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what had to be done.
The problem of dealing with conflicting interpretations of Revelation
never disturbed Locke. He admitted that philosophers have failed to
make out a complete system of morality “from unquestionable principles,
by clear deductions.” Nevertheless, all the truths that men need about
moral conduct are manifest in Revelation, which is “the surest, the safest,
and most effectual way of teaching” morality,34 and no one can “be
excused from understanding the words and framing the general notions
relating to religion right.”35 In the Essay as well, Locke says that faith
“leaves no manner of room for Doubt or Hesitation,”36 just as he writes
to the Bishop of Worcester that “the holy scripture is to me, and always
will be, the constant guide of my assent; and I shall always hearken to
it, as containing infallible truth, relating to things of the highest con-
cernment. . . and I shall presently condemn and quit any opinion of mine,
as soon as I am shown that it is contrary to any revelation in the holy
scripture.”37 When his friend William Molyneux urged him to complete
the work that he had begun in the Essay Concerning Human Understand-
ing by demonstrating all the truths of ethics, Locke explained that he need
not do so because “the Gospel contains so perfect a body of ethics, that
reason may be excused from that inquiry, since she may find man™s duty
clearer and easier in revelation, than in herself.”38
Although he sometimes expresses doubts about whether all men can
discover moral truth, on the whole he is thoroughly persuaded that the
knowledge about moral conduct that human reason can achieve is as
certain as the conclusions of mathematical demonstrations. While he
denies that the human intellect is “fitted to penetrate into the internal
Fabrick and real Essences of Bodies,” he insists that “Morality is the
proper Science, and Business of Mankind in general,”39 and that the
certainty of moral knowledge is indisputable. Whether we take a rule
from “the Fashion of the Country, or the Will of a Law-maker,” Locke
assures us that “the Mind is easily able to observe the Relation any Action
hath to it; and to judge, whether the Action agrees, or disagrees with the

Concerning Human Understanding, 10.
Works, vol. VI, 140, 147.
Ibid., vol. V, 41.
Concerning Human Understanding, 667.
Works, vol. III, 96.
John Locke, “Some Familiar Letters Between Mr. Locke and Several of His Friends,” in
The Works of John Locke, 11th ed., vol. X (London: Davison, 1812), 377.
Concerning Human Understanding, 646“47.
John Locke 115
Rule.” As the rule is “nothing but a Collection of several simple ideas. . .
belonging to it,”40 the results of comparing an action with a rule are
always certain.
What may seem to be qualifications on this fundamentalist view of
moral truth appear in several different contexts. Locke acknowledges that
though natural law is “perpetual and coeval with the human race,” no one
can be bound to perform at all times everything that the law of nature
commands because “he can no more observe several duties at once than
a body can be in several places.” And Locke concludes that even though
the binding force of the law never changes, there is often a change in
both the times and the circumstances of actions, whereby our obedience is
defined. He gives examples of cases where the “binding force of nature is
perpetual” but “the requirements of our duty” are not, and it is left to
our “prudence, whether or not we care to undertake some such actions in
which we incur obligation.”41 But far from recognizing that to determine
by “prudence” what a rule means in particular circumstances is a contin-
gent and necessarily disputable decision, Locke asserts that “no one can
stain himself with another man™s blood without incurring guilt,”42 with-
out in any way suggesting that it would be pertinent to determine whether
a particular event in which one man caused the death of another consti-
tuted murder, self-defense, accidental homicide, or a duty of war imposed
by law or war.
What seems to be an acknowledgment that the interpretation of prin-
ciples for practical action might be uncertain appears in the discussion of
the imperfection and abuse of words in the Essay.43 In that context, Locke
speaks very much as Hobbes does about the unlimited variety of inter-
pretations that men invent for the same set of words. But even this does
not lead him to temper his convictions about the certainty of moral truth.
He still maintains that the knowledge of moral truth rests on the agree-
ment or disagreement of “those Ideas, which are presented by them,” and
if the mind proceeds correctly in deducing from them, the conclusions are
determined. All that is voluntary in knowledge is whether or not men
exercise their faculties, but once they are employed, “our Will hath no
Power to determine the Knowledge of the Mind one way or other.”44
He distinguishes between opinion and knowledge (conclusions of a
deduction), but he denies that because a practical decision has not been

Ibid., 358.
Essays on the Law of Nature, 193“95.
Ibid., 195.
See Locke, Concerning Human Understanding, 490“524.
Ibid., 650“51.
116 The modern quest

deduced and therefore constitutes opinion rather than knowledge, it is
any less certain: “most of the Propositions we think, reason, discourse,
nay act upon, are such, as we cannot have undoubted Knowledge of their
Truth: yet some of them border so near upon Certainty, that we make no
doubt at all about them; but assent to them as firmly, and act, according
to that Assent, as resolutely, as if they were infallibly demonstrated, and
that our knowledge of them was perfect and certain.”45 Indeed, in some
cases “the Probability is so clear and strong, that Assent as necessarily
follows it, as Knowledge does Demonstration.”46 Just why some propos-
itions that we act upon cannot be demonstrated to be indisputably true,
Locke neither explains nor considers. Nor could he have done so because
he never acknowledged that the human world™s irremediable contingency
made it impossible to move from universal principles, or general rules, to
indisputable practical conclusions about what should be done here and
now. Practical reasoning has no place in Locke™s philosophy.
Nor does contingency or the uncertainty of practical reasoning enter
into Locke™s explanation of the diversity of the human world. Though
he recognizes and occasionally even emphasizes the existence of diversity,
he attributes it to error. He never withdrew his assertion from the early
Essays on Natural Law that diversity occurs only because men are led
astray by habit into following the herd like brute beasts and giving way to
their appetites.
When in the Essay Locke translated all satisfactions into pleasure and
pains, he was able to explain more precisely how diversity is compatible
with the universal validity of the conclusions reached by reason about
right and wrong. The diversity acknowledged is not, however, a diversity
of intelligent responses, but merely a difference in reactions to stimuli.
Nothing more is involved in Locke™s censure of ancient philosophers for
arguing about whether the summum bonum consists in riches or contem-
plation. That he misrepresents the meaning of summum bonum and the
ancient dispute is less important than that he attributes the pleasure that
men get from things to “their agreeableness to this or that particular
palate.” He insists on this in order to deny that the differences are due
to the things themselves. Whether different moral views might arise from
diverse ways of understanding and responding to the sensations aroused
is not considered by Locke. He is concerned only with establishing the one
true conception of moral good “ that of “the greatest Happiness” “ which
consists in having “those things, which produce the greatest Pleasure; and
in the absence of those, which cause any disturbance, any pain.” Though

45 46
Ibid., 655. Ibid., 685.
John Locke 117
the reactions of men differ, the character of the calculations required to
achieve the greatest happiness is absolutely uniform. When they make
faulty estimates of the pleasure that different courses of action will bring,
men go wrong, but about a pleasure or pain that is immediately present
there can be no mistake: “the greater Pleasure, or the greater Pain, is
really just as it appears,” and the apparent and the real good are, in this
case, always the same.47 Only when it comes to comparing present pains
or pleasures with future ones, which is “usually the case in the most
important determinations of the will,” is it easy to judge wrongly.48
In making “the greatest Happiness” the ultimate aim of human activity,
Locke emphasizes that he is providing a moral and not a utilitarian
standard. While men can arrive at what is right by observing what is
convenient, he argues, it is only because God made man in such a fashion
that a rational pursuit of happiness under the guidance of reason neces-
sarily constitutes virtue. Nevertheless, nothing is right because it is con-
venient. The rightness of an action does not depend on its utility, but on
its conformity with God™s will.49 And the ultimate end is never in doubt:
“The Rewards and Punishments of another Life, which the Almighty has
established, as the Enforcements of his Law, are of weight enough to
determine the Choice, against whatever Pleasure or Pain this Life can
shew, when the eternal State is considered but in its bare possibility, which
no Body can make any doubt of.”50
Even when he acknowledges in the Essay that differences of temper,
education, fashion, maxims, or interest lead men to different notions
of virtue and vice, he concludes that in the main men are inclined to
esteem the same sorts of things. If we consider not how men behave,
but “their innermost ways of thinking,” we find there an “internal” law,
or “conscience,” which brings even those who “act perversely” to “feel
rightly” and to recognize that they behaved wrongly. Serious moral diver-
sity is excluded by Locke™s philosophy because it confines reason
to discovering universal indisputable truth and deducing therefrom.
The differences among human beings are therefore due either to different
reactions to sensations, which are not the product of reason, or to a
failure to suspend desire in order to consider future pleasures and pains,
or to an error in making such judgments. None of these gives rise to a
diversity rooted in the privacy of human personality.
Since Locke does not see human beings as intrinsically private person-
alities, his picture of the human world is far from individualistic. The

47 48 49
Ibid., 269, 275. Ibid., 275. Works, vol. VI, 142.
Concerning Human Understanding, 281.
118 The modern quest

difficulty of finding a common ground among the self-enclosed persons
that gives rise to the human predicament in Hobbes™s philosophy does not
exist for Locke. Neither is there the space for individuality allowed by
ancient and medieval philosophies in the movement between abstract
universal principles to contingent practical decisions. Instead, moral con-
duct consists simply in subordination to a superior will and obedience to
the clear directions given in the natural law.
In the Second Treatise, Locke says that the law of nature “teaches all
Mankind. . . that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm
another in his Life, Health, Liberty, or Possessions.”51 Locke™s insistence
that each man has a right to command himself and the resources that
he needs to preserve himself without invasion has every appearance of an
individualistic declaration of natural rights. From this premise, however,
Locke moves off in quite another direction. Access to the law of nature
enables men to live together and be free “to order their Actions, and
dispose of their Possessions, and Persons as they think fit . . . without
asking leave, or depending upon the Will of any other Man.”52 Moreover,
the natural law, being a law, provides for its own enforcement. Every
man has a right to punish transgressions of the law of nature not only
when they are directed against himself, but wherever they occur. If anyone
offends against the law of nature, everyone else has the right to punish the
offender for it and exact retribution, not simply for personal damage, but
to vindicate the rule of “reason and common Equity, which is that
measure God has set to the actions of Men, for their mutual security.”53
Certainly murder and possibly even thieving may be punished by death,
for punishment has to be severe enough “to make it an ill bargain to the
Offender, give him cause to repent, and terrifie others from doing the
How far punishment is based on retribution or deterrence is unclear,
since Locke speaks of them as one when he says that the power to punish
is not an absolute or arbitrary power, “but only to retribute him, so far as
calm reason and conscience dictates, what is proportionate to his Trans-
gression, which is so much as may serve for Reparation and Restraint.”55
Yet he also describes these as the two reasons why one man may harm
another. It follows that in principle human beings are capable of existing
in “The State of Nature,” which is a “State of Liberty” but “not a State of
Licence.” Locke concludes that the whole of mankind belongs to a
“Community of Nature.”56

51 52 53
Two Treatises, 289. Ibid., 287. Ibid., 290.
54 55 56
Ibid., 293. Ibid., 290. Ibid., 288“89.
John Locke 119
Because it is a natural community, Locke™s state of nature is often
supposed to have an affinity with Aristotle™s polis, which is also “natural.”
But Aristotle™s polis is natural because it can satisfy the need given by the
nature of human beings for the good life; it is not natural in the sense of
being established by a nonhuman agency, and Aristotle emphasizes that
human beings do not necessarily come into the world as members of a
polis, which is a human artifact whose members can choose to join or
leave. Moreover, the polis can come into existence only when there is an
established law distinct from the various tribal customs of the members.
This law is not a mere attribute of the polis, but the bond that constitutes
it because the rule of law makes possible a kind of association that could
not otherwise exist. As Locke tells the story, however, men come into a
world governed by a law that makes them members of one universal
community. Civil society differs from the state of nature only in its power
to punish transgressions of the law given by nature more systematically
and effectively. For what moves men to quit the state of nature is “the
irregular and uncertain exercise of the Power every Man has of punishing
the transgressions of others.”57
This explanation is ambiguous in some respects. For Locke also says
that “There wants an establish™d, settled, known Law, received and
allowed by common consent to be the Standard of Right and Wrong,
and the common measure to decide all Controversies,” which suggests
that law has to be invented. Yet in the very next sentence, he writes that
“the Law of nature [is] plain and intelligible to all rational Creatures.” He
seems to offer a reconciliation of the two assertions in what he calls his
“strange Doctrine” that “every one has the Executive Power of the Law of
Nature,”58 because it is the defects of this “strange power” that move us
to leave the state of nature. Whether this difficulty arises from a failing
intrinsic to all men or found only in some is not clear. Sometimes Locke
attributes the inconveniences of the state of nature to “the corruption,
and viciousness of degenerate Men,”59 and sometimes to a widespread
propensity in people to be “biassed by their Interest” or ignorant “for
want of study” of the law of nature, which, as everyone is both judge and
executioner, may produce misjudgments of what punishment is required.
This inconvenience in the state of nature leads men to seek “a known and
indifferent Judge” who will have “Authority to determine all differences
according to the established Law” and who will never lack sufficient
power to execute the sentence.60 To establish such a judge, men leave
their “great and natural Community” and make “positive agreements” to

57 58 59 60
Ibid., 370. Ibid., 369, 293. Ibid., 370. Ibid., 369.
120 The modern quest

“combine into smaller and divided associations.” Upon entering civil
society, they surrender the right each has by nature to punish violations
of the law to someone appointed “amongst them” who shall exercise that
right “by such Rules as the Community, or those authorised by them to
that purpose, shall agree on.”61 In other words, when men enter into civil
society, they do not become associated for the first time, but merely agree
to break up into smaller associations and to accept a more effective
instrument for punishing transgressions against the terms of association
that previously existed.
Locke™s doctrine of natural law thus radically attenuates the import-
ance of the rule of law. Law ceases to be the bond of civil society as it had
been for his predecessors. It ceases to be essential for all men, virtuous as
well as wicked. For Locke™s law of nature is much more than a postulate
of civil law or even a standard or measure for civil justice. The law of
nature is the civil law writ large. The civil law, far from being essentially
different from natural law, as it was for Locke™s predecessors, merely fills
in details missing from the natural law, above all by providing just and
effective punishment of transgressions. In other words, Locke treats the
civil law as a corrective for those who are incapable of exercising their
faculties adequately enough to perceive and abide by the law, the natural
law, which God has made manifest. It follows that the more nearly men
approach perfect rationality, the less need they have for civil law. Civil
law serves no purpose distinct from the divinely ordained or natural law;
it merely provides aid for obeying God™s law with greater security. All this
derives from Locke™s fundamental doctrine of natural law because it
denies the independence of the earthly city from the heavenly city.
Given this view, it is hardly surprising that the predicament which led
Locke™s predecessors to fear civil unrest above all else disappears in
Locke™s account of law. While this is generally recognized, its implication
for law is usually overlooked. It means first of all that in deciding about
civil arrangements, the problem is not how to reconcile different but
equally worthy opinions about what is desirable, but how best to achieve
objectives that everyone who is adequately rational necessarily seeks. And
this predicament introduces a radically revised understanding of the
subjects of law. They are not, as they were for Locke™s predecessors (with
the exception of Cicero), independent agents pursuing different projects,
but servants of one and the same project. The objective of civil law is
not, then, to make possible an association that embraces many diverse
projects, but rather to achieve more effectively the project that everyone

Ibid., 370.
John Locke 121
necessarily ought to pursue. In other words, law is an instrument of the
enterprise that God has assigned to men.
That explains why the obligation to obey the law depends on its
rightness. In order to secure its rightness, it might seem, the binding
power of civil law should rest on its conformity to natural law: “the
Municipal Laws of Countries. . . are only so far right, as they are founded
on the Law of Nature, by which they are to be regulated and inter-
preted.”62 But at other times Locke attributes the obligation to obey civil
law to its being a command of a superior and derives that obligation from
natural law. This ambiguity is parallel to another about whether man™s
obligation to obey the will of God rests on God™s power or on the
rightness of His commands. Generally Locke says that the bond that
obliges us “derives from the lordship and command which any superior
has over us and our actions” and that we are bound to obey God “because
both our being and our work depend on His will, since we have received
these from Him.” But he adds quite another reason in his remark that
“moreover, it is reasonable that we should do what shall please Him who
is omniscient and most wise,”63 which implies that we should obey God™s
commands because they are undoubtedly right.
Rightness is made the foundation of the obligation to obey civil law
when Locke insists that the law must have the “consent” of its subjects.
His emphasis on consent is muddled by his speaking sometimes of au-
thority in the manner of Hobbes, as when he says that a man leaves the
state of nature when “he authorizes the Society, or. . . the Legislative
thereof to make Laws for him,” and that civil society sets up “a Judge on
Earth, with Authority to determine all the Controversies, and redress the
Injuries, that may happen to any Member of the Commonwealth.”64
More often, however, Locke couples authority with consent as if the
two were synonymous. The confusion arises from his concept of “depend-
ency,” introduced to explain the relation between God and man, as well as
between lawmaker and subject, a concept which is a curious blend of
“consent” and “authority.”
Because his emphasis on the rightness of laws and consent to them
appears to give individuals a greater say in determining their obligation to
obey the law, Locke™s philosophy of law is assumed to give priority to
human individuality. The opposite is more nearly true. Locke™s view of
law does not respect individuality because a clear idea of authority plays
no part in it. And it could not do so given Locke™s understanding of
obligation and civil association.

62 63 64
Ibid., 293. Essays on the Law of Nature, 183. Two Treatises, 343.
122 The modern quest

As Hobbes explained, authority can be bestowed only by those subject
to it. When I recognize someone™s authority, I commit myself to acknow-
ledging that person™s right to make certain decisions. Consent enters into
authorization only when the terms on which authority is granted are
being agreed to. In other words, as a subject of law I consent to the rules
designating the procedures for appointing law-making officers and defin-
ing their duties. In doing so I confer “authority” on the officers who are
appointed, which means that I recognize their right to make certain
decisions. But my recognition of their authority does not imply that I
consent to the substance of the decision that they take in the course of
performing their duties. Nor do I consent to the authority of the law-
makers because I recognize their superiority; on the contrary, it is I who
endow them with “superiority,” in the sense of a right to decide, which
they could not otherwise possess. Having recognized the authority of the
lawmakers and of the procedures governing their decisions, I become
obliged to conform to decisions that are “authentic,” that is to say,
conform to the authorized conditions.
Obligation that rests on authority is accordingly a wholly human
creation. Locke cannot accept the idea of authority because he denies
that obligation can rest on a purely human commitment: “it is not to be
expected that a man would abide by a compact because he has promised
it, when better terms are offered elsewhere, unless the obligation to keep
promises was derived from nature, and not from human will.”65 Because
Locke denies that men can give laws to themselves, he insists that if
men were not bound by the law of nature, which is imposed by God, they
could be bound by nothing. That is why “the laws of the civil magistrate
derive their whole force from the constraining power of natural law.” The
only qualification suggested by Locke is that those who have access to
Christian Revelation need not rely on natural law because they have
access to another source for God™s commands. Even when he emphasizes
that the obligation to obey a civil ruler is a matter of conscience rather
than fear, that the ruler, unlike a tyrant or robber, does not possess merely

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