A Socratic Perspective on the Nature of Human Evil

A Socratic perspective on the relationship between ignorance, human evil, and the examined life.

Locke, John | Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

At this point some of the Country Party leaders began plotting anarmed insurrection which, had it come off, would have begun with theassassination of Charles and his brother on their way back to Londonfrom the races at Newmarket. The chances of such a rising occurringwere not as good as the plotters supposed. Memories of the turmoil ofthe civil war were still relatively fresh. Eventually Shaftesbury, whowas moving from safe house to safe house, gave up and fled to Hollandin November 1682. He died there in January 1683. Locke stayed inEngland until the Rye House Plot (named after the house from which theplotters were to fire upon the King and his brother) was discovered inJune of 1683. Locke left for the West country to put his affairs inorder the very week the plot was revealed to the government and bySeptember he was in exile in Holland.[]

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Ultimately, however, the rebels were successful. James II alienatedmost of his supporters and William of Orange was invited to bring aDutch force to England. After William’s army landed, James IIrealizing that he could not mount an effective resistance, fled thecountry to exile in France. This became known as the GloriousRevolution of 1688. It is a watershed in English history. For it marksthe point at which the balance of power in the English governmentpassed from the King to the Parliament. Locke returned to England in1688 on board the royal yacht, accompanying Princess Mary on hervoyage to join her husband.

At the beginning of An Essay Concerning Human UnderstandingLocke says that since his purpose is “to enquire into theOriginal, Certainty and Extant of human knowledge, together with thegrounds and degrees of Belief, Opinion and Assent” he is goingto begin with ideas—the materials out of which knowledge isconstructed. His first task is to “enquire into the Original ofthese Ideas…and the ways whereby the Understanding comes to befurnished with them” (I. 1. 3. p. 44). The role of Book I of theEssay is to make the case that being innate is not a way inwhich the understanding is furnished with principles and ideas. Locketreats innateness as an empirical hypothesis and argues that there isno good evidence to support it.


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Hannah Pitkin takes a very different approach. She claims that thelogic of Locke's argument makes consent far less important in practicethan it might appear. Tacit consent is indeed a watering down of theconcept of consent, but Locke can do this because the basic content ofwhat governments are to be like is set by natural law and not byconsent. If consent were truly foundational in Locke's scheme, wewould discover the legitimate powers of any given government byfinding out what contract the original founders signed. Pitkin,however, thinks that for Locke the form and powers of government aredetermined by natural law. What really matters, therefore, is notprevious acts of consent but the quality of the present government,whether it corresponds to what natural law requires. Locke does notthink, for example, that walking the streets or inheriting property ina tyrannical regime means we have consented to that regime. It is thusthe quality of the government, not acts of actual consent, thatdetermine whether a government is legitimate. Simmons objects to thisinterpretation, saying that it fails to account for the many placeswhere Locke does indeed say a person acquires political obligationsonly by his own consent.

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Locke realized that the crucial objection to allowing people to act asjudges with power to punish in the state of nature was that suchpeople would end up being judges in their own cases. Locke readilyadmitted that this was a serious inconvenience and a primary reasonfor leaving the state of nature (Two Treatises 2.13). Lockeinsisted on this point because it helped explain the transition intocivil society. Locke thought that in the state of nature men had aliberty to engage in “innocent delights” (actions that arenot a violation of any applicable laws), to seek their ownpreservation within the limits of natural law, and to punishviolations of natural law. The power to seek one’s preservationis limited in civil society by the law and the power to punish istransferred to the government. (128–130). The power to punish inthe state of nature is thus the foundation for the right ofgovernments to use coercive force.

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With respect to the grounds and content of natural law, Locke is notcompletely clear. On the one hand, there are many instances where hemakes statements that sound voluntarist to the effect that lawrequires a law giver with authority (Essay 1.3.6, 4.10.7).Locke also repeatedly insists in the Essays on the Law ofNature that created beings have an obligation to obey theircreator (ELN 6). On the other hand there are statements thatseem to imply an external moral standard to which God must conform(Two Treatises 2.195; Works 7:6). Locke clearlywants to avoid the implication that the content of natural law isarbitrary. Several solutions have been proposed. One solutionsuggested by Herzog makes Locke an intellectualist by grounding ourobligation to obey God on a prior duty of gratitude that existsindependent of God. A second option, suggested by Simmons, is simplyto take Locke as a voluntarist since that is where the preponderanceof his statements point. A third option, suggested by Tuckness (andimplied by Grant), is to treat the question of voluntarism as havingtwo different parts, grounds and content. On this view, Locke wasindeed a voluntarist with respect to the question “why should weobey the law of nature?” Locke thought that reason, apart fromthe will of a superior, could only be advisory. With respect tocontent, divine reason and human reason must be sufficiently analogousthat human beings can reason about what God likely wills. Locke takesit for granted that since God created us with reason in order tofollow God's will, human reason and divine reason are sufficientlysimilar that natural law will not seem arbitrary to us.