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There are two main stumbling blocks to the study of Locke's moral philosophy.The first regards the singular lack of attention the subject receives in Locke's most important and influential published works; not only did Locke never publish a work devoted to moral philosophy, but he dedicates little space to its discussion in the works he did publish.On the other hand, Locke also espouses a hedonistic moral theory, in evidence in his early work, but developed most fully in the .
By looking at Locke's moral philosophy, as it is developed in the Essay and some of his earlier writings, we gain a heightened appreciation for Locke's motivations in the Essay, as well as a more nuanced understanding of the degree of Locke's empiricism.
Further than this, Locke's moral philosophy offers us an important exemplar of seventeenth-century natural law theory, probably the predominant moral view of the period.
Locke makes references, throughout his works, to morality and moral obligation.
However, two quite distinct positions on morality seem to emerge from Locke's works and it is this dichotomous aspect of Locke's view that has generated the greatest degree of controversy. In this work, we find Locke espousing a fairly traditional rationalistic natural law position, which consists broadly in the following three propositions: first, that moral rules are founded on divine, universal and absolute laws; second, that these divine moral laws are discernible by human reason; and third, that by dint of their divine authorship these rules are obligatory and rationally discernible as such.
For Locke, morality is the one area apart from mathematics wherein human reasoning can attain a level of rational certitude.
For Locke, human reason may be weak with regards to our understanding of the natural world and the workings of the human mind, but it is exactly suited for the job of figuring out human moral duty.This brings us to the second major stumbling block: What Locke does provide us by way of moral theory in these works is diffuse, with the air of being what J. Schneewind has characterized as “brief, scattered and sometimes puzzling” (Schneewind 1994, 200).This is not to suggest that Locke says nothing specific or concrete about morality.Locke's greatest philosophical work, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, is generally seen as a defining work of seventeenth-century empiricist epistemology and metaphysics.The moral philosophy developed in this work is rarely taken up for critical analysis, considered by many scholars of Locke's thought to be too obscure and confusing to be taken too seriously.Locke's I wish, Sir, you may only find it enough worth your notice, to incite you to show the world, how far it falls short of doing justice to your principles; which you may do without interrupting the great business of your life, by a work, that will be an universal benefit, and which you have given the world some right to exact of you.Who is there so capable of pursuing to a I am very sensible how closely you are engaged, till you have discharged this Work off your Hands; and therefore will not venture, till it be over, to press you again to what you have promis'd in the Business of Man's Life, ” (Locke 1742, 54).This view is indeed an apt representation of the frustration many readers have felt with Locke's moral theory.Locke's eighteenth-century apologist, Catharine Trotter Cockburn thought Locke provided a promising, but incomplete, starting point for a positive moral system, imploring, in her work “A Defense of Mr.The view is not only seen by many commentators as incomplete, but it carries a degree of rationalism that cannot be made consistent with our picture of Locke as the arch-empiricist of his period.While it is true that Locke's discussion of morality in the Essay is not as well-developed as many of his other views, there is reason to think that morality was the driving concern of this great work.