BOTH HOBBES and Spinoza struck their contemporaries as outrageous innovators; to both the label of “atheist”-which was used in seventeenth-century Europe with almost as much accuracy as the label “communist” is used in twentieth-century America-was attached. Spinoza was expelled from the synagogue; Hobbes was attacked by the Anglican clergy. And just because they stand so far from their contemporaries, it is only in a relatively indirect way that they give expression to the common and shared dilemmas of their society. But the questions which they ask, and the values which they embody-different as these are-soon become questions and values which inform a whole way of social life. And in a variety of ways philosophical questions and practical questions come into a closer relationship. In a variety of ways, for differing social circumstances provide relevantly different contexts for the relationship. In France, for example, philosophy in analyzing the concepts of the existing social and political order, those of sovereignty, law, property and the like, becomes critical of those concepts, and so an instrument for criticism of the established order. In England philosophy, in analyzing the concepts of the existing order, often provides a justification for these concepts. The differences between France and England are partly to be explained by the fact that the English social order provides many French writers in the eighteenth century with a model in terms of which to criticize their own society; whereas within England no such model as yet exists, although by the end of the century the French Revolution had enabled France to return the compliment.

Nonetheless, in England we can mark the stages by which one moral scheme was transformed into a largely different one. We can use this history to partially explain how philosophical criticism can have quite different relations to social change in different types of period. There may be forms of society in which a variety of criteria are employed to justify and explain moral, social, and political standards. Do we obey the current rules and seek the current ideals because God authorizes them? Or because they are prescribed by a sovereign with legitimate authority? Or because obeying them is in fact a means to the most satisfying forms of human life? Or because, if we do not, we shall be punished or otherwise harmed by those in power? At a practical level it may be unnecessary and irrelevant to decide between these alternatives. For if the standards which are in the end held to be justified seem to be equally justified no matter what criteria we employ in judging them, then the argument about the appropriate way of justifying our standards will seem to be of purely theoretical import, matter for sharpening wits in the schools, but irrelevant in the field or the market place.

Social change, however, may bring theory out of the schools and not only into the market place but even onto the battle field. For consider what may happen in a social order where sacred and secular, church and state, king and parliament, or rich and poor fall apart. The criteria that used to return the same answers to the questions, What standards ought I to accept and, What ought I to do? now provide several answers derived from the new competition between rival criteria. What God commands or is alleged to command, what has the sanctions of power behind it, what is endorsed by legitimate authority, and what appears to lead to the satisfaction of contemporary wants and needs are no longer the same. That the argument is no longer the same as before may be concealed by the fact that the partisans of different criteria will naturally enough attempt to redefine their rivals out of the field by trying to show with Hobbes that legitimate authority just is victorious power, or with the puritans that what God commands is what we would recognize as satisfying our wants and needs if we were not so totally depraved by sin, or with the royalists that obedience to the king’s legitimate authority is what God commands. Nonetheless, we can recognize that the criteria have fallen apart; and in recognizing this, we recognize the relevance of a class of question which is at once moral and philosophical.

What kind of backing is logically appropriate to moral rules? What kind of warrant do they require? So far we have encountered in the history of ethics at least three main types of answer. The backing of being part of a form of human life in which our desires and dispositions would be formed and trained toward a recognition and pursuit of certain goods (Plato and Aristotle); the backing of being part of a set of divine commandments, obedience to which will be rewarded and disobedience to which will be punished (Christianity); and the backing of being instructed as to what action will produce for us most of what we now want (the sophists and Hobbes). Each of these answers specifies a different morality; and each of them specifies a different logical form and status for moral judgments. For the first, the key concept is “good,” used functionally; and the key judgments are that certain things, sections, or people are good-that is, are well fitted for certain roles or functions in the background picture of social life which this view always has to presuppose. For the second, the key concept is expressed by “Thou shalt,” and the key judgments express consequences of reward and punishment. For the third, the key concepts are those of means to a given end, of our desires as they are; and the key judgments are of corresponding form. It is of course obvious, and has already been stressed, that it is possible to combine and vary these three in all sorts of ways: Aquinas’ blend of Greek and Christian is the most important. But how do we decide between them? Clearly to lay down some logical form as the form of the moral judgment and to rule out others as illegitimate would itself be an arbitrary and illegitimate procedure. But what we can do is to note the theory of human nature and of the physical universe presupposed by each different view; and if we do so the superiority of the Greek view -at least in its Aristotelian form-to either of its rivals appears plain-on at least two counts in respect of Christianity, and on at least one as regards the “actions whose consequences will be most desirable” view. Begin with the latter: quite clearly our desires as they are stand in need of criticism and correction. Those who speak blandly of moral rules as designed to maximize pleasure and minimize pain have apparently never reflected on such questions as whether the pleasure afforded to medieval Christians or modern Germans by persecuting Jews did not perhaps outweigh the pain caused to Jews and therefore justify the persecution. That they did not weigh the merits of this argument is perhaps to their credit morally; but intellectually it means that they have ignored both the possibility of transforming human nature and the means available for criticizing it in the ideals which are implicit not only in the private heroic dreams of individuals, but in the very way actions may be envisaged in a given society. For we do not have to see Aristotle’s ideal life or the ideal of a Christian saint or the ideals of chivalry as private intentions: they are the ideals implicit in the way of life of Greek gentlemen or in that of the early church in its pagan environment or in the institutions of knighthood and war. To detach these ideals from their social environment is to evacuate them of significant content; it was Karl Marx who remarked that what Don Quixote had to learn was that not every economic order is equally compatible with knight errantry. But within their natural social environment these ideals may be used to criticize not only our actions, but our actual aims and desires.

Christianity shares with the Aristotelian view the advantage of not taking our actual desires as given; and it incarnates one moral ideal which is foreign to both the other views, the ideal expressed by saying that somehow or other all men are equal in the sight of God. The dividing line between all moralities which are moralities for a group and all moralities which are moralities for men as such is historically drawn by Christianity. This doctrine in secular form, as a demand for minimum equal rights for all men and hence for a minimum of freedom, is Christianity’s chief seventeenth-century achievement, expressed centrally in the manifesto of the Diggers and in some of the claims of some of the Levellers. The left-wing movements in the parliamentary army in the English civil war express for the first time secular concepts of freedom and equality which break with all traditional forms of social hierarchy. But before we examine these new concepts we must look at what happened to Christianity.

Christianity’s greatest moral weaknesses are two: first, the sheer extent of its metaphysical commitments; and second, the fact that it has to assert that the point and purpose of this life and this world is in the end to be found in another world. As long as men find this life inherently unsatisfactory, so long are they therefore likely to be interested in the Christian claims; but insofar as they do find adequate projects and purposes, their interest is likely to be weakened. And with the expansion of life which is made possible by economic growth, other-worldly religions are, in fact, universally eroded. But even more importantly, belief in a God of any specific kind becomes increasingly a formality-when it is not actually abandoned. There occur side by side a process of intellectual criticism of religious beliefs and a process of social abandonment.

Intellectually, first deists and then skeptics question the possibility of miracles, the truth of the historical narratives in which Christianity is alleged to rest, the traditional proofs of the existence of God, and the intolerance of ecclesiastical morality. Socially, what was a religious morality becomes increasingly a religious form and frame disguising or merely decorating purely secular ideals and pursuits. As a matter of history, the culmination of this process in the eighteenth century is a victory for the morality whose ancestry includes Hobbes and the sophists.

In both England and New England in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries puritanism is transformed from a critique of the established order in the name of King Jesus to an endorsement of the new economic activities of the middle classes. At the end of this process economic man emerges fully fledged; throughout, human nature appears as given, and human need or what is useful to supply it as a single, uncomplicated standard for action. Utility and advantage are treated as clear and perspicuous notions which stand in no further need of justification. We can see this process most clearly exemplified in the writings of Defoe, who was unusually self-aware, and unusually aware, too, of the nature of the times. He sees that the Christianity of the Commonwealth period has evaporated: “. . no such zeal for the Christian religion will be found in our days, or perhaps in any region of the world, till Heaven beats the drums itself, and the glorious legions from above come down on purpose to propagate the work, and reduce the whole world to the obedience of King Jesus-a time which some tell us is not far off, but of which I heard nothing in all my travels and illuminations, no, not one word.”32 Moreover, all Defoe’s heroes are moved by the values of double-entry bookkeeping and human feelings are allowed to enter only into the interstices left by profitability. As Moll Flanders puts it, “with money in the pocket one is at home anywhere.” The little Moor without whom Crusoe could not have escaped from slavery and whom Crusoe had decided “to love ever after” is sold into slavery himself by Crusoe for sixty pieces of eight (admittedly with a promise from the purchaser to free the slave after ten years; provided, of course, that he has been converted to Christianity). The wives of the colonists in The Farther Adventures of Robinson Crusoe are assessed wholly in economic terms. Of Defoe’s characters it is often true that “enjoyment is subordinated to capital; and the individual who enjoys to the individual who capitalizes.” Marx, who wrote this about capitalist human nature, would have appreciated Defoe’s conclusion that usefulness is “the great pleasure, and justly deemed by all good men the truest and noblest end of life, in which men come nearest to the character of our B. Saviour, who went about doing good.”

But the assertion of economic values and the absorption of religious values into them is only one side of the story. I have already noticed the increasing importance in the preceding period of the concept of “the individual.” The individual is now on the scene with a vengeance. Robinson Crusoe becomes the bible of a generation which includes both Rousseau and Adam Smith. The novel with its stress on individual experience and its value is about to emerge as the dominant literary form. Social life becomes essentially an arena for the struggles and conflicts of individual wills. The first ancestor of all these individuals is perhaps Milton’s Satan, who brought Blake over to the devil’s party and has been seen as the first Whig. For Satan’s motto, Non Serviam, marks not merely a personal revolt against God, but a revolt against the concept of an ordained and unchangeable hierarchy. The complexity and interest of Satan lies in the fact that he both has to and cannot reject this hierarchy: the only alternative to service is monarchy; but monarchy implies the hierarchy which revolt rejects. Equally, Satan’s spiritual descendant, Tom Jones, is caught in the same dilemma. Tom Jones wins his Sophia in the end because a mixture of personal quality and sheer good luck enable him to make his way. But at the end, if he is in fact to have his Sophia, it has to be shown that he is really of good birth, that he, too, really belongs by right to the squirearchy. The values of the traditional social hierarchy are only half challenged.

We thus find a form of social life in which a traditional order is challenged by forms of innovation in which liberty and property are twin sides of the same coin. To make one’s way is to make one’s way economically, at least in the first instance. But the badge of success remains acceptance by those already on top in the established order of things. Yet this very mobility in society and this very encounter of two orders breeds questioning of a radical kind. Perhaps the utopian claims for freedom made by the Diggers and Levellers had declined into the freedom of the puritan and ever less puritan merchant. But they remain a specter to haunt the eighteenth century. Hume is appalled by the suggestion of a law which apportions property to those best able to make use of it or to men as men. “But were mankind to execute such a law; so great is the uncertainty of merit, both from its natural obscurity, and from the self-conceit of each individual, that no determinate rule of conduct would ever result from it; and the total dissolution of society must be the immediate consequence. Fanatics may suppose, that dominion is founded on grace, and that saints alone inherit the earth; but the civil magistrate very justly puts these sublime theorists on the same footing with common robbers, and teaches them by the severest discipline, that a rule, which, in speculation, may seem the most advantageous to society, may yet be found, in practice, totally pernicious and destructive. That there were religious fanatics of this kind in England, who claimed an equal distribution of property, were a kind of political fanatic, which arose from the religious species and more openly answered their pretensions. . .”33

Who then were the Levellers and the Diggers? and why do they mark a turning point in the history of morality and produce consequences for philosophical ethics? What is the doctrine of freedom that in the early eighteenth century was temporarily lost or transformed? It is the doctrine that every man has a natural right to certain freedoms simply because he is a man. Diggers and Levellers give different interpretations to this doctrine at the economic level; the Diggers believed in a community of goods, and especially in common ownership of land, the Levellers in private property. The Levellers themselves at different times gave different and inconsistent expressions to this belief at a political level; sometimes they claimed universal manhood suffrage, and sometimes they were prepared to exclude servants and beggars (who in the seventeenth century were probably more than half the male population of England). But always behind their specific claims was the doctrine expressed by Colonel Thomas Rainborough in the Putney debates: “For really I think that the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live as the greatest he; and therefore truly, sir, I think it’s clear, that every man that is to live under a government ought first by his own consent to put himself under that government.”34 Rainborough said this in a debate between the representatives of the Leveller rank and file in the Cromwellian army and Cromwell, Ireton, and other leading officers on Putney Heath in October 1647. The debate was over the political stand that the army should take in settling affairs after the King’s defeat. Ireton and Cromwell wished for a restricted property franchise; to this the reply of Rainborough and others was that in that case the poor men who fought in the parliamentary army were to get nothing for their pains. Instead of exchanging tyranny for liberty they would have exchanged tyranny for tyranny. But had they known this in advance, they would never have fought. The case that Rainborough advanced at Putney in 1647 had a year earlier been expressed in theoretical terms by Richard Overton in his An Arrow Against All Tyrants. “To every Individuall in nature is given an individual property by nature, not to be invaded or usurped by any: for every one as he is himselfe, so he hath a selfe propriety, else could he not be himselfe, and on this no second may presume to deprive any of, without manifest violation and affront to the very principles of nature, and of the Rules of equity and justice between man and man; mine and thine cannot be, except this be; No man hath power over my rights and liberties and I over no mans; I may be but an Individuall, enjoy my selfe, and my selfe propriety, and may write my selfe no more than my selfe, or presume any further; if I doe, I am an encroacher & an invader upon an other mans Right, to which I have no Right.”35

So came the doctrine of natural rights in its revolutionary form into the modern world. Overton’s nature is very different from Hobbes’: the principles of nature as much constrain me from invading the domain of others as they entitle me to resist others who invade my domain. What is my domain? my “selfe”? my “selfe propriety”? The latter word is the immediate ancestor of, but not the same word as property. Overton understood, as Locke was to understand, that I am only able to act as a person insofar as I have a minimal control over things. My knife or my hammer or my pen may not be quite as necessary to me as my hand is, but are necessary in a comparable kind of way. But now what entitles this “selfe” to rights? The attack upon the concept of natural rights normally takes the following form.

A right can only be claimed or exercised in virtue of a rule which entitles a certain class of people to claim or exercise the right. Such rules are intelligible when embodied in some system of positive law, enacted by a sovereign legislature. But outside ordinary positive law the notion of a right appears only to make sense if we suppose a divine lawgiver who has enacted a system of law for the universe. Yet the claim that there are natural rights does not rest on an appeal to divine law, and it does not rest, ex hypothesi it cannot rest, on any appeal to positive law. For the particular legal system does not concede to some individual or class within the community the rights to which he or they are entitled. So, it is argued, alleged “natural rights” do not satisfy the minimal condition necessary for a right to exist and to be recognized. Critics of this kind therefore conclude either that the doctrine of natural rights is inherently confused or that it is just is a way of expressing a moral principle that all men ought to have certain rights recognized and protected by positive law and its sanctions. The latter alternative is certainly mistaken; for when men appeal to the doctrine of natural rights they are never just saying that they ought to enjoy certain rights, they are always attempting to give a reason for holding this. So if this line of criticism is correct, it appears that we ought to conclude that the claim to natural rights is nonsensical. But is it?

If another claims something from me, and does not or cannot invoke positive law to justify his claim, then I can ask him in virtue of what it is that he makes this claim. He might provide such a sufficient justification for his claim if he could establish, first, that I had explicitly or tacitly conceded his right by agreeing to some contract or promise of the form “If you do this, then I will do that,” and if he could establish, second, that he had done for his part whatever it was that the contract specified. That is, anyone who wishes to establish that he has a claim against me as of right may do this is if he is able to show that I have acknowledged a certain contractual obligation and that he has performed whatever is laid down by the contract in question. From this general argument we can now move once more to the doctrine of natural rights.

The essence of the claim to natural rights is that no one has a right against me unless he can cite some contract, my consent to it, and his performance of his obligations under it. To say that I have a right on some point is simply to say that no one may legitimately interfere with me unless he can establish a specific right against me in this way. Thus the function of the doctrine of natural right is to lay down conditions to which anyone who wishes to establish a right against me must conform. And “anyone” here includes the state. It follows that any state which claims rights against me, that is, legitimate authority over me- and my property-must establish the existence of a contract whose form we have already specified in outline, my consent to it, and the state’s performance of its part under the contract. This apparently trivial conclusion throws much light on seventeenth-century-and later-political theory. It explains why the social contract is necessary for anyone who wishes to defend the legitimacy of state power; Hobbes misplaced the role of the contract. It does not and cannot underlie or explain social life as such, for contracts presuppose, as I have already argued, the existence of social life and indeed of some fairly high degree of civilization. But some doctrine of social contract must underlie any claim to legitimacy. In the seventeenth century this claim becomes crucial for state power. In the Middle Ages the legitimacy of the final authority, the sovereign prince, was bound up with all the other ties of obligation and duty binding superiors and inferiors. These ties are by the seventeenth century fatally loosened. Man and man confront one another in an arena where the cash nexus of the free-market economy and the power of the centralizing state have together helped to destroy the social bonds on which traditional claims to legitimacy were founded. But how to legitimate the new order and especially the sovereign power? Claims to divine right and scriptural authority founder on arbitrariness. So the state must fall back on appeal, implicit or explicit, to social contract. But at once two points. The very claims of the state imply and allow a prepolitical (and such is the force of natural) right of the individual over whom authority is asserted to be satisfied that there is a contract, that he has consented to it, and that the state has performed its part. But, of course, normally there is no such contract, for there is no such consent. Individuals have no opportunity for expression of either consent or dissent. Thus the doctrine of natural rights is in this form a key doctrine of liberty. For it shows that most claims of most states to exercise legitimate authority over us are and must be unfounded. That radical consequences for both morals and politics ensue are obvious. It is thus the case that a great step forward in moral and political philosophy was taken by half-forgotten thinkers like Rainborough, Winstanley the Digger, and Overton and other Levellers. That they are forgotten is due to the various ways their doctrine was transmuted in the following generations. Morally, as I have already noticed, the rights of the individual were increasingly connected with the right of freedom in the market economy. Politically, the doctrine of John Locke displaced theirs. But because Locke’s doctrine is as important for morals as for politics, to it we must now turn.