Locke, John (1632–1704)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DA054-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved December 10, 2018, from

9. Ethics, motivation and free will

With Locke’s conviction that a demonstrative ethics is possible went a belief that what stood in its way was the deplorable slipperiness, openly encouraged by the practice of rhetoric, of a moral language in which terms are not consistently tied to ideas (see §5 of this entry). Both were consonant with his apparently early conviction that Natural Law theory, as pursued by such as Hooker and Grotius, is capable of development into a full account of our duties to God and our fellows – even though he had first seen Natural Law as empirically based (see §3 of this entry). But Natural Law theory also gave him what could not be supplied by the conception of a quasi-geometrical system of rights and duties flowing from the definitions of mixed modes and relations: the conception of an unconditional obligation to act in accordance with moral principle against what we might otherwise desire (see Natural Law).

In the Essay the argument starts, as might be expected, with the question of how our basic concepts of value are derived from experience. Locke has no doubt about what it is in experience that makes anything matter to us. Like other empiricists of his time, he is both a psychological and an ethical hedonist. Pleasure and pain supply not only our sole motives but also our ideas of good and evil: ‘That we call good which is apt to cause or increase pleasure, or diminish pain in us; or else to procure, or preserve us the possession of any other good, or absence of any evil (Essay II.xx.1). The passions are ‘modes’ of pleasure and pain arising from, or involving, value-judgments: thus hope is ‘that pleasure in the mind, which every one finds in himself, upon the thought of a probable future enjoyment of a thing, which is apt to delight him’; fear is ‘an uneasiness of the mind, upon the thought of a future evil likely to befall us’ (Essay II.xx.9–10). Desire is the ‘uneasiness a man finds in himself upon the absence of any thing, whose present enjoyment carries the idea of delight with it’ (Essay II.xx.6). This theory of motivation faces certain problems. First, how do we get from judgments of good and evil, of what conduces to pleasure and pain, to judgments of right and wrong, of what we morally ought or ought not to do? Second, having got there, if the passions, as modes of pleasure and pain, constitute our only motives, what passion could motivate us to do what is right? Third, in what, if anything, does choice and free will – moral agency – consist?

Locke’s answer to the first question, already given in Essays on the Law of Nature, is that the concept of obligation comes with the relational concept of law: ‘Morally good and evil then, is only the conformity or disagreement of our voluntary actions to some law, whereby good or evil is drawn on us, from the will and power of the lawmaker; which good and evil, pleasure or pain, …is that we call reward and punishment’ (Essay II.xxviii.5). Locke makes it clear that the notion of obligation presupposes the right, as well as the power of the lawgiver to legislate and punish – in Essays Locke’s ‘power’ is explicitly potestas, authority, rather than potentia, mere force. There are, he says in the Essay, three kinds of law: divine law, the measure of sin and moral duty; civil law, the measure of crimes and innocence; and the law of opinion or reputation, the measure of virtue and vice. God legislates by ius creationis, the maker’s right over what is made, and divine law is binding on all rational creatures capable of pleasure and pain. God’s law accords with his wisdom and benevolence, so that we can know it by reflecting on what a wise and benevolent Deity would require of us. Unsurprisingly, Locke’s ethics is heavily utilitarian.

The relationship between divine law and civil law, and the standing of the civil magistrate under divine law, is the subject-matter of Locke’s political theory as expounded in Two Treatises. The notion of a ‘law of reputation’, sometimes called ‘the philosophical law’, has a more complex role in his thought. It is Locke’s explanation of popular secular morality, but it also represents his view of the possibility of non-theistic philosophical systems of ethics. Roughly, the thought is that ordinary morality, sanctioned by public approval and disapproval, exists as a means to the preservation of society, itself a condition of the happiness of individuals. As arrangements differ between societies, so do their moral concepts and what counts as virtue and vice in each, although naturally there will be overlap given their shared aim of self-preservation. Since the divine law too is concerned with the good of human beings, and with self-preservation as a duty, the law of reputation will tend to coincide with divine law. In the aborted fragment of the Essay, ‘Of Ethick in General’, Locke suggests that philosophers may have some inkling of the divine law, but they confuse it with the law of reputation. Consequently their systems reduce either (like that of Hobbes) to an advocacy of what tends to the preservation of society, or (like that of Aristotle) to the elaboration of a set of definitions of the behaviour of which a particular society approves or disapproves (King [1829] 1864: 308–13). Locke does not deny the social importance of the law of reputation, however, and in Some Thoughts concerning Education he assigns a necessary role in a child’s moral education to public esteem and shame. His complaint is that an explanation of moral obligation in terms of the value of certain actions to society, and the value of society to the individual, cannot explain how we may be morally obliged to do something contrary to our own felt interest – our interest, at least, in this world. Self-interest may commonly prescribe adherence to social rules, but it may not always do so. As Locke says in the Essays on the Law of Nature ([1664] 1954: 204) ‘a great number of virtues, and the best of them, consist only in this: that we do good to others at our own loss’.

Locke’s position is, then, that in order to explain both moral obligation and moral motivation (conflated in the usual seventeenth-century notion of obligation), we need to see morality as a system of laws prescribed by a supremely rational, just and benevolent creator to whom we owe the duty of obedience as creatures, and whose power to reward and punish in the next life is capable of motivating anyone who duly considers it (see Voluntarism). Like any theistic explanation of morality’s binding force, this proposal is incoherent, and in its case the incoherence lies in the combination of the view that obligation is created by law with the claim that we have a natural obligation to obey the law of our creator. Locke, however, was more exercised by the problem of why consideration of the afterlife so often fails to move theists to do their duty. Indeed, he accorded the problem wider scope, since he followed Pascal in the thought that the bare possibility of there being an afterlife, given the infinite good at stake, ought in reason to motivate the Christian life (see Pascal, B. §6). Locke’s explanation of the human capacity to know the better and choose the worse involved a refinement of his theory of motivation which echoes his theory of error. In the first edition of the Essay, in the long chapter ‘Of Power’, he held that ‘the choice of the will is everywhere determined by the greater apparent good’ (Essay II.xxi.70). By the second, he believed that mere consideration of future benefit will not move us to action unless it gives rise to ‘an uneasiness in the want of it’ – that is, to desire. Only a present passion – and, it seems, a kind of pain – can move to present action. It may require some reflection on the situation, over and above the simple recognition of probable or possible consequences for good or ill, to bring desire up to scratch, and to ‘suit the relish of our minds to the true intrinsic good or ill, that is in things’. Someone who sees the good but does not pursue it has not reflected enough: ‘Morality, established upon its true foundations, cannot but determine the choice of any one that will but consider’ (Essay II.xxi.70).

Locke’s increased emphasis on the role of deliberation in his hedonistic theory of moral motivation complicates his much revised account of liberty. He adopted a self-determinist view of free will – a free action is not one that is causally undetermined, but one determined by the agent’s ‘own desire guided by his own judgement’. He defines ‘liberty’ as ‘the power to act or not to act according as the mind directs’ (Essay II.xxi.71). But another power became increasingly important to him, the power ‘to stand still, open the eyes, look about, and take a view of the consequence of what we are going to do, as much as the weight of the matter requires’ (Essay II.xxi.67), and it is in this power, he often suggests, that the liberty of rational agents really consists. The tension is unresolved, for Locke never retracts the rhetorical question to which he himself seems to have given an answer: ‘For how can we think anyone freer than to have the power to do what he will?’ (Essay II.xxi.21) (see Free will).

Citing this article:
Ayers, Michael. Ethics, motivation and free will. Locke, John (1632–1704), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DA054-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2018 Routledge.

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