The Healing Philosopher: John Locke's Medical Ethics

By Short, Bradford William | Issues in Law & Medicine, Fall 2004 | Go to article overview

The Healing Philosopher: John Locke's Medical Ethics


Short, Bradford William, Issues in Law & Medicine


ABSTRACT: This article examines a heretofore unexplored facet of John Locke's philosophy. Locke was a medical doctor and he also wrote about medical issues that are controversial today. Despite this, Locke's medical ethics has yet to be studied. An analysis of Locke's education and his teachers and colleagues in the medical profession, of the 17th century Hippocratic Oath, and of the reaction to the last recorded outbreak of the bubonic plague in London, shines some light on the subject of Locke's medical ethics. The study of Locke's medical ethics confirms that he was a deontologist who opposed all suicide and abortion through much of pregnancy.

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The works of John Locke remain widely read in the 21st century. As we enter into the tercentennial of Locke's death, we can safely conclude that his works have deserved their three centuries of fame and import. (1) The existence of modern democracy itself is largely a testament to the success of Locke's theories. With this background in mind, it is puzzling that a very important part of Locke's life and thought has received almost no in depth analysis. That aspect of Locke's life is his medical practice. (2) It is even more puzzling in light of the fact that over the last few decades the study of bioethics has been on the rise in America. (3) John Locke opposed suicide and defended liberty and autonomy on philosophical grounds. (4) John Locke practiced medicine. That Locke's medical ethics is worth studying seems clear from these facts. And yet, several of America's most prominent bioethicists have ignored John Locke's medical practice in their writings. (5) As a result, we may have an incomplete view of Locke to this very day.

This article is intended as the first step towards remedying this problem. Although a review of Locke's medical journals, his letters to fellow doctors and his letters to friends in general, do not disclose much that obviously deals with today's questions in medical ethics, (6) that does not mean that no indirect evidence of Locke's views on these subjects can be gleaned from his medical writings. In fact, an analysis of the medical community--including its view of the Hippocratic Oath--that Locke entered upon his graduation from Oxford with a medical degree in 1675, and of the reaction to the great outbreak of the bubonic plague in London in 1665, together shed some light on John Locke's medical ethics. With the benefit of this light we can obtain an even clearer image of John Locke, the healing philosopher. But before we begin on this trek, I must first give a short, somewhat biographical account of Locke's education and of the network of friends and professional associates that he acquired in the medico-scientific community of Restoration England.

I. The Education of John Locke

John Locke began his undergraduate studies at Oxford University in the autumn of 1652. (7) His college in the University was Christ Church. (8) He proceeded to begin the curriculum of what we would call a Classics major. (9) We know on the authority of Maurice Cranston that:

   The days were busy. Five o'clock was the undergraduates' hour for
   rising to attend morning chapel. Breakfast was at six. Four
   hours' work was done before dinner in Hall at noon. Two hours'
   work came after dinner, and supper was at seven. The three and a
   half years' preparation for the B.A. degree were mainly given to
   logic and metaphysics and the classical languages.

   Conversation with tutors, or even between undergraduates in Hall,
   was always in Latin. (10)

in his celebrated Essay [Concerning Human Understanding], whilst ignoring his long experience of medicine and science which provided a constant focus for the growth of his empiricism." DEWHURST, supra note 2, at viii (emphasis added). The implication that these writings have for Locke's moral philosophy are far more subtle.

I can now also prove--to almost apodictic certainty--that Locke knew the rest of the "six" languages. …

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