The Foundations of American Citizenship: Liberalism, the Constitution, and Civic Virtue

By Richard C. Sinopoli | Go to book overview

3
John Locke: Acting on Natural Law Duties and the Problem of Civic Motivations

What is it that motivates people in liberal societies to act morally and citizens to obey the laws of their states? We have, after all, goals and desires for ourselves and our immediate loved ones that could be furthered much of the time by passing the costs of citizenship on to others. Surely the state's coercive powers play a part in our motivations. Yet, there must be more to civic motivation than coercion.A liberal polity could not survive, given the wide scope it grants to personal freedoms, if most people did not display sufficient allegiance to the regime and obedience to its laws most of the time.

It is not surprising that as quintessential a liberal thinker as John Locke -- a thinker who is central in providing the language of natural rights and government by consent, and the call for religious toleration to Anglo-American political discourse -- spent considerable time thinking about moral and civic motives (which I take to be moral motives pertaining specifically to justice) and how they arise both as a theological and a political problem. As a Christian thinker, Locke asks how it is that human conduct conforms to conceptions of right embodied in natural and divine law. As a citizen -- and one who wrote extensive letters to gentlemen friends on the proper ways to raise their children for liberty -- Locke asks how it is that children, born with a natural love of dominating others, can learn to curb that urge and conform themselves to the conduct required to sustain a just state. 1 In both cases, he comes to rely on a rather crude hedonistic psychology. Locke, like the American constitution founders, conceived fostering motives for citizenship largely as a molding of the passions through unobtrusive means consistent with liberal principles.

Our present interest in Locke centers on his understanding of the wellsprings of allegiance to political regimes and of a disposition toward justice that can fairly be called civic virtue. The purpose of exploring Locke's thought on this issue is threefold. First, it is worth noting the large role the inculcation of virtues essential to a well-run and reasonably just commonwealth plays in the work of an important thinker whose liberal credentials cannot be denied. Doing so serves as a corrective to some -- by no means all -- republicanist revisions of Anglo-American political thought that reserve such terms as virtue

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