Hedonistic Motivations

In Locke's second-edition treatment of the issue, these causes are clear: human volition is a mental preference that is invariably determined by the greatest present uneasiness attendant upon desire. The presence of pain and the absence of pleasure now, along with the anticipation of either in the future, induce in us a feeling of uneasiness that can be satisfied only by removing the pain or achieving the pleasure.

Although we commonly experience many such desires at the same time, each proportional to the degree of pleasure or pain and the likelihood of its production, one among them always overcomes all of the others, and this most pressing uneasiness is the one that determines the will to act in such a way as to resolve it. [Essay II xxi 29-32]

If human agents were ever perfectly content in every respect, Locke supposed, they would have no volition and take no action; lacking nothing, they would experience none of the uneasiness that expresses itself in a desire that determines the will to produce a change of circumstances.

Thus, the recurrent uneasinesses of hunger and thirst are providential provisions for our survival because they determine our wills toward eating and drinking. Since each uneasiness is experienced as an obstacle to the achievement of happiness, desire for its removal determines the will unless there is another source of uneasiness that overcomes it. [Essay II xxi 34-36]

According to Locke, the simple ideas of pleasure and pain invariably accompany all of our other perceptions, as the delight or uneasiness we experience along with contemplation of every sensory and reflective object of thought. This is a significant provision for the conduct of life, since our native desire for happiness and aversion to misery are thereby guided in determining our wills toward certain thoughts and actions and away from others. This is why we eat good-tasting food and don't burn ourselves on hot stoves.

What is more, Locke supposed that our experience of varying degrees of pleasure and pain not only serves us well in this life but also engenders our hope of a better life hereafter. [Essay II vii 1-6] It even provides us with some confidence about the real existence of the external world, since the immediate perception of pleasure and pain is the kind of experience whose involuntary insistence communicates most surely its origin in a source outside ourselves. [Essay IV xi 6-8]

It is from successive compounding of these simple ideas, Locke supposed, that we frame the complex ideas of human passions of every sort-love, hate, desire, joy, sorrow, hope, fear, despair, anger, and envy are all modes of pleasure and pain, considered together with notions about the specific circumstances of their origin. [Essay II xx]

On this account of human motivation, the practical efficacy of our morality of good and evil depends upon their perception as pleasure or pain. If it is to have any genuine motive force, moral value, like natural benefit, must ultimately be defined in terms of pleasure and pain. ["Of Ethics in General" 7-8]

Good and evil generally are to be considered nothing more than tendencies to produce pleasure and pain, Locke held, and moral good and evil are nothing other than special instances of this association, the reward and punishment artificially annexed by a powerful legislator as the consequences that follow from human actions by virtue of their conformity with or difference from the dictates of moral law. [Essay II xviii 5]

The central problem for Locke's hedonism is the human tendency toward a myopic appreciation of our own welfare. Since only present uneasiness can determine the will, the future moral consequences of our actions motivate us only through our present contemplation of the pleasure or pain that they will produce. All too often, our delight in an immediate pleasure or our satisfaction with the removal of an immediate pain override the motive force of remote future consequences. [Essay II xxi 59-64]

Pursuit of Happiness

The effort to deal with this problem was central to the second-edition account of human volition. Locke withdrew his earlier claim that "the greater Good is that alone which determines the will" in favor of the view that the uneasiness of desire is the proximate cause of every volition, and this requires some careful explanation. [Essay II xxi 42]

For readers who might well have preferred the high ground of the earlier doctrine, Locke emphasized that contemplation of an absent future good can still have motive force, but insisted that it can do so only through the mediation of the present uneasiness it induces in us.

The difficulty, then, lies in the failure of a perfect proporionality between the felt uneasiness and the greatness of the contemplated good: if it were not so, then mere contemplation of "the infinite eternal joys of Heaven" would invariably motivate us to act only in the achievement of that long-term goal, whereas in fact it is commonly overcome by some trifling yet immediate desire. [Essay II xxi 31-38]

Locke certainly agreed that pursuit of lasting happiness is more important to human life than merely momentary pleasure, but he noted how easily it can get lost among the welter of daily human motives. Pain being felt in the moment always contributes to our present misery, while contemplation of the deferred gratification we hope to achieve from future rewards is not always experienced as present happiness. The onslaught of desires for the more immediate needs of life, as a matter of practical necessity and acquired habit, commonly leaves little room for concern about remotely future goods. [Essay II xxi 43-45]

The natural tendency toward determination of the will by the most pressing immediate uneasiness is not inevitable, Locke proposed, since human agents possess the further capacity "to suspend the execution and satisfaction" of their desires. By providing ample opportunity for reflection upon the relative importance of each desire, this suspencsion of the will in deliberation is vital for the proper conduct of human life. [Essay II xxi 46-47]

Like someone who stands still, consults a guide, and then proceeds, we suspend volition, examine our desires, and permit our wills to be determined by the result. The free agent's ability to distinguish real from imagined happiness by due examination therefore rests squarely upon the capacity to suspend the satisfaction of immeditate desires.

Once we have undertaken the appropriate deliberation during this period of suspension, Locke held, we have done our duty, and it is right to act upon the volition to which our wills are determined as a result. [Essay II xxi 51-53]

Here Locke distinguished two ways in which a motivating uneasiness may arise in us: either through the immediate effect of an external cause, or through the more lasting consequences to be gained through deliberate contemplation of our future rewards. Moral failure, then, results less often from individual perversity than from excessive haste, which may prevent us from appreciating the present conditions for our future happiness or misery.

(Thus, for example, the abstemious Locke supposed that no one would drink too much if the unpleasant future effects of over-indulgence were experienced in the present as vividly as the immediate pleasure of imbibing.) So long as the extent, degree, and certainty of future consequences are not duly evaluated in the suspended state of careful deliberation, we will commonly act in ways that confound rather than produce the happiness we all naturally seek.

Securing our genuine, long-term welfare requires cultivation of the habit of deliberative judgment, during which we focus upon the likelihood of suffering the punishments or gaining the rewards attached to contemplated actions by the moral law. [Essay II xxi 57-70] ©1999-2002 Garth Kemerling.Last modified 27 October 2001.Questions, comments, and suggestions may be sent to:

Moral Agents

Three years after the Essay was published, Locke's friend William Molyneux wrote from Ireland with several suggestions. Although he greatly admired Locke's achievment, Molyneux proposed recasting it as a scholastic textbook on logic and metaphysics, with a supplementary volume dealing more fully with human action and morality. Specifically, Molyneux invited his friend to "Insist more particularly and at Large on ?terna Veritates and the Principium Individuationis." [Corr. 1609] Locke and Molyneux clearly shared a conviction that the attribution of moral responsibility and the justice of moral sanctions depends upon the persistent identity of the moral agent.

But in the Essay's first edition, Locke had pointed out two significant difficulties: First, of course, he denied that the personal identity of moral agents can be known innately. [Essay I iii 3-5] Secondly, he had argued that Cartesian dualism cannot adequately ground personal identity on the substantial identity of the soul, the body, or their composite. [Essay II i 11-12] Now Molyneux demanded that Locke provide an account of his own, and a few months later, he had prepared a draft of a new chapter (what would become II xxvii) for the second edition of the Essay. [Corr. 1655]

Sortal Identity

The basic notion of identity (and diversity) arises from the simple fact that no two things of the same kind can co-exist in the same place; extended through time, this entails that every individual must have a spatio-temporal history that is unique among others of its kind. [Essay II xxvii 1] Thus, Locke held, From what has been said, 'tis easy to discover, what is so much enquired after, the principium Individuationis, and that 'tis plain is Existence it self, which determines a Being of any sort to a particular time and place incommunicable to two Beings of the same kind.

[Essay II xxvii 3] Of course, we can make intuitive judgments of identity and diversity only if our ideas of the thing or things involved are clear, but the crucial insight of Locke's theory of identity is that it must be applied sortally, with respect to things belonging to a common kind. No matter what in particular happens to constitute the very existence of a thing as it is conceived under a sortal term and the complex idea it signifies, Locke supposed, the identity of that thing through time just is its continued existence as a thing of this sort.

[Essay II xxvii 28-29] On Locke's view, then: God continuously exists unchanged in all places and at all times; each finite spirit begins to exist and continues to exist distinctly from every other thinking thing; particular bodies must each have their own unique spatio-temporal histories; non-substantial modes and relations typically persist as features of one or more substances; and even composite objects derive their identity from the collection of things that constitute them. Although any of these varieties of "thing" may coexist with any of the others, each uniquely occupies its own "space" within the sort of which it is a member. [Essay II xxvii 2-3]

Although living things similarly comprise a collection of material particles, Locke carefully noted, their persistence through time depends less upon the preservation of the same collection than upon the pattern of organization it exhibits at different times. The full-grown horse is the same animal as the colt of a few years hence, and the mighty oak is the same tree as the sapling of a century ago, even though the particular bits of matter each includes are distinct.

What matters in such cases, according to Locke, is the continuous (vegetable or animal) "Life" of the thing, the organization of material parts in a way that creates and preserves its most characteristic functions in the world. [Essay II xxvii 3-5]

The identity of an individual human being ("Man") rests upon exactly the same foundation in Locke's theory. Human beings should be defined not by their rationality (else we be forced to call the rational Brazilian parrot a man) nor by their presumed annexation to an immaterial soul (else the same man may exist in different centuries) but rather as living animals of a particular species, with its characteristic structure and function.

But then human identity is just animal identity: at any one time, there is a collection of material parts organized in a fashion suitable for the support of human life, and that life persists through the continuation of this pattern of organization even when its particular material constituents are successively annexed and removed. I am the same human being as my mother's first-born child, despite the obvious alterations of a half-century, because my "life"-understood as an ongoing principle of organization-has been continuous. [Essay II xxvii 6-8]