John Locke vs. John Stuart Mill: Using metaethics to examine claims | Daniel Jacobson | Big Think


In meta ethics what one tries to do is think
about what makes the sorts of claims such as the foundational claims of liberalism true. In the liberal tradition, for instance, there
are really two central strands. One is personified by John Locke. That’s a natural rights tradition and that
finds these rights endowed to us by our creators. So either given to us by god or by some sort
of fact about human nature, a slightly different tradition. And then John Stuart Mill on the other hand
who thinks that, who defends many of the same sorts of right. But defends them on fundamentally different
grounds. Defends them as moral rights because he thinks
that they’re the sorts of things that need to be protected in order for people to flourish. So it’s a utilitarian argument in the sense
that the ultimate value here is happiness or wellbeing. But it’s an indirect utilitarian argument
because it says that we shouldn’t just evaluate individual actions by trying to estimate their
effect in isolation. But rather we should think about the most
important moral rules for the governance of society that will be particularly conducive
to human happiness. And for Mill he thought that those rules enshrined
the kinds of rights that classical liberals focus on. Freedom of conscious, freedom of association,
rule of law, autonomy over your mind and body. Another way of viewing the difference between
a Lockean form of liberalism and a Millian form of liberalism is about whether it holds
that certain sorts of actions are inherently right or inherently wrong. Locke thought something like that. He thought that somehow or other we could
rationally determine the rightness or wrongness, the inherent rightness or wrongness of certain
sorts of actions. Kant was another person who thought that. For Mill he thought that what makes actions
right or wrong ultimately is there are consequences for human happiness. At the same time though he thought that there
was a crucial role for rules, for moral rules and that the rightness and wrongness of actions
issues from whether or not they’re in accordance with the best set of moral rules where the
best set of moral rules are the ones that whose adoption is going to be maximally conducive
to happiness. A central meta ethical question is are certain
sorts of actions inherently right or wrong or are they right or wrong in virtue of their
consequences. And what I’m suggesting, and Mill was somewhere
in between there because he thinks foundationally it’s the good, it’s happiness. That’s the ultimate value. But he also sees moral rules not just as being
heuristics, rules of thumb, things that we can apply but then throw away under pressure. To the contrary he thinks that they generate
real obligations. Even in extraordinary circumstances where
it seems like say violating someone’s freedom of speech will be better in terms of its consequences
because of political contingencies of the moment. What Mill understood was the stability of
having moral rules that we respect in a very stringent way. Maybe not in catastrophe but in ordinary context. We really need to guard against people wanting
to make exceptions. We need to guard against people thinking especially
about that their own case is different from the general case because we’re all biased. We’re all biased in favor of ourselves and
those we love and the projects that we believe in. And one of the things that we have to be able
to do in order to live in society with each other is play by the same rules and implement
rules that we can agree are worth playing by even when we think that we can see that
breaking one on an occasion would lead to better results.

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