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  2. John Locke's Politics of Moral Consensus
  3. Taking Locke Seriously | Greg Forster | First Things
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Locke also defends the principle of majority rule and the separation of legislative and executive powers. In the Letter Concerning Toleration , Locke denied that coercion should be used to bring people to what the ruler believes is the true religion and also denied that churches should have any coercive power over their members. Locke elaborated on these themes in his later political writings, such as the Second Letter on Toleration and Third Letter on Toleration.

The natural law concept existed long before Locke as a way of expressing the idea that there were certain moral truths that applied to all people, regardless of the particular place where they lived or the agreements they had made. The most important early contrast was between laws that were by nature, and thus generally applicable, and those that were conventional and operated only in those places where the particular convention had been established.

This distinction is sometimes formulated as the difference between natural law and positive law.

John Locke - a 5-minute summary of his philosophy

Natural law is also distinct from divine law in that the latter, in the Christian tradition, normally referred to those laws that God had directly revealed through prophets and other inspired writers. Thus some seventeenth-century commentators, Locke included, held that not all of the 10 commandments, much less the rest of the Old Testament law, were binding on all people.

Thus there is no problem for Locke if the Bible commands a moral code that is stricter than the one that can be derived from natural law, but there is a real problem if the Bible teaches what is contrary to natural law. In practice, Locke avoided this problem because consistency with natural law was one of the criteria he used when deciding the proper interpretation of Biblical passages. In the century before Locke, the language of natural rights also gained prominence through the writings of such thinkers as Grotius, Hobbes, and Pufendorf.

Whereas natural law emphasized duties, natural rights normally emphasized privileges or claims to which an individual was entitled. They point out that Locke defended a hedonist theory of human motivation Essay 2. Locke, they claim, recognizes natural law obligations only in those situations where our own preservation is not in conflict, further emphasizing that our right to preserve ourselves trumps any duties we may have.

On the other end of the spectrum, more scholars have adopted the view of Dunn, Tully, and Ashcraft that it is natural law, not natural rights, that is primary. They hold that when Locke emphasized the right to life, liberty, and property he was primarily making a point about the duties we have toward other people: duties not to kill, enslave, or steal. Most scholars also argue that Locke recognized a general duty to assist with the preservation of mankind, including a duty of charity to those who have no other way to procure their subsistence Two Treatises 1.


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These scholars regard duties as primary in Locke because rights exist to ensure that we are able to fulfill our duties. Simmons takes a position similar to the latter group, but claims that rights are not just the flip side of duties in Locke, nor merely a means to performing our duties. While these choices cannot violate natural law, they are not a mere means to fulfilling natural law either. Brian Tienrey questions whether one needs to prioritize natural law or natural right since both typically function as corollaries. He argues that modern natural rights theories are a development from medieval conceptions of natural law that included permissions to act or not act in certain ways.

There have been some attempts to find a compromise between these positions. Adam Seagrave has gone a step further. God created human beings who are capable of having property rights with respect to one another on the basis of owning their labor. Another point of contestation has to do with the extent to which Locke thought natural law could, in fact, be known by reason.

In the Essay Concerning Human Understanding , Locke defends a theory of moral knowledge that negates the possibility of innate ideas Essay Book 1 and claims that morality is capable of demonstration in the same way that Mathematics is Essay 3. Yet nowhere in any of his works does Locke make a full deduction of natural law from first premises.

More than that, Locke at times seems to appeal to innate ideas in the Second Treatise 2. Strauss infers from this that the contradictions exist to show the attentive reader that Locke does not really believe in natural law at all. Laslett, more conservatively, simply says that Locke the philosopher and Locke the political writer should be kept very separate. Many scholars reject this position.

That no one has deduced all of natural law from first principles does not mean that none of it has been deduced.

The supposedly contradictory passages in the Two Treatises are far from decisive. While it is true that Locke does not provide a deduction in the Essay , it is not clear that he was trying to. Section 4. Nonetheless, it must be admitted that Locke did not treat the topic of natural law as systematically as one might like.

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Attempts to work out his theory in more detail with respect to its ground and its content must try to reconstruct it from scattered passages in many different texts. Unless these positions are maintained, the voluntarist argues, God becomes superfluous to morality since both the content and the binding force of morality can be explained without reference to God. The intellectualist replies that this understanding makes morality arbitrary and fails to explain why we have an obligation to obey God.

With respect to the grounds and content of natural law, Locke is not completely clear. On the one hand, there are many instances where he makes statements that sound voluntarist to the effect that law requires a law giver with authority Essay 1. Locke also repeatedly insists in the Essays on the Law of Nature that created beings have an obligation to obey their creator ELN 6. On the other hand there are statements that seem to imply an external moral standard to which God must conform Two Treatises 2. Locke clearly wants to avoid the implication that the content of natural law is arbitrary.

Several solutions have been proposed. One solution suggested by Herzog makes Locke an intellectualist by grounding our obligation to obey God on a prior duty of gratitude that exists independent of God. A second option, suggested by Simmons, is simply to take Locke as a voluntarist since that is where the preponderance of his statements point.

A third option, suggested by Tuckness and implied by Grant , is to treat the question of voluntarism as having two different parts, grounds and content.

John Locke's Politics of Moral Consensus

With respect to content, divine reason and human reason must be sufficiently analogous that human beings can reason about what God likely wills. Others, such as Dunn, take Locke to be of only limited relevance to contemporary politics precisely because so many of his arguments depend on religious assumptions that are no longer widely shared. At times, he claims, Locke presents this principle in rule-consequentialist terms: it is the principle we use to determine the more specific rights and duties that all have. At other times, Locke hints at a more Kantian justification that emphasizes the impropriety of treating our equals as if they were mere means to our ends.

With respect to the specific content of natural law, Locke never provides a comprehensive statement of what it requires. In the Two Treatises , Locke frequently states that the fundamental law of nature is that as much as possible mankind is to be preserved. Simmons argues that in Two Treatises 2. Libertarian interpreters of Locke tend to downplay duties of type 1 and 2. Locke presents a more extensive list in his earlier, and unpublished in his lifetime, Essays on the Law of Nature. Interestingly, Locke here includes praise and honor of the deity as required by natural law as well as what we might call good character qualities.

At first glance it seems quite simple.

Taking Locke Seriously | Greg Forster | First Things

On this account the state of nature is distinct from political society, where a legitimate government exists, and from a state of war where men fail to abide by the law of reason. Simmons presents an important challenge to this view. Simmons points out that the above statement is worded as a sufficient rather than necessary condition. Two individuals might be able, in the state of nature, to authorize a third to settle disputes between them without leaving the state of nature, since the third party would not have, for example, the power to legislate for the public good.

Simmons also claims that other interpretations often fail to account for the fact that there are some people who live in states with legitimate governments who are nonetheless in the state of nature: visiting aliens 2. He claims that the state of nature is a relational concept describing a particular set of moral relations that exist between particular people, rather than a description of a particular geographical territory.

The state of nature is just the way of describing the moral rights and responsibilities that exist between people who have not consented to the adjudication of their disputes by the same legitimate government. The groups just mentioned either have not or cannot give consent, so they remain in the state of nature. Thus A may be in the state of nature with respect to B, but not with C.

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According to Simmons, since the state of nature is a moral account, it is compatible with a wide variety of social accounts without contradiction. If we know only that a group of people are in a state of nature, we know only the rights and responsibilities they have toward one another; we know nothing about whether they are rich or poor, peaceful or warlike. Instead, he argued that there are and have been people in the state of nature.

Two Treatises 2. How much it matters whether they have been or not will be discussed below under the topic of consent, since the central question is whether a good government can be legitimate even if it does not have the actual consent of the people who live under it; hypothetical contract and actual contract theories will tend to answer this question differently.

There are important debates over what exactly Locke was trying to accomplish with his theory. One interpretation, advanced by C.