John Locke

Written by TaraElla in November 2020

In this project, we look at the ideas and contributions of great liberal thinkers from various times, and also examine how their ideas are similar, different, or otherwise interact with, the core Moral Libertarian ideal of Equal and Maximum Moral Agency for every individual.

I believe such a project is needed because we need to revive the intellectual and academic side of liberalism. As I have often said, liberalism, being an ideology that has a large footprint in mainstream Western politics, has in recent times overly focused on practical policy, and has neglected developing philosophy, theory and new ideas. Compare liberalism to socialism, which had been marginalized in Western politics until recently, but has an outsized influence in academia and intellectual circles, and you will see what I mean.

There needs to be a culture of debating liberal ideas, formulating liberal philosophy and theory, and so on, because that’s what will keep liberalism alive in the long term. My Moral Libertarian ideas and theories were developed with this aim, and I hope that, with a revival of intellectual liberalism, there will be others who would do similarly, so that, in the not too distant future, liberalism will be an intellectually engaging, philosophically deep, and overall vibrant ideological scene again. My hope is that, by looking at great liberal thinkers and their ideas, appreciating their profoundness and grandeur, it will inspire us to take on this challenge.

In this episode, we will examine the ideas of John Locke. John Locke was a British philosopher, physician and government official who is widely considered the father of liberalism. His ‘Second Treatise of Government’ is often considered the first articulation of liberal principles in writing. He also provided substantial contributions to the philosophical traditions of empiricism and reason, and also religious tolerance.

Locke’s two Treatises of Government provided a rebuttal to supporters of the idea that monarchs should hold absolute power over their subjects. In particular, in the Second Treatise, he outlined his beliefs of the origins of government in natural rights theory and social contract theory. From there, he derived principles which set limits on the legitimate powers of government (which was in the form of monarchy rather than democracy back then). Locke believed that a legitimate government has to be instituted by the consent of the governed, who willingly give up some of their natural rights in order to escape the hazards of life in the primitive, natural state.

Locke was a firm believer in empiricism and reason. His reputation as one of the greatest early empiricists rests on his famous work An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Locke believed that the human mind is a blank slate at birth, and all ideas and knowledge come from experience. Locke was ardently committed to the truth. Indeed, he was so committed to the truth that he once said he would be the first to throw what he wrote into the fire, if he no longer believed it to be true.

Locke’s commitment to the objective truth illustrates the important link between liberalism and the pursuit of the truth. It is the free debate, free thinking and free action guaranteed by liberalism that allows the discovery of objective truths. Furthermore, truth and morality are intrinsically tied. If we believe in an objective morality, there must logically then be an objective truth, because only the objective truth could reveal what the objectively moral course of action would be. Only by knowing the truth about things could we know what is moral to do. This fact, in turn, links into the Moral Libertarian claim that liberalism is the most moral ideology, simply by allowing equal and maximum liberty to every individual. This is because, when every individual is allowed to pursue the truth independently, to live their life according to what they believe is the truth, and when ideas are allowed to be competitively debated on an even playing field, the moral truth of what is right and what is wrong gradually becomes clear. Given enough time, sound ideas will eventually triumph over bad ideas, and sound moral practices will show themselves to be sound through the fruits of those practices.

Locke was a devout Christian, but he also believed that reason is a more reliable determinant of truth than blind faith in distant religious revelation passed down through the generations. Therefore, he believed in using reason to judge whether a revelation is genuine. Locke was also an early advocate for religious toleration, which would become arguably the most important foundation pillar of liberalism. He justified this partly on the argument that every church would claim to be the true church, and that only God would be able to determine whose claim was correct.

Locke’s commitment to religious tolerance, and the reasons he justified it with, arguably provides one of the most important cornerstones of liberal philosophy. Indeed, the Moral Libertarian principle of Equal Moral Agency is essentially derived from the same principles, but for the modern world, where not everyone is religious, and not every individual’s ethical positions are derived from religious beliefs. Locke reasoned that every church would claim to be the true church but no human being on Earth was able to determine whose claim was correct. Similarly, in the modern world, there are multiple claims of morally correct answers to every controversial social question, but no human being is able to reliably determine which one is the correct answer. To ensure that every claim starts on an equal ground, and therefore that the competition is on a level playing field meaning the results are fair and true, every individual must be allowed to have their equal share of moral agency to promote, defend and practice their claims, which is the core idea of Moral Libertarianism. This is to say, in a world where nobody has the moral insight to reliably determine right from wrong every single time, equal tolerance to the promotion and practice of every claim, and the use of empirical results to determine the soundness of each claim, is the most moral way. I believe this should be the core principle of liberalism in our time.

Originally published at http://taraellastylia.blogspot.com.

TaraElla is a singer-songwriter, independent journalist and author, who is passionate about free speech, liberty and equality. She is the author of the Moral Libertarian Horizon books, which focus on developing a moral case for freedom-based politics in the 21st century.

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