Grounds For Moral Reasoning

Given their great importance for human life, practical principles would be among the best candidates for special status as innately provided by a benevolent creator; but, of course, Locke held that there is no innate human knowledge. Lists of purportedly innate practical principles-like the ones noted by Lord Herbert-are in fact neither universally accepted nor reliably productive of correct conduct.

The open, remorseless disavowal of moral principles in various cultures, along with the open question for their justification, is ample evidence that they are not truly innate. [Essay I iii 11-19] Only the desires to achieve happiness and to avoid misery are both genuinely universal among human agents and practically effective in guiding their conduct, Locke argued, so it is only the natural tendency to seek pleasure and avoid pain that might reasonably be held to be innate.

To the extent that appropriate patterns of human conduct are found to be in widespread conformity with morality, he supposed, it is only in virtue of a providential association of moral rectitude with more short-sighted perception of personal and public welfare. [Essay I iii 3-6] Apart from these general inclinations, he believed, nothing about human morality is universally acknowledged.

Nevertheless, Locke was no moral relativist. Human moral discourse is subject to the kind of perfect precision that should yield the possibility of demonstrable truth. In principle, moral terms-which describe the varieties of human action and delimit the degrees of their rectitude in relation to moral law-are all perfectly definable, since each signifies a mixed mode whose determinate content is secured by its manufacture in the mind. [Essay III xi 15-17]

Although intellectual laziness, malicious arrogance, and culpable self-interest often render moral discourse problematic, Locke believed that careful, dispassionate attention to the complex ideas involved should produce demonstrable moral reasoning.

The mixed modes of human action are complex ideas derived from recombination of the simple ideas of thinking, moving, and power, so all the vocabulary of "Divinity, Ethicks, Law, and Politics" can be derived ultimately from our simple ideas of sensation and reflection. [Essay II xxii 10, 12] But notice that these ideas, and the words that signify them, can be fully formed in the mind independently of their actual instantiation.

We can know what sacrilege and resurrection would be without experiencing their occurrence; we choose to define single words for "murder" and "stabbing" but not for other ideas equally familiar in experience; but we form abstract ideas of those human actions to which we most commonly refer, whether or not they frequently occur. [Essay III v 5-7]

Thus, on Locke's view, such moral ideas as those of obligation, drunkenness, or lying, are formed by combining simple ideas from the mental and physical aspects of human nature without ever supposing that anything conforming to the new composite has ever existed. [Essay II xxii 1] This detachment from questions of real existence, Locke believed, is crucial for establishing the demonstrable status of human morality.

Demonstrable Rules

The moral rectitude of actions of a particular sort, Locke held, is wholly constituted by the demonstrable relation between our clear ideas of such actions and the equally clear conception of the moral law. Indeed, this relation is often so obvious-as, for example, in the cases of "murder" and "theft"-that the moral condemnation comes easily to be included as a part of our complex idea of the action itself. [Essay II xxviii 14-16]

Because both my contemplated action and the moral rule can be abstractly conceived as mixed modes, the applicability of this rule to that action can be determined with perfect certainty. It is a further question whether or not the moral rule itself is demonstrably true.

Locke believed that it often is. To be sure, reliance upon an axiomatic deduction of morality from a fixed set of putatively indubitable first principles would be neither effective nor intellectually sound. [Essay IV xii 4-5] Nevertheless, demonstration is possible in principle wherever we have clear ideas, and Locke was careful to emphasize that indubitable knowledge of relations does not presuppose perfect clarity with respect to the relata.

We might know that one automobile is faster than another, for example, even if we had little information about the mechanical differences that produce this result. Our awareness of relations commonly rises to a level of certainty greater than our knowledge of the things among which they hold. [Essay II xxv 4-8]

What counts toward demonstrability, on Locke's view, is the possibility of perceiving intermediate links between our ideas. Since the mixed modes of human action and the concepts of moral rules are both abstract ideas that serve as their own archetypes, it follows that the relations between them are fully demonstrable. [Essay IV iv 7-9] In this respect, at least, morality is on an equal footing with mathematics.

Where there is no Property, there is no Injustice, is a Proposition as certain as any Demonstration in Euclid: For the Idea of Property, being a right to any thing; and the Idea to which the name Injusticeis given, being the Invasion or Violation of that right; it is evident, that these Ideas being thus established, and these Names annexed to them, I can as certainly know this Proposition to be true, as that a Triangle has three Angles equal to two right ones.

Again, No Government allows absolute Liberty: The Idea of Government being the establishment of Society upon certain Rules or Laws, which require Conformity to them; and the Idea of absolute Liberty being for any one to do whatever he pleases; I am as capable of being certain of the Truth of this Proposition, as of any in Mathematicks. [Essay IV iii 18]

The apparent advantage of mathematical over moral reasoning, Locke speculated, rests only on the relative ease with which we can represent mathematical relationships in perspicuous diagrams and the relative absence of partisan concerns. Were we to approach moral reasoning with the same degree of objectivity we commonly bring to mathematical thinking, he argued, we would achieve the same quality of demonstrable certainty about substantive moral truths. [Essay IV iii 19-20]

Varieties of Moral Law

In general, Locke held that the mental comparisons comprising our ideas of relations are significant for the practical conduct of life. Natural relations among human beings, like the various degrees of blood-kinship, for example, commonly carry the presumption of some special obligation toward other members of our families. Instituted relations based on social agreement ground the governance of human societies, as we'll see in detail in a few weeks.

But moral relations are most vital of all, so that the very descriptions of human action under our ideas of mixed modes commonly carry with them an implicit reference to the moral law under which they are commanded or proscribed. [Essay II xxviii 2-4] Moral valuation, on Locke's view, derives from the demonstrable connections that hold among the ideas of duty,

law, legislator, and sanction. [Essay I iii 12-13] Since no moral law could determine human volition and thereby influence human actions practically without careful provision for punishment and reward as artificial consequences of disobedience and obedience, it follows that moral legislation must derive from legislation by intelligent beings with the power to enforce their dictates by appropriate moral sanctions. On this basis, Locke distinguished three basic types of moral law by reference to the legislative source of each: divine law, civil law, and the law of opinion or reputation. [Essay II xxviii 6-7]

The divine law arises from God's right as creator to dictate morality to all creatures of his own making, his wisdom and benevolence guiding them toward what is best, and his power to enforce this law by distributing in the hereafter punishments and rewards that are both infinite in extent and eternal in duration. Thus, Locke held that the resulting distinction between duty and sin is "the only true Touchstone of moral Rectitude," founded upon the ultimate happiness or misery attached by God to actions of particular sorts. [Essay II xxviii 8]

Thus, Locke held that denial of God's existence, moral legislation, or control over eternal life can only be attributed to an irrational hope of escaping moral law and the divinely ordained consequences of sin, since no one who professes such outrageous opinions is observed to live a life in accord with the Golden Rule. [King, p. 90]

In the second edition of the Essay, Locke carefully noted that the divine law may be known either through revelation or by the manifest light of natural law. In either case, he supposed, the divine law guides human conduct so obviously toward genuine happiness and away from profound misery that even public opinion and private interest commonly defer to its force: even those who behave badly themselves often praise or blame others by reference to the genuine criterion. [Essay II xxviii 8, 11]

The civil law derives its force from the legislation of a government to which its citizens have already consented. Since the commonwealth has been formed for the purpose of protecting "the Lives, Liberties, and Possessions" of its citizens, it has the power to take away any or all of these goods in punishment for the crimes of disobeying its rules of conduct. [Essay II xxviii 9] Although its penalties are more limited than the infinite sanctions of divine law, Locke supposed, their certainty and immediacy provide a secure basis for enforcement of the civil law.

Finally, the distinction between virtue and vice belongs only to the law of opinion or reputation and is sanctioned only by the praise or blame of others. Although public opinion always praises the virtuous, Locke noted, the standards of virtue and vice vary widely among different cultures, though some degree of conformity to the rational dicates of natural law is always to be expected. Although this level of moral law derives from a source no more significant than what other people happen to think, the threat of "Condemnation or Disgrace" from one's fellows is a powerful motivation for many human agents; few of us willingly invoke the disapprobation of others. [Essay II xxviii 10-12]

The emphasis on punishment and reward in these accounts of moral law draws attention to an important distinction between the grounds of moral obligation and the motivation for obeying it, both of which derive from the legislator. We are morally bound to obey because the creator has a right to command, but we are practically moved to obey because God has the power to punish us if we don't.

The practical force of morality-its capacity to determine volition and influence action-derives from the punishments and rewards that secure our compliance. Thus, Locke argued, good and evil are nothing other than pleasure and pain; moral good and evil are just the pleasure and pain artificially annexed to obedience and disobediance by the decree of the powerful legislator. [Essay II xxviii 5-6]

Moral motivation requires only that a rational agent consider the possibility of future pleasure or pain that will result from present actions, and Locke believed that the prospect of eternal happiness or misery ought therefore to weigh upon us at least as firmly as more short-term expectations. [Essay II xxi 70]

Human Action

The first edition of the Essay included a brief chapter, "Of Power," dealing with the nature of human volition. Despite the admiration of his friends, Locke expressed both surprise at the direction his thoughts had taken and confusion about the apparent incompatibility of divine omnipotence with human freedom. [Corr. 1592] Revisions made for the second edition made II xxi the longest chapter in the Essay.

Locke boasted about his willingness, as a sincere "Lover of Truth," to change his views publicly, yet confessed his remaining puzzlement about the more perplexing aspects of our abilities to think and to move, to produce changes in other things either by performing direct action or by forbearing so to do. [Essay II xxi 71-72] Since human action is "the great business of Mankind" on Locke's view, and since moral responsibility is commonly taken to presuppose some degree of freedom, it is vital for his task to seek some clarity on the nature of human action.

Freedom and Responsibility

Development of a basic vocabulary for the issue seems clear enough at first. The quasi-relational simple idea of power is present as an element of our observation of any case of change, both as the active force that produces the alteration and as the passive capacity of that which is changed. Since bodies most clearly exhibit the passive power to receive and communicate motion by impulse, our idea of the active power to initiate action derives primarily from reflection upon our own mental operations as we think or move ourselves. [Essay II xxi 1-5]

This, Locke held, is the power of volition, or the human will.

The liberty of a moral agent is just its further power either to perform or to forbear any action of thinking or moving according to its own mental preference. Clearly thought, volition, and will are all necessary conditions for having this kind of liberty, but on Locke's view they are not even jointly sufficient, since genuine liberty always presupposes the additional possibility of doing otherwise.

Even on those occasions when I do exactly what I want to do, I am not acting freely if there is something that would make me do this whether or not I willed it. It makes no difference whether the determinative force comes from outside me or from the internal operations of my own body, according to Locke, nor whether in compels me to perform an action that might be contrary to my volition or restrains me from performing an action that might be in conformity with my volition. Freedom is the power to do otherwise if my volition were to change. [Essay II xxi 7-13]

Although he never addressed the issue directly in the Essay itself, Locke confessed to Molyneux in correspondence that he found it difficult to reconcile the moral freedom of human agents with the presumed omnipotence and omniscience of God. [Corr. 1592]

Notice that on this account of liberty, the cause or explanation of the volition itself is irrelevant, since it is the agent (not the will) that is free. Human beings act freely just insofar as they are capable of translating their mental preferences to do or not to do into their actual performance or forbearance of the action in question. The ability to do as one wills is all that any moral agent could reasonably expect. [Essay II xxi 19-21]

Clarity of language, Locke proposed, would forestall the vaunted philosophical dispute about "free will." Since the will is just a power to contemplate possible actions in light of our mental preferences regarding them while liberty is the further power to perform actions in accordance with these preferences, it would be a category mistake to attribute one power to the other.

It is only the agent that has the power to will and the power to act, so it is only the agent that is free, not the will. [Essay II xxi 14-16] A demand for freedom of the will is therefore not only absurd but ultimately fatalistic. In particular situations, we must either perform an action or not, and our freedom in doing so is secured in the power to do as we will.

If this prior volition were itself another free "action," then it would have to be preceded by yet another, and so on: freedom would be acting in accordance with a volition that was itself freely performed in accordance with a wish that was freely undertaken, etc., etc. . . . ad infinitum. The vicious infinite regress would render freedom impossible. [Essay II xxi 22-25]

What is more, free will would be irrelevant to moral responsibility. Since human liberty is the capacity to act as one wills, agents act freely even when their wills have been determined, so they remain morally responsible and may be justly punished for those actions. [Essay II xxi 56]

In a lengthy correspondence with his Dutch friend Philippus van Limborch, Locke repeatedly insisted that emphasis upon the supposed "indifferency" of the will is theologically unsound and morally mistaken. [Corr. 2925, 2979, 3043, 3192] Only the insignificant actions of the insane are truly indifferent, on Locke's view, and the determination of volition is a necessary condition for undertaking any meaningful human action.

The more surely volition is determined toward pursuit of the good, the happier the agent will be. (God, for example, is supposed to be perfectly determined to the good, yet is surely also supposed to be free.) In the same way, a proper understanding of the causes of human volition will enhance, not undermine, confidence in our moral accountability. [Essay II xxi 48-50]