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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