Toleration and the Reconciliation of Conflicting Rights

AuthorStephen L. Newman
Chapter 16
Toleration and the Reconciliation of
Conlicting Rights1
Stephen L. Newman
A. Introduction
Why drag John Locke, a seventeenth-century philosopher, into
        
Well, for one thing, Locke is a famous rights theorist whose semi-
    
of the state in terms of its role as guarantor of individual rights.
Moreover, Locke is also famous for his defence of religious
toleration, which he treats in terms of the right to liberty of con-
   -
us to think about the accommodation of religious diversity in
the face of competing claims of conscience. And since on the
terms of his own argument claims of conscience are put forward
as a matter of right, the way Locke deals with these competing
claims might well have something to tell us about how to handle
         
construction of the state, rights, and toleration still inform our
contemporary practices. As citizens of a modern liberal state, we
1 Originally prepared as “John Locke and the Right to Toleration”
(Paper delivered at the Ontario Human Rights Commission/York
Centre for Public Policy and Law, 5–6 March 2010). I want to thank
my colleagues Martin Breaugh and Les Jacobs for taking the time
to read my paper and offer comments.
Stephen L. Newman
are Locke’s complacent heirs. Sometimes a backwards glance
gives perspective on the present.
B. Locke’s Right to Toleration
In the late seventeenth-century, dissenters from the Protestant
Church of England made up approximately ten percent of the na-
tion. The overwhelming majority of dissenters were themselves
Protestant but differed with the established church over ritual,
liturgy, and dogma. For this they were subject to persecution and
  -
onment to physical torture and death.2
on religious grounds as being in the best interests of the dissent-
ers themselves, whose descent into theological error jeopardized
their chances at personal salvation. Not unimportantly in light
of the recent Civil War, curbing religious dissent was said to serve
the best interests of the nation by arresting the potential for
further sectarian violence against the state.
In the texts now known as the Two Tracts on Government,
written between 1660 and 1663, the young John Locke sided
with the forces of persecution. The Two Tracts defended the mag-
istrate’s authority to compel uniformity in religious worship on
grounds of public expediency. Locke opined that it was the mag-
istrate’s duty “to preserve the public good and keep people in
peace and concord,” a state of affairs he believed to be threat-
ened by the proliferation of “enthusiastic” (fanatical) sects.3
2 See Henry Kamen, The Rise of Toleration (London: World Uni-
versity Library, 1967) at 201–5; and John Marshall, John Locke,
Toleration and Early Enlightenment Culture: Religious Intolerance
and Arguments for Religious Tolerance in Early Modern and
“Early Enlightenment” Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 2006) at 107–115 [Mar shall].
3 John Locke, “Two Tracts on Government” in Mark Goldie, ed.,
Locke: Political Essays (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT