Happy Birthday, John Locke!

John Locke, lithograph by de Fonroug after H. Garnier, image public domain via the Library of Congress

John Locke, born August 29th, 1632, is probably the single person most responsible for our United States political form of government, or at least its philosophical underpinnings. (Montesquieu can be credited as most responsible for its form, but that’s a story for another time.) The ideas of this Enlightenment, empiricist philosopher and political theorist included arguments in favor of liberal government of and by the people centered on natural rights, including property rights and rights to freedom of thought and belief; an emphasis on reason inspired and restrained by evidence; and the so-called blank slate theory of the human mind, which postulates that experience entirely determines what we think and kind of person we become.

There’s an excellent, very approachable introductory short biography of Jonn Locke written by Patrick J. Connolly for the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy which I recommend. And Locke’s ideas are explored often here at Ordinary Philosophy as well.

Learn more about this great and oh-so-influential thinker at:

‘John Locke’  – by William Uzgalis for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

John Locke Part One and Part Two – podcast episodes by Stephen West for Philosophize This

John Locke 1632-1704 – Dr. Rachael Kohn discusses Locke’s life and ideas with Perez Zagorin for The Ark, a program of Australia’s Radio International

The Social Contract – Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss this foundational question of political philosophy, which was the impetus for Locke’s political theory  – ‘By what authority does a government govern?’ for In Our Time. 

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Why Shouldn’t We Compel Them to Come In? Locke, the Enlightenment, and the Debate over Religious Toleration, by Nicholas Jolley

Religious Liberty, at the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia, by Moses Jacob Ezekiel, 1876

Most people in the West today unreflectively accept the need for religious toleration. Of course, if pressed, they will admit that toleration, like freedom of speech, can’t be absolute; there must be some limits. Suppose, for example, that my religion calls for human sacrifice every Sunday; no one will think that such a religion should be tolerated. Again, if pressed, people will agree that there are difficult cases: to take an issue that troubled John Locke, suppose that my religion demands allegiance to a foreign power. We may think that reasonable people can disagree over such cases. But the fact that there are these problem cases doesn’t shake people’s commitment to the principle of religious toleration.

We tend to be so wedded to this principle that we can easily forget how seductive the case for intolerance can be. Consider, for instance, a person who says with an authoritative air: “I know that my religion is the true one and that yours is completely false. I also know you will go to hell if you don’t convert to my religion.” Wouldn’t it be an act of charity on his part to convert you, by force if necessary, to the religion that will ensure your happiness in the afterlife? Here one might adapt an example given by that champion of liberalism, John Stuart Mill, for another purpose. A police officer sees a person trying to cross a bridge that he knows to be unsafe. According to Mill, it’s not an unwarranted interference with the person’s liberty for the officer to use force to prevent him or her from stepping on to the bridge; he knows, after all, that the bridge is unsafe and he knows that the person doesn’t want to fall into the river. One might take a similar line in the religious case: I know that John’s religion is leading him to hell, and I know that that’s not where he wishes to end up. Theologians in the Western tradition such as Augustine have argued for intolerance along these lines, and they have buttressed their argument by appealing to the biblical text: “Compel them to come in.”

Modern liberals are likely to respond that the appeal to Mill’s example is unfair, for the analogy is far from exact. For one thing, Mill builds into his example the assumption that there is no time to warn the person about the danger of the bridge; presumably, if there were time to warn him, then other things being equal, Mill would admit that there was no case for coercion. More importantly, one might argue that no one really knows, or can know, that the doctrines of revealed religion are true; acceptance of such doctrines depends on accepting the accounts of witnesses who may be unreliable or whose words may have been misinterpreted down the ages.

The idea that no one can know the claims of revealed religion are true is the basis for one of Locke’s main strategies of argument for religious toleration. The strategy is a powerful one, but it is open to a couple of objections. First, Locke sets the bar for knowledge very high: he allows little to count as knowledge that isn’t on a par with mathematical demonstration. By his lights, in the bridge example, even the policeman doesn’t strictly know that the bridge is unsafe. Further, even if the champion of intolerance concedes that he doesn’t strictly know his religion to be true, he may still say that he has very strong support for his beliefs, and that this level of support justifies him in coercing others. So the kind of case that Locke makes here may not be conclusive.

Fortunately, Locke has other strings to his bow. One intriguing argument turns on the nature of belief and its relation to the will. Suppose that the champion of intolerance says to the unbeliever: “You ought to believe the articles of my faith” (e.g. the doctrine of the Trinity). It seems apt for the unbeliever to reply to such a claim by saying: “It’s not in my power to believe this doctrine. You misunderstand the nature of belief. Belief is not a voluntary action like switching on a light. Rather, belief is more like falling in love; it’s something that happens to you.” One might then plug in the Kantian principle implicitly accepted by Locke: ought implies can. If belief is not in my power, and ought implies can, then I can have no obligation to believe the proposition in question.

This can seem like a powerful reply to the advocate of intolerance, but again, unfortunately, it’s not conclusive. For the advocate may say: “I agree that belief is not directly under your voluntary control, but I maintain that it is indirectly so. True, you can’t just switch on belief, but it’s in your power to do things that will result, or are likely to result, in your coming to believe.” Pascal, for instance, thought that though we can’t just believe at will, we can do things such as going to Mass and mixing with the congregation of the faithful that will have the effect of producing belief; faith, he thought, is catching. And then the intolerant person is in a position to make a case for religious persecution on the part of the state: there should be penalties for non-attendance at church so that people are induced to attend and at least to give a hearing to the teachings of the state-approved religion. This was the argument put to Locke by his opponent, Jonas Proast. Locke seeks to reply to this argument by saying that sincere religious belief can’t be produced in this way, and that it’s only sincere religious belief that is acceptable to God. Whether this reply to Proast is successful is a controversial issue among philosophers who have studied the debate. And the issue isn’t a narrowly academic one: it should be of interest to all those who seek to defend the values of the Enlightenment today.

This essay was originally published at OUP Blog: Oxford University Press’s Academic Insights for the Thinking World

~ Nicholas Jolley is Research Professor and Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at the University of California, Irvine. He has also taught at the University of California, San Diego, and Syracuse University. He is the author of a number of books for OUP, including Toleration and Understanding in Locke (2017), and Locke’s Touchy Subjects: Materialism and Immortality (2015).

~ Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

The Right to Be Poor, by Peter Adamson

St Francis of Assisi by Giotto

St Francis of Assisi by Giotto

Peter Adamson just published a most fascinating and insightful essay in Philosophy Now about an aspect of the property rights debate that we rarely address: the right to own nothing. It’s an important question, especially in this culture of hyper-consumerism and the conviction that property ownership is essential to personal and political freedom. But as a certain innovative and humble friar realized in the early 13th century, property ownership can also be a burden, alienating us from one another and from the unencumbered pursuit of spiritual perfection. Perhaps Thomas Jefferson, when writing the Declaration of Independence, had a similar insight as St Francis of Assisi and his mendicants when he adapted John Locke’s principle of ‘life, liberty, and property’ as essential human rights as ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’.

Adamson writes:

‘One of my favorite things about the history of philosophy is finding out that ideas we now take for granted originally emerged in surprising ways. I can think of no better example than the notion of a right to own property. Not that we can take it for granted that we have such a right, if we consider the history of communism in the Twentieth Century. Still, it seems such an obvious concept that it must surely always have been with us. But you can make a good case that it was first explicitly articulated in the later Middle Ages. And here’s the surprising part: the thinkers who first explored this notion were actually concerned with their right to own nothing.

They were members of the mendicant orders, especially the Franciscans. Following the example of their founder, Francis of Assisi, Franciscans argued that spiritual perfection requires the voluntary embrace of poverty. Like Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire, they depended on the kindness of strangers, living on charitable donations. Hence the term ‘mendicant’, meaning, ‘given to begging’. Christ and his Apostles, the Franciscans argued, had shown the way by giving up all their possessions. Furthermore, ownership of property is a consequence of the Fall. In a state of innocence there would be no need for possessions, since by generosity of spirit all things would be shared. However, as well as an individual religious commitment, the embrace of poverty amounted to an implicit and sometimes explicit political critique, since the medieval church as an institution most certainly did not embrace poverty. The mendicants’ very existence was a rebuke to the opulence and worldliness of the papal court and the rest of the ecclesiastical hierarchy….’

Read the full article in Philosophy Now

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Behind the Veil: Rawls, Locke, de Tocqueville, and Human Connection in a Liberal Society

People in a Public Square, cropped, Image Creative Commons CCO Public Domain via PixabayI’ve been listening to this excellent series from a favorite podcast of mine, the Philosopher’s Zone on Australia’s RN (Radio National), hosted by Joe Gelonesi. There’s this recent series called Political Philosophy in the World, hosted by guest host Scott Stephens, which considers and critiques seven important topics in political philosophy. I just listened to the last one, Political Philosophy in the World: Liberalism and the End of the World as We Know It.

In it, interviewee Patrick Deneen offers a series of critiques of liberalism, his own and others’ over its roughly five century history. (We’re speaking here not of liberalism as commonly understood in the U.S., as political positions on the left of the spectrum, but of classical liberalism, a political philosophy which focuses on liberty and the primacy of the individual.) From the beginning, liberal philosophers and their critics have identified and described possible contradictions in the system itself, and ways in which it may end up being self-defeating in the real world. For example, John Locke, a founding father of liberalism, recognizes that it would require a strong state to protect the autonomy of the individual from competitors and from the ‘querulous and contentious’, and that individual autonomy in a marketplace, unfettered by other constraints, will lead to conditions that foster inequality, discontent, and revolution (at about 4:40 and 14:40, then 10:30). Alexis de Tocqueville observes that though individuals enjoy this autonomy at the beginning, they are left weakened and alone by the erosion of those institutions that create bonds of loyalty and affection in a society, such as family, tradition, and belief (at about 15:00). Deneen, in sum, describes these and various other ways in which liberalism can fail to achieve its end of liberating the individual to achieve their potential to the fullest possible extent.

The discussion in its entirety is absolutely fascinating, but my attention is caught particularly by Deneen’s observation of a problem with the great liberal political philosopher John Rawls’ famed ‘veil of ignorance’ thought experiment (starting at about 19:00). Rawls’ veil of ignorance is a beautifully elegant method of envisioning and crafting a just society. Imagine you’re looking at a society from the outside knowing you’ll be placed in it with no idea what you’ll be: rich, poor, or middle-class; tall or short; intelligent or not; of which gender; outgoing or shy; of which race; employed or not and at what kind of job; and so on. Given this hypothetical situation, what cultural practices, laws, policies, governmental system, economic system, and so on, would you put into place? Behind that veil of ignorance, you’d be motivated to to design a society that’s just and fair, that benefits everyone to the greatest degree possible, since of course, you could be the one who suffers the ill effects of any injustice built into the system.

8694d-justice2bet2binc3a9galitc3a92b-2bles2bplateaux2bde2bla2bbalance2bby2bfrachet2c2bjan2b20102c2bpublic2bdomain2bvia2bwikimedia2bcommonsAs Deneen points out, Rawls, like other liberal political philosophers, recognizes that people in a liberal society may, over time, act not out of true freedom, but as slaves of their individual desires and passions. Since liberalism promotes the idea that society is and should be made of up autonomous individuals freely pursuing their own ends, the values of individuals in that society may become self-serving to the point of destructiveness. This destruction can be of social institutions that provide support and meaning, such as family, tradition, and belief, of liberalism’s own key institutions such as the free markets of goods and ideas, and as we now recognize, of the very environment from which all of this is derived. Rawls posits the veil of ignorance as a way to free ourselves from this trap, by transforming ourselves, in thought, into benevolent, self-effacing avatars of justice. But, Deneen points out, Rawls never really provides an explanation of why we we’d all want to go behind the veil of ignorance in the first place. After all, Rawls’ entire theory of justice-as-fairness as described in his magnum opus A Theory of Justice, which the view from behind the veil reveals to us, depends on the participation of everyone. If even one person remains aloof, that person’s interests and motivations aren’t considered or checked by those of others, which, in turn, is not fair.

From within the thought experiment, the motivation to go behind the veil makes sense: since liberalism is meant to promote the liberty and well-being of all individuals, it makes sense to envision and design a society where some individuals are not allowed to enjoy advantages that limit or even destroy the liberty and well-being of others. But this still doesn’t account for why we’d all want to go behind the veil in the first place. In a liberal society in the real world, only those suffering its ill effects will be motivated to do so, since those who have found relative success within its parameters will be ever more motivated to keep the pursuit of their own interests free from the demands and constraints of others until it serves them otherwise.

With the disconnection from other people which liberalism can tend to foster in mind, as described by de Toqueville and Rawls, I picture a whole society of people behind Rawls’ veil of ignorance. Then something in this picture strikes me: behind this veil, all the people are looking in the same direction, encircled around the society they must share. They are united, not separated by competing interests nor from the bonds of family, tradition, and belief. They are cooperating as equals, with a shared goal and a shared ethic: the liberty to achieve the fullest degree of perfection that an individual is capable of, with others’ interests as much in mind as their own so far as possible. These interests can and invariably do include family, tradition, and belief. Those with a narrow view of liberalism often speak only of individual interests as involving the individual pursuit for food and shelter, money, comfort, wealth, and prestige, and dismiss family, tradition, and belief as impediments to human liberty. But of course, this is not necessarily so, as we observe their lasting power and meaningfulness in the real world throughout history and to this day, even where liberalism as an institution is most robust. Material comfort and prestige are not and have never been the only and or even, for many, the primary motivators of thought and action in any society.

Behind the veil, then, is that deep need for human connection fulfilled in the context of an idealized liberalism, that the institution of liberalism in the real world can undermine if uncorrected by the state or by an ethic such as Rawls’ justice-as-fairness. Does Rawls have this picture of a united humanity in mind as he devises his thought experiment, though he doesn’t describe it per se? Perhaps Rawls does recognize this motivation for going behind the veil: our realization that while the pursuit of our own individual interests can be fulfilling, it can also undermine our potential of fulfilling our deepest humanity, not only tied to the destinies of others but with a deep emotional need for deep and lasting connections with one another. Behind the veil of ignorance, we are thus united, connected, bonded, sharing a vision, in a state of equal humanity, of a good and just world for all of us.

*Listen to the podcast version here or subscribe on iTunes

~ Also published at Darrow, a forum for culture and ideas

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, entirely supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!


Sources and Inspiration:

Alexis de Tocqueville‘, in Encyclopædia Britannica Online.

Gaus, Gerald, Courtland, Shane D. and Schmidtz, David, ‘Liberalism‘, in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Political Philosophy in the World: Liberalism and the End of the World as We Know It.’ from The Philosopher’s Zone Podcast, Sun May 15 2016, Radio National, Australia. Host: Joe Gelonesi

Rawls, John. A Theory of Justice. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1971.

Uzgalis, William, “John Locke“, in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Communitarianism, Writ Large

I listened to Bill Moyers’ discussion with Michelle Alexander recently, about her book The New Jim Crow and her activism against the over-incarceration of black people here in the US. Something she said really struck me, as it relates to a problem I’ve been mulling over for some time. She said:

I realize that as well-intentioned as all that work was, it was leading me to a place of relatively narrow thinking… If I care about a young man serving, you know, 25 years to life for a minor drug crime… If I care about him and care about his humanity, ought I not also care equally about a young woman who’s facing deportation back to a country she hardly knows and had lived in only as a child and can barely speak the language? And ought I not be as equally concerned about her fate as well? Ought I not be equally concerned about a family whose loved ones were just killed by drones in Afghanistan? Ought I not care equally for all? And that really was Dr. King’s insistence at the end of his life. That we ought to care about the Vietnamese as much as we care and love our people at home.’

Alexander’s reflection on her own work illustrates our need not only to grow more expansive in our thinking in order to achieve a more just society not just locally, but globally: we need to witness and internalize the sufferings faced by other human beings who are not like us in appearance and culture, so that our instincts for empathy and for justice expand as well. 

The problems associated with the organization and implementation of an ordered society is the central topic of political philosophy; the problems associated with making societies just is the concern of ethical philosophy. Two philosophers whose work I especially admire in these fields are John Rawls and Michael Sandel. They are both concerned with justice, how to recognize a just society, and how we select the criteria for ethical decision-making. (I’m also a fan of Sandel’s because he’s engaged in a cause that’s dear to my heart: the great project of philosophy is not, and should not be, confined to academia. With his freely accessible lectures and discussions, and his popular philosophy books, he is among those reintroducing philosophy to the public square. Philosophy originated in the public square, after all, and as it addresses the concerns of the whole of humanity, then it should be a concern of, and the conversation should be accessible to, the whole of humanity as well.)

Yet Rawls and Sandel are at odds in some key ways. Among other things, Rawls’ theory of justice is classically liberal, in the tradition of John Locke, and focused on universalizability: a just system is one that must be applicable to all human societies, in all times and places. Sandel focuses more on the importance of community and tradition in matters of justice, and the answers are found more in solutions to ethical dilemmas based on particular society’s evolved norms. Rawl’s famous ‘veil of ignorance’ is his method for discerning whether or not a society is just: if each and every person were to be randomly assigned a role in society and had no way to know ahead of time who they would be (woman, man, CEO, employee, black, white, rich, poor, etc), and knowing this, they had to design a social arrangement, what would they all agree on? Then, we can look at how that veil-of-ignorance social design compares with an actual society to help us assess how just it is, and in turn, help us create s social system that will benefit everyone as much as possible. Seems a method that should obtain pretty fair, democratic results, right? But for Sandel, the veil of ignorance seems incoherent even as a mere thought experiment, since morals originate in, or emerge from, particular societies. Therefore, what is just is derived from how actual societies work, how they’ve grown and evolved to solve their own sets of problems, and cannot be derived from hypotheticals. So Rawls’ and Sandel’s ideas seem, on the face of it, irreconcilable. Who’s right?

Sandel’s views are generally described as communitarian, though he’s not entirely comfortable that characterization in that it can go too far in allowing community to trump the individual in all things moral. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ‘…communitarians argued that the standards of justice must be found in forms of life and traditions of particular societies and hence can vary from context to context’. In other words, communitarianism is the philosophy that ethics have more to do with particular societal morals and traditions, so the claim that there can be a universal definition of justice, such as Rawls’, is dubious at best.

When it comes to explaining how cultural traditions evolve to make a society more just, communitarianism has something to offer. For example, it’s among America’s most self-identifiable traditional ideals that individual liberty is of highest value and should be promoted as long as the freely chosen actions of one person don’t infringe on the freedom of another. The ideal of individual liberty has long roots in American society, and evolved and expanded over time through political upheavals, case law, and interpersonal disputes. But when we consider the traditional American ideal of individual liberty (by no means unique to America, of course) and compare it to our social history, it’s clear that it’s not no simple: it’s also been a tradition in the US to enslave other people. When that particular tradition was slowly, painfully overturned, there were many other ways that people, legally or illegally but commonly practiced, infringed on the freedoms of others: by denying women the vote, imposing Black Codes and Jim Crow laws, segregating the military, preventing workers from forming unions, and so on.

So a communitarian could argue that while the moral ideal of freedom is traditional in the US, it’s the broader implementation of it that took a long time as traditional practices caught up.

But how about societies that don’t have traditions of individual freedom, who believe there are some classes of people that should have all the power and wealth, and that it’s proper and right that others live in impoverishment and misery, lacking rights of citizenship, for their entire lives? Such is the caste system of India, for example, or the traditionally influential political philosophy of Aristotle which holds that there ‘natural’ slaves. Are we, then, not to be concerned that people of those cultures are suffering from injustice, if they belong to a community with different traditional views of justice? After all, according to the caste system, and to Aristotle and those communities that hold like views, it is just that certain people are slaves and certain people are not, that some people have power and some do not, that some live in wealth and comfort and others in misery, because all of this is justified by their society’s traditional concept of human nature.

Many people, myself included, have the same problem with communitarianism as I am sure Michelle Alexander does, given her quote which opens this essay: why should our sense of empathy, of moral obligation, be limited to the concerns and traditions of our own communities? That may have been prudent, even necessary, for our ancient ancestors, when human groups became large enough to need to compete for resources, but didn’t have the sophistication or technology to facilitate cooperation on such a large scale.

But now, our situation is very different: people’s ideas and actions, thanks to advanced technologies in communication, production, and travel, can have worldwide consequences, for ill and for good. We have access to centuries of the best products of human thought from disparate traditions all over the world, which are gradually coming to a consensus on some key issues in ethics and politics: the value of individual liberty, the benefits of equality, the necessity of having and fulfilling civic duties, and how to recognize a just society, for example.We have access to centuries of historical evidence which demonstrate the benefits of ever-more widespread cooperation, and the ineffectiveness of violent conflict, so that the immense suffering caused by war ends up wasted and unnecessary. And finally, now that people spend a lot of time ‘face-to-face’ with others from all over the world via computer, we feel a sense of real global community. Familiarity with people of different habits, different appearances, and different interests removes our sense of discomfort, and breeds not contempt, but empathy, compassion, and friendliness.

So perhaps the conflict between communitarian and modern liberal accounts of what constitutes a just society will lessen over time. After all, communitarianism must contain within it the idea that traditions change, grow, and evolve, since there have always been so many different traditions with mutually exclusive ethical codes. (I, too, think that morality is not fixed and eternal; rather, it’s a product of evolving, social, cooperative creatures.) And if the world’s communities are merging into one moral community, than the basic ideas of communitarianism will harmonize ever more with the universalizable ethical goals of liberal thought. While communitarians and liberals might still argue over the origins(s) of morals (tradition? reason? emotions?), our conception of justice, our ethical systems and the political institutions with which we realize them (governments, laws, and so on) will look more and more alike all over the world.

Listen to the podcast version here or subscribe on iTunes

~ Also published at Darrow, forum for ideas and creative commons webzine

~ Re-edited slightly in Feb/Mar 2016


Sources and inspiration:

Alexander, Michelle. ‘Incarceration Nation’. Interview with Bill Moyers, December 20, 2013. http://billmoyers.com/episode/incarceration-nation/

Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow. 2012. New York: New Press Books.

Anderson, Elizabeth. ‘Tom Paine and the Ironies of Social Democracy‘, University of Chicago Law School Dewey Lecture 2012

Bell, Daniel. ‘Communitarianism‘, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Rawls, John. A Theory of Justice. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1971.

Sandel, Michael. Various works and lectures, including his books What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets and Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do?

Schneider, Greig and Egon Zehnder, Boston, and Ulrike Krause. ‘Interview with political philosopher Michael J. Sandel’, The Focus magazine. http://www.egonzehnder.com/the-focus-magazine/topics/the-focus-on-family/parallel-worlds/interview-with-political-philosopher-michael-j-sandel.html