President Bush has famously defended his administration's policy of promoting religious, political, and economic liberty around the globe by insisting that "freedom is the almighty God's gift to each man and woman in this world." His secular critics have seen this as an attempt to mix politics with traditional religious belief, and to some extent they are right. It cannot be doubted that the president has hoped to appeal to his Christian admirers and Muslim opponents alike by arguing in terms of premises they share, and the religions in question are both very ancient. At the same time, the rhetoric of freedom or liberty is decidedly modern. So too is the attempt to defend it in theological terms. Intentionally or not, the president's words evoke the thinking of John Locke (1632-1704), the quintessential philosopher of the Enlightenment era and a key influence on the American founding fathers. It is a mistake, then, for secularists to dismiss the president's position as necessarily an unsophisticated throwback to pre-modern times.
Still, that doesn't mean that the Lockean attempt to combine the old and the new, the religious heritage of the West with modern conceptions of reason and political freedom, is unproblematic. If the president's effort to transplant the Lockean ideal in the Middle East seems to have come a cropper, there is nevertheless a sense in which in the West itself, "we are all Lockeans now," and have been for some time. Locke's conception of individual rights, government by consent, religious toleration, and scientific rationality has swept all before it in the centuries since he wrote, to such an extent that the average modern Westerner, whatever his political or religious affiliation, finds it difficult to understand that anyone ever believed anything else. And yet modern Westerners are also very deeply divided amongst themselves over questions of morality, politics, and religion - including over the appropriateness of giving politics the sort of theological foundation Locke does. This is no accident; for these tensions exist at the very core of Locke's thought, and in building the modern West upon it we have incorporated those tensions into its very foundations. Liberals and conservatives, religious believers and skeptics, can all find in Locke much to like and much to dislike; and if the debates between them often seem intractable, that is precisely because they all have an equally strong claim to the Lockean legacy. A consideration of that legacy is therefore in order if we are to make sense of the so-called "culture wars" between traditionalists and progressives, "red-staters" and "blue-staters." To understand Locke is to understand ourselves.
The Lockean project
In the beginning (of our story, anyway) were the Middle Ages, and the relative political, cultural, religious, and intellectual unity that characterized them. This unity was never perfect, but it was extensive enough that the traditional label "Christendom" aptly describes the civilization of the period. Two events shattered this unity: the Protestant Reformation and the Enlightenment. The first event put private individual conscience in place of public institutional authority, splintering Christianity into innumerable sects and setting off a series of bloody religious wars. The second dethroned the Scholasticism that had given an intellectual foundation to medieval civilization, seeking to replace it with a philosophy more conducive to justifying the political, religious, and intellectual individualism that the Reformation had spawned, while reigning in the chaos it unleashed. (As Ralph McInerny has put it, modern philosophy can to some extent be described as "the Reformation carried on by other means.")
There is, of course, a lot more to the story than this; the point is to highlight the factors most relevant to understanding Locke's concerns. (In previous TCS Daily articles, I have had more to say about Scholasticism, the Reformation, and the Enlightenment.) A devotee of the Enlightenment, Locke sought to replace Scholasticism with a new empiricist foundation for philosophy and science, to promote individual rights and religious toleration, and to curb the dogmatic subjectivism or "enthusiasm" associated with some varieties of Protestantism. A sincere Protestant himself, he also thought that much of this could be accomplished only given certain theological premises; and as we shall see, his thinking on this was by no means an arbitrary byproduct of his religious views devoid of independent intellectual motivation.
Scholasticism was a complex intellectual phenomenon, but for our purposes we might focus on its commitment to certain key ideas derived from Aristotle's metaphysics. Among these was essentialism, the thesis that everything that exists has a fixed essence or nature, also known as a "substantial form." Hence the essence or substantial form of a human being is to be a rational animal; and a person retains this essence even when he or she fails to manifest it perfectly, due to incomplete development, say (as in a fetus) or injury (as in someone with brain damage). In addition to this, the Scholastics followed Aristotle in affirming the existence of final causes - ends, purposes, or goal-directedness inherent throughout the natural order, independent of any mind, and in particular of human interests. Thus a bodily organ like the heart, for example, has the end, purpose, or function of pumping blood, the moon has a natural end or tendency toward motion around the earth, fire has a natural end or tendency toward the generation of heat, and so on and so forth. (Contrary to a standard caricature, these ends or goals were not taken to be conscious ones: The heart has the end or goal of pumping blood and the moon of going around the earth, but obviously they don't think about doing these things; they just do them. For Aristotle and the Scholastics, conscious goal-seeking of the sort human beings and other animals exhibit exists against a larger background of unconscious goal-directedness or teleology permeating nature.)
Now these metaphysical ideas had dramatic practical repercussions for morality and politics. For human beings, like everything else, have on the Scholastic view an essence or nature, and this essence or nature entails that they and their various capacities, from reason on down to the lowest biological faculty, have various final causes or natural ends or purposes. All of this, on the Scholastic view, is entirely objective and rationally ascertainable. But this essence and these final causes determine what is good for us: If it is of our very essence or nature that we and our various capacities have certain goals, ends, or purposes, then we cannot flourish except by living in a way that is conducive to the realization of these goals, ends, or purposes. Hence morality has a foundation that is also entirely objective and rationally ascertainable. This is, in a nutshell, the idea of natural law. Later Scholastic thinkers developed on this basis a theory of natural rights, on which a person's right to something - his life, say, or his property, or whatever - is grounded in his obligations under natural law to pursue various ends. If the natural law obliges you to pursue X, and the only way you can pursue X is via Y, then you must have the right to Y, otherwise you would be unable to fulfill your moral obligations. Hence, for example, since not being killed or deprived of a certain domain of free action is a prerequisite to performing any actions at all, including moral ones, you must have a right not to be killed or deprived of personal liberty, all things being equal. (The usual caveats apply for those guilty of serious crimes.)
It is all much more complicated than this, of course, but that is perhaps enough to set the stage for Locke. Modern philosophy and science, as represented by thinkers like Bacon, Galileo, Hobbes, Descartes, Boyle, Newton, and so forth, are defined perhaps more than anything else by their rejection of Aristotelian Scholasticism, and in particular of the notions of final cause and substantial forms or essences. For the moderns, there are, appearances notwithstanding, no final causes or substantial forms in nature at all, or at least none we can know about. Hence science ought in their view to proceed on the assumption that the objects of its inquiries are comprised of inherently meaningless material elements governed by purposeless chains of mechanical cause and effect. This was not a "discovery"; it was a methodological stipulation, and it remains nothing more than that to this day. The reasons for making it were complicated, but chief among them were an obsession with quantifying nature in the hopes of making it more amenable to technological manipulation, and - not least - a desire to undermine what such thinkers regarded as the dogmatism of the Scholastic system. (It is also far more intellectually problematic than most people realize; indeed, the thinkers who made this historic intellectual shift understood its problems much better than do contemporary thinkers, who, generally speaking, simply take it for granted unreflectively and uncritically. I briefly discuss some of the problems with it here.)
Locke was thoroughly committed to this new "Mechanical Philosophy," as it was called. To provide it with intellectual foundations, and further to undermine the authority of Scholasticism, he developed his empiricist theory of knowledge and a corresponding metaphysics to replace the Aristotelian one. One result of this was a system of thought that severely curtailed metaphysical inquiry and any religious conclusions that might be based upon it. This skepticism, while by no means total, served to justify a doctrine of religious toleration: Since, given Locke's empiricism, there is very little to be had in the way of genuine knowledge where religion is concerned, we ought to tolerate a wide diversity of religious opinions.
Yet Locke was also intent on defending a doctrine of inviolable natural rights against thinkers like Hobbes and Filmer, whose advocacy of absolute state power threatened the individual liberty the Reformation and Enlightenment were supposed to have ushered in. How could this be done given his abandonment of the Scholastic foundations of natural law? Locke's solution was to draw very definite limits to his theological minimalism. In line with his Scholastic predecessors, he argued that the existence of God could be established through pure reason, by means of a version of the traditional cosmological argument. But to prove the existence of God is just to prove the existence of a divine creator of the world, including human beings. Hence reason shows that we are, as Locke puts it, God's "workmanship," "sent into the world by his order, and about his business." And given Locke's famous theory of property - that what starts out unowned can be acquired by "mixing one's labor" with it, as you might acquire a piece of fruit by plucking it from a tree - it follows that we are God's property. Indeed, since God created us ex nihilo or out of nothing, his ownership of us is even more absolute than our ownership of anything we can acquire out of raw materials we did not make. So to harm another human being in his life, liberty, or possessions is in effect to damage what belongs to God, to violate divine property rights. Talk of individual human rights, then, is a kind of shorthand for God's rights over us: I must treat you as if you had a right to your life, liberty, and property, because to do otherwise would be to offend against God. At the same time, our rights are not absolute; because we belong to God, we cannot damage ourselves (through suicide or debauched living, say) any more than we can harm others.
There is a rich irony in this. Modern people tend to assume that medieval thinkers regarded morality as grounded in arbitrary divine commands backed by hellfire, and that it was modern thinkers who moved us away from this crude understanding. Yet in fact the Scholastics thought that, at least to a very large extent, the demands of morality can be determined through unaided reason via a philosophical investigation of human nature. If something is good or bad for you given your nature, it is good or bad for you whether or not God created that nature; hence the question of God's existence can be bracketed off. But Locke, like other early modern philosophers, denied that there is, or at least that we could know that there is, such a thing as human nature in the sense that the Scholastics had in mind, viz. the having of a fixed essence or substantial form together with its inherent natural ends or purposes. Lacking this metaphysical foundation for his doctrine of natural rights, Locke, the Enlightened foe of Scholasticism, has no choice but to appeal directly to God's will for us.
The "conservative" Locke
So crucial, in Locke's thinking, is the existence of God to the possibility of natural rights, that he was led to deny that toleration ought to be extended to atheists. For "the taking away of God," he said, "though but even in thought, dissolves all." It is sometimes thought that his motivation was a mere prejudicial belief that atheists could not be trusted to abide by their promises and oaths. But it goes deeper than that. Whether or not this or that individual atheist happens to want to live a moral life, Locke's view is that atheism necessarily undermines the rational foundation for doing so. It is inherently subversive of public morality, whatever the motivations of its adherents. Contemporary conservatives would not go so far as to deny toleration to atheists, but many of them would sympathize with the view that at least a generic theism ought to inform public life, and that the moral and political order is unlikely to be stable without it.
In other respects too, contemporary conservatives are bound to find Locke's thought congenial, despite his status as one of the founding fathers of the broad liberal tradition in political philosophy. As was just indicated, Locke's criterion for denying toleration to a view was its tendency to subvert public order. This led him to refuse toleration not only to atheists, but also to any religious doctrine which bound its adherents to give their primary allegiance to a foreign power. Notoriously, this led him to hold that Roman Catholics ought not to be tolerated either, given their allegiance to the Pope. Obviously, contemporary conservatives would not agree with him on this. But many of them would say that radical forms of Islam, whose proponents' first (and indeed only) loyalty is to the international Muslim jihad rather than to the countries in which they happen to reside, have no right to expect the same treatment afforded to other religious communities. Whatever dangers some civil libertarians might see in such an attitude, it is certainly a very Lockean one.
A tacit Lockeanism may also underlie the attitudes many American conservatives have taken to international affairs in the post-9/11 world. Locke famously held that "all princes and rulers of independent governments, all through the world, are in a state of nature," meaning that the position of every government with respect to every other one is analogous to the relationship between individuals in circumstances where no government exists. This is so, in Locke's view, "whether they [i.e. 'princes and rulers'] are, or are not, in league with others: for it is not every compact that puts an end to the state of nature between men, but only this one of agreeing together mutually to enter into one community, and make one body politic." An international treaty, on this view, even if it establishes norms of international law or an organization like the United Nations, does not count as an exit from the state of nature as long as it falls short of the establishment of a world government. When you add to these theses the consideration that for Locke, "in the state of nature every one has the executive power of the law of nature" - that is, where no government exists, everyone has the right to punish violations of the natural law - it is easy to see why someone might conclude that in the international context, any particular government has the right unilaterally to punish another government for its violations of the law of nature (whether these violations involve reneging on its agreements, mistreating its citizens, or whatever). In particular, it is easy to see why many American conservatives would hold that the United States had every right to intervene in Iraq beginning in 2003.
Lockean considerations could even be applied to a defense of the controversial way in which the United States has treated enemy combatants in its wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. For Locke also famously argued that "captives taken in a just war, are by the right of nature subjected to the absolute dominion and arbitrary power of their masters. These men having, as I say, forfeited their lives, and with it their liberties... cannot in that state be considered as any part of civil society." In Locke's view, since someone who fights in defense of an unjust cause has forfeited his very right to life, he has no grounds to complain if he suffers some lesser punishment instead. At least with respect to those combatants who have engaged in terrorism, then, a defender of American policy could argue on Lockean grounds that there is no moral difficulty in detaining such persons indefinitely or applying to them rough or humiliating methods of interrogation.
None of this is intended as either a defense or a criticism of U. S. foreign policy, which is not the subject of this essay. The point is rather to underline the extent to which the thinking of many contemporary American conservatives reflects a broadly Lockean worldview. Indeed, a strong case could be made that modern conservatism (at least in the British and American contexts) represents a more purely Lockean point of view than that of contemporary liberals and libertarians, who also look to Locke for inspiration. Modern liberals would advocate a far more extensive redistribution of wealth than Locke could have tolerated, in the name of an economic interpretation of human equality that he would have rejected. Libertarians, by contrast, would radically scale back government in ways that Locke did not and would not advocate, eliminating public assistance for the needy and decriminalizing so-called "victimless crimes," all on the basis of a theory of rights very different from Locke's own. Both liberals and libertarians would eschew the theological foundations of Locke's political philosophy and his advocacy of a privileged place for religion (or at least a minimal theism) in the public square. There is a sense, then, in which today's conservatives are really just liberals of an old-fashioned Lockean sort who seek to preserve Locke's moderate liberal legacy "whole and undefiled" against the more radical contemporary liberals and libertarians who would, in their view, distort it by separating Locke's interest in liberty and equality from his commitment to religion and public order.
The "liberal" Locke
This does not entail, however, that contemporary liberals and libertarians do not have a Lockean leg to stand on; far from it. For one thing, whatever Locke's own intentions, the philosophical doctrines he put in place of Scholasticism do in fact tend to undermine even the few elements of that older worldview that he sought to preserve. As his successor David Hume was to show, empiricism, when followed through consistently, undercuts the notion of causation underlying cosmological arguments for God's existence. (It also undercuts the notion of causation underlying scientific inquiry, and indeed, the possibility of any knowledge at all. But that is another story.) The result is that Locke's theological minimalism collapses into a complete skepticism about religious claims in general - something Locke's liberal successors have quite naturally taken to justify removing even Locke's generic theism from any privileged place in the public square. And without either God or the Scholastic conception of human nature, the limits Locke would put on our rights disappear, opening the door to libertinism in the sphere of personal morality.
Locke's doctrine of religious toleration had in any case rested on a very restricted conception of what we could claim genuinely to know where religion is concerned. "Every church is orthodox to itself," Locke said, evincing the view that religious doctrines about which various denominations disagree must be treated by government as mere subjective preferences that ought to have, unlike his generic theism, no influence on public policy. He also went so far as to insist that "toleration" - not doctrinal orthodoxy, not apostolic succession, not antiquity, not holiness, but commitment to a modern liberal political ideal - is "the chief characteristical mark of the true church." When you combine all this with the radical religious skepticism entailed (however unwittingly) by Locke's empiricism, it is but a very short step to the conclusion that religious opinions as such and in general are as subjective as tastes in ice cream, ought to be kept out of the public square entirely, and are "reasonable" only to the extent that they subordinate themselves to the liberal conception of justice. John Locke is transformed thereby into John Rawls.
In opposition to the Scholastic view that the essences or natures of things are objective, existing independently of the human mind, Locke argued that "the essences of the species [under which things fall]... are of man's making." Thus, what counts as a member or this or that class of things is ultimately a matter of human convention rather than objective fact. Locke also famously held that what is essential to being a person is continuity of consciousness of the sort manifested in memory, rather than membership in the biological category homo sapiens. In these doctrines lay the seeds of the view that it is up to us to decide whether certain human beings count as persons, and that fetuses and those in "persistent vegetative states," since they are not conscious, ought not be afforded that status, or the rights that go with it. Though Locke himself would no doubt have been horrified at the fact, contemporary defenders of abortion and euthanasia have very solidly Lockean grounds for their position.
In several ways, then, Locke's epistemological and metaphysical views have implications that are far more congenial to the opinions of present-day liberals and libertarians than they are to those of conservatives. It is natural, then, if liberals and libertarians who reject Locke's theism but sympathize with some of his other epistemological and metaphysical views might see themselves as perfectly justified in picking and choosing those aspects of his political philosophy that they like and reinterpreting them along less conservative lines, even if the reinterpretation is sometimes a fairly radical one. Though their Lockeanism is less pure as a result, it may be more philosophically coherent.
Here many conservatives, though they are on the whole closer to Locke's own way of thinking, may for that reason find themselves in greater philosophical difficulty. For contemporary conservative intellectuals seem by and large to endorse the intellectual revolution that Locke and his fellow modern philosophers inaugurated. No less than their liberal counterparts, they tend to see the world in broadly empiricist terms, and regard science rather than metaphysics as the paradigm of genuine knowledge. Like Locke, most of them reject the suggestion that belief in substantial forms, final causes, and other Aristotelian and Scholastic metaphysical notions is essential to a proper understanding of morality. They are also, in their own way, as beholden to the rhetoric of individual freedom and skepticism about authority as any modern liberal or libertarian. To the extent that these philosophical attitudes have the unconservative implications mentioned above, then, the conservative Lockean position seems threatened with the same incoherence that Locke's own position manifests. Liberals and libertarians, while less true to the letter of Locke's philosophy, can plausibly claim to be more true to the radical spirit that underlies it.
The lesson would seem to be this. Those who seek to appropriate Locke's legacy today must decide which part of it they value most, for they cannot coherently have it all. One must either endorse Locke's revisionist metaphysics - his rejection of objective essences and final causes in nature, his reductionistic account of the nature of persons, and so forth - and abandon the traditional moral and religious elements of his philosophy; or, if one wants to maintain these conservative elements, one must reject the revisionist metaphysics, and return to something like the Scholastic worldview it replaced. One must be either a radical or a reactionary. It is no longer possible (if it ever was) to be a Lockean.
Edward Feser (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the author of the recently published Locke, from which this article was in part adapted, and editor of The Cambridge Companion to Hayek. He is a regular contributor to the blog Right Reason.