Front Page Titles (by Subject) Locke and Natural Law - Literature of Liberty, Autumn 1981, vol. 4, No. 3
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Locke and Natural Law - Leonard P. Liggio, Literature of Liberty, Autumn 1981, vol. 4, No. 3 
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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Locke and Natural Law
“John Locke: Natural Law and Innate Ideas.” Dialogue (Canadian Phil. Review) 19(December 1980): 531–545.
Legal and moral theorists of the seventeenth century linked the concept of natural law with that of “innate ideas.” According to their view, Nature or God had implanted in men's minds certain natural laws which formed the very foundation of religion and morality. John Locke (1632–1704) attacked the tradition of innate ideas in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Nonetheless, in the Two Treatises of Government, he supported the notion of natural law. Some modern critics have found these two positions contradictory. Prof. Drury seeks to demonstrate that Locke is entirely consistent. In fact, Locke's attack on innate ideas illuminates considerably his conception of the natural law.
Locke denied that the laws of nature are innate in the primary sense of being self-evident principles of reason to which human nature is inclined. They are actually in need, he says, of “intermediate ideas to make them fully comprehensible.” For example, the proposition ‘It is the duty of parents to preserve their children’ does not carry its own evidence with it. Thus, it is possible for someone who understands the injunction to ask why it is true.
The natural principle of child care invokes the idea of duty, which is not a simple idea. It is rather a complex construct involving several simple ideas, namely, the ideas of law, of a lawmaker, and of reward and punishment. Those “simple” concepts lead Lockee to the conclusion that, while the laws of nature can be discovered partially by reason, they have their foundation in God. God's wisdom accounts for their intrinsic rightness and His power assures that men motivated by less than the rightness of a law will still be motivated to act upon it.
Locke acknowledges that the laws of nature promote public happiness. Nonetheless, he rejects the notion that they are simply practical conclusions drawn from everyday life leading to maximum public contentment. If that were the case, the laws of nature would be little more than rules of thumb—to be disregarded when they prove inconvenient to the public happiness. On the contrary, as part of divine law, the law of nature is in principle good and rational, even when not perceived as such by man.
Next, Locke goes on to consider a second sense of the term “innate.” Some thinkers had affirmed that laws of nature were innate since they were univerally acknowledged by all men. Leaving aside the fact that universal agreement has never been achieved, Locke asserts that consensus provides absolutely no basis for inferring law.
Finally, Locke dismisses the idea that the laws of nature are innate in the sense of being embedded in human inclinations. As Locke sees it, man is not naturally inclined to good according to reason, but to good and evil understood as pleasure and pain. He thus succeeds in making natural law compatible with the Christian belief in the fallen nature of man. For Locke, man's fallenness does not imply the depravity of reason, since reason can actually come to know God and His Law. It does imply, however, that the rationality and moral goodness of the law alone are not sufficient to move men to action.
Prof. Drury believes that Locke has a rightful place in the tradition of natural law. Although this tradition is by no means homogeneous, it is nevertheless united by an enduring core of ideas. The most important of these are: (1) a universal and objective justice transcends the particular expressions of justice in any set of positive laws; (2) even if the universal principles of justice cannot be fully known, the are nevertheless accessible to reason and not simply a matter of appetite or arbitrary human preferences; (3) a positive law which is contrary to the law of nature is not properly speaking a law since it lacks the moral content necessary to put us under obligation. These concepts form the irreducible minimum of natural law tradition. “If this minimal characterization of natural law be accepted,” Prof. Drury concludes, “Locke cannot be denied a place within that tradition.”