Locke, John (1632–1704)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DA054-2
Version: v2,  Published online: 2017
Retrieved December 13, 2018, from

9. Moral philosophy

While Locke distinguishes between being a person and being a man or woman, he also speaks of the moral man. This is a moral agent who can have any sort of body, even that of a monkey. To be a moral agent, for Locke, is to be rational and subject to law: the nature of one’s body is irrelevant. To be subject to law is to be responsible for one’s voluntary actions. Good is pleasure and evil is pain. The morally good or evil is the conformity or disagreement of voluntary actions to some law which attracts good or evil (that is, pleasure or pain) by the will and power of the law-maker: ‘[t]hus, drinking to excess, when it produces the headache or sickness, is a natural evil; but as it is a transgression of law, by which a punishment is annexed to it, it is a moral evil’ (‘Of Ethic in General’, Locke 1997: 301).

Where there is no law, there is no moral good or evil. But there is always law, even in the state of nature, because there is a fundamental law of nature discernible by reason and reinforced by revelation (see Natural law in early modern philosophy). Moreover, there is civil law with its rewards and punishments and there is the law of opinion and reputation. These three types of law form a hierarchy with natural law trumping civil, and civil trumping opinion and reputation. The law of opinion and reputation is purely conventional, varying from one society to another, and is that which leads to attributions of virtue and vice. However, conformity to the law of opinion and reputation is only truly virtuous when it also conforms to the law of nature.

In virtue of what is a moral agent obligated to obey the law and what motivates them to obey it? Locke follows Richard Hooker in regarding the equality of humans to be the foundation of the generic obligations of all humans of mutual love and duty to others (Two Treatises of Government 2: §5) and he sets out the necessary and sufficient conditions for moral obligation as follows:

To establish morality, therefore, upon its proper basis, and such foundations as may carry an obligation with them, we must first prove a law, which always supposes a lawmaker: one that has a superiority and right to ordain, and also a power to reward and punish according to the tenor of the law established by him.

(‘Of Ethic in General’, Locke 1997: 304)

If we have a law, say, the Golden Rule, decreed by a lawmaker who is both a superior and has a right to ordain the law and the power to impose sanctions, then we are obligated to obey that law. In the case of civil law, the lawmaker may lose their right to ordain the law but this is impossible in the case of natural or divine law.

As for what motivates one to obey the law, Locke’s mature position is as follows. In general, we are motivated by our desire for the greatest good (pleasure) (see Hedonism), however, careful reflection shows that in practice, it is the current dominant desire – that is, uneasiness of missing some specific good – that determines the will to action. Thus, the drunkard might see the consequences of his drinking and desire the greater good, but ‘the returns of uneasiness to miss his companions; the habitual thirst after his cups, at the usual time, drives him to the tavern’ (Essay II.xxi.35). So Locke allows for weakness of the will, yet he also subscribes to the view that we can suspend the motivational force of our desires and hold our will undetermined to any particular action while we examine the greatest good that pertains in a situation: ‘[t]his is the hinge on which turns the liberty of intellectual beings ... that they can suspend this prosecution in particular cases, till they have looked before them, and informed themselves, whether that particular thing ... is their greatest good’ (Essay II.xxi.52).

Note here that it is intellectual beings, or moral agents, that are properly said to be free and not the will. Indeed, Locke considered the notion of free will akin to an oxymoron. It is moral agents who are free or constrained. One can act voluntarily and still not be free, like the man who chooses to stay in a room that, unbeknownst to him, is locked from the outside (Essay II.xxi.10) (see Free will).

We come to know our desires for good, and our feelings of uneasiness, through introspection, but how do we come to know the law of nature and be obligated by it? Locke rejects the view that we are born with any innate moral principles. He also rejects the claim that moral principles are self-evident (Essay I.iii.4). Instead, as we have seen, he claims that the understanding constructs a basic repertoire of moral ideas – mixed modes – and from them has the potential to construct a demonstrative science of morality that is an analogue of Euclidean geometry.

Citing this article:
Anstey, Peter. Moral philosophy. Locke, John (1632–1704), 2017, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DA054-2. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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