False Choices: America’s Philosopher on Reason, Tradition, and Experience

July 8, 2014

Editor’s Note: The following essay is part of a symposium on The Federalist Papers and the future of American leadership, sponsored by the John Jay Institute’s Center for a Just Society.

Dr. Joseph Postell has done us all a service with his erudite treatment of the putative choice conservatives face in determining whether to ground their views on tradition and experience or abstract reason and cold rationality. Such a choice is indeed a false one, as Postell ably shows in drawing from the Federalist Papers. It is difficult to think of many founding documents or popular tracts or sermons that would fit into what we today might describe as the analytical and abstract philosophical tradition. The Declaration of Independence, after all, supports its theoretical claims for universal human rights with a laundry list of real-world violations committed by an actual King with a real-life army and navy.

Moreover, it’s unclear what a reliance on pure experience or tradition could even mean without the principles of natural law or religious thought to guide our interpretation. Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine drew very different lessons from what they read of the experiences of the French Revolution than did John Adams. Neither experience nor tradition can, in themselves, determine for us whose interpretation was correct. That our own experiences play a central role in developing our moral judgment and character is undeniable. To then suppose that experience can determine the soundness of our moral judgment and character is to make a category mistake. If experience is the least fallible guide it must be experience as interpreted by practical reason.

All this is prelude to a consideration that bolsters Dr. Postell’s main contention that we here face a both/and as opposed to an either/or with regard to the experience or reason debate. For if there is any philosopher who can be considered “America’s philosopher,” it is the English natural rights theorist John Locke. And contrary to some readings of Locke that paint him as an uber-rationalist, Locke himself touted the crucial role that experience and social expectations must play in the inculcation of virtue in educating a nation’s youth.

While much of Locke’s thought remains hotly contested ground, that he was influential for the founding generations is incontrovertible. Regardless of whether one agrees with this or that facet of Locke’s thought, he was enormously influential in helping to craft the political culture we now inhabit. There are several reasons Locke is often referred to as “America’s Philosopher”.

First are the many central ideas that inform the American political tradition that are closely associated with Locke’s thought. We find many of these ideas in Locke’s seminal political work, Two Treatises of Government, and they include: limited government, the social contract, the state of nature, natural rights, the importance of the individual, separation of powers, and the legitimacy of a government being tied to the consent of the governed. These ideas are so fundamental to American political thought that we often take them for granted. Locke also was extremely influential in the field of education, epistemology, and religious toleration. Locke was not the first to articulate many of these ideas, nor was his view always the most robust. Thomas Hobbes also posited a state of nature and a social contract, and Montesquieu is better known for his fuller treatment of the separation of powers. Yet there is no one philosopher who put these various ideas together in such an influential and persuasive way.

It is therefore not surprising to also learn of Locke’s many connections with America and his influence on the founding generation. Not only did Locke’s works often reference America, but he also served on the committee that drafted the first constitution for the Carolinas. He was widely read by the founding fathers, and only the most charitable of interpreters would deny that Thomas Jefferson borrowed liberally from Locke in drafting the Declaration of Independence. Moreover, after the Bible, John Locke was the most cited source in the Americas from 1760 to 1780.[1] Locke’s reputation as a significant influence on the Western political tradition in general and American political thought in particular is well-deserved.

But was he the arch-individualist and pure rationalist that some describe him as? Is he Pangle or Oakeshott’s Rationalist? It is certainly true that Locke strongly criticized an unconscious reliance on received tradition, experience and history. Yet Locke’s own more theoretical works do reference history and examples,[2] and in another work of his he explicitly calls on experience and custom to work hand-in-hand with reason and revelation.

Less well-known among Locke’s works was the widespread popularity of his Thoughts on Education,[3] a best-seller on both sides of the Atlantic and influential not only in the American literature of the day,[4] but in the actual practices of educating America’s young. Josiah Quincy, congressman, mayor of Boston, and president of Harvard described Locke during his childhood as the “great authority at that time on all subjects,” which included education. Appropriately, then, Mrs. Quincy would begin young Master Quincy’s morning from age three by dunking him three times in cold water, in winter and in summer, “in obedience to some suggestions of the bachelor philosopher.”[5]

More important than these polar bear plunges for our purposes is Locke’s overall program for educating the young. Locke connected education with service to country, calling it “every man’s indispensable duty.” Of those who disagree with the importance of education and its link to the health of one’s country, Locke wrote that he could not distinguish such men from their cattle.

How then, did Locke advise parents to raise their children so as to they will have had good “habits woven into the very principles of his nature”? (31) With a nod toward brevity, we can discern three lessons from Locke that illustrate the both/and nature of practical reason and experience, tradition, and community custom.

First, for all of his modern reputation Locke follows Aristotle in teaching that speculative reasons and rules are powerless to influence people without a prior training in virtue and habits. And habits are acquired by repeated actions, the experience of which grafts the habit into the character of the child.

What was groundbreaking in Locke’s book was the relative unimportance he gave to academic concerns like Latin and the centrality he placed on virtue. Locke emphasized the immense power of custom and habit. While elsewhere Locke implores his readers to avoid unconscious reliance on custom and tradition, when it comes to human beings who cannot yet reason, inculcating character and habits via custom is absolutely crucial.[6]

“The great thing to be minded in education,” Locke writes, “is what habits you settle: and therefore in this, as all other things, do not begin to make anything customary the practice whereof you would not have continue and increase.” (19) Instilling the right habits through custom, repetition, and example teaches what Locke calls “the great principle and foundation” of virtue and worth because the student “is able to deny himself his own desires, cross his own inclinations, and purely follow what reason directs as best though the appetite lean the other way.” (25)

Secondly, this training in virtue is communal and practical rather than individualistic and speculative. The virtuous citizen cannot become so by isolating himself with his books and deep analytical thinking. And even rules and reason by themselves and taught by parents will not be enough. Like modern parents, Locke cares a great deal about the sort of friends young people have. After all, we become like those with whom we spend time, or as Locke puts it, “We are all a sort of chameleons that still take a tincture from things near us . . .” (67)

Locke, again following Aristotle and the Christian tradition, sees education as training children up to have the proper responses to the proper stimuli, and Locke insists this is better done by example than merely cogitating on moral principles. Locke writes that “the beauty or uncomeliness of many things in good and ill breeding will be better learned and make deeper impressions on them in the examples of others than from any rules or instructions can be given about them.”[7] Locke encourages these examples to be found not only in neighbors and family members, but in literature and stories (e.g., Aesop’s fables), and Holy Writ; he explicitly recommends readings the accounts of Joseph and his brothers, David and Goliath, David and Jonathan, and the gospels. Divine revelation too is a source of wisdom.

Third, and finally, Locke’s most important means for inculcating a love of virtue is through the use of praise, blame, and reputation. Locke proposes that parents refrain from corporal punishment and instead offer their children verbal praise or disapproval depending on their actions, writing that “Esteem and disgrace are, of all others, the most powerful incentives to the mind, when once it is brought to relish them,” and “if you can once get into children a love of credit and an apprehension of shame and disgrace, you have put into them the true principle, which will constantly work and incline them to the right.” (36)

The first and most intimate social circle that will enact Locke’s praise-and-blame strategy is the immediate family, namely the parents. Yet Locke means for the audience to be wider than the mere household, as he encourages parents to discipline in private but “the commendations children deserve, they should receive before others.”  Moreover, Locke’s heavy emphasis on manners and civility hint that he sees this education and this social pressure as something more than just private and individualistic. It will depend on shared custom, culture, tradition, and experience. And such an education will create the conditions in which right reason coupled with tradition and experience, applied to the lived realities of human beings in particular places and with particular problems, can cultivate and maintain virtue and citizenship for the common and individual good.

Locke’s vision for education, along with the Founders’ vision for the American experiment in ordered liberty, cannot be relegated to a merely historical debate cordoned off from contemporary application or concern. For we live in the world they helped create, and their assumptions and arguments about virtue, the common good, right reason, tradition, and experience remain relevant if only because they pertain to a view of what it means to be human and what it means to live well.

[1] Donald Lutz, “The Relative Influence of European Writers on Late Eighteenth-Century American Political Thought”, The American Political Science Review, Vol. 78, No. 1 (Mar., 1984), pp. 189-197.

[2] In the Second Treatise, chapter 2, section 14, Locke explicitly links his articulation of the state of nature with history and examples, combining here a universal application of morality (keeping promises) with particular historical examples:
The promises and bargains for truck, &c. between the two men in the desert island, mentioned by Garcilasso de la Vega, in his history of Peru; or between a Swiss and an Indian, in the woods of America; are binding to them, though they are perfectly in a state of nature, in reference to one another: for truth and keeping of faith belongs to men as men, and not as members of society.

[3] Some Thoughts Concerning Education and On the Conduct of the Understanding, ed. Ruth W. Grant and Nathan Tarcov (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1996). Subsequent citations will refer to page numbers.

[4] See Jay Fliegelman, Prodigals and pilgrims: The American revolution against patriarchal authority 1750-1800 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985). In this work Fliegelman finds explicit Lockean themes of “coming of age” in several popular best-sellers.

[5] From The Life of Josiah Quincy, 1772-1863, by Edmund Quincy.

[6] Thoughts, 18, “You cannot imagine what force custom is . . .”

[7] Ibid., 82. Also from that section, “But, of all the ways whereby children are to be instructed, and their manners formed, the plainest, easiest, and most efficacious, is to set before their eyes the examples of those things you would have them do or avoid.”

Micah Watson

Professor Watson is a native of the great golden state of California where he completed his undergraduate degree at U.C. Davis. He earned his M.A. degree in Church-State Studies at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and holds M.A. and doctorate degrees in Politics from Princeton University.   Professor Watson joined the … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24