Thursday, January 15, 2009

John Locke on the true foundations of morality

"Our Saviour found mankind under a corruption of manners and principles, which ages after ages had prevailed, and must be confessed was not in a way or tendency to be mended. The rules of morality were, in different countries and sects, different. And natural reason no where had, nor was like to cure the defects and errors in them. Those just measures of right and wrong, which necessity had any where introduced, the civil laws prescribed, or philosophy recommended, stood not on their true foundations. They were looked on as bonds of society, and conveniences of common life, and laudable practices. But where was it that their obligation was thoroughly known and allowed, and the received as precepts of a law, of the highest law, the law of nature? That could not be, without a clear knowledge and acknowledgment of the law-maker, and the great rewards and punishments, for those that would or would not obey him."

John Locke, The Reasonableness of Christianity, par.243

Some of Locke's comments in Reasonableness of Christianity sound surprisingly familiar to someone working in a general framework of "ecclesial" theology or ethics. There is frequent critique of the abilities of "natural" (secular?) reason. Here he discusses the coming of the Messiah as an ethical reconfiguration according to "true foundations", claiming precedence even over juridical or philosophical orders that have at least got something right in what they state. There is also a typical emphasis on universality, which is presumably necessary to establish an ecclesial vision that is not simply one more sectarian polis.

The Reasonableness of Christianity is our first reading for Kathryn Tanner's winter course in the history of Christian thought sequence, so I imagine I'll be posting more from this period (we're reading Locke, Hume, Pascal, Spinoza, Lessing, and Kant) just as I had a succession of quotes and comments on the 19th century this past autumn semester. This post is scheduled for publication on Thursday, so as you read I am very likely battling -27°F windchill on my way to Tanner's lecture and more good commentary to relate at clavi non defixi.


  1. What bothers me about Locke's statement is his implicit assumption that the prescriptions of "civil laws" or the "recommendations of philosophy" are the same thing as "those just measures of right and wrong". I'm not necessarily sure that is the case. An example I've given you before - murder is morally wrong and adultery is morally wrong, but the state only legislates against one of them - murder. The state also commits what are arguably immoral acts - war that doesn't live up to certain moral standards, or deceptions inherent in intelligence policy. The state also legislates about things that are neither moral or immoral - such as speed limits or zoning regulations. So clearly "civil laws" have a completely different aim from enforcing "just measures of right and wrong".

    I'm not as familiar with philosophy - but clearly it is not the same either. Sometimes philosophy answers questions completely independent of their morality. A philosophy of science, for example, may or may not meet ethical strictures that we may wish to apply to scientific research in practice. It's not that philosophy is "immoral" per se - it's just that it's goals are not necessarily to support "just measures of right and wrong".

    So yes - he's right that perhaps philosophy and civil law do not conform to "true foundations" of morality. But who says they're supposed to conform? I think we would do violence to philosophy or civil law if we conceive of their purpose as being narrowly "moral". Sometimes it is just for "conveniences of common life" as he says (such as contract enforcement). I don't see why he views that use of philosophy and civil law as somehow obstructive to true morality. It's not immoral or even obstructive to morality - it simply is a different beast entirely.

    There are lots of social institutions that we don't blame for not propogating morality - we don't blame them for it because it was never their purpose to do that!

  2. I think you're probably jumping to criticism a bit to quickly-- I don't know if Locke is trying to say as much about law or philosophy as you think he is. Is he critiquing law or philosophy for failing to stand "on their true foundations"? No, simply because "that could not be, without a clear knowledge and acknowledgment of the law-maker".

    He doesn't seem to get into whether adultery should be illicit like murder... he is saying, however, that law and philosophy- even as they speak to a case like murder- cannot plumb the moral foundations of it without a knowledge of the (divine) lawmaker and an recognition of ultimate judgment which makes temporal judgment sensible.

    I don't think he's equating "those just measures of right and wrong" with law and philosophy; he says "those just measures... which prescribed, or philosophy recommended". Implying, it seems, that he wasn't talking about those "which were not" prescribed and recommended.

    And when they are prescribed on the basis of societal bond, or convenience of common life, or as laudable practices, he's simply saying that none of these explanations get to the bottom of their moral nature.

    He does seem to say that the moral aspects of law and philosophy depend for their coherence upon a recognition of an ultimate lawmaker and judge, and that might be debated with Locke. But I don't think his arguments falls based on the fact that "the rules of morality were, in different countries and sects, different." He grants that as part of the unevenness of these historical phenomena.

  3. Well - he said:

    "Those just measures of right and wrong, which necessity had any where introduced, the civil laws prescribed, or philosophy recommended, stood not on their true foundations."

    What I'm saying is that clearly the purpose of civil law or philosophy are not to perscribe or recommend morality.

    So when they do - as in outlawing murder - I don't think you can necessarily critique the "true foundations" of that perscription or recommendation on a moral basis - because the civil law or philosophy was not designed with a moral law in mind necessarily. There could be other justifications. They stand just find on their true foundations! Their true foundations simply aren't necessarily univeral morals.

    That's not to say there aren't any coincident occurences. But I think assuming that any civil law that could be conceived of as "moral" has it's foundation in a moral code is dangerous. It may not be. In my mind, it's probably grounded in a code of rights and responsibilities of citizens. The fact that moral codes ALSO prohibit murder doesn't mean a moral code is the basis of civil law.