Angilbert (fl. ca. 840/50), On the Battle Which was Fought at Fontenoy

The Law of Christians is broken,
Blood by the hands of hell profusely shed like rain,
And the throat of Cerberus bellows songs of joy.

Angelbertus, Versus de Bella que fuit acta Fontaneto

Fracta est lex christianorum
Sanguinis proluvio, unde manus inferorum,
gaudet gula Cerberi.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Golden Rule in John Locke's An Essay Concerning Human Understanding

IT IS JOHN LOCKE IN HIS AN ESSAY CONCERNING HUMAN UNDERSTANDING that first initiates the Western "critique" of the Golden Rule according to Jeffrey Wattles. Wattles, 81. Locke rejected the notion of any innate philosophical principles, including both speculative and practical moral principles. The father of modern philosophical empiricism, Locke maintained that nothing is innate; nothing in practical principles is self-evident; and that all things without exception are learned through an empirical process. Man is born without any moral impression or awareness, there is nothing moral in us ab ovo: in morals man is tabula rasa. And this is particularly true in the area of practical moral principles. There is no universal acceptance of these in Locke's mind. Anyone who looks "abroad beyond the smoke of their own chimneys," should be able to recognize that there is no universal ethic. "Where is that practical truth that is universally received, without doubt or question, as it must be if innate?" Locke asks rhetorically. "Whereby it is evident that they [practical, moral principles] are further removed from a title to be innate; and the doubt of their being native impressions on the mind is stronger against those moral principles than the other [speculative principles]." Thus, the Golden Rule is not a self-evident moral principle such as the principle of non-contradiction. The Golden Rule comes from the outside in; it is in fact, for Locke, ultimately conventional or positive; it does not come from the inside out. Its binding nature may be questioned, nay, demands that it be questioned, since it is not part of reason, but outside of reason. "I think," says Locke,
there cannot any one moral rule be proposed whereof a man may not justly demand a reason: which would be perfectly ridiculous and absurd if they were innate; or so much as self-evident, which every innate principle must needs be, and not need any proof to ascertain its truth, nor want any reason to gain it approbation. He would be thought void of common sense who asked on the one side, or on the other side [when/went*] to give a reason why "it is impossible for the same thing to be and not to be." It carries its own light and evidence with it, and needs no other proof: he that understands the terms assents to it for its own sake or else nothing will ever be able to prevail with him to do it. But should that most unshaken rule of morality and foundation of all social virtue, "That one should do as he would be done unto," be proposed to one who never heard of it before, but yet is of capacity to understand its meaning; might he not without any absurdity ask a reason why? And were not he that proposed it bound to make out the truth and reasonableness of it to him? Which plainly shows it not to be innate; for if it were it could neither want nor receive any proof; but must needs (at least as soon as heard and understood) be received and assented to as an unquestionable truth, which a man can by no means doubt of. So that the truth of all these moral rules plainly depends upon some other antecedent to them, and from which they must be deduced; which could not be if either they were innate or so much as self-evident.
Portrait of John Locke

Locke seems to have slipped into that fallacy that moral rules cannot be universal because they are not universally followed, as if moral rules had to have the same ineluctable, unvarying, and tyrannous powers as the law of gravity or any other law of physics have upon us. Locke supposes that, unless you find both a unanimous acceptance and an exceptionless practice of a moral rule, it does not exist as part of our intrinsic makeup. Naturally, no moral principle, and few intellectual principles, can survive such a burden of proof. What principle, even Locke's principle of "reason" itself, can you not find some man denying, in theory or in practice? Applying this standard (and from whence does it come?), Locke concludes that the Golden Rule, or for that matter, any moral principle, is simply not something that God has writ into the human heart or the human conscience.
The great principle of morality, "To do as one would be done to," is more commended than practised. But the breach of this rule cannot be a greater vice, than to teach others, that it is no moral rule, nor obligatory, would be thought madness, and contrary to that interest men sacrifice to, when they break it themselves. Perhaps conscience will be urged as checking us for such breaches, and so the internal obligation and establishment of the rule be preserved. . . . To which I answer, that I doubt not but, without being written on their hearts, many men may, by the same way that they come to the knowledge of other things, come to assent to several moral rules, and be convinced of their obligation. Others also may come to be of the same mind, from their education, company, and customs of their country; which persuasion, however got, will serve to set conscience on work; which is nothing else but our own opinion or judgment of the moral rectitude or pravity of our own actions; and if conscience be a proof of innate principles, contraries may be innate principles; since some men with the same bent of conscience prosecute what others avoid.
Then Locke, who went "beyond the smoke of their own chimneys," to some stacks of books at some library (and there leafed through the pages of Martin von Baumgarten from which he culled the excerpts of the German traveler who relied upon the translated testimony of a Mule driver of the alleged sexual practices among the Saracens and Mohammedans), puts forth as part of his argument a litany of moral abuses to justify his moral skepticism:
But I cannot see how any men should ever transgress those moral rules, with confidence and serenity, were they innate, and stamped upon their minds. View but an army at the sacking of a town, and see what observation or sense of moral principles, or what touch of conscience for all the outrages they do. Robberies, murders, rapes, are the sports of men set at liberty from punishment and censure. Have there not been whole nations, and those of the most civilized people, amongst whom the exposing their children, and leaving them in the fields to perish by want or wild beasts has been the practice; as little condemned or scrupled as the begetting them? Do they not still, in some countries, put them into the same graves with their mothers, if they die in childbirth; or despatch them, if a pretended astrologer declares them to have unhappy stars? And are there not places where, at a certain age, they kill or expose their parents, without any remorse at all? In a part of Asia, the sick, when their case comes to be thought desperate, are carried out and laid on the earth before they are dead; and left there, exposed to wind and weather, to perish without assistance or pity. It is familiar among the Mingrelians, a people professing Christianity, to bury their children alive without scruple. There are places where they eat their own children. The Caribbees were wont to geld their children, on purpose to fat and eat them. And Garcilasso de la Vega tells us of a people in Peru which were wont to fat and eat the children they got on their female captives, whom they kept as concubines for that purpose, and when they were past breeding, the mothers themselves were killed too and eaten. The virtues whereby the Tououpinambos believed they merited paradise, were revenge, and eating abundance of their enemies. They have not so much as a name for God, and have no religion, no worship. The saints who are canonized amongst the Turks, lead lives which one cannot with modesty relate. A remarkable passage to this purpose, out of the voyage of Baumgarten, which is a book not every day to be met with, I shall set down at large, in the language it is published in. Ibi (sc. prope Belbes in AEgypto) vidimus sanctum unum Saracenicum inter arenarum cumulos, ita ut ex utero matris prodiit nudum sedentem. Mos est, ut didicimus, Mahometistis, ut eos, qui amentes et sine ratione sunt, prosanctis colant et venerentur. Insuper et eos, qui cum diu vitam egerint inquinatissimam, voluntariam demum poenitentiam et paupertatem, sanctitate venerandos deputant. Ejusmodi vero genus hominum libertatem quandam effrenem habent, domos quos volunt intrandi, edendi, bibendi, et quod majus est, concumbendi; ex quo concubitu, si proles secuta fuerit, sancta similiter habetur. His ergo hominibus dum vivunt, magnos exhibent honores; mortuis vero vel templa vel monumenta extruunt amplissima, eosque contingere ac sepelire maximae fortunae ducunt loco. Audivimus haec dicta et dicenda per interpretem a Mucrelo nostro. Insuper sanctum illum, quem eo loco vidimus, publicitus apprime commendari, eum esse hominem sanctum, divinum ac integritate praecipuum; eo quod, nec foeminarum unquam esset, nec puerorum, sed tantummodo asellarum concubitor atque mularum. (Peregr. Baumgarten, 1. ii. c. I. p. 73.) More of the same kind concerning these precious saints amongst the Turks may be seen in Pietro della Valle, in his letter of the 25th of January, 1616.

[In Awnsham and John Churchill's Collection of Voyages and Travels translation (I.456): There we saw a Mahometan Saint sitting among the Hillocks of Sand, as naked as he came out of his Mother's Belly. It is a custom, as we were then told, among the Mahometans to reverence those as Saints who are mad, and out of their wits; and they think also that a great deal of Respect is to be paid to those who voluntarily repent and vow Poverty, after they have led a leud and scandalous life. This sort of Men are allowed an unbridled and unbounded liberty of going into all Houses, of Eating, Drinking, and which is still worse, of lying with whom they will; and if this Copulation produces a Child, it is likewise reckoned holy. They honour these Men very much while they are alive, and after they are dead they build stately Temples and Monuments in honour of them; and they think it a very happy and lucky thing to touch or bury them. This we heard our Mule-driver say, as we understood by our Interpreter.]
Title Page of John Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding

Locke finds this argument dispositive:
Whatever practical principle is innate, cannot but be known to every one to be just and good. It is therefore little less than a contradiction to suppose, that whole nations of men should, both in their professions and practice, unanimously and universally give the lie to what, by the most invincible evidence, every one of them knew to be true, right, and good. This is enough to satisfy us that no practical rule which is anywhere universally, and with public approbation or allowance, transgressed, can be supposed innate.
Beyond the argument that moral principles cannot be innate because otherwise there would not be such wide scale instances of their breach without the least sense of impropriety, Locke also argues that commands have no truth value to them, and that only duties do. But duties presuppose a law, a law a lawmaker, and a lawmaker both reward and punishment. For Locke it follows that the requirements of law, lawmaker, and reward and punishment take any moral law outside the realm of the innate, and into the realm of the empirical, and, ultimately, conventional. In developing this argument, Locke takes as an example the maxim that "Parents preserve your children."
For, "Parents preserve your children," is so far from an innate truth, that it is no truth at all: it being a command, and not a proposition, and so not capable of truth or falsehood. To make it capable of being assented to as true, it must be reduced to some such proposition as this: "It is the duty of parents to preserve their children." But what duty is, cannot be understood without a law; nor a law be known or supposed without a lawmaker, or without reward and punishment; so that it is impossible that this, or any other, practical principle should be innate, i.e. be imprinted on the mind as a duty, without supposing the ideas of God, of law, of obligation, of punishment, of a life after this, innate: for that punishment follows not in this life the breach of this rule, and consequently that it has not the force of a law in countries where the generally allowed practice runs counter to it, is in itself evident. But these ideas (which must be all of them innate, if anything as a duty be so) are so far from being innate, that it is not every studious or thinking man, much less every one that is born, in whom they are to be found clear and distinct; and that one of them, which of all others seems most likely to be innate, is not so, (I mean the idea of God,). . . .
Locke, however, insists (though it is not particularly clear how this is so) that he is not to be taken as advocating the idea that all law is positive, and, because there are no innate moral principles, that there is no such thing as a natural moral law. He claims seeks to steer between the Charybdis that all laws are positive and the Scylla that all laws are innate:
I would not here be mistaken, as if, because I deny an innate law, I thought there were none but positive laws. There is a great deal of difference between an innate law, and a law of nature; between something imprinted on our minds in their very original, and something that we, being ignorant of, may attain to the knowledge of, by the use and due application of our natural faculties. And I think they equally forsake the truth who, running into contrary extremes, either affirm an innate law, or deny that there is a law knowable by the light of nature, i.e. without the help of positive revelation.
There are other arguments that Locke puts forth on this issue, which will not be addressed here. But his final conclusion is: "I think it past doubt, that there are no practical principles wherein all men agree; and therefore none innate." Encompassed in Locke's judgment is that the Golden Rule is not innate, not found in the conscience of men, not a universal, self-evident principle. But it may be, like many principles, that Locke has demanded too much from the Golden Rule. It may be, like many foundational or self-evident principles, not a principle that can be established by reason, but a principle the rejection of which can be shown to be unreasonable.

Whether this be so or not is something for another day. But it strains the imagination to think what reasonable and objective basis there could there be to hold that I should treat others worse than I should want to be treated by them. What possible reasonable basis is there to hold that others should treat me better than I treat them? Why should bias in the moral law be in my favor?

*Some editions use when, others went, some leave the word out altogether.

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