The Moral Libertarian Horizon Wiki

Portrait of Locke in 1697 by Godfrey Kneller. From Hermitage Museum (public domain)

John Locke (1632-1704) was a British philosopher, physician and government official who is widely considered the father of liberalism. His 'Second Treatise of Government' is often considered the first articulation of liberal principles in writing. He also provided substantial contributions to the philosophical traditions of empiricism and reason, and also religious tolerance.

Locke's two Treatises of Government provided a rebuttal to supporters of the idea that monarchs should hold absolute power over their subjects. In particular, in the Second Treatise, he outlined his beliefs of the origins of government in natural rights theory and social contract theory. From there, he derived principles which set limits on the legitimate powers of government (which was in the form of monarchy rather than democracy back then). Locke believed that a legitimate government has to be instituted by the consent of the governed, who willingly give up some of their natural rights in order to escape the hazards of life in the primitive, natural state.

Locke was a firm believer in empiricism and reason. His reputation as one of the greatest early empiricists rests on his famous work An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Locke believed that the human mind is a blank slate at birth, and all ideas and knowledge come from experience. Locke was ardently committed to the truth. Indeed, he was so committed to the truth that he once said he would be the first to throw what he wrote into the fire, if he no longer believed it to be true.

Locke was a devout Christian, but he also believed that reason is a more reliable determinant of truth than blind faith in distant religious revelation passed down through the generations. Therefore, he believed in using reason to judge whether a revelation is genuine.

"...he that takes away Reason to make way for Revelation, puts out the Light of both, and does much what the same, as if he would perswade a Man to put out his eyes, the better to receive the remote Light of an invisible Star by a Telescope." - John Locke.

Two Treatises of Government

Locke was also an early advocate for religious toleration, which would become arguably the most important foundation pillar of liberalism. He justified this partly on the argument that every church would claim to be the true church, and that only God would be able to determine whose claim was correct.

Important Points for Moral Libertarians

  • Locke's commitment to objective truth
  • Locke's commitment to religious tolerance (Equal Moral Agency is essentially the updated version of religious freedom)



Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy