modern-sounding sentiments on a basis that we should find unacceptable today.

in this paper, i shall attempt to show how both Locke's and Wollstonecraft's ideas of human rights and of equality depend in a central way upon their notion of reason and its role. i shall explore some resulting deficiencies in their positions. first, i will consider the shortcomings in their particular notions of rights and of equality as they relate them to their supposed foundation in common human reason. then i shall address some areas where Locke and Wollstonecraft differ, and conclude with some observations on more systemic faults that their emphasis on reason entails.

if women are to be excluded, without having a voice, from a participation of the natural rights of mankind, prove first, to ward off the charge of injustice and inconsistency, that they want reason. (p. 5)

from these words we see Mary Wollstonecraft's characteristic emphasis on reason. both Mary Wollstonecraft's and John Locke's construction of human rights depends greatly on their understanding of the role of reason. Wollstonecraft here expresses her conviction that because women are able to reason—are creatures with rationality inherent in their soul—therefore women are possessed of human rights along with men.

Wollstonecraft assumes that this is self-evident. having proven that women can reason, she believes her work is done. but she fails of offer a suitable justification for the contention that human rights attach by virtue of reason. moreover, suppose we were to discover that women were inherently weaker reasoners. would Wollstonecraft then be content to accord them correspondingly weaker rights? at times she seems to think so. consider, for example, the argument in chapter iv of the vindication. Wollstonecraft admits that woman is naturally weak, or degraded by a concurrence of circumstances (p. 52). her emphasis on the correlation of duties and rights (rights and duties are inseparable, p. 194) would seem to necessitate such. but we would be hardly willing to make such a judgement today. (although, it does seem we do so in part, for we give children and mental incompetents weaker rights on just such a justification.)

Wollstonecraft does, however, warn us against prejudging this question. she tells us that society cannot make a fair judgement of the native talents of women, because women have not been adequately educated. (note, for example, the above mentioned text on p. 52. Wollstonecraft opens the possibility of a concurrence of circumstances. see p. 4, the education and situation of woman, at present, shuts her out from such investigations.) importantly, in this defense, she characterizes intellectual ability as the proper measure of the rights of a woman.

in her own day, Wollstonecraft was often misread as speaking only about education. her emphasis on education is constant, but not without purpose. she focuses on education not primarily because of the inherent interest of the subject, but because education is necessary in her mind for the proper fulfillment of the rights of women, both to demonstrate the native rational talents of women, and to develop the talents of individuals. only by a recognition of such talents will the rights of women be recognized.

Locke also assumes without proof the idea that reason is necessary and sufficient for the possession of rights. (the freedom then of man, and liberty of acting according to his own will, is grounded on his having reason, vi.63.) in this context, Locke identifies liberty with the ability to act under an understood law. children and incompetents are explicitly excluded from this arrangement. all other adults, however, are assigned liberty and a certain formal legal equality, on the basis of their shared ability to understand and observe the law with their minds.

one argument against Locke has been to reduce his doctrine of property rights to apply to children, because the mother adds labor to a natural given in just the same way as Locke's paradigm cases. Locke's use of reason as the foundation of liberty would offer him a suitable defense against this position, though as with Wollstonecraft, Locke offers no justification for his emphasis on reason.

Locke therefore assigns children only under the tutelage of their parents for a time (and thus, children have rights) because they will some day be adults with rights deriving from their own reason. however, Locke would seem to assign those who are permanently incompetent to a condition of rightlessness.

it is exceedingly important to note for Locke that reason is relevant in only two political contexts. in the state of nature, it is the basis for the decisions and agreements that result in present society. in present society, it defines only the liberty under law concept described above. whatever human rights derive from the contract are only available to those who have sufficient reason to understand and act under law.

both Locke and Wollstonecraft then assign rights to those who have reason. both would be unable to support an assignment of rights to those who are not able to reason. it remains to be seen what role reason plays in their respective notions of equality.

for Wollstonecraft, an equal ability to reason would result in equal rights. political equality thus depends on antecedent natural equality, combined with equally beneficial education. Wollstonecraft is unwilling to commit herself on the question of whether women really have equal ability.

it can be very difficult to interpret Wollstonecraft on this point. generally, she only offers a limited argument focused on the moral improvement of women in the domestic sphere. she never claims outright that women have equal native talent, instead arguing only that women have not been given the opportunity to make a fair showing.

she does however wax dreamily about professional roles for women. quite interestingly, this follows immediately upon a hypothetical supposition that women are intellectually equivalent to men. i cannot help lamenting that women of a superior cast have not a road open by which they can pursue more extensive plans of usefulness and independence, p. 147. we find then, that Wollstonecraft does not directly argue for equal rights for women and men. rather, she argues only for the need to give women a fair test of intellect, and then assign them rights according to the results. the text simply does not offer enough to judge what her opinion would be about women's native talent. (this is, however, quite excusable; she might not have been published at all if she had voiced such notions.)

for Locke, we see a somewhat different role for equality. reason (defined only as the ability to understand the laws) makes for fully human status. all such individuals then have an equal formal role in the legal sphere.

however, in the commonwealth, nearly all such legal rights are purely formal. actual rights might be sold, and therefore in society as we have it, the vast number of individuals have only very limited practical rights. so we have a sort of formal legal equality, but no practical equality. most damning, the consent itself is formal and not actual.

the justification for this inequality is that the weaker have consented to the arrangement. but this is not satisfactory, for the consent is only formal. here, in the other realm in which reason intrudes on Locke's politics, it cannot, in fact, substitute for consent. legitimacy does not come from imputed (however rational) decisions made by nonexistent people, but from real (however irrational) decisions made by real people.

this brings into sharp focus two important divergences between Locke and Wollstonecraft. for Locke, reason is reduced to a small but essential role. it defined the duties and obligations of the commonwealth, but in the present, it has only the role of being a marker of whom the laws address.

but for Wollstonecraft, reason is a presently important issue. In her insistence that women should have rights in proportion to their educated reason, she makes diverse present political claims depend on the varying allotments of reason that people possess today.

Wollstonecraft wants women to be properly educated. this is not merely incidental to her central argument. she has elaborated a proportionality theory of rights, but such a theory does not demand rights proportional to native talent, but rather to present talent. the difference between native talent and present talent is education—and so she must give further arguments in favor of women's education. here we see the role that her apparently pragmatic arguments play. (such an argument is, for example, that the object of education [is] to prepare women to become ... sensible mothers, p. 90.) they offer incentives to men to develop women's actual rational talent—upon which event women will then be entitled to greater rights.

equality for Locke is much more absolute. all who reason are equal before the law. but only before the law. all non-slaves possess this equality. but there are other interesting questions of equality. we should ask about equality of political participation, of wealth, of opportunity, of honor, and (thanks to Wollstonecraft) of education. Locke flattens out the gradations of reason that Wollstonecraft has in mind, and accordingly cuts off discussion of these other forms of liberty before discussion can begin.

despite these differences, the areas of agreement between Locke and Wollstonecraft are quite telling. both Locke and Wollstonecraft see the pursuit of rational aims by rational humans as the sole political content of humans. they both seem to have inherited this from Hobbes, for whom the essence of human nature is the rational pursuit of personal interest.

both Locke and Wollstonecraft are careful to distinguish human beings from animals on the basis of ratiocinative ability. this offers a naturalistic basis for an emphasis on human beings, replacing the previous christian emphasis found in, e.g. saint Thomas Aquinas (God alone brings the human soul into being, 2.87.1). we see in both Locke and Wollstonecraft a return to the emphasis of Plato and Aristotle on natural foundations.

one severe shortcoming of this emphasis on reason as the distinguishing mark of human importance is its neglect of those humans with lesser or no reasoning ability. Wollstonecraft freely compares uneducated women as brutes. if ability to reason were the sole basis for human rights and equality, then those who are severely mentally ill, for example, would lose their human status accordingly, and would become slaves or otherwise of no moral import.

equality among rational humans then become founded for both these authors upon an opposition to non-humans and humans who cannot (or do not?) reason. ideally, this serves to bond humans together, but it does so at the expense of those who are excluded. in the united states, white immigrants slowly achieved mutual cohesion on the basis of a common opposition to african-americans, thus propelling racism through the twentieth century with exceptional force. we should be wary of using any such opposition for the sake of its binding force, particularly when some of those on the downside are, in fact, humans.

finally, Locke and Wollstonecraft share a common inheritance as being concerned primarily to justify inequity rather than seek equality. this concern is most notably brought out by MacPhereson, who shows a special concern here. Locke's astounding achievement was to base the property right on natural right and natural law, and then to remove all the natural law limits from the property right, p. 199. he justifies, as natural, a class differential in rights and in rationality, p. 221.

i must take issue with the claim of Guralnick that it is the premise of Wollstonecraft's feminism that the establishment of women's rights must be allied to a complete transformation of society and the body politic, p. 314. certainly Guralnick claims that Wollstonecraft's program could not be complete without a complete transformation. but even if we agree with this (modern radical) position, it is clearly not that of Wollstonecraft, who never opposes the class structure of her society. her image of an ideal marriage includes for the wife merely a servant maid to take off her hands the servile part of the household business, p. 142.

in fine, despite their obvious differences in temperament and particular political opinions, Locke and Wollstonecraft share some common suppositions placing them clearly as creatures of our time. before unthinkingly adopting them as political spokespersons for today's issues, we must carefully examine these areas, and consider that perhaps they are ill qualified to speak today—even when they offer particular conclusions we find to our taste.

saint Thomas Aquinas. summa contra gentiles. (trans. James F. Anderson)
Elissa S. Guralnick. radical politics in Mary Wollstonecraft's a vindication of the rights of woman, from studies in burke and his time 18 (1977), p. 155-166. citation from reprint in norton edition of Wollstonecraft, also cited.
John Locke. second treatise of government.
C. B. MacPhereson. the political theory of possessive individualism, Hobbes to Locke. oxford: clarendon press, 1962.
Mary Wollstonecraft. a vindication of the rights of woman. new york: W. W. Norton & company, 1988/1975.

things i wrote for my b.a.