The moral principles of the Essay on the Human Understanding are not easy to connect (as we shall attempt to show in noticing his political works) with the principles on which he treats the origin of governments, the rights of subjects and rulers, and the like. Locke, like Hobbes, would appear to have stopped short in his speculations, and to have allowed his mind to be influenced by words of which his own theories, fully carried out to all their consequences, would have greatly reduced the importance. Hobbes was a utilitarian, and an enemy of abstractions which do not represent facts, if ever there was one; yet Hobbes found it necessary to base all his political speculations upon a supposed social contract, for the keeping of which his philosophy provided no reason. Locke was the great enemy of the doctrine of innate ideas, yet it is exceedingly difficult to understand his theory of rights and natural laws without resorting to some view of the nature of rights and laws which involves that doctrine in one shape or another.
The passages of the Essay on the Human Understanding which principally relate to this subject, and which contain the germs of much speculation which was afterwards most fruitful, occur principally in-two chapters (xx. and xxi.) of the Second Book. Chapter xx. is headed, 'Of Modes of Pleasure and Pain,' and chapter xxi. 'Of Power.' Each belongs to that division of the whole work which is concerned with ideas, and to that branch of the subject which relates to ideas of reflection, though pain and pleasure are naturally enough rated as ideas of sensation as well.
Locke's views upon the fundamental questions of morals are expressed in connection with these two heads, and grow out of his investigation of them. His definition of good and evil is almost verbally the same with that of Hobbes. 'Things are good and evil only in reference to pleasure and pain. That we call "good" which is apt to cause or increase pleasure or diminish pain in us. . . . And, on the contrary, we name that "evil" which is apt to produce or increase any pain or diminish any pleasure in us.' Good and evil, he tells us, 'are the hinges on which our passions turn'—not a very happy, or indeed a completely intelligible, metaphor; and he proceeds to enumerate and define the passions in a passage much inferior, as it appears to us, to Hobbes's brilliant effort on the same subject.
This part of the matter is despatched in a couple of pages; but the chapter on 'Power,' which shows how good and evil are connected with our conduct, is one of the longest and most elaborate, though not perhaps one of the happiest, in the book. The pure elementary notion of power, as Locke understood it, is not altogether perspicuous. By observing changes in all sorts of objects we get to 'consider in one thing the possibility of having any of its simple ideas changed, and in another the possibility of making that change'; and this possibility of changing or being changed is power, active or passive. Thus, for instance, fire and wax have respectively a power to melt and a power to be melted.
Our idea of power is derived principally from reflection on the origin of voluntary motion in ourselves; for thinking and motion are the only sorts of action of which we have any idea, and the motion of the various parts of our own bodies at the impulse of our wills is the only kind of motion which we are able to connect directly with active power. The motions of inanimate bodies suggest at most nothing more than what Locke describes as passive power—that is to say, a capacity of receiving motion transmitted from something else.
This being the general notion of power, Locke goes on to point out that there are in us two powers—namely, will and understanding. Will is the power 'to begin or forbear, continue or end, several actions of our minds and motions of our bodies barely by a thought or preference of the mind.' Volition is the exercise of that power with regard to any particular act. Understanding is the power of perception, which is of three sorts, including the perception of ideas in our minds, the perception of the signification of signs, and the perception of the connection or repugnancy, agreement or disagreement, there is between any of our ideas.
Locke carefully observes, and it is one of the most judicious observations to be found in the whole of his book, that the will and the understanding are by no means to be regarded as distinct agents, with their distinct provinces and authorities, acting like so many individuals, but rather as distinct acts of the same unit—the man; just as seeing and crying are distinct acts of the eye, or smelling and sneezing of the nose.
This account of power introduces an account of liberty. Liberty exists where, and extends as far as, a man is able to think or not to think, to move or not to move, according to the preference of his own mind. Necessity exists either where thought is absent, or where the power to act according to the preference of the mind is absent. It is impossible that a man should not do that which he is both willing and able to do, or that he should willingly do that which he does not prefer; though he may do that which he does not desire, for his preference may amount only to a choice of evils-—as when we prefer a surgical operation to the continuance of a dangerous, though not painful, state of things which it is to remove.
Locke thus conceives the will as being a bare power, to which it would be an abuse of terms to apply such an epithet as free. It is like so much gunpowder which, if lighted, will explode with a certain degree of force, but the direction of that force, its application to this or that particular purpose, and the result produced by it, depend upon surrounding circumstances altogether independent of the powder itself. The man who either exerts the will or allows it to lie dormant is free; but the will itself is either operative or not, and is subject to no other qualification.
Such being the nature of the will, what is it that calls it into activity? What is the spark which lights the powder? Not, says Locke, the prospect of happiness, but the sense of uneasiness. All desire is uneasiness, and 'the greatest present uneasiness is the spur to action which is constantly felt, and for the most part determines the will in its choice of the next action.' This expression, by the way, is not consistent with Locke's main theory. The choice, according to him, is the work of the understanding, and the will is merely the executive officer; so that the phrase ought to run, The greatest present uneasiness is the spur to action which is constantly felt, and is taken principally into account by the understanding in considering what course of conduct is on the whole preferable, and is thus the proximate cause of the action of the will in the direction so determined.
What, then, are these uneasinesses or desires, and is there any sort of relation amongst them, or any general theory by which their nature may be understood? Locke's answer is, that they one and all tend to happiness; but each particular man's happiness is different, for each man forms his own notion as to the state of things by which he would be satisfied; and this state of things, as a general rule, consists in the absence of all distinct uneasiness, combined with the presence of 'some few degrees of pleasure.'
The greatest conceivable degree of absent good is not capable in itself of exciting the desires of most men, or of making its absence felt as a want sufficient to put the will in motion. Hardly any one desires knowledge, or talent, or greatness, or the joys of heaven, in such a manner that the want of them appears to him positively painful. It is, however, possible, by consideration of these things, to excite in the mind a desire to attain them, which may, under circumstances, become powerful enough at last to operate directly as a form of uneasiness upon the will.
It is also possible to endure the presence of any given form of uneasiness for a greater or less time, and during that interval 'to suspend the execution and satisfaction of any' of the desires, and to consider and weigh the various claims which different desires have upon us, and the consequence of satisfying this one or that. This power of deliberation, says Locke, 'seems to me the source of all liberty; in this seems to me to consist that which is (as I think, improperly) called free will.'
He then proceeds to show that to be determined by our own judgments is no restraint on our liberty, which, on the contrary, consists in attaining the good we choose. The purest of all beings, he says, must, from the nature of things, be so determined. 'The highest perfection of intellectual nature lies in a careful and constant pursuit of true and solid happiness,' and ' the care of ourselves, that we mistake not imaginary for real happiness, is the necessary foundation of our liberty.' The general result appears to be that in a cumbrous way, and with less perspicuous definitions, Locke comes to much the same result as Hobbes with his definition of will as the 'last appetite in deliberation.’
After laying down these principles, Locke enters, according to his manner, into a detailed account of the various cases in which men may and do take imaginary for real pleasures. He concludes with the case of vice and virtue, as to which he says that the preference of vice to virtue is a manifest case of a wrong judgment, because 'the rewards and punishments of another life, which the Almighty has established as the enforcements of his law, are of weight enough to determine the choice against whatever pleasure or pain this life can show, when the eternal state is considered but in its bare possibility, which nobody can make any doubt of.' The best for which the bad man can hope, and the worst which the good man can fear, is annihilation; yet, 'if the worst that comes to the pious man, if he mistakes, be the best that the wicked can attain to if he be in the right, who can without madness run the venture? . . . If the good man be in the right, he is eternally happy; if he mistakes he is not miserable, he feels nothing. On the other hand, if the wicked be in the right, he is not happy; if he mistakes, he is infinitely miserable. Must it not be a most manifest wrong judgment that does not presently see to which side in this case the preference is to be given?'
This, in a condensed shape, is Locke's theory of morals. Its place in his general system is very curious. To find the principles of a moral system considered as branches of the idea of power, is surprising at first sight; but it must be recollected that Locke's Essay deals, not, like Hobbes's Leviathan, with human nature in general, but exclusively with the human understanding; and it must also be recollected that one principal object of his analysis was to represent the different operations of the mind under as few heads, and in as simple forms as possible, and especially to do so without resorting to the theory of innate ideas, in any of the forms which it is capable of assuming.
This probably is the reason why his moral theories fall into what, at first sight, appears such an unnatural place. If the only operations of the human mind taken into account at all are perception and the act of volition, it is obvious that morality will come to be regarded exclusively as the system of motives by which our perceptions and volitions are regulated. The form into which such a theory falls may be stated thus: We have such and such powers. They are guided by such and such speculative principles, which direct them to such and such objects. By measuring the powers, specifying and defining the principles, and investigating with precision the objects aimed at, we at last acquire a system of morals complete as far as it goes, for it certainly supplies an answer to the three great problems of morality, What is the difference between right and wrong? How can I know the one from the other? Why should I do right?
The system, however, leaves one gap which will no doubt appear most important to those who are not able to agree in Locke's general metaphysical theories. He makes hardly any reference whatever to conscience in any part of his work. So far as we know, there is but one paragraph in which it is even referred to. It is in Book I., ch. iii., sec. 8, the marginal note to which is 'Conscience no proof of any innate moral rule.' After attacking upon the usual grounds, and in particular upon the ground of the great varieties of belief which exist in the world on moral subjects, the notion that there are such things as innate moral rules, Locke disposes in ten lines of the whole question about conscience: 'I doubt not that, without being written on their hearts, many men may, by the same way that they come to the knowledge of other things, come to assent to several moral rules, and be convinced of their obligation. Others also may come to be of the same mind from their education, company, and customs of their country; which persuasion, however got, will serve to set conscience on work, which is nothing else but our own opinion and judgment of the moral rectitude or pravity of our own actions.'
Hobbes's view on the same subject is very similar, though he characteristically enters into the etymology of the word. The remarkable point about this is not so much the opinion itself as the crudity and unconcern with which it is expressed, and the apparent unconsciousness on the part of both these great men, and especially on the part of Locke, that he was writing what, to a large, and perhaps the most popular school of moral philosophers in later times, would appear the heresy of all heresies, amounting to nothing less indeed than a denial of the crowning and ruling faculty of human nature itself. Hardly anything can be more striking in its way than the contrast between Locke and Butler on this point. With Butler, conscience is the master faculty, altogether independent of prudence and self-love, yet fitted, by the constitution of human nature itself, to take command of all the other faculties. With Locke, it is nothing more than an habitual way of thinking about moral subjects.
Upon the substance of Locke's theory several observations present themselves. Perhaps the most important of these is that, largely as it has since been adopted and followed out to a great variety of consequences which Locke himself did not connect with it, it never was, and never can be, enunciated with more plain-spoken and emphatic vigour. Bentham and Paley have not put this view more plainly or vigorously, and Bentham is less systematic than Locke, inasmuch as it is by no means easy to discover, from his writings any more than from Hume's, who held substantially the same theory, what in his opinion formed the ultimate sanction of morality.
It is difficult to suppose that either he or Hume really cared much for the religious sanction, whilst Bentham would have been the first to admit, and even to contend, that, in his day at all events, the legal sanction had, in fact, singularly little to do with the greatest-happiness principle, whilst the popular sanction—public opinion—was so much misled by what he considered as delusive theories that it did very little towards enforcing it. But the religious, the political or legal, and the popular sanctions are the only sanctions which he recognises; and as each of them fails, this side of Bentham's theory is no doubt incomplete. Hume expressly owns that if a man will press far enough and hard enough for an answer to the question, Why should I do right? it will be very difficult to give him an answer which he would consider altogether satisfactory. With Locke there is no such hesitation or indistinctness. The sentences quoted above put the whole of his view of the subject as broadly, as tersely, and as plainly as it is possible to put it. The ultimate sanction of morals in his eyes is the fear of future punishment; or even, if you choose to reduce it a step lower, the consciousness that there is a chance, a possibility, of such punishments. The mere chance, as he observes, is quite enough to make vice a losing bargain.
It would be difficult probably to mention any single opinion which marks in a more striking manner the change which has come over the English mind in relation to the great problems of religion and morality, in the course of the last hundred and fifty years, than the popular estimate of utilitarianism, and of that which may be described as the criminal law theory of morals. The two are closely connected with each other, but their connection is in reality accidental. The criminal-law view of morals is that God has enacted a variety of moral rules for human conduct, the sanctions of which are eternal damnation and eternal salvation. It is obviously the worst possible policy to incur such a risk, and lose such an advantage, for any of the common enjoyments which induce men to break through these rules, and a determination not to do so on any account whatever, is no doubt a form, though rather a coarse and special form, of utilitarianism.
This, however, is by no means the view of the later utilitarians. Almost all of them, from Hume downwards, are disposed to avoid the subject of the sanction of morality, as being a distinct question from that which relates to the nature of morality itself, and to address themselves to the task of working out the problem, What course of conduct would produce a maximum of happiness if it were generally adopted? It appears to be assumed that, if this were ascertained, the question of sanctions would be perceived to be in reality of subordinate importance.
This produces a singular contrast, which in Locke's writings is strikingly perceptible, between the earlier and later utilitarians. They proceed upon tacit assumptions as to human nature which are diametrically opposed to each other. Locke's speculations are based throughout on the notion that the great difficulty is to get men to do right, and that it is comparatively easy to know, or at all events to find out, what is right. Bentham writes as if he felt sure that you could depend upon morality to make its own way in the world, if it were once set upon a clear and systematic basis; and it might thus be argued, with some plausibility, that he tacitly recognises conscience as a judge, though he deprives it of all authority as a legislator.
The tendency of all Mr. Mill's speculations is still more strongly in the same direction. Probably this difference in their estimate of human nature explains the curious difference which may be observed in the estimates formed at different times of the orthodoxy of utilitarianism. Nothing for a long time could be regarded as more orthodox. Butler even, with all his strong tendencies in another direction, differs from Locke much more by addition than by positive dissent. Morality is, with him as much as with Locke, a system having for its object the attainment of happiness; but he adds to the sanction of supernatural rewards and punishments—which are, so to speak, the steam of Locke's engine—other more general considerations derived from an examination of the constitution of human nature.
Nothing, indeed, is better marked than the near approach to unanimity with which the divines, moralists, and lawyers of the eighteenth century lean to various forms of the utilitarian doctrine. Blackstone, perhaps, with his love of decorous commonplaces, affords as good an illustration as any one, and he sets out with the proposition that the law of God, or of nature, may be reduced to 'the one paternal precept,' 'that man should pursue his own true and substantial happiness.' In our own days, however, doctrines of this kind have got a character for heterodoxy. Bentham, Paley, and their living disciples are regarded as dangerous people, whose views, if they prevailed, would be inconsistent with the maintenance of established beliefs.
The reason appears to be twofold. On the one hand, the theological current has set away from that view of religion which regards it as a vast system of criminal law, justified sufficiently by the bare fact of its existence, and requiring no other justification. On the other hand, a system of morals founded on the specific and ascertainable utility of particular actions, and not on the utility of obeying a law which, whether reasonable or not, is backed by terrific sanctions, acts more or less as a rival to religion itself.
Constituted authorities in Church or State can obviously have no objection to a system which says, Polygamy being forbidden by the positive law of God, under pain of damnation, it is surely very foolish of you to marry two wives; but at the same time they may have the greatest possible objection to a system which says, Let us examine the consequences of polygamy, and determine whether it is right or wrong by its tendency to promote human happiness or misery. And they do not view with very different eyes a system (like that of Austin) which adds to such advice the further clause, When you have discovered by observation what is the effect of a given practice upon human happiness or misery, you may infer further that, if it promotes human happiness, it is enjoined, and that if it diminishes it, it is forbidden, by God.
Whatever may have been his place in the history of utilitarianism, Locke certainly does not appear to have given that doctrine the special edge and point which is communicated to it by working out its consequences systematically in the field of political speculation. We shall illustrate this more fully in speaking of his Essay on Civil Government, and on Toleration. But this is the place for the general observation that the principles upon which Locke discusses these matters tend straight to the application made of them by Hobbes before his time, and by Bentham and Austin long afterwards, to the general conception of justice and of rights.
A person who fully accepts Locke's metaphysics, and who carries out to their natural result his views as to the foundation of morality, is led of necessity to the conclusion that there are only two definite senses in which the words 'right' and 'justice' can be used. They may be used, that is, as synonymous with 'power secured by law,' and 'impartial adherence to any fixed rule whatever.' Or they may be used to mean, by way of distinction, 'powers suitable to the production of general happiness and secured by law,' and 'adherence to fixed rules tending to produce general happiness.'
Neither Hobbes nor Locke fully worked out this, and the result is that Hobbes founds his system on a supposed contract, without showing satisfactorily why you should keep that or any other contract when you have made it; and that Locke, throughout the whole of his political works, writes (as we shall try to show hereafter) upon a set of tacit suppositions as to rights, their value, their transmission, and the like, which it is not easy to put into plain words, and which he probably did not realise distinctly himself. This, however, can hardly be imputed to him as a fault. He comes across morality and politics in his great speculative work only indirectly, and by the somewhat eccentric path which we have tried to trace; and in the Essay on Civil Government and the Letters on Toleration he was writing with a distinctly practical aim, and of course adopted that turn of language, and form of expression, which he thought would be most likely to produce the practical result which he had in view.
Saturday Review, January 19, 1867.