Locke denies, in fact, that any particular being can be reduced or defined as essentially a member of the species. And we’re the beings with enough self-consciousness or self-ownership—or a relatively stable and clear sense of who are as particular, vulnerable, free, rational, mortal (or embodied) beings—who know who we are. The idea that I have such property in myself, properly understood, is, for Zuckert, the foundation of the equality of all selves who can make that claim. My self-consciousness, and my claim, as result, of self-ownership, “leads me beyond the claim I raise for myself to recognize the like claim of others” in that respect like myself.” At the very least, we can all recognize that we can make a claim not to be “gratuitously” harmed by other selves.

Recognizing equality in freedom of beings with personal identity, however, falls short of recognizing the value of every human life. It can hardly be expected to generate, in most cases, what Sara Henary calls “an attentive, active concern for the other.”

Henary goes on to deny that “any formulation of ‘self-ownership’ claim requires that one acknowledge the legitimacy of similar claims made by others.” “Divorced,” she explains, “from any concept that might give some sense of the value of other selves, the notion of ‘self-ownership is purely self-referential.” It, in fact, “by drawing attention to my own capabilities and powers without imposing corresponding limits on my will, . . . risks calling forth a blatant disregard for beings and things that might present themselves as obstacles to the execution of my projects.” What’s important is my personal identity, my value or significance, and others don’t have enough inherent value—given that, for Locke, just about all value is personally acquired by free beings by transforming nature and in no sense given— for me to care for them when they get in the way of me—my assertion of my identity against an environment indifferent to my very being.

So a “strictly secular view of Locke” can’t adequately ground the moral idea of human equality, and that’s why Henry concludes that even a Lockean defense of equality can’t dispense with “a willingness to argue publicly from specifically Christian premises.” And a true defense of equality might depend on those premises being in some fundamental sense true. Locke depends, Henary says, on Christianity in a more fundamental way than Zuckert thinks, and, even if he doesn’t, we defenders of dignified equality in freedom need to do so.

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Articles by Peter Lawler


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