John Locke agrees that man is different from the animals, distinguished by his power of abstracting. It is only that we do not know what his substance is and only know that for certain that he is an animal. We assume that man is man, but that simply means for us that “X = X.” Locke is neutralizing the effects of uncertainty over human essence in order to proceed. He does this by drawing a line between the perfectly clear, such as that man is an animal, and the decidedly obscure. We then proceed with the assumption that we do not know X and we never will. The way is cleared to construct a human order that is beyond criticism. This is not at all like ancient skepticism in that we are not invited or constrained to refrain from judgment and action as the ancient skeptic was, but on the contrary, we are urged to forge a just society that is founded on demonstrative moral theory.
Locke holds that moral notions are arbitrary creations of man and that right, first and foremost the right to property, is a creation of the individual who is strictly isolated from his fellows. The human “X” is the tacit companion of this deduction of rights. The superiority of “X” is not denied, but is considered in his animal locus. Rather than reducing the higher to the lower, Locke acknowledges that everything that is part of man, including the animal in him, is nothing but man. Locke and the Moderns do not reduce the higher to the lower, but envelope the lower in the higher and absorb it.
“Modern thought despairs that men will ever agree on what is proper to man, on human substance and ends, and thus it wants to bracket the question of what is proper to man.” Locke conceptualizes a way for man to take his bearings from what is not human but animal, in order to make a human world that is independent of human opinions where man can affirm himself without knowing himself.
Although Locke would thus dispense with human essence, it is difficult to pursue this line of reasoning to the very end as it irresistibly gives rise to propositions about substance despite itself. Hence, labor becomes for Locke, modern philosophy, and modern man generally the “essential” characteristic of man. One cannot completely dispense with giving an account of human motives, even if refraining from advancing such propositions. What incites man to labor? We want an answer. Locke cannot escape the necessity of at least sketching a description of action, an analysis of human motives.
The fundamental formula of Locke’s “anthropology” is that “desire is always moved by evil, to fly from it.” For Locke, the primary question raised by the tradition, what is the supreme good of man?, by which the tradition was divided according to the various answers given by the schools, sects, and religions, is a perfectly idle question. For Locke, the question of the good is inseparable from the question of human essence and both are unanswerable. These two questions are two expressions of a sterile vanity. Once moral choice comes to be regarded as intrinsically arbitrary, classing it as a matter of animal taste is nothing to take exception to.
Hobbes had already denied the fact that there is a summum bonum and had said that good and evil only have meaning with reference to the person involved. Locke is distinct from Hobbes by what is encapsulated in his writing that “the greatest present uneasiness is the spur to action.” Man according to Locke does not have great desire or magnanimity. He is neither Christian nor Greek, but the tireless laborer and consumer, the man with no ambition who moves and stirs modern society. He takes it as a truism that man flees first and foremost the evil he experiences in the present and present ill being is always stronger than a future good. According to the tradition, man always seeks the good through a thousand obstacles and illusions but according to Locke, man always flees from evil in spite of a thousand inclinations to the good.
Locke’s though takes him a long way from Christianity, but he openly preserves the basic tenet of Christian doctrine that God is the supremely desirable supreme good. Man is motivated in his schema by evil and threat, not the good and promise.
Locke’s analysis, however, does not contradict his need to bracket human nature and suspend any analysis of it. He is confined to a hazy presupposition of it. If man is always moved by the most urgent ill-being, the first principle of his action will be the uneasiness of the animal in him, which he strives to appease by labor. Rational organization of labor takes the place and function of “the policeman God.” The fear of God is retained as a fallback for those incapable of conducting themselves by reason.
Locke’s fundamental propositions are that man fashions his moral notions, that he has rights, and that he labors. Historically, these three propositions became separated and were even sometimes opposed to each other. However, at the present time, they show themselves to be quite compatible elements of the moral atmosphere of democracies. These groups of notions have a common fount in Locke, and they are three ways of saying that the question of human essence has no solution or meaning, or that man has no ends. They are ultimate propositions which cannot be ranked and cannot be deduced from one another.
Labor does not determine the human organization that would correspond to it, nor does “culture” or “values” help in this role. It is only by defining himself as the one who has rights that man can finally embrace the tautology by which he wants to affirm himself: “X = X.” In this tautology, man already has and is since it is his right to have it or be it.
Ends are an indispensable element in the human dynamic of ethos. By pursuing ends which we think fulfill our nature, we seize up our identity in the pursuit, while recognizing we have not attained that which we pursue. “This intermediary character of man opens a space where he can reflect on himself and recognize himself as a man. But for the one who no longer has ends but rights, how shall this indispensable distance be opened, this interior space that allows man to think and speak for himself? For him, there is no longer any differential tension between empirical and completed being, between potency and act, between what is fulfilled and what is desired.”
Whether the rights of man are respected or scoffed at changes nothing in the conditions or state of man as a possessor of rights. This contrasts with natural ends and law and grace because right in this new sense does not modify in any way, whether it is violated or guaranteed, the condition of man as a possessor of rights.