Saturday, December 25, 2021

The Ground of Morality

The English philosopher John Locke is well known for arguing that we have no innate ideas. That is, we are not born with any ideas of our own, we develop them as we develop. This yields a problem for morality, in that society needs a population with a moral outlook and behaviour, but there is no innate understanding of what that might be.

Locke, thus, needs morality, in the form of laws and ideas about duty and good, to come from somewhere. For him, that somewhere is God. Duty cannot be understood without a law, and a law must have a lawgiver. Since the human race is not born with laws, the lawgiver must be outside the human race and must, therefore be God (Locke, 2014 [1690], pp. I, 3, 12).

This of course leads to another problem, in that to ground morality we need to prove the existence of God. This was not too much of a difficulty to Locke, given the society he was living in, but is more of a problem for us. According to Locke we are intelligent dependent beings under the direction of God. We cannot be independent because then we would have no law.

There is a gulf here between Locke and more recent ideas of morality. Recent accounts of humans argue that we are independent individuals, and our moral standards are those which we have chosen. Locke would argue that such a project, to choose our morality and live by it, is doomed from the start. We are politically autonomous, in that we cannot be governed without our consent, but not morally autonomous, and nor would it be desirable for us to believe we were (Locke, 2006, p. 45).

Atheism, therefore, is a problem for Locke, but is, of course, rife in society today. According to Locke there cannot be any grounds for morality as a consequence of this. We simply act as we see fit, having chosen our moral rules. If we look around the world today, we can perhaps see the consequences of this in, perhaps, senior politicians imposing rules on the population while ignoring them themselves. This makes perfect sense if you have chosen a morality that exempts you from obeying rules and if you are in a position not to be caught breaking the ones you have imposed on other.

The problem is that this approach can say nothing about anything being actually right or wrong. An action only fits or does not fit with my chosen set of moral rules, and given that they are my set of rules, I can change them as I wish. The fact that others are forced to obey some rules other than their own is due to the coercive power of the state. If I am in a position to avoid detection and punishment by the state then I can ignore the rules which others cannot.

The philosophical problem here is the objectivity of morality. By this we mean that if behaving in a certain way is right, then that way must be findable by everyone. That is morality, being good, goodness itself must be ‘out there’. Otherwise, our morality is just that, ours, and it is ‘in here’ that is, a matter of my choice as to what I think is right or good to do.

Philosophers have a hard time proving anything is objective. Everything passes though our minds before we perceive it, and so there is no good reason to believe that anything exists. This is the sort of problem that gets philosophy a bad name, admittedly, but it does throw up a problem which is usually ignored in everyday life. I walk around the furniture because it is there, but my perception of the chair is not that simple.

If we have a problem with material objects in the world, we are clearly going to have an even worse problem with non-material objects. So, things like God and morality, being, by definition, not things in the world, are going to have a hard time being proved to exist. I cannot prove the chair I am sitting on exists or continues to exist if I leave the room. How on earth am I to prove that the good exists?

Critical realism can come to our help here, at least partially. We do not have reasons to doubt the existence of the chair, or its continued existence when I am not in the room. There might be some unusual circumstances which might cause the chair to no longer exist when I return, but these would be exactly that – unusual circumstances. Perhaps the chair was destroyed because I left it too close to the fire. There are explanations as to why the chair might not be there, but they suggest unusual occurrences.

Many people would say that morality exists and that they follow it, at least most of the time. Most people would claim that they seek the good for everyone, at least most of the time, while admitting that often there are conflicting claims about what the good is, exactly. That does not make morality objective, admittedly, but it might at least suggest that morality and the good are available to most people if they seek it. We live among real people in real situations, making real decision about what is right or best to do.

The problem is, as Irish Murdoch seems to have noted, is that to make decisions about what to do for the good, we must see things clearly. By things I mean other people as well as objects in the world and (in these days of climate crisis) the world in its fullness. We have to navigate the world by seeing clearly, even if we see the world through pictures or metaphors. Otherwise, we live in a fantasy world of our own creation, in which case we can choose our morality to suit us and ignore the reality of other people and their lives.




Locke, J. (2006). An Essay Concerning Toleration and Other Writings on Law and Politics 1667-1683. Oxford: OUP.

Locke, J. (2014 [1690]). Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Ware: Wordsworth.


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