According to John Locke's notion of tabula rasa, there are no innate ideas in the mind. All human knowledge comes from sensible experience. Assuming this principle, it follows that there is no innate moral sense, either. The notions of right vs. wrong, good vs. evil are somehow the product of the interaction between human beings living in society.

One important objection to this argument, put forth by religions and other philosophical schools of thought, is that human beings must have an innate moral sense that guides their behavior. Otherwise, how could society (at the very least) remain stable and develop the great civilizations we have observed throughout History? In other words, if humans are essentially amoral beings, why have societies not descended into barbarism?

A possible response to this objection – still following the idea of tabula rasa – is that freedom may be understood as the fundamental principle of society organization. As such, even if individuals have their private vices, by respecting each other's freedom, society as a whole can benefit from the public virtues that emerge. I think the first to propose this argument was Bernard de Mandeville, in The Fable of The Bees.

But, that notion of freedom as a principle in itself may lead to terrible consequences, such as when, during the French Revolution, a group of people defined themselves as "friends of freedom", a slogan that was used to justify the tyranny against the ones they considered the "enemies of freedom". Since then, several other groups have used the idea of freedom to establish dictatorships.

Is this a valid reasoning? Has Locke's theory of knowledge somehow influenced modern political thought, especially in the justification of tyrannical regimes?

1 Answer 1


Locke's tabula rasa has a bit of trick to it, because Locke did not assume, as a radical skeptic would, that everything about a person's nature is blank (thus requiring society to doodle on it in any way it pleases); Locke believed in the validity of reason as an innate human faculty that assists us to perceive various kinds of value. Although Locke is in agreement for the most part with Hobbes (who held the view you mention of humans being naturally immoral, thus requiring a social contract), Locke argued that moral values are demonstrable through reason, like mathematics, and hold the same, real, effective weight in human life. Locke explicitly states that he thinks humans have natural human rights (life, property, safety, happiness, etc.) and that governments are obliged to preserve them.

Government, then, according to Locke, ought to be based on reasonable conclusions using natural human rights as premises. The difficulty you raise ignores the interaction of many rights, and instead focuses solely on freedom (whether as facilitator of the others or sole end in itself). So, in my opinion, your reasoning is valid, but your premise is one-sided.

If you are interested in Locke's influence, it is huge. The authors of The Declaration of Independence, for example, cribbed phrases from Locke's Second Treatise on Government.

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