Tom West – who, I want to make clear at the outset, can easily run circles around me in his knowledge of Locke’s writings – does well to remind us of the (now) conservative, pro-family conclusions that Locke draws from his very modern philosophical premises. And these conclusions are (or should be) still relevant to contemporary debates regarding the family, since they make the case that the public, and therefore government, has a legitimate interest in stable families (up to a point, that is, the point at which children have been raised) and therefore in the sexual morality that protects the marital bond.
The limitation of this argument, however, is that it can never transcend its constructivist and utilitarian (not to say nihilist) premises. It might show that it is useful to be faithful in marriage (up to a point) and to perform one’s familial duties, but it cannot show that it is good. If we start with consciousness as a blank slate that then evolves (whether as an individual or as a species) to adapt to the necessities of its self-preservation (as an individual or as a species), we will never get to an argument for the goodness of fidelity, fecundity, etc.
Scott Yenor lays out the problem nicely in the introduction to his very important and carefully argued Family Politics: The Idea of Marriage in Modern Political Thought. As Yenor argues, the goods of family can never be grasped either from a standpoint that reduces all goods to personal satisfactions, nor from one that sees marriage and family as “social institutions” performing a necessary function. For if a necessary function is only necessary, then it is possible, indeed it is even in a way noble, to defy nature. (Such defiance, Peter Lawler notices, can even be understood as inspired by a lingering trace of Christian, “personal” transcendence of nature. Indeed, I would reply, but any trace that lacks gratitude for the goodness of something greater is not a trace worth praising or even excusing.) A socio-biologist can tell a young woman on the best scientific authority that nature designed her, body and mind, to conceive, bear and care for children, but it he cannot tell her in the name of science that in so doing she will fulfill her human possibilities, and he cannot answer her when she declares war on such natural necessities.
The alternative to arguments from “personal” satisfactions on the one hand and necessary social function on the other is not, admittedly, easy to name – Yenor calls it “communal,” that is, an understanding that shows how personal satisfaction is bound up with the social goods marriage produces. In order words, some kind of recourse to a broadly Aristotelian argument is unavoidable – that is, an appeal to a good grounded in the kinds of beings we are, and one that bridges the gap between lower needs and high purposes, that links necessity with transcendence.