Analysis

Locke's claim that self-denial is the foundation of all virtue is controversial, since there are other characteristics that could lead to virtue. One might argue that a person will be virtuous so long as he thinks of himself as only one person among any, with no special moral status. So long as a man thinks in this way he will tend to behave justly toward other people. A person who follows this rule, someone might argue, would be in a better position to always act virtuously than someone who had Locke's capacity for self denial. One might also argue that a person will be virtuous so long as he makes sure that every action he commits will not affect the world negatively. In order to understand Locke's faith in reason, it is important to take a look at his other works, for instance the Second Treatise of Government and Essays Moral and Political. Locke had a very particular view of human rationality and of its relation to moral goodness. He thought that God had fashioned us in such a way that, when used correctly, our rational faculties revealed to us the various natural laws (which are laws, stemming from God, that tell us what is right and wrong). The most important natural law is this: protect all of God's creatures. The way that you get to this law through reason is by the following line of thought: we are all equally God's children and therefore God wants all of us to be alive and thriving. Therefore, we should help both ourselves and others to stay alive and happy.

The alternative candidates we presented as rivals for Locke's principle of virtue, in fact, are simply the sorts of maxims that reason would tell you to follow on Locke's scenario. They are on a par with Locke's laws of nature, not with his principle of virtue. His principle of virtue is not simply a maxim or a test that reason uses; rather his principle gets down to the very heart of human morality — to the psychological struggle between what we want and what we know is right. Seen in this light, it seems likely that Locke really has found the best candidate for the foundation of all morality. If you can consistently win the battle between what you want to do and what you know you should do (e.g. that you should protect all of God's creatures, that you should do onto others as you would have them do onto you, or that you should only act in such a way that if everyone acted that way there would be no problem) then you will, obviously, consistently do right (granted that is, that you always know what is right, which, as we saw above, Locke thinks that you do).

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