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Divine will, natural law and the voluntarism/intellectualism debate in Locke

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In Part I of this paper I will demonstrate that Soles fails to show any inconsistency in Locke's position on the origin of natural law's binding force. In doing so I hope to show that the stresses perceived in Locke's doctrine have arisen from an unnecessarily narrow view of voluntarism. This view has, I believe, helped to obscure the consistency between Locke's early views on natural law and his later work in the Essay Concerning Human Understanding.

As we shall see here, part of the tendency to label the late Locke as an intellectualist, in opposition to an earlier voluntarist stance, stems from a supposed shifting in the 1689 Essay to a hedonist position on natural law. Passages in the Essay with a hedonistic tone are sometimes interpreted as either suggesting or necessarily entailing an intellectualist position whereby natural law, including morality, is merely a matter of a hedonistic calculation of pleasure and pain. Arguing that Locke may have perceived this problem, von Leyden speculates that Locke was himself quite ‘uncomfortable’ with the direction in which his work in the Essay had taken him, and speculates that it was this discomfort, or even uncertainty, about his position that made him repeatedly refuse to publish the early Essays on the Law of Nature and to ‘suppress’ a passage in his late unpublished essay, ‘Of Ethick in General’, which reflected the hedonist position. Since this hedonism has provided some temptations towards the intellectualist camp when interpreting Locke, I would like in the second section of this paper to put to rest any fears that Locke had adopted an intellectualism described through hedonism in the Essay.

Finally, I will show in Part III that even Locke's statements about the ‘rightness’ and ‘justice’ of God's own actions are both meaningful and compatible with Locke's voluntarism. Such passages can be explained without tacitly accepting an intellectualist position or postulating a separate realm of moral meta-law other than natural law.
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Keywords: Essays on the Law of Nature; Locke; natural law; voluntarism

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Publication date: 1995-02-01

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