John Locke's Moral Revolution: From Natural Law to Moral Relativism

University Press of America (2005)


I am writing on moral knowledge in Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding. There are two basic parts. In the first part, I articulate and attack a predominant interpretation of the Essay . This interpretation attributes to Locke the view that he did not write in the Essay anything that would be inconsistent with his early views in the Questions Concerning the Laws of Nature that there exists a single, ultimate, moral standard, i.e., the Law of Nature. For example, John Colman, in his book John Locke's Moral Philosophy , argues that even though Locke explains in the Essay that we arbitrarily create our moral notions, they are still objective since they are bound together with the Law of Nature. Colman explains that the features of human nature relevant to the derivation of the Law of Nature are universally shared needs and concerns . I argue that this presupposes a view of Locke which assumes that there are essences of species independent of our beliefs about them. However, I attempt to show from the text of the Essay that this view cannot be supported. ;In the second part, I argue that the text of the Essay supports two alternative theses. The first is that given the kind of metaphysical world-view presupposed by the corpuscular method of science employed within the Essay, coupled with Locke's commitment to the possibility of moral knowledge, he was left with only one option with reference to ethics, viz., to make moral goodness or evil a mind-dependent relation between a rule and an action, instead of a property of an action or person which exists independently of our moral beliefs. This view is logically inconsistent with the existence of the Law of Nature. The second is that Locke has a semantical view of moral claims which is consistent with his relational view of moral goodness, viz., the primary function of moral judgments is to recommend behavior for ourselves and others. I described. However, Locke explains in the Essay that the opposite takes place with respect to our moral notions: events and persons must conform to the moral notion. ;On the account that I offer, Locke's views on moral epistemology are much closer to David Hume's than many have supposed, and correspondingly, anticipate the more skeptical views of moral epistemology in the twentieth century

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