Intro to Ethics: Locke

by Luke Muehlhauser on August 28, 2009 in Ethics,Intro to Ethics


Welcome to my course on ethics. Last time, we looked at Baruch Spinoza.

john_lockeToday, we examine the ethics of John Locke (1632-1704).

You’ll remember that Hobbes proposed the idea of the social contract as the basis of morality. In a “state of nature” we kill and steal from each other, so we implicitly “sign” a social contract to let a government keep things in order. The government might abuse its power, but at least we needn’t fear death at every moment.

Locke expanded this idea to include the notion of “natural rights.” We cede our authority to a government so long as it protects our natural rights.

Sound familiar? Yup! Locke’s ideas are the precise philosophy behind the American Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

The Founding Fathers of America even lifted phrases directly from Locke’s Second Treatise on Government (1689).

But now, which rights are our natural rights? Locke thought that life, property, safety, and happiness were among the most obvious natural rights.

And how does he derive this list? He thinks that moral values are demonstrable by reason, just as math is. For Locke, good is that which increases pleasure or decreases pain, and evil is that which increases pain or decreases pleasure (simply by definition). From that, Locke thinks it follows that people have natural rights to life, property, safety, happiness, and many other things.

But it is not the purpose of these historical posts to delve into such details – they will be covered later.

The history of ethics so far

Thus far, we have seen at least three major ways of thinking about the logical support for moral claims. The first is “Thou Shalt” – moral claims are backed by divine commands, religions claim. The second is “The Good” – morality is about training in the pursuit of certain goods (Plato, Aristotle). The third is “The Desired” – morality is concerned with figuring out how to produce what is desired (Hobbes, Spinoza).

Next, we’ll cover the moral philosophy of David Hume.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Kristinn August 28, 2009 at 11:55 pm

Love your site Luke.
It’s tempting to simply start translating your work into Icealandic for my local audience. I’ll ask for permission before I do, though.
Keep up the good work.


lukeprog August 29, 2009 at 9:04 am


You already have permission. This site is Creative Commons licensed, meaning you can do whatever you want with it as long as you don’t (1) charge money for your modification of my work, and you (2) link back to this site.

Three cheers for the nation that launched


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