Author's School

Graduate School of Arts & Sciences

Author's Department/Program



English (en)

Date of Award

January 2009

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Chair and Committee

Larry May


DISSERTATION ABSTRACT: John Locke on Obligation: Sensation, Reflection, and the Natural Duty to Consent By Emily Marie Crookston Doctor of Philosophy in Philosophy Washington University in St. Louis, 2009 Professor Larry May, Chairperson Locke's theories of moral and political obligation are instructive both in their successes and in their failures. Writing during a time in which previous assumptions were being widely challenged, Locke judiciously accepts the wisdom of his predecessors as a firm foundation upon which to build his own arguments. Of course, Locke also was not immune to criticism. On the moral obligation side, Locke faces the charge of internal inconsistency: his theory of natural law cannot meet the standards set by his naturalist empiricism. On the political obligation side, critics complain that consent theory is descriptively inadequate: if citizens could consent to their governments, then they would be morally bound. The problem is that most citizens have never consented. So two of Locke's crucial arguments seem to be in trouble. In my dissertation, I take another look at these criticisms. First, I argue that though Locke's natural law theory is too vague to count as a decisive theory of moral obligation, he could enrich his account using features of a Kantian approach in order to develop a coherent and internally consistent theory of moral obligation. In the second half of the dissertation, I build upon this comprehensive theory of moral obligation in order to argue for a more charitable interpretation of Locke's theory of political obligation. According to my view, although consent is necessary and sufficient for political obligation, there are nonetheless universal moral constraints upon the individual choice to consent. Thus, though it is true that individuals are bound to obey only those political institutions to which they have consented, there is a natural moral duty to consent when certain conditions are met. If I am correct, Locke comes closer to having a unified theory of obligation than most scholars give him credit for. By developing a credible theory of moral obligation, which Locke can then use to defend himself against critics of his consent theory of political obligation, I provide Locke with the tools to save both projects.


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