Saturday, October 24, 2009

Vindicating John Locke

John Locke has been excoriated by political conservatives as secularist liberal who rejected the Christian foundations of culture and society and who based his ideas on a political philosophy on the individual divorced from community. Many Christian conservatives argue that Locke’s views on the state of nature and on the family are discordant with or in tension with biblical tradition.

I would argue that Locke’s teachings are not discordant with biblical teachings but are rather silent on the many questions explicitly raised in the Scriptures. This is because Locke, an empiricist, was seeking to elaborate a theory of the state based not on biblical revelations, but rather, on reason, observance, and the natural law. He ends up with a system that is essentially neutral when aligned with biblical tradition simply because it does not treat the many questions raised therein. I have found, however, nothing in his writings that explicitly contradicts this tradition, except for perhaps his writings on the family, which I have not sufficiently explored to make a judgment either way.

Certainly, I am alone among conservatives in my thinking. Locke is typically blamed by conservatives for the divorce of Scripture and tradition from human reasoning, which led to Rousseau’s thinking and to the French Enlightenment. He is similarly blamed for failing to adequately incorporate communities into his philosophical system, thus leading to an individualism that would fragment society.

I was thus very pleased when I recently discovered Dr. Thomas West, professor of politics at the University of Dallas and senior fellow and director of the Claremont Institute, who, like me, finds in Locke a thinker whose views are consistent not only with the conservative canon, but also, with Christianity in general. Dr. West’s Witherspoon Lecture, available at this link, defends Locke against his detractors and proves him to be a Christian and social conservative.

I'd like to call attention to the following excerpts from the paper, which I found most helpful (the headings are my own):

Showing that Locke is not a morally neutral libertarian
In the Two Treatises, Locke speaks of specific moral duties, required by the law of nature, that is, a law discovered by reason that all human beings are obliged to obey. Locke makes frequent assertions about what that law commands, but does not say much about its ultimate foundation. That becomes clear only at one point in the Second Treatise, in the chapter on paternal power. "Law, in its true notion," Locke writes, "is not so much the limitation as the direction of a free and intelligent agent to his proper interest, and prescribes no farther than is for the general good of those under that law. Could they be happier without it, the law, as an useless thing would of it self vanish" (2.57).[11] Law directs man to his "true and proper interest," that is, to what makes them "happier." The law of nature, then, is a rule, or set of rules "for the general good of those under that law." The self-interest of all, understood as happiness, is Locke's ultimate standard for the law of nature.

That Locke's View on the Family is not Purely Utilitarian
Locke's teaching on the family would make him a "social conservative," as that term is used today. He endorses marital fidelity and heterosexuality, and opposes no-fault divorce and homosexuality. He does not treat sex as a matter of personal choice, because sex must be heterosexual if it is to generate children, which every society needs. Sex must be mostly limited to marriage if children are to have their best chance to be raised by their biological parents, who are more likely to love them and provide them with their needs than anyone else.

That Locke was a Christian
Locke once wrote, "A Christian I am sure I am."[19] In spite of that remark, scholars have long debated the question of Locke's personal religious convictions. But whatever those convictions may have been, Locke was always pro-Christian in his writings. Like Aquinas before him, Locke generally teaches that reason and revelation are in perfect agreement on the moral duties of men in this world (Reasonableness of Christianity 241-3).

That Locke's Focus on Individual Rights Is Not Incompatible with a Conservative View of Morality and Duty:
A narrow focus on the rights of the individual at the expense of moral conditions of liberty, or on morality and community at the expense of individual rights, divides today's conservatives and liberals not only from each other but also among themselves. Social conservatives denounce the perniciousness of "rights talk" and bemoan government's failure to promote the virtues necessary to sustain a free and decent society. Libertarians celebrate individual rights, but they view government support for morality as a threat to liberty. From the Founders' standpoint, both sides are half right and half wrong. There is a parallel division among liberals. Communitarians like Michael Sandel reject the individual rights tradition, while rights-affirming liberals like Ronald Dworkin argue against even the most minimal government promotion of morality (in the Founders' sense of that term). For the Founders, rights and duties were two parts of a single understanding of political life and its purposes.

That Locke's View of Christianity was not Libertarian
Second, Locke teaches that Christianity not only favors liberty, but also supports the basic morality that is necessary for government--and for happiness. At the beginning of his Letter on Toleration, Locke asserts that the Christians of his day are wrongly preoccupied with "subtle matters that exceed the capacity of the vulgar," while they "pass by, without chastisement, without censure, those wickednesses and moral vices which all men admit to be diametrically opposed to the profession of Christianity" (Toleration, p. 61). In other words, Locke is arguing that Christians have forgotten the moral core of their religion in their excessive concern with minor variations within the community of the faithful (satirized by Jonathan Swift in Gulliver's Travels as Lilliputians quarreling over whether to crack their eggs on the big end or little). Locke was seeking to rectify an imbalance in the Christian world of his day--a focus on doctrine and ritual at the expense of moral conduct--an imbalance that most Christians today would agree was a serious problem. So important is this moral core of Christianity that government has an obligation to support it by its laws--not because it is Christian, but because it is necessary for government to do its job well, to provide security for men's lives and properties. Far from promoting religious indifferentism or relativism, as some readers claim, Locke's Letter on Toleration presents itself as affirming and renewing the moral core of the Christian life at a time when that core was in danger of being forgotten. Locke's point was thus not unreasonable, whether in a strictly Christian view, or in the view of reason alone.

Separation of Church and State
Locke's argument for separating church and state was based on the limited purpose of government, namely, to take care of men's "civil goods," such as "life, liberty, bodily health and freedom from pain, and possessions" (p. 67), and not their souls. For Locke, as for the whole Christian and philosophical tradition, soul is always higher than body. Locke's division of labor between government and church was meant to serve the good of both. He hoped thereby to purify Christianity of its tendency to seek political domination over others, instead of doing what it should do, namely, to promote repentance and reformation of morals. He hoped to limit government to what it can do well--to secure men's "civil goods"--and to abandon what it almost always botches--to attempt to save men's souls.

Why Locke's Vision for Limited Government Has Been Misunderstood by Conservatives
The real objection to Locke among intellectuals, I believe, is to his teaching on the limited role of politics in promoting the good life for man. Human beings are all too prone to believe that government should mandate their own particular vision of excellence and perfection, and to condemn it when it refuses to adopt their personal vision of the just, noble, and good. Locke's solution was to limit government to providing for the security of bodily and external goods, and the moral conditions of that security, leaving the mind otherwise free to follow the truth (or falsehood) without being coerced.

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