So it turns out that Tom West (who vindicated the Founders, among other things) reads postmodern conservative. He sent this note, which cries out for your comments:

Peter,

You keep repeating the same mistakes about Locke on your blog. You really need to read my article on “The Ground of Locke’s Law of Nature”:

If you don’t want to read the whole thing (I admit it’s a little long), take a look at section 8, “Is Nature Worthless?” (pp. 23-29). It is a response to the extreme “Straussian” view of Locke—a view that appears frequently on your blog.

I’ll respond quickly here to the most obvious error made by you and other scholars influenced by dogmatic Straussianism. You view Locke as essentially a rights-but-no-duties thinker. Thus moral autonomy and same-sex marriage follow in your view from Lockean principles.

But Locke, like the Declaration of Independence, emphatically repudiates moral autonomy. Specifically, Locke treats the family as required by the law of nature. And the law of nature is also the law of God.

Parents are, “by the law of nature, under an obligation to preserve, nourish, and educate” their offspring (Tr. 2, §56), a mandate that Locke repeats and develops at length (Tr. 1, §88–100; Tr. 2, §58–74). For that reason, Locke rules out divorce until the children are grown up (Tr. 2, §78-79). Locke also writes, “The obligations of the law of nature cease not in society, but only in many cases are drawn closer, and have, by human laws, known penalties annexed to them to enforce their obedience” (Tr. 2, §135). Putting these two sentences together, the conclusion is that government should support marriage and make sure parents perform their natural law duties to their children.

In his Letter on Toleration, Locke writes, “Rectitude of morals, in which consists not the least part of religion and sincere piety, concerns civil life also, and in it lies the safety both of men’s souls and of the commonwealth. Moral actions belong, therefore, to the jurisdiction of both . . . the magistrate and conscience” (Klibansky ed., p. 123). Locke goes further: “no doctrines adverse and contrary to human society, or to the good morals that are necessary to the preservation of civil society, are to be tolerated by the magistrate” (p. 131). This, of course, was the view that prevailed in American law until around 1965, when sex outside of marriage and no-fault divorce began to be legalized and celebrated in pictures and print.

Locke does not spell out here what specific “good morals” are “necessary to the preservation of society.” The answer is given in the Second Treatise: government should enforce the law of nature. It should require people to refrain from harming each other’s life, liberty, and property. But it should also, Locke implies, encourage marriage, discourage or ban no-fault divorce when the children have not yet reached the age of majority, and discourage or forbid homosexuality, incest, and adultery.

Locke explains more forcefully than almost any other philosopher, ancient or modern, why “[a]dultery, incest, and sodomy” are viewed as “sins”: “I suppose,” he writes, that they “have their principal aggravation from this, that they cross the main intention of nature, which willeth the increase of mankind, and the continuation of the species in the highest perfection.” To that end, there is a need for “the distinction of families, with the security of the marriage bed” (Tr. 1, §59). Does your revered Aristotle say anything as strong as this on this topic?

In other words, these “sins” are wrong not principally because Scripture forbids them, but, as Locke implies, Scripture forbids them because the intact family (married mother and father with their children) is the best institution for producing, nourishing, and educating children. Locke implies that government not only has a right to discourage sex outside of marriage, but has a positive duty to do so, “the distinction of families, and the security of the marriage bed” being “necessary to the preservation of society.”

Locke understands better than any of our leading politicians or public intellectuals that when sex is seen as something merely “gay,” that is, as matter for gaiety, fun, frivolity, and entertainment, then it becomes detached from the serious business of child-producing and child-rearing—which are necessary for the preservation and “increase of mankind.” Nothing is more contrary to Locke’s teaching on the law of nature and politics than government approval of same-sex marriage.

But I do enjoy reading your blog.

Tom

It’s a challenging and fascinating view of Locke, one that I’ll talk about it as soon as I can study the linked article.

Articles by Peter Lawler

Loading...

Show 0 comments