“John Locke’s Moral Responsibility Skepticism”

Nov. 29, 2023, 5:30 p.m.7:30 p.m.

Rockefeller Hall, room 200

A Philosopher’s Holiday Lecture by Kathryn Tabb, Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Bard College.

John Locke sees violence against others as an abiding feature of humanity, and, accordingly, as a reasonable starting point for his political philosophy. When human beings are lawful it is because they fear punishment, which can be dispensed not only by God but, in the state of nature, by anyone. The premise that the right to punish is natural gives essential justification for the magistrate’s right to punish within the commonwealth. It is not obvious, however, how Locke justifies giving men such a God-like power over each other in the first place. His startling stance is rendered visceral by an analogy between criminals and beasts of prey: To commit a crime is to declare oneself “a noxious Creature” who has “quit the Principles of Human Nature” and can be exterminated (ST II.ii.12, 273). And yet! When Locke discusses punishment in the Essay, he speaks freely of each person’s conscience as “accusing or excusing” him. In the Essay, it seems like the management of our ideas is something for which we are culpable in a thick sense. The way to square this, Tabb suggests, is to recognize Locke’s as a bipartite account of punishment. Persons are responsible for their actions when they stand in the right relationship of ownership to the ideas that caused them; that is, when they consciously break with natural law. Only God has access to the criminal’s consciousness, that is, to the record of what the criminal knows himself to have done, and judge accordingly. Tabb concludes that Locke holds punishment to be a morally thick concept exclusively in the theological setting, while believing that retribution has no place in the execution of political power over men. After laying out her case, she will take up the invitation for a philosophical holiday and play moral philosopher in order to ask: Is this account any good?

Headshot of Kathyrn Tabb
Kathryn Tabb, Assistant Professor of Philosophy, Bard College. Photo: courtesy of the subject