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.

The State of Nature — A Blog Journal on John Locke (Chapter 2a)

(Part II of this series)

Contra Hobbes, Locke’s starting analysis of the state of nature — that is, the behavior and conditions of humanity in a hypothetical pre-government state of anarchy — is rather optimistic. He writes:

“A state also of equality, wherein all the power and jurisdiction is reciprocal, no one having more than another; there being nothing more evident, than that creatures of the same species and rank, promiscuously born to all the same advantages of nature, and the use of the same faculties, should also be equal one amongst another without subordination or subjection, unless the lord and master of them all should, by any manifest declaration of his will, set one above another, and confer on him, by an evident and clear appointment, an undoubted right to dominion and sovereignty.”
— John Locke, Second Treatise on Civil Government, Chapter 2

Taken as a declaration of an ideal derived from reason, rather than a description of the way sociology actually works, this makes sense. When people are alike in all respects relevant to civil rights, the most just and empathic course of action for a government is to protect those rights equally, barring reasonable exceptions such as the withholding of liberties from those who commit serious crimes.

But is it anthropologically accurate to say humanity started out egalitarian? Suffice it to say, the inferences we can make are at best educated guesses, based on indirect clues since Paleolithic humanity did not keep written records. The answer either way is mostly irrelevant to the success of Locke’s point, as even if we assume prehistoric society had equality (not necessarily a lack of leadership, as leaders of small Paleolithic bands may have balanced their power with responsibility for the protection of the band), what does this prove? That adopting the hunter-gatherer way of life would restore this idyllic golden age? Locke never proposed as much, as the very purpose of this treatise was to argue for a legal structure quite different from that of the Stone Age — distinct from absolutist monarchies, yes, but that is neither here nor there.

That Locke proceeds with the following quote seems to show that the latter interpretation would be an exercise in futility:

“The like natural inducement hath brought men to know that it is no less their duty, to love others than themselves; for seeing those things which are equal, must needs all have one measure; if I cannot but wish to receive good, even as much at every man’s hands, as any man can wish unto his own soul, how should I look to have any part of my desire herein satisfied, unless myself be careful to satisfy the like desire, which is undoubtedly in other men, being of one and the same nature?”
— Richard Hooker quoted by John Locke, Second Treatise on Civil Government, Chapter 2

This basically amounts to the golden rule, which, though it is a noble appeal to the conscience provided the reader has altruistic interests, the cynic in me must admit would do little to persuade the very sorts of tyrants Locke wanted to challenge. Provided the kings and queens who ruled with the proverbial iron fist were already seduced by the promise of power and wealth, enough to override the compassion that would have motivated them to institute fairer legislatures, what would Locke’s line of thought here do to restore that compassion? Either Locke believed tyrants truly did want the greatest good of the people, and they simply thought (in error) that their “divine right” gave them the means to best sustain their societies, or he supposed his argument carried some undeniable logical force.

If it’s the latter, Locke would have done well to survive up to David Hume’s famous utterance, “‘Tis not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger.” No rational sentiment, however intuitive it may seem to us in the context of our desires as an ideally equal society, can be expected to change the mind of the absolute ruler without appealing to some value that ruler would like to pursue. If, for instance, Locke argued that betraying the equal treatment of persons before the law would cultivate unstable rebellion or damage to moral integrity for the monarch, he would have a convincing case, but the argument he advances here is little more than a way to invigorate action among those subject to the monarch. By this same reasoning, the former possibility in the preceding paragraph has its own flaws: it’s doubtful every (or even the common) absolute ruler had only faulty exegetical motives for such rule. History is not so kind to the Rousseau-esque assumption that all people across all epochs are fundamentally altruistic, for money talks to slave-owners. Monarchs are no exception.

Locke continues along the same thread, asserting that reason tells all people that the equality of humans in the state of nature implies a normative obligation to afford all the right to property. Here Locke is, again, either making a non sequitir argument from some vague pre-Humean conception of reason, or he is assuming (understandably) that his readers will take as a premise the value of all people as ends unto themselves. In which case, his presentation of this idea as if it is obvious is dubious, not only because politics is fraught with incentives to flout our consciences, but also as Locke was hardly the model equal rights advocate — for reasons of sheer social inertia, societies of his time discriminated unapologetically against women, ethnic minorities, sexual minorities, and other common targets. Locke may not have supported all such prejudices, but he did not publicly challenge them as far as I can ascertain.

As you can see, this is taking longer than I’d anticipated. This isn’t a disadvantage; if anything, it’s allowed us a more thorough look into such a crucial subject. Expect me to inject digressions into other topics when appropriate, rather than keep this series going uninterrupted. With hope, I can make more progress on the “Giving Peace a Chance — For Real This Time” thread.

Giving Peace a Chance — For Real This Time (Part I)

For the majority of my life as someone capable of understanding violence, I failed to see the point of pacifism in its most serious, ambitious sense. Granted, most of us would prefer not to have to resort to bloodshed, and if it did prove necessary we would be better off not taking pleasure in it, yet World War II always seemed a strong counterexample to following John Lennon’s suggestion. I would tell myself I had no objections in principle to society utilizing force to achieve what was truly a greater good. Those who scoffed at “the ends justify the means” only did so because they disapproved of certain ends caused by the means, thereby unwittingly proving that point.

I suspect at least a significant number of readers who affirm the above stance do so, reasonably enough, because pacifism’s spokespeople have not tended to maintain a respectable track record of practicality. The stock pacifist justification for refusing to fight even in self-defense is that of Harry Potter, for whose unwavering nonviolence to the point of risking more lives Lupin scolds him. “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind,” “Why show people killing is unacceptable in society by killing them?”, and other such appeals to moral outrage derail the conversation before it can make any meaningful progress.

Meanwhile, the prominent voice for defensive violence fares no better in critical thinking. It has its own soundbites: “Don’t tread on me,” “Think of the children,” and all species of “They deserve it” rationales. If the error of strict pacifism is that it elevates a maxim (don’t kill no matter what) above victims’ lives, the sin of its opposite is a cruel disregard of the nuances of human psychology. A part of the pacifist thesis worth considering is that showing society’s aggressors the strength of our commitment to peace may, far from revealing exploitable weakness, give them reason to respect and even trust us. The skeptics have mostly ignored this.

Our goal, then, ought to be the transcending of these tunnel-vision biases. The most responsible replacement of dogmatic bumper-sticker policies is rational deliberation on the facts relevant to that which we value. Should it seem as if abandoning our hollow rationalizations for positions on this issue makes the task dauntingly complicated, we know we are doing something right, because if what we aim to optimize are real consequences for people’s well-being, we should afford care to thought that is proportional to the uncertainty of those consequences.

This should be common sense, but particularly in the domain of the ethics of violence, we have the all-too-human tendency to forget that what appears to be “cold logic” is the very instrument of justice Alan Turing used to assist the Allies’ victory over the Axis. Neither purely emotional nor exclusively rational means comprise the whole of ethical judgment, as Spock must have some value-based purpose to think for, and McCoy must have a system of discerning better ways to achieve what he values than others.

None of which settles the peace debate proper, you surely protest. We’ll come to that in time, although if we do this responsibly, the conclusion we reach will never be unduly certain, especially when history has never been in short supply of wrong answers. For today, I hope I have stressed the importance of method, lest the garbage put in become garbage out. Naturally, what I present here can never be totally free from its blind spots, yet we should — as people who, remember, desire a common vision in the most significant sense — find little controversial about the notion that identifying and interpreting the facts is better than talking past each other.

In Part II, we’ll consider what history can tell us about what best deters violence, in both the short- and long-term.

What’s It All About, Alfie?

I expect the name of this blog to elicit one of three reactions. The first is scoffing dismissal at its audacity: “Gee, here’s another naive kid thinking he can make a difference. What a hack! Moving on…” The second is curiosity: “Gee, I was just wondering how one might go about the massive task of saving the world. What a potentially valuable resource, my cynical doubts notwithstanding! Moving on to the actual website…”

The last is outrage at the idea that I might actually be selling snake-oil to dummies, who think reading my patented manifesto on world peace (endorsed by the Dalai Lama) could protect the Amazon rainforest.

Suffice it to say, if you fall into the first niche of people, feel free to spend your time more wisely, as I am sure your life includes priorities above reading the word-vomit of a teenager on social justice. Seriously. For those of you more gullible hopeful folk who sincerely share my goal of at least trying to make sense of this complex, imperfect world, and who figure you might as well embark on your journey of stupid idealism with a soul-buddy on the Internet, welcome!

Naturally, you will have your reservations. Really, what do I know about improving society? The most honest answer I can muster is, not much more than the average person. Yet. The first warning I can give you to make this project more worthwhile for all of us is that you ought never take this blog to be the web edition of Peter Singer’s The Life You Can Save. I am not Gandhi. You will doubtless find people more valuable to the world than I am. If you feel so inclined, read my updates as if they were journal entries from the pen of a young person, aiming for nothing more or less than the expansion of his scope and depth of social consciousness.

That said, I can promise you, most patient reader who I am amazed has stayed with me this long, that in the annals of this blog you will never hear echoes of Lisa Simpson. I intend zero condescension, judgmentalism, self-righteousness, or pretension to know or do things I do not actually know or do. One virtue of this blog that I hope shines through is that it will never propose anything impractical for the majority of people with a shred of desire to make the world a better place. As one of the laziest people I know, I assure you that if, over the course of this endeavor, I find myself capable of saving a tree, then you most certainly can do so too. Chances are I will not get that far, thus I refuse to demand that everyone else match my imaginary moral superiority, lest you appear a despicable apathetic pig in my eyes.

If this sounds pessimistic of me, note that never in this essay have I stated that I will not try, or that no one else should try. Success in this project looks something like this: regardless of whether I earn the Nobel Peace Prize, I will have made the most authentic effort possible to think critically about the issues surrounding the extent to which I, you, and society can actualize the values we share (at least, that I hope we share). Bonus points if someone else finds these musings of mine somewhat thought-provoking.

So, now that we have dispelled any unreasonable expectations for this blog’s content — both positive and negative — let me explain what sorts of topics I may cover throughout my blogger’s career, before you leave thinking this site is pointless. “Saving the world” is basically the same in my mind as in anyone else’s; it’s the details that need sorting out. Most of us desire a society, or multiple coexisting societies, in which every person’s potential to pursue happiness with liberty is maximized. The debates over the means to that end could fill a nation’s worth of libraries, encompassing everything from personal ethics to large-scale politics.

To keep this blog ever on track, I swear to abide by this constant principle: If it has little relevance to the well-being of you or other conscious creatures, it has no right to any bandwidth here. Within the limits of that maxim, be you a passionate feminist or an enemy of malaria, there’s bound to be something of interest to you here if you are still reading this. The most powerful asset in our hands, as people discontent with the status quo, is determination. Apathy tends to shrink when you purposefully hold yourself accountable to others who keep ubiquitous tabs on you, saying to their fellows, “Who wants to start the bidding on how long this New Year’s Resolution will last?” That is the main reason I chose to start this blog.

Are you in?