Alzate on Religion and Self-Interest in Locke

A tension exists at the heart of liberal political theory: a society that encourages individual rights is not so good at motivating citizens to make necessary sacrifices for the community as a whole. In a recent article, Beyond Rights: Religion Offsets Self-Interest in the Lockean State, Elissa Alzate (College of Wooster/UC-Davis) examines the thought of John Locke and argues that, for him, religion provides the solution: religious groups foster the social bonds that make cohesion possible in the liberal state. An abstract follows.  — MLM

 Liberal political thought embodies a tension between the citizen and the community. The liberal state is based on principles of individual rights and appeals to self-interest. Conversely, the political society created out of the liberal social contract must transcend the self-interest guiding independent individuals; the contract creates something greater than the aggregate individuals – a community, whose interest is greater than the interest of each individual separately. The irony of liberalism is that this encompassing community, the purpose of which is to diminish conflicts over self-interest, is itself a product of individual self-interest. This overarching community, then, requires something additional to bind citizens to one another. What is it that can at once appeal to and transcend self-interest? This irony of liberalism was foreseen by John Locke, who took great care to mitigate the extreme focus on individual rights that would likely result in the liberal state. I argue that, while Locke ultimately builds his argument on non-religious grounds, religion ends up being an integral component of the Lockean state, countering human nature’s tendency toward self-interest. Since human nature is self-interested and desires power and dominion over others, appealing to self-interest, while the only proper foundation of government, results in an unstable and uncertain bond to one’s duties to fellow citizens and the community. Individual rights become the primary focus, to the detriment of the political order. With the political order weakened, the rights which give rise to the state cannot be adequately protected. Locke maintains balance in the state and ultimately protects individual rights through religion. Participation in a religious community is a requirement for citizenship in the Lockean state, not because of the truth of religion or to reduce religious conflict, but because it fosters the bond of friendship among the citizens, which is a vital component in creating a community and maintaining the individual’s commitment to their duties.

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