The Legitimacy Of Government: Locke vs. Bentham

Since ancient times, many scholars have been questioning the origins of the government or where its legitimacy comes from. The Enlightenment between the 17th and 18th centuries enormously shifted the perspective on human beings, religions, and all other aspects of life. After the Enlightenment, human beings had become the measure of all things, briefly, the center of life. Religion was no longer measured in the political regulations due to the demolition of the religious dogmas. Then, the fundamental question of the Enlightenment had become how to design a society while maximizing individual autonomy scientifically. In this respect, many scholars have tried to answer that question. In this essay, I will focus on John Locke and Jeremy Bentham to grasp their understanding of the government. I will firstly give background information on their philosophy, before examining the issue of government.

Firstly, John Locke presents revolutionary arguments in First Treatise as he withholds the subordination of women, primogeniture, and the King’s right to rule. In the Second Treatise, he develops a theory of human nature. Unlike his ancestors, he does not use divine power to justify the idea of absolute rule but substantiate the fact that human beings are created equally. In his philosophy, all human beings are the properties of God, who has the best knowledge of humans. The law of nature, God, also draws the boundaries of human beings. People are free in their behaviors as long as it is constrained by nature. Indeed, his political philosophy relies on the understanding of property. The first property is the body, and the second is the labor of hands. People are capable of putting in their labor and transforming the piece of nature. Subsequently, the land where you put your labor becomes yours. The limitation here depends on what is lefts to others. One can enjoy its land as long as it abandons the stocking. One’s property should not prevent others from gaining access to it and should provide the greatest benefit possible.

Moreover, his understanding of equality also forms the legitimacy of the government. As all people are free and equal, none has the right to claim political power without their consent. Hence, what makes political power legitimate is individuals’ autonomy. However, this legislative power has some limits. The legislative function cannot be transformed into another entity that proclaims the separation of powers. In that sense, presidential decrees cannot become laws, as has been the case in Turkey due to the country’s presidential system; in other words, law-making cannot be transferred to any power. He introduces not only the separation of powers but also the representative government. For instance, taxation without consent limits the state, and the parliament is needed to raise taxes.

Furthermore, he also points out the issue of resisting the government. There would be cases where the government would act unlawfully, and there can be a recourse with the limits. These limits encompass harm and force. The recourse should not be harmful to the King’s people, which is the direct result of the memory of the civil war, and people have to be sure that force is the last option. The force ought to be attended if all the other recourses are exhausted, there is a chance of success, and other people want it. In other words, injustice should be widespread. One cannot make a disorder because of a reason that only concerns itself.

Secondly, Jeremy Bentham, the founder of utilitarian philosophy, also points out the origins of the government. Basically, his whole philosophy is based on one principle, which is utility. Unlike Locke, there is no venue for religion in his understanding, and he only trusts the scientific examination of the human body. People seek pleasure and avoid pain in all their decisions and acts, so they always try to maximize pleasure while minimizing pain. His theory is elegant, comprehensive, and consequentialist, as everything is only about pain and pleasure. Also, it is quantifiable as we can calculate the maximum benefit of the money. He predominantly can calculate one’s utility by asking, “How much are you going to pay for it?”. The amount of money you say determines how much you sacrifice for obtaining it. While deciding to give an apple to whom, we can use interpersonal comparisons of utility and give that apple to the one who pays the most.

He believes that this principle can organize society, and he aims to maximize the greatest happiness. He does not have ethical concerns and cares about individual utility. Therefore, we need the government to unplug between individual and total utility. For instance, constructing a highway would damage one’s land. The highway increases the utility of society but not that of a particular individual who owns the land. Thus, the government should regulate the process and has the task of moving the individual for constructing the highway. In the modern period, we can think of the governments’ tasks to solve the situations of the tragedy of the commons and the free-rider problem.

However, I am not comfortable with Bentham’s ideas as I do not think we act based on our pleasures. I would have infinite pleasures, and it has no boundaries. It reminds me of Aristotle’s understanding of pleasures, and I somehow agree with him. He would qualify such an environment where everyone acts for their pleasures as “slaves,” people who are slaves of their pleasures and passions. Rational people would act in a way that they can control their pleasures.

In conclusion, I examined the legitimacy of government from the points of Locke and Bentham. While Locke’s argument has its origin in divine power, Bentham benefits from the principle of utility.



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