What Can a Modern Philosopher Teach Us About Natural Law?

 
 

As a philosopher, Locke was both historically great and uniquely ambivalent. This combination provides extraordinarily fertile ground for uniting modern and pre-modern insights that seem opposed.

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At the close of my previous essay, I suggested that the moderns, despite their mistaken rejection of the objective contexts within which the individual exists, might have an important insight to contribute to our thinking about the non-religious foundations of morality: namely, that the individual as an individual contains one such foundation within himself, a foundation termed “natural rights” and explained most completely and persuasively by John Locke. By recognizing this insight and effectively integrating it into a broader framework informed by sound pre-modern approaches, we can accomplish three important tasks.

First, we can build new bridges between the broad Maritainian and Straussian lines of conservative thought, uniting this historically divided opposition to the reigning modern secular liberalism. Second, we can smooth the sharp disjunction between the individualist/subjectivist perspective of modern secular liberalism and the communitarian/objectivist perspective of pre-modern and/or religious conservatism, enhancing the possibility of dialogue and persuasion in contemporary public discourse. Third and most importantly, we can reach a truer understanding of human nature as a foundation for morality.

A promising starting point for all of this lies in recovering a proper understanding of John Locke’s political philosophy. In an important sense, the modern Aristotelian-Thomist should also be a Lockean. This is not to deny the significant departures from pre-modern philosophy that are clearly present in Locke’s thought. Locke was indeed a “modern,” but he, unlike most other moderns, was noticeably uneasy in his modernism. This uneasiness led to a unique coexistence of modern and pre-modern principles within Locke’s political philosophy: secularism and Christianity, the individual and the community, subjectivism and objectivism, and natural rights and the natural law all play crucial roles in the Second Treatise. As a philosopher, Locke was both historically great and uniquely ambivalent, a combination that provides extraordinarily fertile ground for uniting modern and pre-modern insights that generally seem opposed.

Early in the Second Treatise, Locke unequivocally affirms what has become known as “the workmanship argument”: the idea that human beings are “His property, whose workmanship they are.” In other words, God owns us because he created us. A few chapters later, however, one of the most striking examples of Locke’s ambivalent modernism appears as he asserts that “every man has a property in his own person.” But how can man be simultaneously God’s property and his own? If property ownership includes the notion of exclusivity—as it seems to in both Locke’s and our understanding—wouldn’t God’s ownership exclude our ownership, and vice versa?

This central issue for understanding Locke’s political philosophy is also a perfect proxy for many of the profound disagreements between modern and pre-modern approaches to understanding human nature and their consequences for morality and politics. The idea that we are not simply our own—that we are answerable as human beings to normatively binding standards above and beyond ourselves—is a tidy way of encapsulating what is common among pre-modern moral and political philosophy, traditional religious beliefs, and much of modern conservatism. By contrast, the idea that we are our own persons—that we are each authorized to direct our actions as we ourselves see fit—encapsulates significant commonalities among modern moral and political philosophy, secularism, and social liberalism. The former views the individual human being as existing within an inescapable and rich objective context defined by the existence of an intelligent Creator-God as well as natural relationships and communities, while the latter views the individual human being in relative isolation and freedom from these broader contexts.

How, then, can Locke affirm both in the Second Treatise? As the Essay Concerning Human Understanding helps us to understand, Locke means simultaneously to view the human being in two different ways. First, man is a member of “mankind,” a participant in a “community of nature” whose common capacities, faculties, or potentialities have been determined and brought into being by a Creator. Second, he is a unique individual whose singular self-consciousness separates this individual from all other human beings. In terms of the first conception, God owns us. In terms of the second, we each own ourselves. The first serves as the foundation for Locke’s understanding of the natural law, while the second serves as the foundation for Locke’s natural rights.

Although it would be difficult to argue that Locke was himself any sort of Aristotelian-Thomist, his understanding of human beings in terms of their common humanity, as well as his definition of this common humanity primarily in terms of reason, indicates significant agreement between Locke and the pre-moderns. For pre-moderns of all stripes—be they Platonists, Aristotelians, or Thomists—rationality was the defining human characteristic grounding natural morality. On this point, Locke is as clear and emphatic as could be.

Beyond this basic and general point of agreement, however, Locke is remarkably silent regarding the moral and political implications of our common humanity, or the natural law. Locke focuses, instead, on drawing out the moral and political implications of the second, recognizably “modern” aspect of the human individual: the unique self-consciousness that forms the basis for one’s moral inviolability, or natural rights. While Machiavelli and Hobbes abandon morality in their shift in perspective toward the isolated individual, Locke instead finds a different, yet somehow complementary, foundation for morality in this new perspective.

According to Locke, God’s ownership of humanity includes, as a kind of corollary, a directive for individual human beings to achieve ownership of themselves. God makes us as potential self-owners by giving us the capacity for self-consciousness. This capacity allows us to form an ongoing relationship with ourselves, as it were, through our ongoing awareness of our thoughts and actions. In this way, we can actually make our “selves,” in a sense, by uniting these thoughts and actions through our awareness of them. This is, as Locke intimates, another important way in which we can understand our creation “in the image and likeness” of the Trinitarian God—we, like God Himself and unlike any of His other creatures, express our nature partly by forming an ongoing relationship with ourselves through self-consciousness. Since our common nature equips us to actually make our unique, self-conscious selves, we own ourselves individually in a real sense that legitimately excludes others and thereby serves as a foundation for morality (natural rights).

Locke, then, provides a genuinely new insight into the non-religious foundations of natural morality. Such foundations may be laid not only in our common human nature, but also in our unique individuality as prescribed by this nature. In providing this new insight, moreover, Locke is careful to show how it might be compatible with pre-modern understandings of natural moral foundations. Locke offers both the genuine modern insight into natural moral foundations and the key to joining this modern insight with pre-modern ones. We must, however, look to the pre-moderns—namely, Cicero and St. Thomas Aquinas—in order to understand the complementary foundation of morality found in our common human nature, or natural law.

It is Cicero, building to some extent on the Stoics, who shows how Aristotelian moral philosophy implies the idea of a natural law. Aristotle explains how the hierarchical relationship between reason and passions in human nature contains the blueprint for human virtue, and Cicero argues for the status of this blueprint as not only a standard to be approached, but as a command to be obeyed. St. Thomas Aquinas, then, takes this Ciceronian-Aristotelian natural law and provides its most complete, clearest, and most persuasive formulation in the Summa.

This Aristotelian-Thomist-Lockeanism, if persuasive, might aid in uniting moral foundationalist approaches and preparing them to confront the currently ascendant moral anti-foundationalism. It is not liberalism simpliciter that is “unsustainable,” as Patrick Deneen argues, but rather anti-foundationalist liberalism (which has, indeed, arisen out of modernity’s general rejection of pre-modern approaches). Machiavelli, Hobbes, Rawls, and many others fall to Deneen’s critique, but we must be careful not to throw out the baby with the bathwater. As Michael Zuckert has persuasively shown in many of his writings and as Philip Muñoz has argued effectively here at Public Discourse, John Locke and the American Founders should be spared from the flames of anti-modern critiques such as Deneen’s. The Straussian idea of a disjunction between the moderns and the pre-moderns might in this way be enlisted to multiply and strengthen, rather than divide and enervate, the natural foundational approach to morality.

S. Adam Seagrave is an assistant professor of political science at Northern Illinois University and author of The Foundations of Natural Morality: On the Compatibility of Natural Rights and the Natural Law.

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