Intro to Ethics: Hobbes

by Luke Muehlhauser on July 12, 2009 in Ethics,Intro to Ethics

intro_to_ethics

Welcome to my course on ethics. Last time, we looked at the power-focused ethics of Machiavelli. Today, we look at Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) and his new idea of the social contract.

England in the 1620s stood on the verge of a market economy that was about to displace established feudal and aristocratic systems. The citizens, empowered by the emerging market economy, had started to assert their rights before the crown.

hobbesThomas Hobbes thought this was dangerous to social order. He had translated Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War, about the collapse of Athenian democracy, and took it as a warning against threats to sovereignty.

At the time, there were two things to which the crown could appeal for its authority: the divine right of kings or historical precedent. Hobbes appealed to neither. Instead, he invented a whole new method of justifying the authority of the state, a method he learned from Galileo.

Galileo’s method in the physical sciences was to break down a complex system into its simplest elements, and then examine how the complex system could be reconstructed from its parts. Hobbes applied the same method to human society.

When we break down society into its simplest elements, what do we see? We see individuals, each seeking their own preservation and power, a “perpetual and restless stirring of power after power.” Prior to society, there is only an endless war for domination: every man for himself. “Where there is no common power, there is no law: where no law, no injustice. Force and fraud are in war the two cardinal virtues.” In this “state of nature,” life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

So what can a man do to avoid such an awful existence? Realizing that in war death is more likely than victory, he can make agreements of peace with his neighbor. He can lay down his rights to absolute freedom and “be contented with so much liberty against other men as he would allow other men against himself.” We can make such contracts with each other so that we need not constantly fear attack and death.

But this is not enough, for whoever breaks the contract first will win domination over the other. “Covenants, without the sword, are but words, and of no strength to secure a man at all,” wrote Hobbes. So to give these contracts the backing of a sword, all men must first make a contract with a power they share, one that holds the sword over all of them. This creates “that great Leviathan, or rather, to speak more reverently, of that mortal God, to which we owe… our peace and defence.”

This is how Hobbes broke down society into its simplest elements, and then reconstructed it. And this is the basis for the authority of the state, wrote Hobbes. For without the state we would be in the “state of nature,” with every man in constant war with every other man.

According to Hobbes, there are only two points at which a man should break his contract with the state. First, when the fear of death becomes a motive for resisting the state itself – since that was the reason to contract with the state in the first place. Second, when the state ceases to perform the function for which it was created – that of protecting the lives of its subjects.

Hobbes does not think there is any “such finis ultimus, utmost aim, or summum bonum, greatest good, as is spoken of in the books of the old moral philosophers.” No, Hobbes’ morality is merely practical: If you want X, then you ought to do Y. It’s a factual statement; capable of being true or false, in the same way that “If you want to get from Los Angeles to San Diego, then you ought to travel south” is a factual statement.

Hobbes’ claim is “If you want to avoid death, then you ought to contract with a sovereign to protect you from death at others’ hands, until such time as the soverign is no longer able to perform this service.” Of course, Hobbes assumes that everyone wants to avoid death, and therefore everyone ought to contract with a sovereign.

Hobbes’ social contract remains one of the most influential ideas in ethical theory today.

Next time, we’ll talk about Baruch Spinoza, who asked, “What does morality mean if everything is determined, and free will does not exist?”

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bitbutter July 12, 2009 at 8:38 am

“This is how Hobbes broke down society into its simplest elements, and then reconstructed it. And this is the basis for the authority of the state, wrote Hobbes. For without the state we would be in the “state of nature,” with every man in constant war with every other man.”
Hobbes’ assertion about the necessity of a state to avoid a situation of constant conflict is challenged by examples of stateless societies which do seem to have functioned well compared to their neighbours (for instance Gaelic Ireland).
Here’s an article listing more examples: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_anarchist_communities#Gaelic_Ireland_.28650-1650.29

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