Morality and personal identity are two of Locke’s main themes

Morality refers to one’s views on what constitutes right and wrong conduct. Personal identity is a concept that one develops and grows throughout one’s existence. Locke links personal identification and morality. As a result, personal identity can be viewed as a metaphysical confrontation surrounded by existential questions such as “Who are we?” Our self-identity values can affect our moral outlook. The definition of personal identity is either a forensic or a moral one (Locke 2008). Modern philosophers refer to the idea of personal identity as the diachronic dilemma of personal identity. This paper presents the views of John Locke’s ideas on morality and personal identity.

Locke’s ideas on morality and personal identity

Locke is one of the first modern conceptualizations of consciousness as the repeated self-identification of oneself. Locke gives an account of personal identity in his essay concerning human understanding. Locke maintains that personal identity is all to do with psychological continuity. He argues that human mind is a tabula rasa’ ‘empty’ with time, the human mind is filled with experience which is the source of our ideas.

Locke also argues that brain just like the body and any substance may change but consciousness remains the same. This, therefore, means personal identity is not in the brain but consciousness. According to Locke (2008), consciousness can be transferred from one soul to another. He holds that personal identity goes with consciousness. He argues that consciousness can be transferred from one substance to another but while the soul is changed, consciousness remains the same and personal identity remains the same.

Locke in his philosophical work addresses the case of the prince and the cobbler. He talks about the soul of the prince which is transferred from the body of the prince to that of the cobbler. At the end, the prince still considers himself the prince even though he has acquired a new body. The focus of Locke is the prince because in his view it is consciousness which determines reward and punishment to be meted out in the last judgment.

Locke believes that an account of a person’s identity forensic-normative implications. But this argument means personal identity is based on consciousness. He thus means that one may be judged for the act of the body because that is what is apparent to all, but the truth lies in the acts for which you are conscious. In this case, one cannot be held accountable for what he did when he was unconscious. A remote existence can be united into a person by consciousness. If substance exists on its own without consciousness, then there is no person as revealed by Sharpsteen (1990).

A person judging from his point of view can never know whether they are judging the same person or it is just his body as according to Locke only the individual would be aware of their state of consciousness and the body might be judged for its acts yet the person was out of conscience.

Locke argues in his theory that one is only responsible for those actions they did while they were conscious and this supports the basis of defending the insane people as when they undertake to do something they do it unconsciously. However, this may be subject to criticism and questioning.


Several philosophers have criticized Locke’s memory theory. Among them is Joseph Butter who accused Locke of failing to recognize that the relation of consciousness presume identity and thus cannot be part of it.

Reid criticism rests on his interpreting Locke’s position that a person is a subject of thought. Reid regards this as meaning that a person is a thinking substance. He argues that Locke is committed to the analysis of personal identity in terms of consciousness. Reid also stated that Locke confused evidence of something and that particular thing. He reduced Locke’s memory theory to absurdity. He believed that identity could not be determined by operations but should be determined by something which is indivisible. However, what Reid together with Butler share in common with Locke is the belief that identity grounds certain of our patterns of concern, both prudential and morals (Reid, 2008)


Locke gives an account of personal identity in his philosophical work concerning human understanding. Besides taking personal identity as forensic, He also wrote on how consciousness can be transferred from one soul to another. For him, personal identity is psychological continuity. However, Locke’s beliefs are hard to defend. The theory has been heavily criticized by other philosophers like Reid, Butter, and Dulter who term it as ‘Wonderful mistake’. Besides all the criticism, Locke’s theory has had a great influence in the field of developmental psychology and education.


Locke, J. (2008). An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Perry, John. Personal Identity. Berkeley: University of California Press. 33-52.

Reid, T. (2008). Of Mr. Locke’s Account of Our Personal Identity. Perry, John. Personal Identity. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008. 113-118.

Sharpsteen, D. (1990). Morality and ethics in personal relationships. Psyccritiques, 35(8).

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