Why Patrick Deneen failed: John Locke was no relativist

Patrick Deneen’s book Why Liberalism Failed has obviously scratched where many were itching since it has achieved media coverage and readership well in excess of what an academic book by an academic author would typically garner.

Perhaps one reason is because of how divisive it has proven. Since its release in January detractors and defenders have lined up either to attack Deneen’s thesis (especially the historical bits) as tendentious smears of America’s Founding, or to attempt to vindicate him and his claims about the dissolving logic of the Founders’ liberalism.

This week the Public Discourse website carried a series of articles discussing the book from a number of perspectives, including a response by the author at the end. All four of these are worth reading, and especially the piece by Samuel Gregg raising the important issue of the role of natural law in liberal thought and constitutionalism.

One of the main points of contention is whether John Locke, whom all parties agree was a major influence on the Founders, was responsible for advancing a relativistic and hedonistic form of ethics, the deep logic of which has been working out in American life and jurisprudence for the past 250 years. Or did the English philosopher maintain more traditional ideas of absolute and objective standards of right and wrong?

Responding to Gregg’s piece, Deneen argues:

Locke does make occasional statements urging the discipline to master passing passions, but he does so mainly with a view to advancing an individual notion of happiness—what he understands to be ‘power’ to act or not to act—which he equates with accumulation of pleasures, however defined.

It is true that Locke’s famous Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689) contained some passages suggestive of a relativistic and hedonistic ethics. This is the basis for Deneen’s charges, and it should be acknowledged that the later development of full-blown utilitarianism (in Hume and Bentham) can be attributed in part to the influence of Locke’s epistemology in the Essay.

But Locke himself really cannot be accused of relativism or hedonism. Even the casual reader can be satisfied of this by reading the excellent entry on Locke’s ethics in the Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy. In both the Essay Concerning Human Understanding itself and in his other works which touch on ethics (such as Essays on the Law of Nature) Locke is clear in setting out standard Christian natural law ideas, including the following:

  • True happiness should be distinguished from happiness more generally as a more worthy goal to pursue, since the ‘highest perfection of intellectual nature’ is the ‘pursuit of true and solid happiness’. Moreover, distinguishing real from imaginary happiness is ‘the necessary foundation of our liberty’.
  • Moral good and evil is the ‘Conformity or Disagreement of our voluntary Actions to some Law’, and a person can err in moral judgement because ‘the eternal Law and Nature of things must not be alter’d to comply with his ill order’d choice’.
  • The order of the universe shows both that God exists and that there is a pattern or law governing human life, knowable by ‘the light of nature’, which tells us what is or is not in conformity with ‘rational nature’. This law is moral good or virtue, and is to be understood as the decree of God’s will.
  • Human beings are ‘Understanding, rational Beings’ whose function, by dint of their sense experience and reason, is to discover and contemplate God’s creation, and also to maintain and protect themselves and their community. This is the content of the law of nature.

Undoubtedly mainstream Western political discourse and thought (whether we call it ‘liberalism’ or some other epithet) took a very wrong turn at some point down a hedonistic, individualistic, even relativistic and nihilistic line. But whenever it happened (by my estimation it emerged as a radical strand around the turn of the 19th century and went mainstream around the turn of the 20th) it is not something of which John Locke can be found guilty.

Neither can the assorted Christians and Deists who founded the United States fairly be charged with it. I have no doubts that some of their ideas could (and did) lead others to move later in that direction. But necessarily, logically, unavoidably? I don’t think so. If we had stuck with their actual ideas and their underlying philosophy we would still be subscribing to traditional God-and-nature accounts of morality and humanity for our public philosophy. Which we clearly aren’t.

If ‘liberalism’ has failed, then, it is not because it is still today the same set of ideas penned by John Locke, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, but because it has become something quite different, which they would not recognise or endorse.

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