By / Jul 8

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.”

By / Apr 16

Last July I boarded a bus and drove down to Austin for a pro-life rally on the steps of the Texas State Capitol. We arrived more than an hour before the scheduled start time of the rally, so I had the opportunity to take in my surroundings and observe the arguments being made by the abortion-rights protestors. In what was often crass language, the abortion-rights argument being made at the Capitol that day essentially boiled down to one point—a woman has the right to do what she wants with her own body. This can be described as a right to privacy based upon self-ownership.

Since this right is not explicitly spelled out in the Constitution, where does it find its origin? In contemporary jurisprudence, the right to do what you want with your own body (i.e., the right to privacy) is drawn from the “penumbras” and “emanations” of the Bill of Rights according to Griswold v. Connecticut and out of the 14th Amendment’s restriction on the state from depriving “any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” Applied to the abortion issue, these ideas regarding the right to privacy form the foundation of the Roe v. Wade decision that opened the door for abortion on demand. However, the supposed “right to privacy” found in the Bill of Rights and the 14thAmendment still does not make self-ownership clear.

Even though most abortion-rights proponents do not make the explicit connection, the right of self-ownership is typically attributed to the work of John Locke in The Second Treatise of Government. Locke writes, “Though the earth and all inferior creatures be common to all men, yet every man has property in his own person. This nobody has any right to but himself” (V.27). There is no doubt that John Locke’s work was very influential upon the Founders of the United States, and language from the Second Treatise appears directly in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. However, are we correct in inferring a right to self-ownership of our bodies from Locke?

Locke’s premise of self-ownership is based on the idea that an individual in the state of nature has liberty to do what he wishes with his own property and possessions without depending upon the will of another man. It is in the state of nature that we find inherent rights to life, liberty, and property. It is at the intersection of the rights of liberty and property that we find those who make the claim for absolute liberty in self-ownership.

How does this apply to the abortion debate? Abortion proponents generally adopt an understanding of absolute liberty in self-ownership that would allow them to do anything they want with their own bodies. Therefore, the choice to end a pregnancy on the basis of self-ownership is the natural consequence of this absolute liberty. No person or governing authority has the right to limit this freedom. As a result, the woman can choose to have an abortion without consulting the father, the government, or the unborn child.

With Locke’s words that “everyone has property in his own person” ringing in the background, abortion-rights advocates declare that neither the government nor the citizenry can tell any woman what she can or cannot do with her body. They call for absolute liberty regarding the body based on self-ownership.

Considering Locke’s influence on our most important founding documents, it may seem that there is a solid case to be made that the Founders implied self-ownership in the language of the Constitution. However, there is a glaring problem regarding its application to abortion—Locke himself did not view self-ownership as an absolute right. Locke explains in the Second Treatise:

But though this be a state of liberty, yet it is not a state of licence, though man in that state have an uncontrollable liberty to dispose of his person or possessions, yet he has not liberty to destroy himself, or so much as any creature in his possession, but where some nobler use than its bare preservation calls for it. The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which obliges everyone. And reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind who will but consult it that, being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions. (II.6)

According to Locke, then, self-ownership is a limited right. One cannot destroy himself or another creature in his possession without a nobler use than mere preservation. Aborting the life of an unborn child for the sake of convenience or because the child is unwanted does not meet Locke’s test of a nobler cause.

Locke further clarifies, “For men being all the workmanship of one omnipotent and infinitely wise maker, all the servants of one sovereign master, sent into the world by his order and about his business, they are his property whose workmanship they are, made to last during his, not one another’s pleasure” (II.6). Right here Locke denies absolute self-ownership and actually places the true right of ownership in the hands of God. It is the Creator who has absolute control over the body, and we are stewards of our own bodies.

If the limitation of self-ownership by Locke were not enough, he makes another argument that would deny an absolute right of self-ownership as justification for abortion. Later in the Second Treatise, Locke addresses the question of parental authority and the duty that parents owe to their own children. He writes, “The power, then, that parents have over their children arises from that duty which is incumbent on them to take care of their offspring during the imperfect state of childhood” (VI.58).

Notice that while parents have authority and power over their children, it arises from the duty and obligation they have for their children’s care. This arises during what he calls the “imperfect state of childhood.” As evidenced from other discussions regarding the authority of parents, Locke considers this imperfect state to be the time during which a child has not developed the full rational capacity to make his own choices.

Interestingly, many abortion proponents make the case that the reason why a child in the womb can be aborted is that he has not developed the rational capacity to be a person. Since they believe personhood is achieved, then they declare that the child in the womb has no right to life. His life can be terminated without consequence.

However, Locke seems to disagree. He believes it is incumbent upon the parent to fulfill her duty toward the “imperfect” child, which would include protection of that child’s life. At this point, we have a clash of rights. The mother wants to exert her right of self-ownership, but the unborn child has a right to life. Since the right of self-ownership is not absolute, the child’s right to life trumps self-ownership. In Locke’s view, parental obligation requires that we protect the rights of the child, the chief of which is the right to life.

Therefore, invoking Lockean self-ownership is not consistent with abortion. If the “penumbras” and “emanations” of the Constitution speak of a right to privacy and self-ownership, they most assuredly speak in Lockean terms. His influence on the Founders is undeniable. If Locke’s ideas are the ones speaking about self-ownership, then we need to consider his thoughts in their context. As we have seen, Locke’s understanding of self-ownership is not absolute, and he places an incumbent duty on parents to protect the rights of their children. Taken together, these ideas nullify a right to abortion based on a supposed right to privacy and self-ownership.