This is part one of a two-part post. In this part, I present some passages from Locke and raise a worry about Locke’s view in those passages. In part two, I will explore two ways to try and resolve the worry on behalf of Locke.
At Washington and Lee’s recent Locke Workshop (organized by Jessica Gordon-Roth), a presentation by Emily Crookston (“Making Sense of Mixed Modes: Reconciling Locke’s Metaphysics and His Moral Philosophy”) involved some interesting discussion of Locke’s polemic against innate practical principles. Crookston’s paper argued that some challenges to Locke’s moral theory are misguided because they presuppose that Locke was engaged in a different sort of project than he actually was, and she argued that his actual project precluded him from feeling the force of challenges centered around certain foundational issues in meta-ethics (I hope I’ve summarized that correctly. I can’t find my copy of the handout to verify my memory here).
The thing I usually find myself thinking about, when it comes to Essay 1.3, is Locke’s distinction between “inclinations of the Appetite to good” vs. “Impressions of truth on the Understanding” (1.3.3). Here Locke claims that our desire for happiness and aversion to misery are innate practical principles, but not in the sense that he is contesting in 1.3, because they are not suitably influential on our knowledge or accessible by the understanding. A bit of the text I hadn’t previously paid as much attention to, which was discussed during and after Crookston’s talk, is 1.3.4-6. My thoughts in this blog post aren’t directly related to the substance of Crookston’s talk, so I won’t continue to frame them in terms of it, but they do connect to some of the things she raised in her discussion, and so I wanted to cite her talk as something of a prompt for this blog post. Here’s the text of 1.3.4:
Another Reason that makes me doubt of any innate practical Principles, is, That I think, there cannot any one moral Rule be propos’d, whereof a Man may not justly demand a Reason: which would be perfectly ridiculous and absurd, if they were innate, or so much as self-evident; which every innate Principle must needs be, and not need any Proof to ascertain its Truth, nor want any Reason to gain it Approbation. He would be thought void of common Sense, who asked on the one side, or on the other side went about to give a Reason, Why it is impossible for the same thing to be, and not to be. It carries its own Light and Evidence with it, and needs no other Proof: He that understands the Terms assents to it for its own sake, or else nothing will ever be able to prevail with him to do it. But should that most unshaken Rule of Morality, and Foundation of all social Virtue, That one should do as he would be done unto, be propos’d to one, who never heard it before, but yet is of capacity to understand its meaning; Might he not without any absurdity ask a Reason why? And were not he that propos’d it, bound to make out the Truth and Reasonableness of it to him? Which plainly shews it not to be innate; for if it were, it could neither want nor receive any Proof: but must needs (at least, as soon as heard and understood) be received and assented to, as an unquestionable Truth, which a Man can by no means doubt of. So that the truth of all these moral Rules, plainly depends upon some other antecedent to them, and from which they must be deduced, which could not be, if either they were innate, or so much as self-evident.
One argument that Locke seems to be offering in this passage is this:
- For any practical principle P, if P is innate, then P is self-evident.
- For any practical principle P, if P is self-evident, then it would not be justified to demand a reason for P.
- For any practical principle P, there are some circumstances in which it would be justified to demand a reason for P.
- So, no practical principles are self-evident.
- So, no practical principles are innate.
I’ve been careful to separate premises (1) and (2), here, because even though Locke’s target is the innateness claim, the bulk of this passage is really targeting a self-evidence claim. Because we know that Locke does not think the principle “it is impossible for the same thing to be, and not to be” is innate (he spent much of 1.2 arguing that), but does allow it to be self-evident. So, crucially, this argument depends on something over and above what Locke is willing to claim regarding innate principles in general. This post is motivated by my worries about the key premise in this argument: premise (3).*
The worry is whether this is a tenable position for Locke (or anyone) to take. Specifically, how can Locke can maintain both (a) that no “moral rules” are self-evident, and (b) that the “moral rules” he offers as examples are to be “deduced” from other “antecedents”. Put another way, the worry is that we need some self-evident moral rules in any to have any derived or deduced moral rules. To bring out this worry, it will help to examine the moral rules Locke offers as examples, as well as at the sorts of reasons Locke discusses as being offered by various folks to justify these moral rules.
One way to put the worry is this: A deduced or derived moral rule (call this the “target rule) can only be deduced or derived from the conjunction of (a) some more general moral rule and (b) some premise (not itself a moral rule) whose truth renders the target rule an instance of the more general rule. Before I can clearly articulate why I think this is so, it will help to get a bit more of Locke’s discussion on the table.
Locke’s examples of “moral rules” from 1.3.4 and 1.3.5 are “that one should do as he would be done unto” and “that men should keep their compacts”. For our purposes, I am going to (hastily) generalize, and treat moral rules as equivalent to (moral) should/ought claims. Essay 1.3.5 is a short section which canvasses the variety of answers he thinks people would give in response to the (just) demand for reasons behind the latter of these moral rules:
That Men should keep their Compacts, is certainly a great and undeniable Rule in Morality: But yet, if a Christian, who has the view of Happiness and Misery in another Life, be asked why a Man must keep his Word, he will give this as a Reason: Because God, who has the Power of eternal Life and Death, requires it of us. But if an Hobbist be asked why; he will answer: Because the Publick requires it, and the Leviathan will punish you, if you do not. And if one of the old Heathen Philosophers had been asked, he would have answer’d: Because it was dishonest, below the Dignity of a Man, and opposite to Vertue, the highest Perfection of humane Nature, to do otherwise.
Concerning the question “Why should I keep my compacts?”, the three answers Locke considers are:
- C: Because God (who has the power of eternal life and death) requires it of you.
- H: Because society requires it of you, and society will punish you for not doing so.
- S: Because human dignity and virtue requires it of you.
Note that the first two options both involve reference to punishment (which is not surprising given Locke’s stance that we cannot make sense of duties without conceiving of law, a law-maker, and punishment and reward). Even the third option, I think, is supposed to implicitly reference reward and punishment, since, immediately after canvassing this list of responses, Locke (Essay 1.3.6), describes these answers as varying among people “according to the different sorts of happiness, they have a Prospect of, or propose to themselves.”
Interestingly, but not of direct relevance to this post, the three answers here seem to roughly correspond to the three types of law that Locke articulates: Divine Law (concerning sin and duty), Civil Law (concerning crime and innocence), and the Law of Opinion or Reputation (concerning virtue and vice). Of course, they are not being offered in that regard here, since they are being proposed as competing explanations for the truth of the rule that one should keep one’s compacts, but I was struck by the parallel.
Back to the point at hand: Locke’s favored answer to the justificatory demand is (C). He does not endorse it outright in 1.3.5, though he does fall into the category of person who he says would offer such an answer (that being Christians), and seems to tacitly endorse it throughout the remainder of 1.3. But now, suppose we consider the exchange between the person demanding reason for the rule (i.e. the Questioner), and Locke’s preferred respondent (i.e. the Christian):
- Q: Why should I keep my compacts?
- C: Because God (who has the power of eternal life and death) requires it of you.
- Q: But, why should I do what God requires of me?
I am understanding Q to be going along with the claim that God (who has the power to grant or withhold eternal life) does indeed require people to keep their compacts, but Q still wants to know why that has a bearing on what Q should do. C has, basically, two options, it seems: Either, C can put their foot down, and insist that there is no explanation for why one should do what God requires of them, or, C can regard the question as legitimate, and try to offer some reason why one should do what God requires of them. C’s reply is simply to tell Q that keeping one’s compacts falls into the category, “what God requires of you”. But, Q takes C to be implicitly offering as the full answer: “Because (a) keeping your compacts is something God requires of you, and (b) you should do what God requires of you”. I think Q is correct to understand C’s answer this way. Without (b) there to help, (a) doesn’t really suffice as an explanation of the target rule. Now, if C puts their foot down, and says there is no explanation for why one should do what God requires of them, then we have a moral rule that is being treated as self-evident. In other words, if C rejects Q’s follow-up question as illegitimate, than we violate Locke’s position that no “should” claim is self-evident. On the other hand, if we take the other route, we’ve only pushed things back one level. For Q’s second question would then have to be answered by appealing to another more general** moral rule, of which “You should do what God requires of you” is a particular instance.
One point I want to make briefly, is that C’s answer could be taken in a more egoistic light, rather than in a more divine command theoretic light. But, in that case, the more general rule appealed to is something like, “One should do what is in one’s best interest”. And the exchange could proceed similarly. While it might be harder to imagine someone asking why they should pursue their own best interest, than to imagine someone asking why they should do as God requires of them, they still face the same dilemma of either (a) violating Locke’s ban on self-evident moral rules, or (b) merely pushing the dialectic back one step to another moral rule.
To recap: Locke claims that every moral rule demands justification. But, what one does in justifying a moral rule looks like it involves the invocation of a more basic/more general moral rule. Consequently, it looks like we either need some basic moral rules, which are not themselves going to receive explanations, or we have to give up on moral rules altogether.
When I set out to write this post, I thought this was going to conclude that Locke was mistaken in offering this line of argument. Over the course of typing it out though, I think I have sorted out some interesting ways to resolve the problem in Locke’s favor. Rather than scrap this post entirely—if you can’t be wrong on a blog, where can you be wrong?—or allow it to get even longer than it is—it is clearly too long already—I figured I would wrap it up, leaving it as the presentation of my worry, and save my thoughts on how to resolve it for another post.
*This is not to suggest that one cannot find grounds for concern against premises (1) and (2). Someone proposing the sort of account of innate ideas suggested by Leibniz in the New Essays, on which they are implicit principles, rather than explicit ones, for instance, would resist steps earlier than (3), but those are concerns that apply across the board, not simply to Locke’s account of innate practical principles.
**I have been referring to the rule appealed to in the explanation as “more general” because in most cases of explaining a moral rule, this is the case. However, it is possible for the target rule and the rule used in the explanation to be equally general, while differing in terms of some other feature: For instance, if one thinks that one should always do what is in one’s own best interest, and that one should also do what God requires of us, it may be that both rules are equally general, in that every instance in which one of the rules applies is also an instance in which the other applies, but one could still think that the egoistic rule, combined with God’s power over the afterlife, explains the rule of divine requirement. This shouldn’t interfere with anything I want to say about the situation for Locke.