The ideology of individualism finds its roots in Thomas Hobbes, who saw man as fundamentally and irremediably selfish. For Hobbes, we are not by nature social animals. Instead, each one of us is a little would-be god, whose craving for absolute power is only tempered by crashing up against the claims of other aspiring deities — such that human life, without some external control, will end being “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” To escape this hellish “state of nature,” we contract with the state to suit our own self-interested purposes. These passions are morally neutral, and cannot be judged by any external standard — although they can bounce up against the wishes of someone else. Individual human beings ought to be seen on the model of atoms careening against each other in the void. Hence the law is a system of forces that helps to arrange the particles that make up a society into patterns, patterns that more effectively permit these atoms to remain in existence and exert their native force. In other words, individuals are free to maximize their pursuit of what they want, disregarding any moral law, subject only to the overweening power of the State.
John Locke took this radical premise and infused it with some of the moral content we recognize from the humanist view of man. As Scott Hahn and Benjamin Wiker document in Politicizing the Bible, Locke was a philosophical radical who schooled himself to caution. In private correspondence, he hinted that he rejected the claims of Christianity, but in his political writing he sought only to moderate them, to make a place for the churches as moral advisors in a society oriented toward maximizing wealth and technical progress. Christianity could be tolerated, so long as it was tolerant. (This left out Roman Catholics, whose political theory did not embrace religious liberty until the 1960s.)
Likewise, in discussing basic, secular ethics, Locke poured a new, thinner wine into bottles with medieval labels. Unlike the willfully provocative Thomas Hobbes — who earned himself public infamy alongside Machiavelli — Locke spoke the older language of the humanist tradition. He used the jargon of natural law. But he meant different things by the words.
The concept of natural law (or the “law of nature”) was an ancient one, derived from Aristotle and the Stoics, and Christianized by St. Thomas Aquinas. It traditionally meant the entire body of what can be known by reason alone, including what can be known about morality, without divine revelation. By reason, thinkers did not mean merely “experimental science” or mathematical deduction, but also included the results of philosophical argument. In this pre-Darwinian world, the notion that objects and processes in nature could be said to have a purpose (a “telos”) was taken for granted. Hence, reason tells us that the sex organs are clearly “intended” first for reproduction, and that marriage is a contract designed to regulate the bearing and raising of children. In what is now called “classical natural law,” thinkers argued that we could know by reason that God exists and that the soul is immortal, plus a great deal more. Aquinas even asserted that the Ten Commandments largely restated and gave revealed authority to moral truths that reason could turn up unaided. That robust tradition of natural law, though already under attack by Descartes, had been passed along in England by thinkers such as the Thomistic Anglican Thomas Hooker.
When Locke wrote his First Treatise of Government and Second Treatise of Government, he consciously used the older terms, like “law of nature,” when arguing for a distinctly new view of politics. Locke trimmed back the whole of what man can know about morality by reason to a truncated form of the Golden Rule: we cannot harm other individuals in their “life, health, liberty, or possessions.” This phrase sounds familiar, of course; the Declaration of Independence defines as “inalienable rights” the rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” a thoroughly Lockean list. Natural law — which for Aristotle, Aquinas, and most of the thinkers in the English legal tradition, had described a long list of virtues required for man to flourish — had been reduced to a safeguard for individual rights, and nothing more.
These rights make an excellent starting point, a non-negotiable bottom line of what the state exists to protect. A philosopher would call them “necessary but not sufficient” because they state essential elements of the common good, but do not go far enough. The fact is that few of the Founding Fathers who signed the Declaration of Independence thought that defending Lockean rights was the only legitimate goal for government. Most of the signers were not Enlightenment deists, who rejected both biblical revelation and traditional notions of natural law, but rock-solid Protestants who were deeply convinced of original sin and considered religious faith indispensible for a free society to survive. As Samuel Gregg writes:
“Likewise Jefferson insisted without equivocation in his Notes on the State of Virginia that virtue “is the manners and spirit of a people which preserve a republic in vigor.” Inspired in many cases by reflection on the writings of Romans such as Cicero and eighteenth-century philosophers such as Montesquieu, they spoke of virtues such as honesty, trust, and industriousness, but also of marriage and religion.
"Regarding the latter, they had few doubts about its centrality to free societies that took virtue seriously. In the year the American colonies declared independence, John Adams stressed in his correspondence that “Statesmen, my dear Sir, may plan and speculate for liberty, but it is religion and morality alone, which can establish the principles upon which freedom can securely stand.” Washington was thus hardly alone among the Founders when he proclaimed in his 1796 Farewell Address that public happiness could not be attained without religion or private morality.”
Most Americans, including those who founded the nation, expected the government to be guided by principles that exceeded Locke’s narrow account of the natural law, and to inform its understanding of natural rights with the wider and deeper wisdom gained from tradition, philosophy, and even religion. This explains why there was never any prospect in 1800, for instance, of extending marriage rights to same-sex couples — a proposal nowadays popular because it is seen as a logical extension of Locke’s single-minded preoccupation with defending the autonomy of the individual. Obscenity laws were widespread and strictly enforced — although no Lockean case could be made for them. Polygamy was and still is (as of this writing) banned in every state, even though it restricted the “liberty” of individuals to make their free sexual choices. The same logic applies to restrictions on prostitution, the sale of human organs, and suicide.
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