John Locke vs. John Stuart Mill: Using metaethics to examine claims

Considering strands of liberalism and how each determines right from wrong.

DANIEL JACOBSON: In meta ethics what one tries to do is think about what makes the sorts of claims such as the foundational claims of liberalism true. In the liberal tradition, for instance, there are really two central strands. One is personified by John Locke. That's a natural rights tradition and that finds these rights endowed to us by our creators. So either given to us by god or by some sort of fact about human nature, a slightly different tradition. And then John Stuart Mill on the other hand who thinks that, who defends many of the same sorts of right. But defends them on fundamentally different grounds. Defends them as moral rights because he thinks that they're the sorts of things that need to be protected in order for people to flourish.

So it's a utilitarian argument in the sense that the ultimate value here is happiness or well-being. But it's an indirect utilitarian argument because it says that we shouldn't just evaluate individual actions by trying to estimate their effect in isolation. But rather we should think about the most important moral rules for the governance of society that will be particularly conducive to human happiness. And for Mill he thought that those rules enshrined the kinds of rights that classical liberals focus on. Freedom of conscious, freedom of association, rule of law, autonomy over your mind and body.

Another way of viewing the difference between a Lockean form of liberalism and a Millian form of liberalism is about whether it holds that certain sorts of actions are inherently right or inherently wrong. Locke thought something like that. He thought that somehow or other we could rationally determine the rightness or wrongness, the inherent rightness or wrongness of certain sorts of actions. Kant was another person who thought that. For Mill he thought that what makes actions right or wrong ultimately is there are consequences for human happiness. At the same time though he thought that there was a crucial role for rules, for moral rules and that the rightness and wrongness of actions issues from whether or not they're in accordance with the best set of moral rules where the best set of moral rules are the ones that whose adoption is going to be maximally conducive to happiness.

A central meta ethical question is are certain sorts of actions inherently right or wrong or are they right or wrong in virtue of their consequences. And what I'm suggesting, and Mill was somewhere in between there because he thinks foundationally it's the good, it's happiness. That's the ultimate value. But he also sees moral rules not just as being heuristics, rules of thumb, things that we can apply but then throw away under pressure. To the contrary he thinks that they generate real obligations. Even in extraordinary circumstances where it seems like say violating someone's freedom of speech will be better in terms of its consequences because of political contingencies of the moment. What Mill understood was the stability of having moral rules that we respect in a very stringent way. Maybe not in catastrophe but in ordinary context. We really need to guard against people wanting to make exceptions. We need to guard against people thinking especially about that their own case is different from the general case because we're all biased. We're all biased in favor of ourselves and those we love and the projects that we believe in.

And one of the things that we have to be able to do in order to live in society with each other is play by the same rules and implement rules that we can agree are worth playing by even when we think that we can see that breaking one on an occasion would lead to better results.

  • As a branch of analytical philosophy, metaethics explores the status, foundation, and scope of morality. Through this lens we can examine moral claims like those in classical liberalist thought.
  • Two voices stand out when it comes to liberalism and rights: John Locke's naturalistic point of view, and John Stuart Mill's moralistic/utilitarian stance. Locke believed that right and wrong could be determined rationally, while Mill believed in moral rules and the idea that what's right and wrong should be in service of human happiness.
  • Philosophy professor Daniel Jacobson argues that to live in a society, everyone must abide by the same rules and not allow for those rules to be circumvented when convenient.



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Image source: NASA/Big Think
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If most stars form in binary pairs, what about our Sun? A new paper presents a model supporting the theory that the Sun may have started out as one member of a temporary binary system. There's a certain elegance to the idea — if it's true, this origin story could resolve some vexing solar-system puzzles, among them the genesis of the Oort Cloud, and the presence of massive captured objects like a Planet Nine.

The paper is published in Astrophysical Journal Letters.

The Oort cloud

Oort Cloud graphic

Image source: NASA

Scientist believe that surrounding the generally flat solar system is a spherical shell comprised of more than a trillion icy objects more than a mile wide. This is the Oort cloud, and it's likely the source of our solar system's long-term comets — objects that take 200 years or more to orbit the Sun. Inside that shell and surrounding the planets is the Kuiper Belt, a flat disk of scattered objects considered the source of shorter-term comets.

Long-term comets come at us from all directions and astronomers at first suspected their origins to be random. However, it turns out their likely trajectories lead back to a shared aphelion between 2,000 astronomical units (AU) from the Sun to about 100,000 AU, with their different points of origin revealing the shell shape of the Oort cloud along that common aphelion. (An astronomical unit is the distance from the Sun to the Earth.)

No object in the Oort cloud has been directly observed, though Voyager 1 and 2, New Horizons, and Pioneer 10 and 11 are all en route. (The cloud is so far away that all five of the craft will be dead by the time they get there.) To derive a clearer view of the Oort cloud absent actually imagery, scientists utilize computer models based on planetary orbits, solar-system formation simulations, and comet trajectories.

It's generally assumed that the Oort cloud is comprised of debris from the formation of the solar system and neighboring systems, stuff from other systems that we somehow captured. However, says paper co-author Amir Siraj of Harvard, "previous models have had difficulty producing the expected ratio between scattered disk objects and outer Oort cloud objects." As an answer to that, he says, "the binary capture model offers significant improvement and refinement, which is seemingly obvious in retrospect: most sun-like stars are born with binary companions."

"Binary systems are far more efficient at capturing objects than are single stars," co-author Ari Loeb, also of Harvard, explains. "If the Oort cloud formed as [indirectly] observed, it would imply that the sun did in fact have a companion of similar mass that was lost before the sun left its birth cluster."

Working out the source of the objects in the Oort cloud is more than just an interesting astronomical riddle, says Siraj. "Objects in the outer Oort Cloud may have played important roles in Earth's history, such as possibly delivering water to Earth and causing the extinction of the dinosaurs. Understanding their origins is important."

Planet 9

rendering of a planet in space

Image source: Caltech/R. Hurt (IPAC)/NASA

The gravitational pull resulting from a binary companion to the Sun may also help explain another intriguing phenomenon: the warping of orbital paths either by something big beyond Pluto — a Planet 9, perhaps — or smaller trans-Neptunian objects closer in, at the outer edges of the Kuiper Belt.

"The puzzle is not only regarding the Oort clouds, but also extreme trans-Neptunian objects, like the potential Planet Nine," Loeb says. "It is unclear where they came from, and our new model predicts that there should be more objects with a similar orbital orientation to [a] Planet Nine."

The authors are looking forward to the upcoming Vera C. Rubin Observatory (VRO) , a Large Synoptic Survey Telescope expected to capture its first light from the cosmos in 2021. It's expected that the VRO will definitively confirm or dismiss the existence of Planet 9. Siraj says, "If the VRO verifies the existence of Planet Nine, and a captured origin, and also finds a population of similarly captured dwarf planets, then the binary model will be favored over the lone stellar history that has been long-assumed."

Missing in action

Lord and Siraj consider it unsurprising that we see no clear sign of the Sun's former companion at this point. Says Loeb, "Passing stars in the birth cluster would have removed the companion from the sun through their gravitational influence. He adds that, "Before the loss of the binary, however, the solar system already would have captured its outer envelope of objects, namely the Oort cloud and the Planet Nine population."

So, where'd it go? Siraj answers, "The sun's long-lost companion could now be anywhere in the Milky Way."

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