Consciousness and the Law

In The Philosophical Works and Selected Correspondence of John Locke, Lock discuss how someone perceives one’s self and the idea of “consciousness” and how it relates to one’s existence. One unique aspect of consciousness that Locke discusses is the idea that no matter what some one looks like, or what condition he or she is in, that person is still the same person. 

When Locke says, “different bodies by the same life are united into one animal . . . For it being the same consciousness that makes a man be himself to himself,” he indicates that even if there are two distinctly “different bodies” that someone can appear to be, as long as those two bodies are “by the same life” and “the same consciousness” they are in fact the same body (Locke p. 10).

Locke then goes on to apply this idea that someone of “the same life” will always have “the same consciousness” no matter that person looks like to the law. He says that “if it be possible for the same man to have distinct incommunicable consciousness at different times, it is past doubt the same man would at different times make different persons,” indicating that it is impossible for one person to have a different “consciousness” at the time unless that man is actually “different persons” (p. 21). Locke then goes on to apply this connection to the punishment of drunken men.

Locke asks the question, “is not a man drunk and sober the same person? Why else is he punished for the fact he commits when drunk, though he be never afterwards conscious of it”? This questioning indicates that Locke is skeptical of a system where a man who commits a crime while drunk is punished differently than one who commits a crime while sober (p. 22). Locke seemingly points out that the sobriety of the individual committing the crime is irrelevant because “a man drunk and sober” are “the same person,” which means they should be punished the same.

I think Locke’s questioning of the law provides an interesting critique of the punishment system established for punishing drunk people. Whether or not to punish people differently for committing a crime while drunk is a difficult question to ask because it is difficult to decide if someone not in their right mind is actually the same person and actually maintains the same “consciousness” as someone thinking clearly.

Leave a Reply