More Than “Just Because” — A Blog Journal on John Locke (Chapter 2c)

(Part IV of this series)

Fair warning — this’ll be a rather philosophy-heavy update. If it seems like I’m getting away from the actual treatise we’re following, I hope you’ll see how these points actually relate to it. This abstract stuff will pay off in the long run.

Returning to normativity, I want to stress that any pretensions to know what ought to be done, in a given complex ethical situation, must rely on an argument from facts about the ways a valued or desired circumstance may be achieved.

Philosophically, this is known as consequentialism, although I’m not entirely happy with that label because of its connotations. People tend to take “consequentialism” to mean the notorious principle of “the ends justify the means” (as if the inherent undesirability of the means aren’t an end themselves). In my “Giving Peace a Chance” series, I briefly touched on this matter, but we have to consider it more thoroughly here before going any further with Locke’s treatise. Why? Because we can’t evaluate his argument properly without breaking down its logical structure, and if we want to understand how the conclusion he rightly defends follows from a stronger foundation than his, we need to know how normative arguments like his work.

This form of consequentialism is more broad than the stereotype suggests, so much so that it can scarcely be a controversial axiom for our purposes. This isn’t merely my bias speaking here: imagine any moral distinction you can think of, and ask yourself why you recognize that distinction. Murder? That has enormous consequences for the potential of the victim to carry out his/her wishes, and for the well-being of the victim’s loved ones. Slavery? Fewer consequences are more harmful than the elimination of autonomy. Deceit? Even “white lies” build the habit of dishonesty that causes more harm than it’s worth, and they carry risks of negative effects more substantial than the violation of some hollow maxim.

All of which is a thorough way of saying that, if you want to suggest that an action is unwise to undertake without explaining how that action actually causes anything detrimental to a worthy purpose, you frankly do not know what you’re talking about. Forgive me if it sounds condescending to say this should be obvious, but I raise this idea to underscore the gap in Locke’s argument. Notice that he never explains why, precisely, the equal creation of humans implies the normativity of equal rights. Intuitively, this seems appealing, and indeed in common discourse we argue this way to great success. Yet without elaborating the premises in question, Locke’s argument is on shaky ground. It amounts to a “just because” assertion riding on rhetorical aesthetics, with no attempt to convince the opposition with the tried and true method of identifying something they value, and arguing that the acquisition of this value depends on the application of what one is proposing.

The reason most of us nonetheless find reasoning like Locke’s persuasive is that we carry assumptions into the ethical arena — decent assumptions, to be sure, but assumptions still. Perhaps Locke is engaging his readers on a level where the value of the well-being of persons is a given (one of the aforementioned assumptions), and that’s fair for the purposes of legislation, so long as he identifies what constitutes a person in this context. That he does so implicitly, and based strictly on species rather than the relevant features of the species (which may apply to others), leaves his thesis currently unconvincing to the contemporary reader, who tends to use the well-being of creatures capable of happiness and suffering as his/her moral thermometer.

This is where a connection to the animal rights debate, with which in mind we started this reading journey, emerges, but we’ll get to that later. I’d like to more directly address the text of Locke’s book in the next post. As it stands, we’ve considered some contextual philosophical concerns that cannot be overstated: while that which one ought to do is more than just a matter of arbitrary whim — rather, it is objective given facts about subjective beings — truths about such obligations, typically considered moral imperatives, cannot come from reason alone either.

Rather, provided some fundamental values (disputes over which may get particularly messy), moral truth upon which legal arguments like Locke’s are made have to concern the achievement of these values. This abstraction of natural law, as Locke sees it, has negligible normative force. So we can’t take his word for it that rights work the way he thinks they do, without some critical argument in favor of that view.

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3 thoughts on “More Than “Just Because” — A Blog Journal on John Locke (Chapter 2c)

  1. I ran across a Libertarian tutorial video by Bill Glod called “The Nature of Rights”. Mr. Glod goes into the “consequentialist” versus “deontological” theories. I wrote a post called “Explaining Rights to Libertarians” pointing out that it was consequentialism that ultimately ended slavery, while a deontological view would have conserved the rights of the slaveholder in place at the time.

    • Right, I think the consequentialism/deontology subject is one of those areas where one can at best have “a keen grasp of the obvious,” to borrow your blog’s title. To be fair, rules have their place. Indeed, I think that pragmatically speaking, sets of principles like those promoted in virtue ethics would probably work better in applied ethics than a lofty, unhelpful “utilitarian calculus.” So long as we admit that the rules are just that — rules, which are not desirable for their own sake.

      It’s like the paradox of hedonism: just because happiness may truly be the end goal, that doesn’t mean that psychologically focusing on obtaining it directly is the best way to go. Same with utility in general. I’ve grown more fond of the idea of ethics as basically a system of heuristics humans (and some other species like the great apes and dolphins, if I’m not mistaken) use as rough estimations. They may not always yield the best utility every time (for every “honesty is the best policy,” there’s a Nazi knocking on your door, looking for Jews in your house, whom you’d be best off lying to), but they pay their rent in convenience.

      Rather than eliminate these heuristics entirely (which would be tantamount to getting rid of the “when in doubt, preserve your queen” principle in chess), it seems to me we ought to make peace with them by finding ways we can optimize them, given our species simply has its rational limits. For example — assuming we’ve all agreed upon the ends, which is an axiom of this blog, although not always an applicable one as I’ve unfortunately found — I’d argue that the principle of “don’t terminate the life of any innocent human, but any other species is fair game” had its virtues for a while, but now we’ve had enough time to realize that it needs modification if we want to be consistently altruistic to actual “persons.”

  2. Principles, which are short, easily memorized rules, are useful because they cover most cases adequately (like the Ten Commandments). As rules expand to cover more scenarios and account for more exceptions, they become more detailed, which explains why laws often appear more complex that necessary. I’m guessing that by “heuristics” you mean the application of well-known, common sense rules to everyday problems.

    If I understand them correctly, “virtue ethics” would be the same type of thing. Cultivating “honesty” would be practicing telling the truth, even in situations where a lie might give a temporary advantage.

    The only problem with utilitarianism is getting the “useful for what purpose” question answered correctly. The ultimate correct answer is “the best possible good for everyone”, and so long as that is the nominal end, utility simply means going about it pragmatically.

    Since there is no direct route to that end, we approximate it by improving things here, reducing harm there. And when we get to specific problems, we usually have better empirical data to work with. Ending slavery harmed the economic interests of some plantation owners, but benefitted all of the people enslaved. Providing equal protection for gays and the transgendered in employment, housing, and couples contracts benefits them with only minimal harm to others. Limiting abortion to the first 20 weeks, except to protect the health of the mother, would reduce harm to fetuses that reached sufficient maturity to experience pain.

    In all these cases we have empirical data to inform our moral judgment.

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