Locke's Ethics and the British Moralists: The Lockean Legacy in Eighteenth Century Moral Philosophy

Dissertation, The University of Western Ontario (Canada) (2002)

Authors
Patricia Sheridan
University of Guelph
Abstract
This dissertation examines Locke's influence on moralists of the eighteenth century. I will show how Locke's moral theory and the problems it raises set the tenor of moral discussion for subsequent theorists. My analysis does not rely upon proving explicit and direct influences of Locke on the theorists I examine. Rather, I want to show that Locke's influence was more general and systemic than would be revealed through the search for explicit debts and appropriations. Locke's attempt to produce a moral epistemology took for granted the assumptions of a traditional realist and rationalist natural law theory. In Locke we find an early and quite unique attempt to work out an epistemology of natural law that assumes neither innatism nor Hobbism. Locke endeavoured to find an account of natural law consistent with his own anti-innatist empiricism that might still support a realist conception of moral law. With this aim, he established the terms of moral theorizing for subsequent eighteenth century thinkers. As I will show, Locke's moral epistemology fails to fully cohere the presuppositions of his own realism and his commitment to natural law. In subsequent thinkers, we see attempts to solve this problem while maintaining Locke's basic moral assumptions. I look specifically at the works of Samuel Clarke, Francis Hutcheson, and Catharine Trotter Cockburn. What unites these theorists are the broad goals of establishing morality upon necessary and universal laws and of developing moral epistemologies that avoid both moral innatism and Hobbesian constructivism. More specifically, each is working to establish an epistemology that makes moral laws intuitively certain while maintaining a metaphysics of morality that relates moral law to the general teleological order of the universe. Despite the specific differences in their views, they can all seen to be working within a broadly Lockean frame of reference.
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