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.

Great Ideas, Questionable Defenses — A Blog Journal on John Locke (Chapter 2b)

(Part III of this series)

As Locke continues along his argumentative thread, the crux of his premises unfolds more clearly. He contends:

“[T]hough man in that state have an [uncontrollable] liberty to dispose of his person or possessions, yet he has not liberty to destroy himself, or so much as any creature in his possession, but where some nobler use than its bare preservation calls for it. [R]eason … teaches all mankind, who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions: for men being all the workmanship of one omnipotent, and infinitely wise maker; all the servants of one sovereign master, sent into the world by his order, and about his business; they are his property, whose workmanship they are, made to last during his, not one another’s pleasure: and being furnished with like faculties, sharing all in one community of nature, there cannot be supposed any such subordination among us, that may authorize us to destroy one another, as if we were made for one another’s uses, as the inferior ranks of creatures are for [ours]. Every one, as he is bound to preserve himself, and not to quit his station [willfully], so by the like reason, when his own preservation comes not in competition, ought he, as much as he can, to preserve the rest of mankind, and may not, unless it be to do justice on an offender, take away, or impair the life, or what tends to the preservation of the life, the liberty, health, limb, or goods of another.”
— John Locke, Second Treatise on Civil Government, Chapter 2 (changes made strictly to modernize archaic spellings, or to adjust sentence structure without compromising any crucial context)

Basically, Locke begins with the assumption that all people (charitably interpreting the term “men”) are the equal creations of God, made to carry out this deity’s will. He supposes as well that humans alone retain this birthright, and that the “inferior ranks of creatures” were created for the purpose of serving human goals. From the former basis Locke concludes that we ought not thwart the life, liberty, and property of other humans, nor should we take places of domination over each other, provided such an action is not the necessary means to protect the well-being of innocents.

While I concur with this conclusion as a general rule and suspect the average reader does too, the logic from which Locke derives it is far from indubitable, regardless of the subject’s religious persuasion. Just because an idea is correct, that does not mean all of the ways one might arrive at that idea are accurate.

Consider the proposition, “The earth revolves around the sun.” This is true, but if someone were to say to you, “The earth revolves around the sun because Carl Sagan said so,” would you accept this as valid reasoning? Would you also accept the claim, “If you don’t believe that everything Carl Sagan says is true, you must not believe the earth revolves around the sun”? Of course not. The same fallacy is at work in the strikingly common meme that those who don’t accept Locke’s religious premises, much less that such premises have some logical connection to the conclusions he draws, are incapable of believing in the normativity of persons’ rights.

When I refer to “normativity,” this is a fancy term for the more awkwardly written “ought-ness.” A key principle I adhere to in this analysis that may need some explaining (and criticism, which is what the comments are for) is this: Given a desired state of affairs from the perspective of one or more subjects, and the facts relevant to the possible actualization of that state, there is an objective fact of the matter — however difficult to ascertain, as most objective truths are — as to what the subject(s) ought to do.

Why, exactly, am I belaboring this point, when I could simply say “people ought to have rights” and leave it at that? Well, as you may have deduced, I’m not comfortable smuggling truths in through doors of bad reasoning, nor would I recommend anyone else make a habit of this. I’ll unpack what I mean by that next update, but for now feel free to mull over this idea. It has numerous implications for the concept of rights that we’ll be exploring.