Biographical Background

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Locke came from the non-Anglican Protestant community in England, learning as a child the virtues of Calvinist simplicity but little of the harsh, judgmental aspect of that sect. He was educated at Oxford University, but he moved away from the then-fashionable scholasticism and, under the influence of Robert Boyle, began to study practical science. He chose medicine as his specialty and worked with the famous Thomas Sydenham. He never took his degree or practiced medicine (the former was not required for the latter at that time), but the influence of his training would remain with him.

After completing a diplomatic mission in 1665, Locke returned to Oxford and immersed himself in the writings of René Descartes. Two years later, the Earl of Shaftesbury, a school friend, invited Locke to become his personal physician and live with him. Locke proved to be as much secretary as doctor, helping his patron with such projects as the Constitution for the Carolinas. He was also elected a fellow of the Royal Society.

In 1675, Locke began a long visit to France both for his health and to expand his study of Descartes. He returned home in 1679 only to face political problems when his patron, Shaftesbury, was accused of treason. Although he was acquitted, Shaftesbury fled to Holland in 1681, and Locke, who had held some minor government posts under Shaftesbury’s influence, found it best to follow his example. After Monmouth’s Rebellion (1685), Locke was branded a traitor, and the English government demanded his extradition. The Dutch paid little attention, and Locke lived quietly, continuing work on what was to be An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. He returned home after the Revolution of 1688 and increasingly divided his time between London, where he served as a commissioner of appeals, and Oates, the Essex home of his friends Sir Francis and Lady Masham. It was in this comfortable, supportive home that Locke, in the 1690’s, was at his most prolific, though his Essay and Two Treatises had been in development for years.

Ethical Views

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Like Thomas Hobbes and some other philosophers, Locke defined good as that which gives, or is conducive to, pleasure. His is a very individualistic view, for it allows no room for altruistic pleasure. He also asserted that there were no inborn attitudes, including ethical principles. As an empiricist, Locke, whom most students know for his assertion that the mind is at birth a tabula rasa, or blank slate, on which experience writes, logically concluded that ethical principles must be learned. He also asserted that such ethical principles were as logical and scientific as mathematics, but he was never able to prove his case.

Unlike most strict empiricists, however, Locke was also a theist. The natural laws of ethics, he asserted, could be learned deductively and hence applied to all human beings. They also came to people as revelation. Thus, natural law and divine law were the same. The importance of the former was that it was accessible to all, not only to mystics and those who believed in their pronouncements of God’s messages.

Theism also influenced Locke’s ethics in another way. When he had to consider why an individual would follow ethical principles, especially when another course of action might seem more conducive to his pleasure, Locke fell back on the fear of ultimate punishment. Whatever the potential for short-term pleasure, failure to observe the laws of ethics would result in long-term suffering.

Implications for Ethical Conduct

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Despite the inconsistencies that other philosophers have pointed out in his ethical views, Locke’s ideas have been consistently popular. This seems to be because, for most people, inconsistent beliefs are common, and...

(This entire section contains 138 words.)

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Locke’s positions are much like those of a typical modern Western person. Modernism has produced liberal Christianity, in which the believer is encouraged to select those principles that seem to fit his or her observations of life and produce happiness. While not exactly Locke’s view, the view of liberal Christianity is close enough to encourage a continuing interest in his writings. Students are more likely to start reading his work because of his importance in political philosophy and epistemology than because of his ethics, but as they discover his ethical views and find them congenial, they will keep them in the public view.


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Ayers, Michael. Locke. New York: Routledge, 1999. An excellent biographical introduction to the thoughts of the philosopher, clearly presented and requiring no special background. Bibliography.

Brantley, Richard E. Locke, Wesley, and the Method of English Romanticism. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1984. Brantley alleges that John Locke influenced John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist Church, and that Wesley’s work influenced the eighteenth century Romantic poets.

Chappell, Vere, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Locke. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994. Collects important material for the study of Locke.

Chappell, Vere, ed. John Locke: Theory of Knowledge. New York: Garland, 1992. Thirty critical essays about the philosopher and his ideas concerning knowledge, reprinted from their original locations. This book is volume 8 in a series; Locke’s philosophy of politics is contained in volume 9.

Hanratty, J. F. Philosophers of the Enlightenment: Locke, Hume, and Berkeley Revisited. Portland, Oreg.: Four Courts Press, 1995. Places Locke’s work in its historical context.

Harris, Ian. The Mind of John Locke: A Study of Political Theory in Its Intellectual Setting. Rev. ed. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998. Although the title emphasizes Locke’s politcal philosophy, this book attempts to integrate the writer’s entire spectrum of interests.

Kramer, Matthew H. John Locke and the Origins of Private Property. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1997. A detailed analysis of Locke’s theories about the rewards of labor and the relationships between labor and ownership.

Lennon, Thomas M. The Battle of the Gods and Giants. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1993. This book is about René Descartes and Pierre Gassendi, but a forty-page chapter and a few pages at the end of the book are devoted to Locke’s inheritance from both philosophers.

Schouls, Peter A. Reasoned Freedom: John Locke and the Enlightenment. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1992. Compares Locke to Descartes, then invites comparison to other philosophers, such as Michael Oakeshott, by presenting Locke’s defense of reason and his explications of freedom, self-determination, and education.

Walker, William. Locke, Literary Criticism, and Philosophy. New York: Cambrdige University Press, 1994. Walker uses literary critical techniques for a close reading of Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding.

Wolterstorff, Nicholas. John Locke and the Ethics of Belief. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996. Focuses on Locke’s religious philosophy.

Zuckert, Michael P. Natural Rights and the New Republicanism. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1994. Locke (and many others) wrote about “natural rights.” This book about the thought of a number of philosophers features text about Locke and his influence on the Americans, on questions about natural law, on government, and on property.