Medical Metaphors in Locke's Account of Moral Depravity: A Charitable Interpretation


  • Catherine Dromelet Universiteit Antwerpen



John Locke, medical metaphors, moral philosophy, depravity, social theory


This paper offers a charitable interpretation of Locke’s use of medical metaphors in his moral description of economic and social issues – poverty, idleness, madness, and religious enthusiasm – which he frames in terms of moral depravity (or corruption of manners). First, I address and compare his perspectives as a physician and as a moral philosopher, highlighting methodological disparities amounting to a tension between scepticism in medical hypotheses and dogmatism in deductive moral science (Section 1). Second, I introduce Locke’s description, explanation, and solution of moral depravity, which is presented as a social ‘disease’. His medical vocabulary indicates that he subscribes to the idea that society is a ‘body politic’, and that moral depravity is a moral issue that requires a fourfold treatment: religious, rational, pedagogical, and political (Section 2). Third, I discuss three tensions in Locke’s moral approach on the corruption of manners and offer to reframe this phenomenon as a social issue (Section 3). Finally, I discuss and exclude two possible interpretations of the purpose of medical metaphors in Locke’s moral philosophy and present a third and more probable one (Section 4). I conclude that Locke’s use of medical metaphors is constitutive of his views on society and reflect his struggle at providing a consistent social theory.