May 18, 2003


God, Locke and Equality: Christian Foundations of Locke’s Political Thought (Victor Nuovo, Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews 2003.05.04)

Orrin has already discussed this essay, but I want to comment also. These are the interesting passages to me:

In God, Locke and Equality, Jeremy Waldron argues that Locke’s mature writings present an idea of basic human equality, grounded in Christian theism, and that this idea is “a working premise of his whole political theory” whose influence can be detected in “his arguments about property, family, slavery, government, politics, and toleration”. Waldron also argues that contemporary liberalism lacks just such a well founded and versatile idea as well as the resources to supply it. Its self imposed secular stance is the reason for this deficiency. Since Locke’s idea of human equality is rooted in theism, it is only reasonable that contemporary liberalism should relax its restrictive stance and consider religious reasons such as Locke’s for its commitment to equality....

John Dunn, who was the first to present Locke’s political theory in its religious context [The Political Thought of John Locke, Cambridge, 1968] has said [that Locke's liberalism is founded on Locke’s Christian beliefs].... Dunn refers to a brief handwritten note circa 1693 [Bodleian MS Locke c. 28, fo. 141], in which Locke contemplates the consequences for mankind if there were no God and no divine law. The result would be moral anarchy. Every individual "could have no law but his own will, no end but himself. He would be a god to himself, and the satisfaction of his own will the sole measure and end of all his actions."... Locke not only was able to imagine the consequences of ’the death of God’, he also in a sense anticipated it by his own failure to show that human rationality is sufficient to discover the theistic foundations of the political morality that he takes for granted in the second Treatise. This was the task that was promised but never fulfilled in Locke’s Essay. Locke’s argument for the necessity of revelation in The Reasonableness of Christianity is taken by Dunn as a tacit admission of this failure....

Since contemporary liberal theory, at least in its dominant Rawlsian version, excludes Christian theism, along with all sorts of comprehensive moral outlooks, religious or secular, from political discussion, [Waldron's campaign for the contemporary political relevance of Locke’s theism] must show that this exclusion is self-defeating ...

Public reason, on Rawls’ account, consists of all the reasons that ideally may be employed in a pluralistic democratic society to justify its basic institutions and to advocate fundamental justice. It is a restricted domain, excluding elements of comprehensive moral doctrines, whether religious or secular, from public discourse and deliberation ... Waldron suggests that Rawls’ idea of moral personality and Locke’s theism perform the same function of establishing a meaningful equality; both are intended as antidotes to nihilism. If this is so and if both are adequate, then it would seem arbitrary to include one and not the other.

As Dunn showed, in modern terms, Locke is at once a Christian, a conservative, and a libertarian. Locke's A Paraphrase and Notes on the Epistles of St. Paul (also his Common-place book to the Holy Bible) shows that Locke began with the assumption that Scripture was divinely revealed and derived his libertarian philosophy from Biblical principles. But, as the bolded passage shows, though he believed in libertarian principles of justice and minimal government, Locke was convinced that morality - indeed, the morality that Christianity teaches - was essential to social health. It is around this Lockean philosophy that America's founding fathers clustered and that the modern Republican party has centered itself. By showing that conservate moralism, libertarian justicialism, and Christian faith are mutually supporting, Locke is in a sense the philosopher of today's Republican coalition.

Locke, Dunn says, experimented with liberalism before ultimately rejecting it. Liberalism flourished in the latter 1600s and was motivated by horror at the preceding century of religious warfare. Its goal was to ground politics on a set of non-controversial assumptions that could draw universal assent, while allowing diverse opinions on matters inessential to political comity. Liberalism had two great branches. British liberalism was largely Christian-inspired and could have taken the motto of the great Puritan, Richard Baxter:

In necessary things, unity; in doubtful things, liberty; in all things, charity.

The "necessary things" of British liberalism were, by and large, the core Judeo-Christian commandments. But French liberalism thought religion would always be a source of controversy, and sought to eradicate religious understandings from the grounding assumptions of liberal politics. We see the ideas of French liberals like Voltaire transmitted directly down to such moderns as Harry Eager and John Rawls.

The liberal project is problematic for fundamental reasons. From a few weak assumptions little can be derived; but strong assumptions will not draw universal consent. It is not at all clear that we can find a set of assumptions strong enough to derive a universal politics, yet weak enough to draw universal assent. And without this assent, liberalism fails.

Locke, as Dunn showed, experimented with liberalism. His attempt to derive a liberal politics without drawing on Scripture as an assumption motivated the Essays. But the attempt failed, and convinced Locke that no such effort could succeed. Locke, in a sense, began his philosophical career as one of the most important liberals and ended it as one of the most important conservatives. As a conservative, he turned back to Scripture as the foundation of sound society and sound politics.

Rawls, like the early French liberals, seeks to ground liberalism on a minimalist set of assumptions. He first assumes that a political vision worked out behind a 'veil of ignorance' will be superior to one worked out with full knowledge of the consequences of choice. (Curiously, this echoes the story of the Fall: before eating of the tree of knowledge Adam and Eve could produce a better politics than afterward.) This is rather paradoxical -- economists would hold that more knowledge almost always allows better optimization. But even if it is granted, Rawls then assumes that people behind this veil will choose something resembling contemporary liberalism. (I suspect, BTW, that Rawls's whole construct was motivated by a common 1970s slander of conservatives: Rawls supposes that the only reason people would choose something other than liberalism is selfishness, and if you take away their knowledge of how to be selfish effectively, then they will a fortiori choose liberalism as their politics.) But both assumptions are highly dubious.

It seems to me that the liberal idea is wrong-headed: The best approach to political theory is not to minimize assumptions, but to maximize fruitfulness. We should accept a rich set of assumptions, and let the resulting theory prove itself by its success in the world. Empirical evidence should be the touchstone of ideology, not the plausibility of theoretical assumptions to ignorant judges. "By their fruits you shall know them," Matthew 7:20.

With this approach, we must concede that conflict is not going to disappear from the world. Liberalism, at least, holds out hope that if its project could succeed, all basis for conflict would be eliminated. Europe appears to cling to the great liberal hope. We conservatives regard Europe's hope for a world without fundamental disagreement as vain utopianism. That this argument was lived out in the thought of Locke himself makes Locke perhaps the most meaningful philosopher for our times.

Posted by Paul Jaminet at May 18, 2003 4:37 PM
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