Front Page Titles (by Subject) Human Nature and Ethics - Literature of Liberty, Spring 1980, vol. 3, No. 1
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Human Nature and Ethics - Leonard P. Liggio, Literature of Liberty, Spring 1980, vol. 3, No. 1 
Literature of Liberty: A Review of Contemporary Liberal Thought was published first by the Cato Institute (1978-1979) and later by the Institute for Humane Studies (1980-1982) under the editorial direction of Leonard P. Liggio.
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Human Nature and Ethics
“Human Nature and Ethical Theory.” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 39(March 1979):386–401.
Ethical systems based on explicit or assumed theories of human nature have appeared throughout the history of philosophy—from Plato and Aristotle to Dewey and Rawls. Philosophers whose ethical views rest upon a precisely elaborated conception of human nature tend to cast their arguments in a form which is generally similar from system to system. In his article, Prof. McShea attempts both to explain and defend, not the views of an Aristotle or Hume, but the general form which their type of ethical theory normally assumes.
To begin, every human nature ethical theory assumes that each animal species, man included, possesses a genetically determined pattern of feelings and behavioral preferences which may cautiously be termed a value system. Human morality is thus viewed as an out-growth of species preferences—with the crucial difference that a system properly termed ethical or moral must contain concepts and feelings of obligation which are available only to members of a rational species. Human ethics ultimately derive from our species value system; all differences in moralities may be explained in terms of postconceptional experience.
Despite this biological basis for ethics, however, human beings, unlike other animals, feel impelled to establish behavioral norms which hold sway in varying form in every culture. Other animals need not elaborate such codes, since they react to relatively simple species feelings triggered by environmental cues. The intricacy of the human brain, however, complicates present feeling by evoking rapidly succeeding and heavily cross-indexed images of presents, pasts, and futures. As a result, immediate impressions no longer provide a reliable basis for action.
To restore the functionality of feeling, morality enables us to suspend action for the length of time necessary to allow alternative images or images of consequences to arise. Succeeding images engender contending feelings. The strongest feeling or combination of feelings wins and we act. Gradually these feelings become internalized moral standards and, later, a mature sense of characterological fitness and consistency predispose us to certain decisions.
When our stable configuration of feeling has finally asserted itself, we have reached a moral decision. The sense of obligation is implicit in, not separate from, the end-result of the moral process of delay and evaluation. For Prof. McShea, therefore, a feeling of obligation cannot be distinguished from an actual obligation. Not every sense of obligation need be accepted as final. We can reexamine facts, reassess feelings, and try for a yet more comprehensive adjustment of all these to our self-image. As self-identical entities capable of long-range action, or responsibility, and of deeply-rooted relationships with other people, we must commit ourselves throughout our lives to the moral process of delay and to action based upon it.
Of course, great disparities may exist among moral codes. The Eskimos and the Romans, for example, viewed treatment of the elderly in quite opposite terms. In Prof. McShea’s view, the human nature theorist can determine whether such practices are functional within a certain context. In doing so, he posits a species-appropriate standard.
Prof. McShea summarizes what he considers the distinct advantages of human nature ethical theory: “The theory meets our demand that an ethic be naturalistic and empirical, capable of accommodating our profoundest moral intuitions non-reductively, and that it furnish a common language in which men of all cultures and ideologies can hold reasonable discussions on the better and the worse.”
Locke and The Tradition of Dissent
John Locke (1632–1704) evolved his political philosophy in the seventeenth century’s English civil war and turbulent debates which pitted the divine right of kings against the popular right of tyrannicide and royal absolution against popular sovereignty. The radical liberal vision of government limited by consent, contract, and natural rights, found classical expression in Locke’s Two Treatises of Government (1689–1690). As his English biographer, Maurice Cranston, points out in John Locke: A Biography (1957), Locke was no headstrong radical in his temperament and, in fact, slowly evolved from an earlier authoritarian attitude requiring complete obedience to magistrates to his later more liberal positions on tolerance, civil rights, the people’s right of political resistance and government by popular consent. Yet, in many respects Locke did not choose to perceive the full radical implications of many of his radical liberal ideas, including the right to rebellion. Loçke, like his patron Lord Shaftesbury, was a colonialist and imperialist in his belief that it was just to subject Ireland and the American colonies to the King of England. His principle of tolerance did not extend itself to allow atheists or Roman Catholics to live in England. His endorsement of the Glorious Revolution of 1688 was for what he considered “in many respects a conservative rebellion.” Likewise, Locke never endorsed an absolute or unqualified “right to liberty.” As Cranston observes in his Introduction to Locke on Politics, Religion, and Education (1965), pp. 13–14:
Indeed, his whole political philosophy sets out to show how much liberty men can have by pointing out the limits that must be set on their liberty. The limits that are set on liberty are dictated by the nature of political societies as such. One man’s freedom stops short at the point where it would jeopardize another man’s freedom. Hence freedom in political society is freedom under law. . . . Locke set men on the path of the greatest possible freedom by teaching them the impossibility of absolute freedom. The great apologist of rebellion was also the champion of authority.
In spite of these qualifications, Locke’s liberal credentials are still impressive for his encouragement to modernity (see the Zuckert summary on Locke’s First Treatise) and for the radical implications of his theory of property in promoting individual rights and in restricting government to their protection (see Richard Tuck’s summary). Locke looms even more radical in his subsequent influence on radical tradition of dissent from his death to the present day. Thus, Albert Goodwin discusses the significant role that Locke’s writings play in “The Radical Tradition in the Eighteenth Century” [The Friends of Liberty: the English Democratic Movement in the Age of the French Revolution (1979), pp. 32–64.]. Lately, scholarship has shown a renewed interest in the influence of Locke on the revolutionary ferment in the eighteenth century reaching from Trenchard and Gordon’s Cato’s Letters to the American Revolution.
The following summaries deal with the tradition of dissent, freedom, and rights before, during, and after Locke’s major works. Locke himself is studied in relation to his theory of property, tacit consent, his First Treatise and his views on the political executive. The remaining summaries deal with those political and religious radicals who have dissented from the prevailing orthodoxy and have followed their reasoning to its conclusions which are anti-authoritarian and favorable to consistent respect for human rights and freedom of conscience.