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Locke's case against innate ideas and principles


To: Max W.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Locke's case against innate ideas and principles
Date: 3rd March 2011 11:52

Dear Max,

Thank you for your email of 22 February, with your essay for the University of London BA Modern Philosophy: Locke, Berkeley, Hume module, in response to the question, 'What is Locke's strongest argument against innate ideas and principles? Is it strong enough?'

This is a very good answer, which challenges the somewhat simplistic assumptions of the question. You argue in effect that there are two candidates for the strongest argument against innatism: the denial of universal assent, and Locke's empiricist theory of knowledge acquisition, either of which may reasonably be inferred to the the 'strongest' depending on whether we are considering the case for innate knowledge of moral principles, or the case for innate knowledge of abstract or speculative principles.

However, all things considered, your view is that the second argument is the more powerful and successful because what it accomplishes involves a greater challenge. It's relatively easy, you say, to refute the theory of universal moral principles. Successfully accomplishing an easy task is less impressive than success, or even merely partial success, in accomplishing a much more difficult task. Locke's case, in effect, is that all you need is an innate capacity (intuition or the light of reason). Armed with this you can deduce all you need by ratiocination.

My first point concerns the connection, if any, between the question of why there is not, in fact, universal assent about moral principles, and the question -- which arguably Locke considers, although as you observe the textual evidence seems a bit thin -- of the legitimacy of inferring the truth of a principle, moral or otherwise, from its innateness.

Admittedly, the question of whether innate moral principles are true is one that is hardly likely to have occurred to supporters of the innatist view, given that their explanation is that the principles were planted in our minds by God. It is only with the benefit of hindsight, in the light of contemporary versions of innatism (a question I will consider below) that this question would even be raised. But let's consider it.

Here's a nice candidate: 'Love thine enemy.' This is so obviously not held by a large segment of the world's population, yet according to Christian doctrine this as a divine command and immutable ethical principle. How do we know whether it is, in fact, true?

This connects with an argument which is often employed (e.g. by Mackie in 'Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong') against objectivist views of ethics: the 'argument from relativity'. If we accept as a datum that different ethical principles hold in different societies, then the objective view cannot be sustained. But the objectivist has two responses: the first is to argue that some societies are in error about the 'true' ethical principles. Slavery was once considered perfectly acceptable. The second option is to argue that the apparent diversity of ethical views are all variations on an underlying theme, such as the Kantian idea that human beings are 'ends in themselves'. In other words, one distinguishes between variable local 'mores', and the universal propositions of 'ethics'.

As someone who tends towards the objective view, I would be prepared to deploy a combination of both responses and feel confident I could give the subjectivist a good run for their money. You don't have to be Christian, to believe that societies which preach that one should 'hate thine enemy' are in the wrong. Or, one could view 'love thine enemy' as a powerful formulation of the Kantian idea that human beings are 'ends in themselves'. The idea that one should love one's enemy doesn't mean that you can't have enemies, or wage a just war against the Hun or Al Qaeda.

In recognizing the issue of the relation between innateness and truth, even though not very explicitly, Locke is potentially shooting himself in the foot, because it weakens the argument from universal assent sufficiently to give succour to the ethical innatist. Yes, we have innate moral principles, but we ALSO have a Lockean power of intuition which enables us to discriminate between those principles which are genuinely 'moral' and, say, our innate natural inclinations (original sin?) which are very far from being moral.

This brings us on to the general question of innatism. You constrain your answer within the bounds of the claims about innatism that Locke and his contemporaries would have considered. But there are also contemporary versions of innatism to test Locke's arguments against. For example, still on the topic of ethics, the view that ethical principles are explained in evolutionary terms, that, in fact, a naturalistic ethics can be constructed on the basis of evolutionary ideas and the notion of how human beings need to behave in order to survive.

Chomsky's ideas about universal grammar are relevant too. The arguments around this topic have a decidedly Lockean flavour.

Then there is the question of evolutionary epistemology (e.g. Quine's seminal essay 'Epistemology Naturalized') where the innateness in question concerns our natural ability to distinguish 'better' or 'worse' empirical explanations, our sense of simplicity, even the application of a principle like Occam's Razor.

I am not criticizing you for not including a discussion of these points. If you were writing an exam answer, then you could just state (consistently with what the question has asked you to do) that you are only looking at the question of the relative 'strength' of Locke's arguments in relation to versions of the innatist theory which were held at the time.

All the best,