Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Is Locke a Conservative or a Libertarian?

Well, he is, quite incoherently, both. His epistemology and metaphysics undermined radically the traditional views of Aristotle, Christianity, and Scholasticism. But he also reassures us with his God-talk and such. Are today’s libertarians right to reject Locke’s conservatism in the name of coherence? Are they improving upon Locke? Or just privileging what he really thought over his rhetorical window-dressing? Has the history of America been the outing of Locke, our inability to keep Locke in a Locke box? Can conservatives save Locke from the reductionism of our libertarians? Or do they have to go somewhere else to curb our creeping libertarianism? Are we all Lockeans now?

Discussions - 3 Comments

I think Locke attempted to combine both conservative and libertarian elements; the two clearest attempts at such a compatibilism are the the combination of natural rights republicanism with robust executive power in the 2nd Treatise and the combination of liberty (and the notion of a constructivist morality in the 3rd book of the Essay)with a reflection on the importance of virtue (like in Some Thoughts Concerning Education). The problem, for Locke anyway, is that his overall epistemology tends to undercut his conservative concerns and his rhetoric in the service of individual liberty/autonomy tends to overshadow any thoughtful misgivings he might have expressed. It is because of the nature of the Lockean project itself that Americans have been capable of letting one half of Locke out the Locke box while often neglecting the other.

Great article. But I am not sure that human beings are inclined towards philosophical coherency, in which case it may well be that it is easier to be Lockeian than to be radical or reactionary.

Maybe this is just an instance of my Radical Lockeianism...or rather a vein of radical Lockeianism that manifested itself in David Hume who extended the epistemological approach and ended up defending suicide...but nevertheless in what sense does a Lockeian opinion on the primacy and possibility of what constitutes philosophic consistency not undermine the priority one should place on philosophical consistency?

The strange thing about Locke is that if you are radical enough about philosophical consistency and in this mix you preference the epistimic grounds of "toleration" then you come to realize that "toleration" itself is opposed to the cult of philosophic consistency which is nothing more than doctrinal orthodoxy. This is something like the "intractable burden of judgement" that Rawls fights with in Political Liberalism.

In other words I could argue that it is a very Lockean question why I should be left with the choice between the two doctrinal orthodoxies of radicalism or reactionism.

I might also argue following David Hume and a semi-Lockeian trajectory that one is unlikely to find human beings that reflect doctrinal orthodoxies consistently.

Locke's argument for toleration severely undermines and questions the extent to which philosophical consistency can be carried out or is desireable.

Locke agrees with Aristotle who says: "Our discussion will be adequate if it has as much clearness as the subject-matter admits of, for precision is not to be sought for alike in all discussions, any more than in all the products of the crafts. Now fine and just actions, which political science investigates, admit of much variety and fluctuation of opinion, so that they may be thought to exist only by convention, and not by nature. And goods also give rise to a similar fluctuation because they bring harm to many people; for before now men have been undone by reason of their wealth, and others by reason of their courage. We must be content, then, in speaking of such subjects and with such premisses to indicate the truth roughly and in outline, and in speaking about things which are only for the most part true and with premisses of the same kind to reach conclusions that are no better. In the same spirit, therefore, should each type of statement be received; for it is the mark of an educated man to look for precision in each class of things just so far as the nature of the subject admits; it is evidently equally foolish to accept probable reasoning from a mathematician and to demand from a rhetorician scientific proofs."

Locke is certainly not a conservative in any classical meaning of that term. He was a liberal in his day. The problem with Locke is that if you emphasize the individual aspects of consent/contract you wind up with libertarianism. If you emphasize the group or collective aspect of consent/contract you wind up with socialism.

That is why you can't hang your hat ultimately on abstract philosophy. You have to appeal to tradition, history, religion etc. to help define the good society you are trying to conserve.

Locke was grossly wrong on human nature (tabula rasa), and contract theory is foolish nonsense. When in the entire recorded history of mankind has any such society ever existed beyond a small commune or something.

I think you could argue that consent is the cornerstone of liberalism. Hence, Locke is a liberal.

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