Appealing to Heaven: Jephthah, John Locke, and Just War

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Abstract: This paper asks why John Locke relied so heavily on the biblical exemplum of Jephthah in the “Second Treatise of Government.” The proposed answer is that Locke took Jephthah to stand for the situation of judgment about the validity of norms under uncertainty. It was the contention of norms in a moment of potential warfare, not the absence of applicable norms, that Jephthah symbolized. On this specific point, Locke fits within a tradition of Protestant invocations of the story. If so, there was no need for Locke’s political theory to follow the details of the Jephthah story in other particulars. The paper pursues this argument by attributing to Locke a distinction between subjective conviction and objective validity, the latter of which he thought God alone could judge.

Biography: Samuel Moyn, professor of history at Columbia University, teaches European history and human rights history. His new book, The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History is being published by Harvard University Press in fall 2010.

Volume 4, Number 3 (Summer 2009) pp. 286–303