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J. Lock’s Understanding of Human Morality

John Locke is a key figure for English and world philosophy. He played an essential role in the formation of the ethos of modern civilization through the protection and justification of liberal values. Locke did not leave a special work on ethics. His vision of ethical problems is reflected in theoretical philosophy An Essay Concerning Human Understanding and socio-political doctrine. Nevertheless, his views on the moral life are quite systematic.

In his work, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding the basic notion is formulated as follows: exact wits are required for a human for a virtuous life that should lead society to prosperity. He asserts that nothing can be added to the commandments of the Gospel. Locke draws practical conclusions from Christian morality for the life of society.

According to Locke, a human is not the bearer of innate notions of good, justice, happiness, etc. All of them are comprehended from life practice. The philosopher still recognizes that a human has an innate tendency to strive for pleasure and to avoid suffering. Locke named them “natural good and evil,” as Leibniz believed. At the same time, pleasure and suffering are not notions, but the most elementary motives of our actions. They constitute the primary level of morality. The second level appears where the wits comprehend the initial data of moral practice and make a choice of the latitude actions. The criterion of correctness (in Locke’s terminology is a virtue) is the fulfillment of the rules accepted in society. Here, morality is understood as a social institution. In this point, we are dealing with a very important for the subsequent ethics distinction between “natural good and evil,” based on a sense of pleasure or suffering, and “moral good and evil,” related to the rewards and punishments adopted and practiced in society.  However, the enactments that operate in the world of people are not homogeneous. Locke brings his famous hierarchy of enactments that establish rules of conduct.

  • Divine enactments are designated by God to determine the measure of sin. They are comprehended either by religious revelation or by the “voice of nature.”
  • Civil enactment is designated by the state. It is a measure of legal norms and crimes.
  • Enactments of opinion or reputation, “philosophical enactments” are defining the boundaries of virtue and vice.

They are named so because they strongly depend on the opinions of people which can be significantly various.  Locke, showing a picture of the historical change in the notions of virtue in various peoples at various times, says: the notion of latitude, virtuous deeds is one for all and is a manifestation of the divine enactment.

The understanding the two primary levels of morality does not give a complete picture of a human’s moral life. The first of them is based on human interest. The second implies loyalty to social foundations. But neither one nor the other leads a human to the most important thing – the highest good. In the first case, the human is constrained by his own nature, in the second by the requirements of society. What will lead us to happiness and freedom?

Locke points to two areas of good. The first one concerns the human happiness of a human expressed in his freedom. The second is the happiness of the community, where the interest of people in human safety and well-being comes to the forefront.  The problem is in the need to combine them, and without detriment to both. Its solution lies not only in the competence of ethics but in a greater degree – political philosophy. Locke believes that the combination of private and public, which in fact has never been possible, can only be guaranteed by respect for inalienable human latitudes: the latitude to life, liberty, and property. Whatever interests are pursued by humans or the state, they are prohibited from violating these latitudes. It is easy to see that the modern view on the observance of human latitudes as the basis of human freedom will be developed from these reflections. But, in addition to human latitudes, the state is also obliged to guarantee civil values: religious tolerance, freedom of conscience, the welfare of citizens. As is known, Locke even demanded to give the people the latitude to insurrection, if the authorities roughly trample on the above-mentioned natural limits of human subsistence.

Unlike ethical rationalism of Hobbes, Locke ethics is based on the notion of sensationalism. The good sense of a natural human in his view forms the basis of morality.  On this basis, according to Locke, with the elaboration of the state, relations between people will inevitably improve. The functions of the state in relation to citizens are moral education. Moral is the state that regulates relations, restraining selfish passions, and consequently, the state is the guarantor of freedom of its citizens.

Locke believed that there is an inner practice or reflection. Its source is an impression of the perception and practice of the external world and at the same time a reflection of one’s own feelings and thoughts. In reflective practice, the impressions of the external world are reflected indirectly. Denying the subsistence of innate moral notions, Locke expressed an opinion about the possibility of the subsistence of a natural capacity for the moral interaction of a human with others.

When researching the means of educational influence, he speaks of such social phenomena as religion, enactments and public opinion. Locke used his sensational views in his theory of upbringing. He believed that if a human cannot get the necessary impressions and notions in society, then it is necessary to change social conditions. Particular attention is paid to the influence of the environment, in particular, family, in moral education. Locke considered goodwill, humanity, truthfulness, and mercy as the main virtues of a human. These qualities are not inherent in human nature but are a consequence of the conscious need to observe certain rules, without which society simply could not exist.  He developed the notions of forming physically strong and spiritually integral human who acquires wits useful to society.

The position of Locke, assuming submission of the notion of God to the requirements of reason, is also significant. He stated that only common sense should serve as a regulator of human behavior. He saw the necessary condition for the reasonable behavior under various circumstances of life in self-restraint and self-discipline. However, moral norms and rules of behavior should not remain something external. They should become internal human qualities. The task of elaboration in the humanly of the inner need for active affirmation of moral principles is the main goal of education.

It is also important that Locke deduced the source of morality from practice, and did not view them as inspired by a higher power. He stressed that all the “materials” for thinking people get from practice. From sensations, people receive notions about morally good and bad, and about ways of avoiding the latter. Locke argued that good is something that delivers long-lasting pleasure and reduces suffering. This is the happiness of a human. At the same time, Locke emphasizes that moral good is the voluntary subordination of human will to enactments of society and nature. These enactments are in the divine will – the true basis of morality. Harmony between human and public interests is achieved in prudent and pious behavior.

Locke left a deep trace in the history of world psychology and philosophy. His main achievement is a developing of empirical directions. Empirical notions close to his views were expressed during the Renaissance by L. Vives, but at that time they did not find the necessary support. Only after Locke, the empirical line becomes one of the systematically developed directions. This tendency was not only in England but also beyond its boundaries. Empirical traditions, laid by Locke, will receive further elaboration in France and Russia on a materialistic basis and in Germany on the idealistic one.  

By denying innate notions, by affirming practice as the source of the content of consciousness, Locke transformed the Cartesian metaphysics into the experimental physics of the soul. His opinion was as follows.  All that is in mind has passed through feelings in the sense of external or internal practice. He saw the single and most reliable source of wits about the most mental activity in inner practice and reflection. For this reason, Locke became the ancestor of introspective empirical psychology. Locke is also a harbinger and predecessor of associative psychology. Its main purpose is to develop a notion that all mental entities are the product of the connection of the simplest elements.

In the field of politics and in his philosophical and psychological views, Locke acted as the spokesperson for a compromise. The materialistic sensationalist theory of wits developed by him contained elements of inconsistency. They found their expression in the silent recognition of spiritual substance, in denying the soul of animals, in recognizing the inner subjective source of wits, in evaluating secondary notions as derivatives of the subject himself. All these idealistic fluctuations served as the basis for the subsequent split of t his doctrine into the solipsism of Berkeley and Hume and the materialistic sensationalism of Diderot and Priestley.