John Locke and the “Law of Nature”

One of the great debates of scholarship surrounding Locke is his “natural law” or law of nature theory. There are those that argue he stands squarely within the Ciceronian-Augustinian-Thomistic tradition wherein the natural law is not only moral, but it will, at end, produce happiness for us. There are others who claim otherwise – that the law of self-preservation is a-moral, as reflected in how the state of nature eventually descends into the state of war according to Locke in the Second Treatise, which subsequently propels humans to leave the state of nature and join the social compact of civil society. So, which is it?

The proper answer to Locke is both – in part, because Locke is actually a dualist though the manifestation and ramification of his philosophy is materialistic and hedonistic in application. The law of self-preservation is both moral and a-moral, but it is one that is undergirded by the sense of the idea of progress. Self-preservation, as Locke describes in the Second Treatise, will first—and must necessarily—exhaust itself into the state of war between individuals in competition with each other. Only after this descent into war does the law of nature, that is self-preservation, lead to humans coming together to form the moral social compact with one another thereby transcending the state of nature and entering and creating civil society. This is crucial to understand: In order for the law of nature to become moral, it must first descend into a-morality or immorality so as to teach us what not to do (because of Locke’s blank slate epistemology). In other words, we learn by negative experiences first.

The law of self-preservation becomes moral after we descend into the state of war because in the state of war, we come understand that the law of self-preservation is dependent on more than just ourselves. It is dependent on other people not only recognizing their desire for self-preservation, but others’ desire for self-preservation as well. Without this mutual recognition we would be trapped in the endless state of war. Because of this mutual recognition that occurs in the state of war, leading to men forming a compact together and recognizing their rights to self-preservation as endowed to all by the law of nature, we can say that the law is moral from a progressivist (and empirical) perspective. But because the law of nature must first descend into the state of war, where killing and harm must first be done to others before that mutual recognition happens, we can also say – from a transcendental perspective – that the law is a-moral at best, or immoral at worse.

The moral argument stems from a blank slate, progressivist, and empirical reading of the law of nature. The only natural thing to humans is the law of self-preservation.  Which is good because it is natural. However, since the mind is a blank slate and has no innate understanding of goodness, the goodness is only revealed through experience. And the first experiences of the law of nature will be conflict between others because self-preservation is only about the self and not others. But through this conflict we learn to recognize others because this is what the law of self-preservation demands of us. If self-preservation is true for me then it must be true for the other. Hence, once we make this leap, the law is, in fact, moral as it is what binds men together to leave their warring nature behind and move into moral society.

The immoral and a-moral arguments stem from innatism and transcendentalist readings of the law of nature. The a-moral position holds that the law of self-preservation is neither good nor bad. It occupies the neutral territory because self-preservation can either descend into madness and conquest as Locke described (hence becoming immoral) or move toward a broader recognition of preservation of others which, in some manner, my own self-preservation depends on recognizing (hence becoming moral). The immoral argument takes the view that self-preservation is not necessarily contrary to nature, per se, for someone like St. Augustine argued we need no law to tell us to love ourselves and try to preserve ourselves, but rather that because self-preservation is only concerned with the self (e.g. the ego), it will never truly move in the direction of social and relational goodness. The only reason why we agree to stop killing each other is because I’m motivated solely to preserve my life. I could care less about your life but since you exist, I must begrudgingly put up with you if I am to survive and hopefully thrive. There are also anthropological first principles at play in the immoral reading of Locke’s law of self-preservation because it seems to deny the reality of humanity’s social animus.

What can we say of Locke’s law of nature – self-preservation – and whether it is moral, immoral, or a-moral? Part of that depends on one’s own metaphysical, anthropological, and epistemological starting points. What we can say for Locke, however, is that the law of nature must first descend into the state of war before becoming moral in its application. From Locke’s perspective the law of self-preservation will eventually force us into recognizing the law as being universal in scope, rather than purely self-situated; even if the law is “self-preservation.”


This post was originally posted on Hesiod’s Corner, 21 April 2018.

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