Human Nature and Moral Education
in Mencius, Xunzi, Hobbes, and Rousseau
Department of Philosophy
951 776 9075
May 22, 2006
Human Nature and Moral Education
in Mencius, Xunzi, Hobbes, and Rousseau
Mencius, Xunzi, Hobbes, and Rousseau were all political philosophers well known for their views on “human nature”.I argue that, to some degree of approximation, their views about human nature can be best understood as views about the proper course of moral education, and that, consequently, a picture of moral development stands near the center of each man’s philosophy.I then suggest that we can explore empirically which philosopher was nearest the truth.
Human Nature and Moral Education
in Mencius, Xunzi, Hobbes, and Rousseau
Mencius, Xunzi, Hobbes, and Rousseau were all political philosophers well known for their views on “human nature”.I will argue in this essay that, to some degree of approximation, their views on human nature can be best understood as views about the proper course of moral education and that, consequently, a picture of moral development stands near the center of each man’s philosophy.I will then suggest that we can explore empirically which philosopher was nearest the truth.
1. The “State of ”.
The dispute between the 17th-century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes and the 18th-century French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau regarding human nature is generally cast – and was indeed by Rousseau himself sometimes cast – as a dispute about what people (or “man”) would be like in the “state of nature”, a state without social structures or government.Hobbes famously writes in the Leviathan that the “naturall condition of mankind” – his condition prior to establishment of the state – is one of misery and “Warre, where every man is Enemy to every man” and life is “solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short”.We are propelled into violent competition by the desire for limited goods and for glory, and due to our relative indifference to the suffering of others.When a man in the state of nature sees something he wants – such as the goods or wife of another man – he will try to obtain it, if he can do so consistently with his own safety, regardless of the pain or death it may bring to others.The inevitable result is continual insecurity and strife, and the failure of any stable agriculture or industry, until men are eventually persuaded to submit themselves to a government for their own protection.
Rousseau, equally famously, paints a very different picture of the “state of nature” in his Discourse on the Origin and Foundations of Inequality among Men.Man in the state of nature “breathes only peace and freedom; he wishes only to live and remain idle”.“[H]is heart yearns for nothing; his modest needs are easily within reach”.He is moved only by the urge for self-preservation and by basic biological needs, and by a natural pity for others.Sufficient food is easily enough obtained.Sexual couplings are brief and without social complication.He thinks only of the here and now, not planning for the future, not attempting to elevate himself in the eyes of others, not fearing death, and lacking the bloated desires for prestige and luxury that are nearly universal among civilized men.
It is sometimes suggested that Rousseau is less sanguine about the state of nature in The Social Contract, published seven years later, in 1762.He certainly does, in Chapter 6 of that work, envision that the time may come when the survival of man requires exiting the state of nature and entering some sort of civil society.Perhaps, though, Rousseau is only recognizing here that the state of nature portrayed in his Discourse on Inequality requires a ready abundance of food and may be unsustainable if food becomes scarce.And there may be reasons for thinking that Rousseau felt man’s behavior in conditions of plenty better reflects his “nature” than his behavior in conditions of scarcity – if, for example (to anticipate somewhat the next section of this essay), Rousseau regards the environment of plenty as the “normal” environment of humankind.In any case, in Emile, also published in 1762, Rousseau appears still to hold human nature in high esteem – we will return to Emile later – and in his essay to Christophe de Beaumont, also that same year, he writes that “the fundamental principle of all morality about which I have reasoned in all my Writings ... is that man is a naturally good being, loving justice and order; that there is no original perversity in the human heart, and that the first movements of nature are always right.”
The famous claims about “human nature” in the Leviathan and the Discourse on Inequality appear to pertain, as I have said, to how human beings would behave without government or stable social structures.But it is, in a way, very strange to suppose that our behavior absent social structures is our natural behavior.Biologists do not, for example, separate the ant from the colony or the wolf from the pack to see how they behave “naturally”.The ant and the wolf are naturally social.Their behavior within their social structures is their natural behavior – an isolated ant or wolf is an aberration.Human beings are, of course, the same in this respect.
If this is right it seems also to follow that the “state of nature” thought experiment is, at best, misnamed.If Hobbes’s and Rousseau’s aim in conducting this thought experiment is to begin an inquiry into the value (or disvalue) of society and government, it may have some purpose; but it would be less misleading to call the conditions they imagine “governmentless” or “societyless” than “natural”.With this in mind, it is tempting, perhaps, to dismiss Hobbes’s and Rousseau’s comments on “human nature” (despite their importance as political philosophy) as only marginally related to the biological or psychological or anthropological study of the patterns of thought and behavior truly natural to human beings.
2. A Developmental Approach to the “Natural”.
Let’s think more carefully, then, about what it means to call a human trait “natural”.Consider some intuitive examples: My brown hair is its “natural” color, while my friend Jeanette’s dyed black hair is not.My sexual attraction to women, which began in adolescence (if not earlier), is natural; a crack addict’s indifference is not.My wife’s small feet are natural; a traditional Chinese woman’s feet, if their growth was restricted by tight binding, may be unnaturally small.A trait may be natural to an individual but not, generally speaking, natural for the species: The limited early social attachments of a child with autism may be natural for her but not what we would consider natural for human beings in general.There is some merit in thinking about the “natural” as essentially relative to individuals, as I have in all the examples thus far.However, our four authors aim to make broad generalizations about human nature.Thus (though not only for this reason), it will be useful in this essay to consider what is generally natural to human beings, such as hair color within a certain typical range, adult foot size within a certain typical range, attachments of a certain sort in early childhood, etc.
I propose that we consider a trait natural to an individual just in case it arises in that individual through a normal process of development in a normal, nutritive environment, rather than as a result of injury, acquired disease, malnutrition, or (especially) external imposition.A trait is then natural to a species if it is natural to normal members of that species in a broad range of normal environments.A trait needn’t be present at birth to be natural: Adult size, sexual attractions, secondary sexual characteristics, etc., are not present at birth.Nor need a trait be genetically determined to arise in all environments – what phenotypic trait could possibly arise in all environments, anyway? – just in normal, nutritive ones.In abnormal or deficient environments a “natural” trait may generally be absent: For example, normal individuals may have white hair or no hair in environments with enough high-energy background radiation.In environments with severe nutritive deficiencies, people may not grow to their natural heights or develop their natural sexual characteristics.Even in normal, nutritive environments, some aberrant individuals may not acquire a particular “natural” human trait (though the alternative traits they do acquire may be natural for them), as in the case of the autistic child’s social development.A trait may be common among normal individuals yet not natural because, in some sense, it is “externally imposed” – for example, the cropped ears of Dobermans.
This characterization of the natural is both normative and flexible.It assumes that we can distinguish “normal” individuals from abnormal ones; “normal” and “nutritive” environments from abnormal and deficient ones; injury, disease, and malnutrition from healthy processes; and “external imposition” from its absence.A variety of objections may be raised against the unreflective use of such terms.They may often have no determinate applications or their applications may be politically influenced.This, however, is no objection to the proposed definition of “natural”, since the intuitive application of the word “natural” also generates such worries.So, for example, whether we consider homosexuality “natural” depends on whether we think it arises without external imposition in normal members of the population in normal, nutritive environments.Those who deny the naturalness of human homosexuality are apt to assert that it is “imposed” on people, or that homosexual individuals are aberrant, or that homosexuality arises only if the individual’s developmental environment was abnormal or deficient in some way.Or consider the overweight of many Americans.Can a 250 pound man legitimately argue that that is his “natural” weight?The answer depends, in part, on whether the contemporary American nutritional environment, with its superabundant refined sugars and fats, should be considered normal.
I acknowledge the legitimacy of concerns about what might be hidden in decisions about what counts as “normal”, etc.But the proper answer to such concerns, if you find them overriding, is not, I think, to redefine “natural” in some more objective way, but simply to avoid the word.I see no reason to avoid the normative, as long as it’s made explicit; and the present definition does, I think, make the normative dimension of the term nicely explicit.As I see it, problematic uses of the word “natural” derive not so much from the term itself but from the tendency to use it as though what’s “natural” can be determined by objective and apolitical biological measurements alone.
With this understanding of the “natural” in hand, let me reframe the key idea of the previous section.A relatively stable social system is part of a normal, nutritive environment for human beings (and for all social animals).Even in times of political revolution, much of one’s social environment remains the same.The traits that arise among people raised outside such environments are not our natural traits, but often quite the opposite.The most extreme case of this, of course, is the occasional “wild child”, starved of human interaction through much of childhood.Such children may lack language, fear people, and so forth; but that is hardly the natural condition of humankind.The “state of nature” thought experiment thus misses its target completely if its target is the isolation of our natural traits.
Here, then, is how I would prefer to interpret the question about whether human beings are “naturally” violently competitive or placidly compassionate: Look at how those character traits or behavior patterns arise in human development.Must standards of good behavior be imposed on people from outside, by artificial means, as we might, say, impose the shaving of chins and legs, the stretching of necks, the dyeing of hair?Or does morality emerge without external imposition from normal processes of human maturation, drawing on the environment principally for nutrition and support?
These two alternatives are of course too stark, and they are not exhaustive.Among other possibilities, human nature could be mixed, with some elements driving us toward compassion and others driving us toward violence, or different people might have different natures, some naturally inclined toward violence and some toward compassion, so that we can’t say there’s a single “human nature” on this head.Also, by casting the debate here in terms of “violent competition” vs. “placid compassion” (because of the role those ideas play in my simple portrayal of Hobbes and Rousseau), I don’t mean to focus unduly on compassion and violence as the fonts of morality and immorality or assume too simple a relationship between violence, compassion, and morality.
Understood as I recommend – as a claim about development – the question whether “human nature” is good or bad begins to gain some scientifically interesting content.
3. Mencius and Xunzi on Human Nature.
What I have suggested about how to approach questions of human nature – that is, by looking at how development occurs in a normal social environment – certainly seems to be in tension with Hobbes and Rousseau, or at least certain common portrayals of them (though more on this later).It comports more easily with the views of the classical Chinese philosophers Mencius (4th c. BCE) and Xunzi (3rd c. BCE) (and was, in fact, inspired by them).Mencius famously said that human nature is good (xing shan性善), Xunzi that is bad, ugly, unappealing (xing e性惡).In this section, I will try to convey the general flavor of their views on human nature.At the end I will suggest what I take to be the unifying thread.
Human nature’s being good is like water’s tending downward.There is no human who does not tend toward goodness.There is no water that does not tend downward.Now, by striking water and making it leap up, you can cause it to go past your forehead.If you guide it by damming it, you can cause it to remain on a mountaintop.But is this the nature of water?!It is that way because of the circumstances.That humans can be caused to not be good is due to their natures also being like this.
The trees of Ox Mountain were once beautiful.But because it bordered on a large state, hatchets and axes besieged it.Could it remain verdant?Due to the rest it got during the day or night, and the moisture of rain and dew, it was not that there were no sprouts or shoots growing there.But oxen and sheep then came and grazed on them.Hence, it was as if it were barren.People, seeing it barren, believed that there had never been any timber there.Could this be the nature of the mountain?!When we consider what is present in people, could they truly lack the hearts of benevolence and righteousness?!
These passages (and others like them, esp. in Book 6A) establish that Mencius regards human nature as good, in some sense.These passages they don’t fully express the content of that view, but one thing is already plain: To say that human nature is good is not to say that all people behave well.Water can be dammed up and kept on a hillside.A mountain that naturally tends to be verdant can be bald.Indeed, Mencius thought the decadent times he lived in were rife with wickedness.Rousseau did also, for that matter.It’s an undergraduate mistake to think that the view that human nature is good is in any straightforward way undermined by the prevalence of evil in the world.The question is not whether evil abounds; it’s whether evil is “natural” or, instead, a perversion.
But what, exactly, is it for us to “tend toward goodness” if many (even most) of us do not achieve it?According to Mencius, just as all (normal) feet are roughly the same and all (normal) palates prefer roughly the same tastes, all normal hearts delight in righteousness (yi義 – moral rightness).Mencius builds a case for this claim on the basis of what he takes to be normal, spontaneous reactions to circumstances in which what is right or wrong is plain and in one’s face, as it were.The first impulse of the beggar who is given food in an insulting manner is to reject the food, even though doing so may cost him his life.The first reaction of anyone who suddenly sees a child about to fall into a well is a feeling of compassion.The first reaction of people on seeing the dead bodies of their parents eaten by foxes and bugs is to want to bury the bodies.Such universal impulses are the seeds or sprouts (duan端) of righteousness, benevolence, and propriety.Moral development results from attending to, cultivating, and “extending” these natural moral impulses, noticing and acting upon the heart’s pleasure in right action; evil results from suppressing the heart’s natural desires, subverting them to the desires of lesser parts of oneself such as one’s stomach, eyes, or limbs, or failing to think through the similarities between nearby cases and those farther away.
Xunzi begins his essay “Human Nature is Bad” like this:
People’s nature is bad.Their goodness is a matter of deliberate effort [wei偽 – deliberate effort, conscious activity, the artificial].Now people’s nature is such that they are born with a fondness for profit.If they follow along with this, then struggle and contention will arise, and yielding and deference will perish therein.They are born with feelings of hate and dislike.If they follow along with these, then cruelty and villainy will arise, and loyalty and trustworthiness will perish therein.They are born with desires of the eyes and ears, a fondness for beautiful sights and sounds.If they follow along with these, then lasciviousness and chaos will arise, and ritual and the standards of righteousness, proper form and good order, will perish therein.Thus, if people follow along with their inborn nature and dispositions [qing情 – dispositions, emotions, essence], they are sure to come to struggle and contention, turn to disrupting social divisions and disorder, and end up in violence. (3rd BCE/2001, p. 284, ch. 23).
So for example, Xunzi says that when we are hungry, our natural emotions or dispositions (qing情) lead us to want to eat without regard for others; it is only by artificial social convention that we come to accept waiting our turn.Similarly, unless you find this essay unusually gripping, your natural emotions or dispositions probably incline you to leave off reading and take a rest.It is only by artificial social means that you are driven to work as hard as you should.Moral rules are an invention of the Sage Kings, a set of artificial constraints imposed on people for the proper functioning of society.With time, one can transform one’s desires to as to align with the proper strictures, but this is a slow, difficult, and unnatural process, one that does not comport with our original impulses.
Despite the starkly different mottoes, it can come to seem unclear where the difference between Mencius and Xunzi lies.They agree on one key point: That people often behave badly when driven by basic bodily impulses, and moral behavior requires the regulation of those impulses by the heart or mind (xin心).In light of this agreement, it is sometimes suggested that Mencius and Xunzi are much closer in view than it may at first seem: They disagree only (or primarily) in how to define the “natural”.Xunzi holds that anything arising from the “conscious activity” or “deliberate effort” (wei偽) of the heart is artificial, and thus that morality is artificial.Mencius thinks the best products of the heart are natural and thus that morality is natural.But the difference is merely semantic.
I strongly disagree with this interpretation.But where, then, should we locate their disagreement?The reader will recall my preference for interpreting questions about human nature developmentally.I believe that Mencius and Xunzi implicitly accept this approach (despite Xunzi’s occasionally simplistic remarks about the “natural” being what is present at birth).The core question on which they disagree, I would suggest, is this: Is morality something imposed on people from outside (Xunzi) or something that arises in the normal process of human development if people are encouraged to reflect for themselves (Mencius)?In other words, is moral development a process more of indoctrination or self-discovery?
4. Metaphors for Moral Development.
We can get a better hold of the conflict between Mencius and Xunzi on this point by looking at the different metaphors they use for moral development.Mencius repeatedly compares moral development to the cultivation or growth of a sprout.Xunzi compares moral development to straightening a board or sharpening metal.These metaphors can be made to do a lot of work for both authors.
Both vegetative growth and the straightening of wood are slow processes, suggesting that moral development is also a slow process (unlike, say, some ways of understanding Buddhist enlightenment or Christian conversion and rebirth).Both metaphors imply permanent change and incremental progress, barring toxic or distortive factors in the environment, rather than a pattern of relapse and relearning.So also moral development, in the view of both philosophers.
Environment plays a strikingly different role in the two metaphors, however.A sprout grows into an oak tree (for example) more or less of its own accord, if the environmental conditions are sufficiently nutritive and non-hostile.Crooked, raw timber does not similarly straighten of its own accord: Both the impetus for change and the final shape are imposed from outside.Cultivation and growth work in harmony with the pre-existing inclinations of the sprout, while steaming and pressing work against the hard resistance of the board.
These metaphors thus suggest very different pictures of moral education.The cultivation metaphor suggests what we might call a self-discovery model of education, or an inward-out model of the sort often associated with “liberal” approaches to education in the contemporary West: Learners are encouraged to reflect for themselves, to discover and nurture the values they already have.They needn’t generally be told explicitly what is right and wrong.They are perfectly capable of seeing that for themselves, if they reflect carefully on their pre-existing inclinations and judgments.The inclination toward morality already exists within each of us (as the inclination to grow into an oak tree exists within the sprout), as long as the environment is sufficiently supportive.The environment needn’t be particularly directive: Just as the pattern for the oak tree is in some sense implicit in the sprout, so also a mature sense of right and wrong is in some sense implicit in the small child and will emerge in the normal course of growth, with proper nutrition and protection.
This self-discovery model of education captures, I think, much of the spirit of Mencius’ view, and is seen at work in passages such as 1A7, where Mencius invites the vicious King Xuan to reflect on why he felt an urge to save an ox from slaughter yet allows his innocent subjects to perish.This isn’t to say, of course, that Mencius would be happy with whatever King Xuan decided about such cases.He was a Confucian and adhered to traditional Confucian values.Despite his emphasis on self-discovery, he was not a “liberal” in the contemporary sense (one of the contemporary senses) of tolerating a diverse range of moral perspectives.Mencius takes himself to be encouraging not multiplicity but rather discovery of the one true (Confucian) moral structure already implicit in us and revealed by our impulses – by what pleases and revolts the heart – in obvious and nearby cases.
The straightening and sharpening metaphors of Xunzi suggest, in contrast, a more authoritarian approach to education, more outward-in, more in the style of contemporary Western “conservatives”.Children, and the morally underdeveloped in general, are not to be encouraged to think for themselves.They cannot be expected to know what is right any more than an introductory chemistry student should be expected to know, prior to being taught, the electronegativity of the elements.Free reflection, for the morally immature, is at best a waste of time, and at worst an opportunity for the rationalization of their immoral impulses.While Mencius repeatedly urges us to think (si思 – think, reflect, ponder, concentrate), Xunzi declares “I once spent the whole day pondering, but it wasn’t as good as a moment’s worth of learning.”This isn’t to say that thinking isn’t of some value in the process of moral education, as thinking is of value in learning the facts of chemistry.Rather, it’s to say that the morally immature cannot discover for themselves right from wrong.Only someone of sagely genius could do that.For the morally immature, reflection can only be effective in the context of outward instruction, in following and understanding rules or a model given by one’s teacher.Morality must be imposed on us from outside – against our original impulses and inclinations and quite possibly contrary to our initial understanding.The process of moral education is not the pleasant matter, as it seems to be for Mencius, of discovering what truly pleases one’s heart.It is instead a matter of being forced against one’s will – and then later forcing oneself, by acts of will – to suppress and redirect one’s natural desires and inclinations.
In Chapters 1 and 2, Xunzi attempts to inspire the reader toward further moral development.He thus seems implicitly to hope that the reader has the desire to improve himself, or can be inspired to that desire; and this may seem to conflict with the picture of moral development just described, on which morality has to be forced from outside.The resolution of this difficulty, I believe, is to read Xunzi here as speaking principally to people who already have come some considerable distance in their development – to the point, perhaps, where their inclinations have some moral merit and they can see the value in further moral development.Adapting the metaphor, one might imagine that Xunzi’s wood, after having been straightened to a considerable extent, can itself contribute to the final part of the straightening process.For the young and the vicious, however, we may still interpret Xunzi as preferring rote conformity (“reciting the classics”) and compulsion; real understanding comes only near the end.
Thus, I read the disagreement between Mencius and Xunzi regarding human nature as principally a disagreement about the proper means of moral education.Moral education is no small thing to them: It was their profession (whether in teaching the young or in attempting to coax virtuous behavior from the vicious rulers of the “Warring States” period they lived in) and their principal concern.
5. Hobbes and Rousseau on Moral Education.
As it happens, Rousseau wrote extensively about moral education in Emile, a story of the idealized education of a boy from birth to adulthood.Hobbes also makes a number of remarks about moral education in the Leviathan.One might thus wonder whether we can recast their claims about “human nature” in developmental terms as I have suggested we do for Mencius and Xunzi.Does Rousseau, who thinks that “human nature is good”, support a vision of moral education as the cultivation of pre-existing, nascent inclinations toward morality?Does Hobbes support a vision of moral education as the external imposition of rules and moral knowledge upon minds without general inclinations in that direction?I’d like to suggest that the answer to both questions is yes.
It is clear in Emile that Rousseau means his claims about “human nature” to pertain not just to the fictional state of nature but also to the developing child.He writes, for example, “a young man raised in happy simplicity is drawn by the first movements of his nature toward the tender and affectionate passions”.Pride and vanity (which Rousseau thinks responsible for a large part of our conflict and unhappiness) does not “have its germ in children’s hearts, cannot be born in them of itself; it is we alone who put it there, and it can never take root except by our fault”.Also:
[T]he first voices of conscience arise out of the first movements of the heart…. [J]ustice and goodness are not merely abstract words – pure moral beings formed by the understanding – but are true affections of the soul enlightened by reason, and hence only an ordered development of our primitive affections.
Rousseau states that his goal in educating Emile is to “cultivate nature” (and not “deprave” it) and “to form the man of nature” but not “a savage [relegated] to the depths of the woods”.In the mouth of the Savoyard Vicar, he puts the view that our soul’s conscience follows the “order of nature” regardless of the laws of man and that in following it, we follow the “impulse of nature”, though it speaks with a quiet voice and “[t]he world and noise scare it”.
That the first impulses of the heart are good, but that they can easily be overridden by louder desires, that they require cultivation – in such matters Rousseau and Mencius agree.These are not remarks simply about how things stand only for the “savage” in the “state of nature” absent society; they concern moral development as it actually proceeds or fails in ordinary acculturated folk.To a considerable extent, the model of moral education offered in Emile resembles the model in Mencius: Specific moral rules are not imposed on Emile.He discovers for himself (in a nurturing, supportive environment – by no means the state of nature) the moral impulses we all share.He wants to act on them, and by acting on them they are nourished, so that a mature moral sense grows from within.Rousseau shares with Mencius, then, what I have called the “self-discovery” model of moral education.
Rousseau and Mencius diverge, however, in important ways.Where Mencius assumes a child always fully embedded in society, Rousseau takes great pains to shield Emile from most of society – so much so that in early adolescence Rousseau can say that
He knows no attachments other than those of habit.He loves his sister as he loves his watch, and his friend as his dog.He does not feel himself to be any sex, of any species.Man and woman are equally alien to him.He does not consider anything they do or say to be related to himself.
Even allowing for some overstatement, this passage is disturbing and seems to me hardly to reflect a process I would call “natural”.Indeed, throughout Emile Rousseau has his tutor take enormous pains to manipulate Emile’s environment.Rousseau appears to think the sprouts of human goodness are so fragile that the slightest chill could cripple them, in contrast to Mencius who sees them as always reasserting themselves (as in the parable of Ox Mountain, quoted above).Rousseau aims, for example, to assure that the infant and the child judge the failures to get what they want to be due only to the resistance of things, never of wills; and it seems to me to require great artifice to ensure this.Without this artifice, Rousseau seems to fear the child will become permanently spoiled.Amour-propre, or the kind of self-love that involves comparing oneself to others, Rousseau calls both “the most natural of all passions” and a “useful but dangerous instrument”.When amour-propre starts its inevitable bloom into vanity, Rousseau’s tutor contrives elaborate humiliations to cut it down.The tutor works to present Emile instead only with situations in which, when he compares himself with others, he finds compassion for others’ suffering and the impulse to improve himself.Similarly, when Emile awakens sexually, the tutor is much exercised, by what seems to me largely artificial imposition, to prevent disasters of vanity, licentiousness, and impulsiveness.
So is Rousseau, after all, not committed to a picture of human nature as good in the sense articulated in this essay?On the one hand, the impulses and forms of morality and found within Emile rather than imposed from without; but on the other, they seem to flourish only in a highly artificial environment.My criteria for the “natural” thus appear to diverge.Or, more properly speaking, although Rousseau clearly avoids the most salient defeater of the view that morality is natural (on my definition of “natural”) – that it is externally imposed – it may seem that the criterion that morality emerge in a broad range of normal environments is not met.
We can avoid this difficulty if we allow Rousseau to suggest that the artifices of his tutor are principally necessary to counteract the highly unnatural toxicity of French civilization, to restore something closer to a normal, as opposed to a distortive and perverted, human environment.This seems a plausible move, given Rousseau’s well-documented disdain for French civilization.Metaphorically speaking, Rousseau’s tutor may be providing a post to a growing vine in an environment stripped of trees.In any case, if we construe the key question as whether moral education should proceed by the cultivation of pre-existing, nascent impulses toward morality, Rousseau clearly thinks it does.If, perhaps, Rousseau’s cultivation is more like the work of a French (or even bonsai) gardener, who constantly prunes and shapes, than like the work of a Chinese rice or barley farmer, there is still much they share in common.
Hobbes, in contrast, seems to envision moral education principally as the imparting of official doctrine:
And (to descend to particulars) the People are to be taught, First, that they ought not to be in love with any forme for Government they see in their neighbor Nations, more than with their own, nor (whatsoever present prosperity they behold in Nations that are otherwise governed than they,) to desire change….
Secondly, they are to be taught that they ought not to be led with admiration of the vertue of any of their fellow Subjects … so as to deferre to them any obedience, or honour, appropriate to the Soveraign onely….
Thirdly, … they ought to be informed, how great a fault it is, to speak evill of the Soveraign Representative … or to argue and dispute his Power….
This education proceeds, not by providing an environment supportive of reflection and self-discovery but rather (for most adults) from the pulpit:
Fourthly, seeing people cannot be taught this, nor when ’tis taught, remember it, nor after one generation past, so much as know in whom the Soveraign Power is placed, without setting a part from their ordinary labour, some certain times, in which they may attend to those appointed to instruct them; It is necessary that some such times be determined, wherein they may assemble together, and (after prayers and praises given to God, the Soveraign of Soveraigns) hear those their Duties told them, and the Positive Lawes, such as generally concern them all, read and expounded….To this end had the Jewes every seventh day, a Sabbath ….
Indeed, private reflection is condemned:
As for the Means, and Conduits, by which the people may receive this Instruction, wee are to search, by what means so many Opinions, contrary to the peace of Man-kind, upon weak and false Principles, have neverthelesse been so deeply rooted in them.I mean those, which I have in the precedent Chapter specified: as That men shall Judge of what is lawfull and unlawfull, not by the Law it selfe, but by their own Consciences; that is to say, by their own private Judgements….
Hobbes’ metaphor for education in the Leviathan is not, of course, cultivation.He compares education, rather, to writing on paper:
the Common-peoples minds, unlesse they be tainted with dependance on the Potent, or scribbled over with the opinions of their Doctors, are like clean paper, fit to receive whatsoever by Publique Authority shall be imprinted in them.
Paper does not resist writing in the same way a board resists straightening, but neither do the words written on paper gain any particular support from the paper’s antecedent inclinations.Hobbes does perhaps suggest that that which conforms to the principles of Reason is more easily inscribed, but the passage about the pulpit, quoted above – and indeed his authoritarianism generally – suggests that he is not especially sanguine about the common people durably retaining, or even entirely comprehending, what is taught.Perhaps a better metaphor for Hobbes than writing on paper would be writing in sand?
Hobbes’ remarks about the education of children are less extensive, but I interpret them as similar in spirit (especially given Hobbes’ comparison of paternal and maternal dominion to the sovereign’s dominion over the state), emphasizing obedience and the imposition of doctrine – and on the whole being very different from the sort of education envisioned by Rousseau.
Hobbes, like Rousseau, writes repeatedly about the “nature” of humankind outside the context of the “state of nature” thought experiment that has received so much emphasis in interpretations of their work.Hobbes in fact, wrote an entire essay titled Human Nature.This work discusses our “natural faculties”, including both faculties of the body and faculties of the mind.It’s clear that Hobbes takes himself to be treating the normal, mature, adult human being as he (or she) actually develops in a normal societal environment – and not (or not just) as he would develop in a state of anarchy.Of particular interest is Hobbes’ treatment of the passions and what delights the mind in Chapters VII-IX.One sees here more of Xunzi than of Mencius or Rousseau: Hobbes emphasizes self-interest and the sort of desires that would lead to strife without some sort of external or internal suppression or regulation.Where he discusses passions others might see as unselfish, he generally gives them an egoistic interpretation: “Honour” consists not in moral virtue but in signs of power; repentance is not characterized as following from a sense of moral failure but only as “the passion that proceedeth from opinion or knowledge that the action they have done is out of the way to the end they would attain”; charity appears to arise not so much from innate compassion as from the fact that “There can be no greater argument to a man of his own power, than to find himself able, not only to accomplish his own desires, but also to assist some other men in theirs”.Pity appears to involve a genuine desire for (some) others to do well, independently of one’s own condition, but it is counterbalanced by “Laughter” at other men’s “infirmities and absurdity” and is not uncommonly outweighed by the pleasure that arises, in watching others suffer, from the feeling of one’s own security and superior position, as when we watch a battle or a shipwreck.Even Xunzi’s picture of our natural desires might not be quite so relentlessly egoistic.
So when Hobbes and Rousseau speak of human nature as good or as leading to violent strife, I believe we have license to interpret them as speaking not just of how we would behave in the “state of nature”.They are much closer to Mencius and Xunzi than a superficial criticism of a few of their most famous passages suggests.To say that human nature is good, for Mencius or Rousseau, is to say that our first and most basic impulses, if we avoid the corruption of distortive environments, point us in the direction of morality, and that consequently moral education consists in careful attention to and cultivation of those impulses.To take the opposing position, for Xunzi or Hobbes, is to say that the most basic and dominant body of impulses in normal, mature individuals would impel us to conflict and disorder if they were not forcibly restrained, and thus that moral development requires the persistent imposition of rules and doctrines that have little basis in the untutored impulses of ordinary men.That, at least, is my suggestion.
What, then, to make of Hobbes’ and Rousseau’s thought experiments about the state of nature?I do think they have an interest besides that of revealing the consequences of living in a civil society.For Rousseau, the value is also partly in undermining the idea that contemporary society, especially urban , should be seen as the normal human condition.That realization in turn permits us to see that the greed and corruption to be found therein need not reflect our genuine nature.For Hobbes, the value is partly in suggesting that our everyday docility proceeds not from the unhindered process of normal moral development but from the external imposition of standards, by drawing a picture of what would happen if those external standards were absent.Seen in this way, the thought experiments can still have a role in a proper psychological or biological understanding of “human nature” for Hobbes and Rousseau, though not the entirely central role they are usually given.
6. Moral Education and Authoritarian Government.
Given the association between self-discovery models of moral education and “liberalism” in the contemporary West, one might suppose that proponents of the idea that human nature is good (in the sense just explained) would be drawn toward comparatively democratic forms of government in which expressions of popular opinion play a large role; and that, conversely, those who are drawn toward authoritarian models of moral education would inclined more toward authoritarianism in government.Plainly, Rousseau in The Social Contract advocates a less authoritarian style of government than Hobbes in the Leviathan.Likewise, perhaps, the political philosophy in the Mencius has a slightly less authoritarian feel than that in the Xunzi. Both democracy and education by self-discovery turn on the idea that ordinary people are often best encouraged to form their own judgments (perhaps aided and supported in various ways), without the external imposition of doctrines by an authority.
But this is oversimple.Mencius, of course, is no democrat.Like the other major early Confucians, he endorses an enlightened monarchy.Perhaps the better predictor of authoritarian politics is the expense of moral education.If proper moral education requires extensive resources unavailable to the general public, then one might find an aristocratic ruling structure attractive, at least as a utopian possibility.In the early Confucian tradition, moral education is not cheap.Although anyone (or at least any man) can enter it, it requires long devotion to learning ancient ritual and studying classic texts and is incompatible with the life of labor than must be most people’s lot.If the education is successful, those who have run through it will have better moral character and judgment than the masses of people.It is, then, their judgment, and not popular opinion, that should guide the state (though the early Confucians generally thought the masses possessed enough common sense to be attracted to virtuous rulers and to despise the wicked).Plato’s Republic fits a similar model: True knowledge of the good is no common thing (recall the analogy of the cave in Book VII).Those occupied daily with manual labor cannot have the moral education of the philosopher-king, and ideally the guidance of the state should not derive from their judgment.
Rousseau, in contrast, though he imagined the education of Emile to require a private full-time tutor, appeared to believe that, in general, moral development is better attained in a life of rural labor than among the privilege of the elite.Likewise, I suspect, most contemporary dwellers in Western-style democracies see proper moral education as broadly attainable, not requiring the cessation of daily labor – maybe even enhanced by labor.Perhaps also pessimists about moral education, who think a ruling elite will necessarily be corrupt, will be drawn toward more democratic forms of government as best suited to keep our vice in check.
That Hobbes did not go in this last direction, given what some see as a pessimistic strain in his work, has often been held against him.However, he does emphasize that both the gentry and the educators of the masses are to receive their education in proper doctrine from the universities; and perhaps this gives us room to interpret him as thinking that the best moral education requires resources available only to the elite.Maybe he was less than completely pessimistic about the positive moral effect of these more expensive institutions, if properly reformed and subject to the sovereign.
Surely there are counterexamples to this claim about the relationship between authoritarian government and the cost of proper moral education.Supposing the relationship largely holds, however: This is one way in which a view of moral education can drive a political philosophy.Indeed, a take on moral education can motivate a view not only of political and familial authority and subordination, but also of the nature of self-constraint and willpower; of the proper role of ritual, custom, and law; of the origin and character of the emotions; of the ideal structure of society; of the role and value of reason and reflection; of the nature of moral character.Equally, the stances one takes on these issues can motivate thoughts on the proper structure of moral education.Rousseau, more than our other authors, makes explicit the extent to which these issues are entangled: Emile beautifully displays the interrelations, with a program of moral education standing at the center.Indeed, near the end of his life, surveying his work, Rousseau wrote that Emile was the key to understanding all the rest.
7. Who Is Right?
Despite Rousseau’s notorious claim, near the beginning of his Discourse on Inequality to be “setting aside all the facts, for they have no bearing on this question”, claims about human nature are clearly at least partly empirical: They involve assertions about the way human beings are, in fact.This needn’t entail that there is any single, straightforward, empirical test that will definitively reveal whether morality is natural to us or imposed from outside.(Little, indeed, of broad general interest in human psychology can be revealed by a single test.)But the question is empirically explorable.Empirical facts are relevant to it, and various of them may comport more harmoniously with one view or another, fit one picture nicely and require explaining away on another.These empirical facts must be tempered with a normative understanding, not only of what is “good”, but also (as per §2) of what is normal and abnormal, supportive or distortive – but so also must the empirical explorations of all the human and biological sciences.
We can thus attempt some judgment about who is nearest the truth about human nature.I’ve argued that the question is, at core, about the proper course of moral education; so this is an appealing place to begin.If reasonable people can in general more or less agree about standards of moral goodness (as I think they can, pace strong descriptive relativism), we can then ask an empirical question: What sort of moral education best engenders moral maturity – one that imposes morality on children from the outside or one that encourages children to reflect for themselves?
Now in practice, this will be a very difficult assessment, since even without the complications of moral disagreement, the assessment of moral maturity is no easy thing.We can perhaps look at some extreme cases (people convicted of hideous offenses, or moral exemplars of the sort profiled by Colby and Damon), but it seems a mistake to focus only on exceptional people.Long-term, controlled studies are impossible.Short term laboratory tests may be misleading.Nonetheless, there does appear to be a general consensus among the most eminent scholars of moral development that reflection is salutary and its suppression is harmful – that children should be encouraged to think for themselves about right and wrong, in their own terms.If true, this fits nicely with Rousseau and especially Mencius.However, the advocate of a darker view of human nature may legitimately wonder whether structured reflection, with adults nearby who the child knows will approve of one answer and disapprove of another, isn’t really just a form of imposition, more effective for its being subtle and parading as the child’s own independent judgment.
We can look also for other signs of natural goodness or its lack.So, for example, do we see nascent moral impulses – and a comparative lack of nascent immorality – in very young children and in non-human primates, who presumably are less influenced by the imposition of an external code?Do the perpetrators of terrible evil (such as the Holocaust), when they reflect on their deeds, find themselves morally revolted, regardless of their prior doctrines, or are malignant values relatively stable to the reflection of ordinary non-philosophers?When people are encouraged to reflect on their emotional reactions to their own and others’ actions, are they thereafter (at least immediately thereafter) more or less likely to commit misdeeds?
Let me take my stand.I think, overall, the evidence favors a roughly Mencian view, in which ordinary reflection in a supportive but non-directive environment is the best spur to moral development.Besides the researchers on moral development cited above who seem to favor views roughly of this sort, let me mention the work on early childhood sympathy by Zahn-Waxler and others; de Waal’s work on the origins of morality in non-human primates; Arendt’s suggestion that evil tends to flow from a failure to think in her study of Eichmann; and work on juvenile delinquency that suggests reduced recidivism when offenders are encouraged to reflect.
The evidence is by no means unequivocal, and an absolutely pure and uniform goodness in human nature is probably too much to hope for.Young boys seem naturally to delight in the suffering of insects; and a certain kind of pleasure in the small misfortunes of others seems nearly universal, and probably “normal” given inclusive standards of normality.(I think here especially of our reactions to the kinds of mishaps portrayed in shows like America’s Funniest Home Videos.)Ingroups’ aggression against outgroups (from small cliques and sports teams to races and nations) seems too universal and too heartily approved to be anything but natural.(Think of all the “great men” of history, after whom our children are often named, whose principal achievement was in aggressive warfare.)But perhaps counterbalancing this is a natural intolerance of aggression within ingroups.
Thomas Hobbes: Moral and Political Philosophy
The English philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) is best known for his political thought, and deservedly so. His vision of the world is strikingly original and still relevant to contemporary politics. His main concern is the problem of social and political order: how human beings can live together in peace and avoid the danger and fear of civil conflict. He poses stark alternatives: we should give our obedience to an unaccountable sovereign (a person or group empowered to decide every social and political issue). Otherwise what awaits us is a "state of nature" that closely resembles civil war – a situation of universal insecurity, where all have reason to fear violent death and where rewarding human cooperation is all but impossible.
One controversy has dominated interpretations of Hobbes. Does he see human beings as purely self-interested or egoistic? Several passages support such a reading, leading some to think that his political conclusions can be avoided if we adopt a more realistic picture of human nature. However, most scholars now accept that Hobbes himself had a much more complex view of human motivation. A major theme below will be why the problems he poses cannot be avoided simply by taking a less "selfish" view of human nature.
Table of Contents
- Life and Times
- Two Intellectual Influences
- Ethics and Human Nature
- Materialism Versus Self-Knowledge
- The Poverty of Human Judgment and our Need for Science
- Political Philosophy
- The Natural Condition of Mankind
- The Laws of Nature and the Social Contract
- Why Should we Obey the Sovereign?
- Life Under the Sovereign
- References and Further Reading
Hobbes is the founding father of modern political philosophy. Directly or indirectly, he has set the terms of debate about the fundamentals of political life right into our own times. Few have liked his thesis, that the problems of political life mean that a society should accept an unaccountable sovereign as its sole political authority. Nonetheless, we still live in the world that Hobbes addressed head on: a world where human authority is something that requires justification, and is automatically accepted by few; a world where social and political inequality also appears questionable; and a world where religious authority faces significant dispute. We can put the matter in terms of the concern with equality and rights that Hobbes's thought heralded: we live in a world where all human beings are supposed to have rights, that is, moral claims that protect their basic interests. But what or who determines what those rights are? And who will enforce them? In other words, who will exercise the most important political powers, when the basic assumption is that we all share the same entitlements?
We can see Hobbes's importance if we briefly compare him with the most famous political thinkers before and after him. A century before, Nicolo Machiavelli had emphasized the harsh realities of power, as well as recalling ancient Roman experiences of political freedom. Machiavelli appears as the first modern political thinker, because like Hobbes he was no longer prepared to talk about politics in terms set by religious faith (indeed, he was still more offensive than Hobbes to many orthodox believers), instead, he looked upon politics as a secular discipline divorced from theology. But unlike Hobbes, Machiavelli offers us no comprehensive philosophy: we have to reconstruct his views on the importance and nature of freedom; it remains uncertain which, if any, principles Machiavelli draws on in his apparent praise of amoral power politics.
Writing a few years after Hobbes, John Locke had definitely accepted the terms of debate Hobbes had laid down: how can human beings live together, when religious or traditional justifications of authority are no longer effective or persuasive? How is political authority justified and how far does it extend? In particular, are our political rulers properly as unlimited in their powers as Hobbes had suggested? And if they are not, what system of politics will ensure that they do not overstep the mark, do not trespass on the rights of their subjects?
So, in assessing Hobbes's political philosophy, our guiding questions can be: What did Hobbes write that was so important? How was he able to set out a way of thinking about politics and power that remains decisive nearly four centuries afterwards? We can get some clues to this second question if we look at Hobbes's life and times.
2. Life and Times
Hobbes's biography is dominated by the political events in England and Scotland during his long life. Born in 1588, the year the Spanish Armada made its ill-fated attempt to invade England, he lived to the exceptional age of 91, dying in 1679. He was not born to power or wealth or influence: the son of a disgraced village vicar, he was lucky that his uncle was wealthy enough to provide for his education and that his intellectual talents were soon recognized and developed (through thorough training in the classics of Latin and Greek). Those intellectual abilities, and his uncle's support, brought him to university at Oxford. And these in turn - together with a good deal of common sense and personal maturity - won him a place tutoring the son of an important noble family, the Cavendishes. This meant that Hobbes entered circles where the activities of the King, of Members of Parliament, and of other wealthy landowners were known and discussed, and indeed influenced. Thus intellectual and practical ability brought Hobbes to a place close to power - later he would even be math tutor to the future King Charles II. Although this never made Hobbes powerful, it meant he was acquainted with and indeed vulnerable to those who were. As the scene was being set for the Civil Wars of 1642-46 and 1648-51 - wars that would lead to the King being executed and a republic being declared - Hobbes felt forced to leave the country for his personal safety, and lived in France from 1640 to 1651. Even after the monarchy had been restored in 1660, Hobbes's security was not always certain: powerful religious figures, critical of his writings, made moves in Parliament that apparently led Hobbes to burn some of his papers for fear of prosecution.
Thus Hobbes lived in a time of upheaval, sharper than any England has since known. This turmoil had many aspects and causes, political and religious, military and economic. England stood divided against itself in several ways. The rich and powerful were divided in their support for the King, especially concerning the monarch's powers of taxation. Parliament was similarly divided concerning its own powers vis-à-vis the King. Society was divided religiously, economically, and by region. Inequalities in wealth were huge, and the upheavals of the Civil Wars saw the emergence of astonishingly radical religious and political sects. (For instance, "the Levellers" called for much greater equality in terms of wealth and political rights; "the Diggers," more radical still, fought for the abolition of wage labor.) Civil war meant that the country became militarily divided. And all these divisions cut across one another: for example, the army of the republican challenger, Cromwell, was the main home of the Levellers, yet Cromwell in turn would act to destroy their power within the army's ranks. In addition, England’s recent union with Scotland was fragile at best, and was almost destroyed by King Charles I's attempts to impose consistency in religious practices. We shall see that Hobbes's greatest fear was social and political chaos - and he had ample opportunity both to observe it and to suffer its effects.
Although social and political turmoil affected Hobbes's life and shaped his thought, it never hampered his intellectual development. His early position as a tutor gave him the scope to read, write and publish (a brilliant translation of the Greek writer Thucydides appeared in 1629), and brought him into contact with notable English intellectuals such as Francis Bacon. His self-imposed exile in France, along with his emerging reputation as a scientist and thinker, brought him into contact with major European intellectual figures of his time, leading to exchange and controversy with figures such as Descartes, Mersenne and Gassendi. Intensely disputatious, Hobbes repeatedly embroiled himself in prolonged arguments with clerics, mathematicians, scientists and philosophers - sometimes to the cost of his intellectual reputation. (For instance, he argued repeatedly that it is possible to "square the circle" - no accident that the phrase is now proverbial for a problem that cannot be solved!) His writing was as undaunted by age and ill health as it was by the events of his times. Though his health slowly failed - from about sixty, he began to suffer "shaking palsy," probably Parkinson’s disease, which steadily worsened - even in his eighties he continued to dictate his thoughts to a secretary, and to defend his quarter in various controversies.
Hobbes gained a reputation in many fields. He was known as a scientist (especially in optics), as a mathematician (especially in geometry), as a translator of the classics, as a writer on law, as a disputant in metaphysics and epistemology; not least, he became notorious for his writings and disputes on religious questions. But it is for his writings on morality and politics that he has, rightly, been most remembered. Without these, scholars might remember Hobbes as an interesting intellectual of the seventeenth century; but few philosophers would even recognize his name.
What are the writings that earned Hobbes his philosophical fame? The first was entitled The Elements of Law (1640); this was Hobbes's attempt to provide arguments supporting the King against his challengers.De Cive [On the Citizen] (1642) has much in common with Elements, and offers a clear, concise statement of Hobbes's moral and political philosophy. His most famous work is Leviathan, a classic of English prose (1651; a slightly altered Latin edition appeared in 1668). Leviathan expands on the argument of De Cive, mostly in terms of its huge second half that deals with questions of religion. Other important works include: De Corpore [On the Body] (1655), which deals with questions of metaphysics;De Homine [On Man] (1657); and Behemoth (published 1682, though written rather earlier), in which Hobbes gives his account of England's Civil Wars. But to understand the essentials of Hobbes’s ideas and system, one can rely on De Cive and Leviathan. It is also worth noting that, although Leviathan is more famous and more often read, De Cive actually gives a much more straightforward account of Hobbes's ideas. Readers whose main interest is in those ideas may wish to skip the next section and go straight to ethics and human nature.
3. Two Intellectual Influences
As well as the political background just stressed, two influences are extremely marked in Hobbes's work. The first is a reaction against religious authority as it had been known, and especially against the scholastic philosophy that accepted and defended such authority. The second is a deep admiration for (and involvement in) the emerging scientific method, alongside an admiration for a much older discipline, geometry. Both influences affected how Hobbes expressed his moral and political ideas. In some areas it's also clear that they significantly affected the ideas themselves.
Hobbes's contempt for scholastic philosophy is boundless. Leviathan and other works are littered with references to the "frequency of insignificant speech" in the speculations of the scholastics, with their combinations of Christian theology and Aristotelian metaphysics. Hobbes's reaction, apart from much savage and sparkling sarcasm, is twofold. In the first place, he makes very strong claims about the proper relation between religion and politics. He was not (as many have charged) an atheist, but he was deadly serious in insisting that theological disputes should be kept out of politics. (He also adopts a strongly materialist metaphysics, that - as his critics were quick to charge - makes it difficult to account for God's existence as a spiritual entity.) For Hobbes, the sovereign should determine the proper forms of religious worship, and citizens never have duties to God that override their duty to obey political authority. Second, this reaction against scholasticism shapes the presentation of Hobbes's own ideas. He insists that terms be clearly defined and relate to actual concrete experiences - part of his empiricism. (Many early sections of Leviathan read rather like a dictionary.) Commentators debate how seriously to take Hobbes's stress on the importance of definition, and whether it embodies a definite philosophical doctrine. What is certain, and more important from the point of view of his moral and political thought, is that he tries extremely hard to avoid any metaphysical categories that don't relate to physical realities (especially the mechanical realities of matter and motion). Commentators further disagree whether Hobbes's often mechanical sounding definitions of human nature and human behavior are actually important in shaping his moral and political ideas - see Materialism versus self-knowledge below.
Hobbes's determination to avoid the "insignificant" (that is, meaningless) speech of the scholastics also overlaps with his admiration for the emerging physical sciences and for geometry. His admiration is not so much for the emerging method of experimental science, but rather for deductive science - science that deduces the workings of things from basic first principles and from true definitions of the basic elements. Hobbes therefore approves a mechanistic view of science and knowledge, one that models itself very much on the clarity and deductive power exhibited in proofs in geometry. It is fair to say that this a priori account of science has found little favor after Hobbes's time. It looks rather like a dead-end on the way to the modern idea of science based on patient observation, theory-building and experiment. Nonetheless, it certainly provided Hobbes with a method that he follows in setting out his ideas about human nature and politics. As presented in Leviathan, especially, Hobbes seems to build from first elements of human perception and reasoning, up to a picture of human motivation and action, to a deduction of the possible forms of political relations and their relative desirability. Once more, it can be disputed whether this method is significant in shaping those ideas, or merely provides Hobbes with a distinctive way of presenting them.
4. Ethics and Human Nature
Hobbes's moral thought is difficult to disentangle from his politics. On his view, what we ought to do depends greatly on the situation in which we find ourselves. Where political authority is lacking (as in his famous natural condition of mankind), our fundamental right seems to be to save our skins, by whatever means we think fit. Where political authority exists, our duty seems to be quite straightforward: to obey those in power.
But we can usefully separate the ethics from the politics if we follow Hobbes's own division. For him ethics is concerned with human nature, while political philosophy deals with what happens when human beings interact. What, then, is Hobbes's view of human nature?
a. Materialism Versus Self-Knowledge
Reading the opening chapters of Leviathan is a confusing business, and the reason for this is already apparent in Hobbes's very short "Introduction." He begins by telling us that the human body is like a machine, and that political organization ("the commonwealth") is like an artificial human being. He ends by saying that the truth of his ideas can be gauged only by self-examination, by looking into our selves to adjudge our characteristic thoughts and passions, which form the basis of all human action. But what is the relationship between these two very different claims? For obviously when we look into our selves we do not see mechanical pushes and pulls. This mystery is hardly answered by Hobbes's method in the opening chapters, where he persists in talking about all manner of psychological phenomena - from emotions to thoughts to whole trains of reasoning – as products of mechanical interactions. (As to what he will say about successful political organization, the resemblance between the commonwealth and a functioning human being is slim indeed. Hobbes's only real point seems to be that there should be a "head" that decides most of the important things that the "body" does.)
Most commentators now agree with an argument made in the 1960's by the political philosopher Leo Strauss. Hobbes draws on his notion of a mechanistic science, that works deductively from first principles, in setting out his ideas about human nature. Science provides him with a distinctive method and some memorable metaphors and similes. What it does not provide - nor could it, given the rudimentary state of physiology and psychology in Hobbes's day - are any decisive or substantive ideas about what human nature really is. Those ideas may have come, as Hobbes also claims, from self-examination. In all likelihood, they actually derived from his reflection on contemporary events and his reading of classics of political history such as Thucydides.
This is not to say that we should ignore Hobbes's ideas on human nature - far from it. But it does mean we should not be misled by scientific imagery that stems from an in fact non-existent science (and also, to some extent, from an unproven and uncertain metaphysics). The point is important mainly when it comes to a central interpretative point in Hobbes's work: whether or not he thinks of human beings as mechanical objects, programmed as it were to pursue their self-interest. Some have suggested that Hobbes's mechanical world-view leaves no room for the influence of moral ideas, that he thinks the only effective influence on our behavior will be incentives of pleasure and pain. But while it is true that Hobbes sometimes says things like this, we should be clear that the ideas fit together only in a metaphorical way. For example, there's no reason why moral ideas shouldn’t "get into" the mechanisms that drive us round (like so many clock-work dolls perhaps?). Likewise, there's no reason why pursuing pleasure and pain should work in our self-interest. (What self-interest is depends on the time-scale we adopt, and how effectively we might achieve this goal also depends on our insight into what harms and benefits us). If we want to know what drives human beings, on Hobbes's view, we must read carefully all he says about this, as well as what he needs to assume if the rest of his thought is to make sense. The mechanistic metaphor is something of a red herring and, in the end, probably less useful than his other starting point inLeviathan, the Delphic epithet: nosce teipsum, "know thyself."
b. The Poverty of Human Judgment and our Need for Science
There are two major aspects to Hobbes's picture of human nature. As we have seen, and will explore below, what motivates human beings to act is extremely important to Hobbes. The other aspect concerns human powers of judgment and reasoning, about which Hobbes tends to be extremely skeptical. Like many philosophers before him, Hobbes wants to present a more solid and certain account of human morality than is contained in everyday beliefs. Plato had contrasted knowledge with opinion. Hobbes contrasts science with a whole raft of less reliable forms of belief - from probable inference based on experience, right down to "absurdity, to which no living creature is subject but man" (Leviathan, v.7).
Hobbes has several reasons for thinking that human judgment is unreliable, and needs to be guided by science. Our judgments tend to be distorted by self-interest or by the pleasures and pains of the moment. We may share the same basic passions, but the various things of the world affect us all very differently; and we are inclined to use our feelings as measures for others. It becomes dogmatic through vanity and morality, as with "men vehemently in love with their own new opinions…and obstinately bent to maintain them, [who give] their opinions also that reverenced name of conscience" (Leviathan, vii.4). When we use words which lack any real objects of reference, or are unclear about the meaning of the words we use, the danger is not only that our thoughts will be meaningless, but also that we will fall into violent dispute. (Hobbes has scholastic philosophy in mind, but he also makes related points about the dangerous effects of faulty political ideas and ideologies.) We form beliefs about supernatural entities, fairies and spirits and so on, and fear follows where belief has gone, further distorting our judgment. Judgment can be swayed this way and that by rhetoric, that is, by the persuasive and "colored" speech of others, who can deliberately deceive us and may well have purposes that go against the common good or indeed our own good. Not least, much judgment is concerned with what we should do now, that is, with future events, "the future being but a fiction of the mind" (Leviathan, iii.7) and therefore not reliably known to us.
For Hobbes, it is only science, "the knowledge of consequences" (Leviathan, v.17), that offers reliable knowledge of the future and overcomes the frailties of human judgment. Unfortunately, his picture of science, based on crudely mechanistic premises and developed through deductive demonstrations, is not even plausible in the physical sciences. When it comes to the complexities of human behavior, Hobbes's model of science is even less satisfactory. He is certainly an acute and wise commentator of political affairs; we can praise him for his hard-headedness about the realities of human conduct, and for his determination to create solid chains of logical reasoning. Nonetheless, this does not mean that Hobbes was able to reach a level of "scientific" certainty in his judgments that had been lacking in all previous reflection on morals and politics.
The most consequential aspect of Hobbes's account of human nature centers on his ideas about human motivation, and this topic is therefore at the heart of many debates about how to understand Hobbes's philosophy. Many interpreters have presented the Hobbesian agent as a self-interested, rationally calculating actor (those ideas have been important in modern political philosophy and economic thought, especially in terms of rational choice theories). It is true that some of the problems that face people like this - rational egoists, as philosophers call them - are similar to the problems Hobbes wants to solve in his political philosophy. And it is also very common for first-time readers of Hobbes to get the impression that he believes we're all basically selfish.
There are good reasons why earlier interpreters and new readers tend to think the Hobbesian agent is ultimately self-interested. Hobbes likes to make bold and even shocking claims to get his point across. "I obtained two absolutely certain postulates of human nature," he says, "one, the postulate of human greed by which each man insists upon his own private use of common property; the other, the postulate of natural reason, by which each man strives to avoid violent death" (De Cive, Epistle Dedicatory). What could be clearer? - We want all we can get, and we certainly want to avoid death. There are two problems with thinking that this is Hobbes's considered view, however. First, quite simply, it represents a false view of human nature. People do all sorts of altruistic things that go against their interests. They also do all sorts of needlessly cruel things that go against self-interest (think of the self-defeating lengths that revenge can run to). So it would be uncharitable to interpret Hobbes this way, if we can find a more plausible account in his work. Second, in any case Hobbes often relies on a more sophisticated view of human nature. He describes or even relies on motives that go beyond or against self-interest, such as pity, a sense of honor or courage, and so on. And he frequently emphasizes that we find it difficult to judge or appreciate just what our interests are anyhow. (Some also suggest that Hobbes's views on the matter shifted away from egoism after De Cive, but the point is not crucial here.)
The upshot is that Hobbes does not think that we are basically or reliably selfish; and he does not think we are fundamentally or reliably rational in our ideas about what is in our interests. He is rarely surprised to find human beings doing things that go against self-interest: we will cut off our noses to spite our faces, we will torture others for their eternal salvation, we will charge to our deaths for love of country. In fact, a lot of the problems that befall human beings, according to Hobbes, result from their being too littleconcerned with self-interest. Too often, he thinks, we are too much concerned with what others think of us, or inflamed by religious doctrine, or carried away by others' inflammatory words. This weakness as regards our self-interest has even led some to think that Hobbes is advocating a theory known as ethical egoism. This is to claim that Hobbes bases morality upon self-interest, claiming that we ought to do what it is most in our interest to do. But we shall see that this would over-simplify the conclusions that Hobbes draws from his account of human nature.
d. Political Philosophy
This is Hobbes's picture of human nature. We are needy and vulnerable. We are easily led astray in our attempts to know the world around us. Our capacity to reason is as fragile as our capacity to know; it relies upon language and is prone to error and undue influence. When we act, we may do so selfishly or impulsively or in ignorance, on the basis of faulty reasoning or bad theology or others' emotive speech.
What is the political fate of this rather pathetic sounding creature - that is, of us? Unsurprisingly, Hobbes thinks little happiness can be expected of our lives together. The best we can hope for is peaceful life under an authoritarian-sounding sovereign. The worst, on Hobbes's account, is what he calls the "natural condition of mankind," a state of violence, insecurity and constant threat. In outline, Hobbes's argument is that the alternative to government is a situation no one could reasonably wish for, and that any attempt to make government accountable to the people must undermine it, so threatening the situation of non-government that we must all wish to avoid. Our only reasonable option, therefore, is a "sovereign" authority that is totally unaccountable to its subjects. Let us deal with the "natural condition" of non-government, also called the "state of nature," first of all.
5. The Natural Condition of Mankind
The state of nature is "natural" in one specific sense only. For Hobbes political authority is artificial: in the "natural" condition human beings lack government, which is an authority created by men. What is Hobbes's reasoning here? He claims that the only authority that naturally exists among human beings is that of a mother over her child, because the child is so very much weaker than the mother (and indebted to her for its survival). Among adult human beings this is invariably not the case. Hobbes concedes an obvious objection, admitting that some of us are much stronger than others. And although he's very sarcastic about the idea that some are wiser than others, he doesn't have much difficulty with the idea that some are fools and others are dangerously cunning. Nonetheless, it's almost invariably true that every human being is capable of killing any other. Even the strongest must sleep; even the weakest might persuade others to help him kill another. (Leviathan, xiii.1-2) Because adults are "equal" in this capacity to threaten one another’s lives, Hobbes claims there is no natural source of authority to order their lives together. (He is strongly opposing arguments that established monarchs have a natural or God-given right to rule over us.)
Thus, as long as human beings have not successfully arranged some form of government, they live in Hobbes's state of nature. Such a condition might occur at the "beginning of time" (see Hobbes’s comments on Cain and Abel, Leviathan, xiii.11, Latin version only), or in "primitive" societies (Hobbes thought the American Indians lived in such a condition). But the real point for Hobbes is that a state of nature could just as well occur in seventeenth century England, should the King's authority be successfully undermined. It could occur tomorrow in every modern society, for example, if the police and army suddenly refused to do their jobs on behalf of government. Unless some effective authority stepped into the King's place (or the place of army and police and government), Hobbes argues the result is doomed to be deeply awful, nothing less than a state of war.
Why should peaceful cooperation be impossible without an overarching authority? Hobbes provides a series of powerful arguments that suggest it is extremely unlikely that human beings will live in security and peaceful cooperation without government. (Anarchism, the thesis that we should live without government, of course disputes these arguments.) His most basic argument is threefold. (Leviathan, xiii.3-9) (i) He thinks we will compete, violently compete, to secure the basic necessities of life and perhaps to make other material gains. (ii) He argues that we will challenge others and fight out of fear ("diffidence"), so as to ensure our personal safety. (iii) And he believes that we will seek reputation ("glory"), both for its own sake and for its protective effects (for example, so that others will be afraid to challenge us).
This is a more difficult argument than it might seem. Hobbes does not suppose that we are all selfish, that we are all cowards, or that we are all desperately concerned with how others see us. Two points, though. First, he does think that some of us are selfish, some of us cowardly, and some of us "vainglorious" (perhaps some people are of all of these!). Moreover, many of these people will be prepared to use violence to attain their ends - especially if there's no government or police to stop them. In this Hobbes is surely correct. Second, in some situations it makes good sense, at least in the short term, to use violence and to behave selfishly, fearfully or vaingloriously. If our lives seem to be at stake, after all, we're unlikely to have many scruples about stealing a loaf of bread; if we perceive someone as a deadly threat, we may well want to attack first, while his guard is down; if we think that there are lots of potential attackers out there, it's going to make perfect sense to get a reputation as someone who shouldn't be messed with. In Hobbes’s words, "the wickedness of bad men also compels good men to have recourse, for their own protection, to the virtues of war, which are violence and fraud." (De Cive, Epistle Dedicatory) As well as being more complex than first appears, Hobbes's argument becomes very difficult to refute.
Underlying this most basic argument is an important consideration about insecurity. As we shall see Hobbes places great weight on contracts (thus some interpreters see Hobbes as heralding a market society dominated by contractual exchanges). In particular, he often speaks of "covenants," by which he means a contract where one party performs his part of the bargain later than the other. In the state of nature such agreements aren't going to work. Only the weakest will have good reason to perform the second part of a covenant, and then only if the stronger party is standing over them. Yet a huge amount of human cooperation relies on trust, that others will return their part of the bargain over time. A similar point can be made about property, most of which we can't carry about with us and watch over. This means we must rely on others respecting our possessions over extended periods of time. If we can't do this, then many of the achievements of human society that involve putting hard work into land (farming, building) or material objects (the crafts, or modern industrial production, still unknown in Hobbes's time) will be near impossible.
One can reasonably object to such points: Surely there are basic duties to reciprocate fairly and to behave in a trustworthy manner? Even if there's no government providing a framework of law, judgment and punishment, don't most people have a reasonable sense of what is right and wrong, which will prevent the sort of contract-breaking and generalized insecurity that Hobbes is concerned with? Indeed, shouldn't our basic sense of morality prevent much of the greed, pre-emptive attack and reputation-seeking that Hobbes stressed in the first place? This is the crunch point of Hobbes's argument, and it is here (if anywhere) that one can accuse Hobbes of "pessimism." He makes two claims. The first concerns our duties in the state of nature (that is, the so-called "right of nature"). The second follows from this, and is less often noticed: it concerns the danger posed by our different and variable judgments of what is right and wrong.
On Hobbes's view the right of nature is quite simple to define. Naturally speaking - that is, outside of civil society – we have a right to do whatever we think will ensure our self-preservation. The worst that can happen to us is violent death at the hands of others. If we have any rights at all, if (as we might put it) nature has given us any rights whatsoever, then the first is surely this: the right to prevent violent death befalling us. But Hobbes says more than this, and it is this point that makes his argument so powerful. We do not just have a right to ensure our self-preservation: we each have a right to judge what will ensure our self-preservation. And this is where Hobbes's picture of humankind becomes important. Hobbes has given us good reasons to think that human beings rarely judge wisely. Yet in the state of nature no one is in a position to successfully define what is good judgment. If I judge that killing you is a sensible or even necessary move to safeguard my life, then - in Hobbes's state of nature – I have a right to kill you. Others might judge the matter differently, of course. Almost certainly you'll have quite a different view of things (perhaps you were just stretching your arms, not raising a musket to shoot me). Because we're all insecure, because trust is more-or-less absent, there's little chance of our sorting out misunderstandings peacefully, nor can we rely on some (trusted) third party to decide whose judgment is right. We all have to be judges in our own causes, and the stakes are very high indeed: life or death.
For this reason Hobbes makes very bold claims that sound totally amoral. "To this war of every man against every man," he says, "this also is consequent [i.e., it follows]: that nothing can be unjust. The notions of right and wrong, justice and injustice have no place [in the state of nature]." (Leviathan, xiii.13) He further argues that in the state of nature we each have a right to all things, "even to one another's body’ (Leviathan, xiv.4). Hobbes is dramatizing his point, but the core is defensible. If I judge that I need such and such - an object, another person's labor, another person’s death - to ensure my continued existence, then in the state of nature, there is no agreed authority to decide whether I'm right or wrong. New readers of Hobbes often suppose that the state of nature would be a much nicer place, if only he were to picture human beings with some basic moral ideas. But this is naïve: unless people share the same moral ideas, not just at the level of general principles but also at the level of individual judgment, then the challenge he poses remains unsolved: human beings who lack some shared authority are almost certain to fall into dangerous and deadly conflict.
There are different ways of interpreting Hobbes's view of the absence of moral constraints in the state of nature. Some think that Hobbes is imagining human beings who have no idea of social interaction and therefore no ideas about right and wrong. In this case, the natural condition would be a purely theoretical construction, and would demonstrate what both government and society do for human beings. (A famous statement about the state of nature in De Cive (viii.1) might support this interpretation: "looking at men as if they had just emerged from the earth like mushrooms and grown up without any obligation to each other…") Another, complementary view reads Hobbes as a psychological egoist, so that - in the state of nature as elsewhere – he is merely describing the interaction of ultimately selfish and amoral human beings.
Others suppose that Hobbes has a much more complex picture of human motivation, so that there is no reason to think moral ideas are absent in the state of nature. In particular, it's historically reasonable to think that Hobbes invariably has civil war in mind, when he describes our "natural condition." If we think of civil war, we need to imagine people who’ve lived together and indeed still do live together - huddled together in fear in their houses, banded together as armies or guerrillas or groups of looters. The problem here isn't a lack of moral ideas - far from it – rather that moral ideas and judgments differ enormously. This means (for example) that two people who are fighting tooth and nail over a cow or a gun can both think they're perfectly entitled to the object and both think they're perfectly right to kill the other - a point Hobbes makes explicitly and often. It also enables us to see that many Hobbesian conflicts are about religious ideas or political ideals (as well as self-preservation and so on) - as in the British Civil War raging while Hobbes wrote Leviathan, and in the many violent sectarian conflicts throughout the world today.
In the end, though, whatever account of the state of nature and its (a) morality we attribute to Hobbes, we must remember that it is meant to function as a powerful and decisive threat: if we do not heed Hobbes's teachings and fail to respect existing political authority, then the natural condition and its horrors of war await us.
a. The Laws of Nature and the Social Contract
Hobbes thinks the state of nature is something we ought to avoid, at any cost except our own self-preservation (this being our "right of nature," as we saw above). But what sort of "ought" is this? There are two basic ways of interpreting Hobbes here. It might be a counsel of prudence: avoid the state of nature, if you're concerned to avoid violent death. In this case Hobbes's advice only applies to us (i) if we agree that violent death is what we should fear most and should therefore avoid; and (ii) if we agree with Hobbes that only an unaccountable sovereign stands between human beings and the state of nature. This line of thought fits well with an egoistic reading of Hobbes, but we'll see that it faces serious problems.
The other way of interpreting Hobbes is not without problems either. This takes Hobbes to be saying that we ought, morally speaking, to avoid the state of nature. We have a duty to do what we can to avoid this situation arising, and a duty to end it, if at all possible. Hobbes often makes his view clear, that we have such moral obligations. But then two difficult questions arise: Why these obligations? And why are they obligatory?
Hobbes frames the issues in terms of an older vocabulary, using the idea of natural law that many ancient and medieval philosophers had relied on. Like them, he thinks that human reason can discern some eternal principles to govern our conduct. These principles are independent of (though also complementary to) whatever moral instruction we might get from God or religion. In other words, they are laws given by nature rather than revealed by God. But Hobbes makes radical changes to the content of these so-called laws of nature. In particular, he doesn't think that natural law provides any scope whatsoever to criticize or disobey the actual laws made by a government. He thus disagrees with those Protestants who thought that religious conscience might sanction disobedience of "immoral" laws, and with Catholics who thought that the commandments of the Pope have primacy over those of national political authorities.
Although he sets out nineteen laws of nature, it is the first two that are politically crucial. A third, that stresses the important of keeping to contracts we have entered into, is important in Hobbes's moral justifications of obedience to the sovereign. (The remaining sixteen can be quite simply encapsulated in the formula, "do as you would be done by." While the details are important for scholars of Hobbes, they do not affect the overall theory and will be ignored here.)
The first law reads as follows:
Every man ought to endeavor peace, as far as he has hope of obtaining it, and when he cannot obtain it, that he may seek and use all helps and advantages of war. (Leviathan, xiv.4)
This repeats the points we have already seen about our "right of nature," so long as peace does not appear to be a realistic prospect. The second law of nature is more complicated:
That a man be willing, when others are so too, as far-forth as for peace and defense of himself he shall think it necessary, to lay down this right to all things, and be contented with so much liberty against other men, as he would allow other men against himself. (Leviathan, xiv.5)
What Hobbes tries to tackle here is the transition from the state of nature to civil society. But how he does this is misleading and has generated much confusion and disagreement. The way that Hobbes describes this second law of nature makes it look as if we should all put down our weapons, give up (much of) our "right of nature," and jointly authorize a sovereign who will tell us what is permitted and punish us if we don't obey. But the problem is obvious. If the state of nature is anything like as bad as Hobbes has argued, then there's just no way people could ever make an agreement like this or put it into practice.
At the end of Leviathan, Hobbes seems to concede this point, saying "there is scarce a commonwealth in the world whose beginnings can in conscience be justified" ("Review and Conclusion," 8). That is: governments have invariably been foisted upon people by force and fraud, not by collective agreement. But Hobbes means to defend every existing government that is powerful enough to secure peace among its subjects - not just a mythical government that's been created by a peaceful contract out of a state of nature. His basic claim is that we should behave as if we had voluntarily entered into such a contract with everyone else in our society - everyone else, that is, except the sovereign authority.
In Hobbes's myth of the social contract, everyone except the person or group who will wield sovereign power lays down their "right to all things." They agree to limit drastically their right of nature, retaining only a right to defend their lives in case of immediate threat. (How limited this right of nature becomes in civil society has caused much dispute, because deciding what is an immediate threat is a question of judgment. It certainly permits us to fight back if the sovereign tries to kill us. But what if the sovereign conscripts us as soldiers? What if the sovereign looks weak and we doubt whether he can continue to secure peace…?) The sovereign, however, retains his (or her, or their) right of nature, which we have seen is effectively a right to all things - to decide what everyone else should do, to decide the rules of property, to judge disputes and so on. Hobbes concedes that there are moral limits on what sovereigns should do (God might call a sovereign to account). However, since in any case of dispute the sovereign is the only rightful judge - on this earth, that is – those moral limits make no practical difference. In every moral and political matter, the decisive question for Hobbes is always: who is to judge? As we have seen, in the state of nature, each of us is judge in our own cause, part of the reason why Hobbes thinks it is inevitably a state of war. Once civil society exists, the only rightful judge is the sovereign.
b. Why Should we Obey the Sovereign?
If we had all made a voluntary contract, a mutual promise, then it might seem half-way plausible to think we have an obligation to obey the sovereign (although even this requires the claim that promising is a moral value that overrides all others). If we have been conquered or, more fortunately, have simply been born into a society with an established political authority, this seems quite improbable. Hobbes has to make three steps here, all of which have seemed weak to many of his readers. First of all, he insists that promises made under threat of violence are nonetheless freely made, and just as binding as any others. Second, he has to put great weight on the moral value of promise keeping, which hardly fits with the absence of duties in the state of nature. Third, he has to give a story of how those of us born and raised in a political society have made some sort of implied promise to each other to obey, or at least, he has to show that we are bound (either morally or out of self-interest) to behave as if we had made such a promise.
In the first place, Hobbes draws on his mechanistic picture of the world, to suggest that threats of force do not deprive us of liberty. Liberty, he says, is freedom of motion, and I am free to move whichever way I wish, unless I am literally enchained. If I yield to threats of violence, that is my choice, for physically I could have done otherwise. If I obey the sovereign for fear of punishment or in fear of the state of nature, then that is equally my choice. Such obedience then comes, for Hobbes, to constitute a promise that I will continue to obey.
Second, promises carry a huge moral weight for Hobbes, as they do in all social contract theories. The question, however, is why we should think they are so important. Why should my (coerced) promise oblige me, given the wrong you committed in threatening me and demanding my valuables? Hobbes has no good answer to this question (but see below, on egoistic interpretations of Hobbes's thinking here). His theory suggests that (in the state of nature) you could do me no wrong, as the right of nature dictates that we all have a right to all things. Likewise, promises do not oblige in the state of nature, inasmuch as they go against our right of nature. In civil society, the sovereign's laws dictate what is right and wrong; if your threat was wrongful, then my promise will not bind me. But as the sovereign is outside of the original contract, he sets the terms for everyone else: so his threats create obligations.
As this suggests, Hobbesian promises are strangely fragile. Implausibly binding so long as a sovereign exists to adjudicate and enforce them, they lose all power should things revert to a state of nature. Relatedly, they seem to contain not one jot of loyalty. To be logically consistent, Hobbes needs to be politically implausible. Now there are passages where Hobbes sacrifices consistency for plausibility, arguing we have a duty to fight for our (former) sovereign even in the midst of civil war. Nonetheless the logic of his theory suggests that, as soon as government starts to weaken and disorder sets in, our duty of obedience lapses. That is, when the sovereign power needs our support, because it is no longer able to coerce us, there is no effective judge or enforcer of covenants, so that such promises no longer override our right of nature. This turns common sense on its head. Surely a powerful government can afford to be challenged, for instance by civil disobedience or conscientious objection? But when civil conflict and the state of nature threaten, in other words when government is failing, then we might reasonably think that political unity is as morally important as Hobbes always suggests. A similar question of loyalty also comes up when the sovereign power has been usurped - when Cromwell has supplanted the King, when a foreign invader has ousted our government. Right from the start, Hobbes's critics saw that his theory makes turncoats into moral heroes: our allegiance belongs to whoever happens to be holding the gun(s). Perversely, the only crime the makers of a coup can commit is to fail.
Why does this problem come about? To overcome the fact that his contract is a fiction, Hobbes is driven to construct a "sort of" promise out of the fact of our subjugation to whatever political authority exists. He stays wedded to the idea that obedience can only find a moral basis in a "voluntary" promise, because only this seems to justify the almost unlimited obedience and renunciation of individual judgment he's determined to prove. It is no surprise that Hobbes's arguments creak at every point: nothing could bear the weight of justifying such an overriding duty.
All the difficulties in finding a reliable moral obligation to obey might tempt us back to the idea that Hobbes is some sort of egoist. However, the difficulties with this tack are even greater. There are two sorts of egoism commentators have attributed to Hobbes: psychological and ethical. The first theory says that human beings always act egoistically, the second that they ought to act egoistically. Either view might support this simple idea: we should obey the sovereign, because his political authority is what keeps us from the evils of the natural condition. But the basic problem with such egoistic interpretations, from the point of view of Hobbes's system of politics, is shown when we think about cases where selfishness seems to conflict with the commands of the sovereign - for example, where illegal conduct will benefit us or keep us from danger. For a psychologically egoist agent, such behavior will be irresistible; for an ethically egoist agent, it will be morally obligatory. Now, providing the sovereign is sufficiently powerful and well-informed, he can prevent many such cases arising by threatening and enforcing punishments of those who disobey. Effective threats of punishment mean that obedience is in our self-interest. But such threats will not be effective when we think our disobedience can go undetected. After Orwell's 1984 we can imagine a state that is so powerful that no reasonable person would ever think disobedience could pay. But for Hobbes, such a powerful sovereign was not even conceivable: he would have had to assume that there would be many situations where people could reasonably hope to "get away with it." (Likewise, under non-totalitarian, liberal politics, there are many situations where illegal behavior is very unlikely to be detected or punished.) So, still thinking of egoistic agents, the more people do get away with it, the more reason others have to think they can do the same. Thus the problem of disobedience threatens to "snowball," undermining the sovereign and plunging selfish agents back into the chaos of the state of nature.
In other words, sovereignty as Hobbes imagined it, and liberal political authority as we know it, can only function where people feel some additional motivation apart from pure self-interest. Moreover, there is strong evidence that Hobbes was well aware of this. Part of Hobbes's interest in religion (a topic that occupies half of Leviathan) lies in its power to shape human conduct. Sometimes this does seem to work through self-interest, as in crude threats of damnation and hell-fire. But Hobbes's main interest lies in the educative power of religion, and indeed of political authority. Religious practices, the doctrines taught in the universities (!), the beliefs and habits inculcated by the institutions of government and society: how these can encourage and secure respect for law and authority seem to be even more important to Hobbes's political solutions than his theoretical social contract or shaky appeals to simple self-interest.
What are we to conclude, then, given the difficulties in finding a reliable moral or selfish justification for obedience? In the end, for Hobbes, everything rides on the value of peace. Hobbes wants to say both that civil order is in our "enlightened" self-interest, and that it is of overwhelming moral value. Life is never going to be perfect for us, and life under the sovereign is the best we can do. Recognizing this aspect ofeveryone's self-interest should lead us to recognize the moral value of supporting whatever authority we happen to live under. For Hobbes, this moral value is so great - and the alternatives so stark – that it should override every threat to our self-interest except the imminent danger of death. The million-dollar question is then: is a life of obedience to the sovereign really the best human beings can hope for?
c. Life Under the Sovereign
Hobbes has definite ideas about the proper nature, scope and exercise of sovereignty. Much that he says is cogent, and much of it can reduce the worries we might have about living under this drastically authoritarian sounding regime. Many commentators have stressed, for example, the importance Hobbes places upon the rule of law. His claim that much of our freedom, in civil society, "depends on the silence of the laws" is often quoted (Leviathan, xxi.18). In addition, Hobbes makes many points that are obviously aimed at contemporary debates about the rights of King and Parliament - especially about the sovereign's rights as regards taxation and the seizure of property, and about the proper relation between religion and politics. Some of these points continue to be relevant, others are obviously anachronistic: evidently Hobbes could not have imagined the modern state, with its vast bureaucracies, massive welfare provision and complicated interfaces with society. Nor could he have foreseen how incredibly powerful the state might become, meaning that "sovereigns" such as Hitler or Stalin might starve, brutalize and kill their subjects, to such an extent that the state of nature looks clearly preferable.
However, the problem with all of Hobbes's notions about sovereignty is that - on his account – it is not Hobbes the philosopher, nor we the citizens, who decide what counts as the proper nature, scope or exercise of sovereignty. He faces a systematic problem: justifying any limits or constraints on the sovereign involves making judgments about moral or practical requirements. But one of his greatest insights, still little recognized by many moral philosophers, is that any right or entitlement is only practically meaningful when combined with a concrete judgment as to what it dictates in some given case. Hobbes's own failure, however understandable, to foresee the growth of government and its powers only supports this thought: that the proper nature, scope or exercise of sovereignty is a matter of complex judgment. Alone among the people who comprise Hobbes's commonwealth, it is the sovereign who judges what form he should appear in, how far he should reach into the lives of his subjects, and how he should exercise his powers.
It should be added that the one part of his system that Hobbes concedes not to be proven with certainty is just this question: who or what should constitute the sovereign power. It was natural for Hobbes to think of a King, or indeed a Queen (he was born under Elizabeth I). But he was certainly very familiar with ancient forms of government, including aristocracy (government by an elite) and democracy (government by the citizens, who formed a relatively small group within the total population). Hobbes was also aware that an assembly such as Parliament could constitute a sovereign body. All have advantages and disadvantages, he argues. But the unity that comes about from having a single person at the apex, together with fixed rules of succession that pre-empt dispute about who this person should be, makes monarchy Hobbes's preferred option.
In fact, if we want to crack open Hobbes's sovereign, to be able to lay down concrete ideas about its nature and limits, we must begin with the question of judgment. For Hobbes, dividing capacities to judge between different bodies is tantamount to letting the state of nature straight back in. "For what is it to divide the power of a commonwealth, but to dissolve it; for powers divided mutually destroy each other." (Leviathan, xxix.12; cf De Cive, xii.5) Beyond the example of England in the 1640s, Hobbes hardly bothers to argue the point, although it is crucial to his entire theory. Always in his mind is the Civil War that arose when Parliament claimed the right to judge rules of taxation, and thereby prevented the King from ruling and making war as he saw fit, and when churches and religious sects claimed prerogatives that went against the King's decisions.
Especially given modern experiences of the division of powers, however, it's easy to see that these examples are extreme and atypical. We might recall the American constitution, where powers of legislation, execution and case-by-case judgment are separated (to Congress, President and the judiciary respectively) and counter-balance one another. Each of these bodies is responsible for judging different questions. There are often, of course, boundary disputes, as to whether legislative, executive or judicial powers should apply to a given issue, and no one body is empowered to settle this crucial question of judgment. Equally obviously, however, such disputes have not led to a state of nature (well, at least if we think of the US after the Civil War). For Hobbes it is simply axiomatic that disputation as to who should judge important social and political issues spells the end of the commonwealth. For us, it is equally obvious that only a few extreme forms of dispute have this very dangerous power. Dividing the powers that are important to government need not leave a society more open to those dangerous conflicts. Indeed, many would now argue that political compromises which provide different groups and bodies with independent space to judge certain social or political issues can be crucial for preventing disputes from escalating into violent conflict or civil war.
What happens, then, if we do not follow Hobbes in his arguments that judgment must, by necessity or by social contract or both, be the sole province of the sovereign? If we are optimists about the power of human judgment, and about the extent of moral consensus among human beings, we have a straightforward route to the concerns of modern liberalism. Our attention will not be on the question of social and political order, rather on how to maximize liberty, how to define social justice, how to draw the limits of government power, and how to realize democratic ideals. We will probably interpret Hobbes as a psychological egoist, and think that the problems of political order that obsessed him were the product of an unrealistic view of human nature, or unfortunate historical circumstances, or both. In this case, I suggest, we might as well not have read Hobbes at all.
If we are less optimistic about human judgment in morals and politics, however, we should not doubt that Hobbes's problems remain our problems. But hindsight shows grave limitations to his solutions. Theoretically, Hobbes fails to prove that we have an almost unlimited obligation to obey the sovereign. His arguments that sovereignty - the power to judge moral and political matters, and enforce those judgments - cannot be divided are not only weak; they are simply refuted by the (relatively) successful distribution of powers in modern liberal societies. Not least, the horrific crimes of twentieth century dictatorships show beyond doubt that judgment about right and wrong cannot be a question only for our political leaders.
If Hobbes's problems are real and his solutions only partly convincing, where will we go? It might reasonably be thought that this is the central question of modern political thought. We will have no doubt that peaceful coexistence is one of the greatest goods of human life, something worth many inconveniences, sacrifices and compromises. We will see that there is moral force behind the laws and requirements of the state, simply because human beings do indeed need authority and systems of enforcement if they are to cooperate peacefully. But we can hardly accept that, because human judgment is weak and faulty, that there can be only one judge of these matters - precisely because that judge might turn out to be very faulty indeed. Our concern will be how we can effectively divide power between government and people, while still ensuring that important questions of moral and political judgment are peacefully adjudicated. We will be concerned with the standards and institutions that provide for compromise between many different and conflicting judgments. And all the time, we will remember Hobbes's reminder that human life is never without inconvenience and troubles, that we must live with a certain amount of bad, to prevent the worst: fear of violence, and violent death.
7. References and Further Reading
- Edwards, Alistair (2002) "Hobbes" in Interpreting Modern Political Philosophy: From Machiavelli to Marx, eds. A Edwards and J Townshend (Palgrave Macmillan, Houndmills)
- A very helpful overview of key interpretative debates about Hobbes in the twentieth century.
- Hill, Christopher (1961/1980) The Century of Revolution, 1603-1714, second ed (Routledge, London)
- The classic work on the history and repercussions of England's civil war.
- Hobbes, Thomas (1998 ) On the Citizen, ed & trans Richard Tuck and Michael Silverthorne (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge)
- The best translation of Hobbes's most straightforward book,De Cive.
- Hobbes, Thomas (1994 [1651/1668]) Leviathan, ed Edwin Curley (Hackett, Indianapolis)
- The best edition of Hobbes's magnum opus, including extensive additional material and many important variations (ignored by all other editions) between the English text and later Latin edition.
- Sorrell, Tom (1986) Hobbes (Routledge & Kegan Paul, London)
- A concise and well-judged account of Hobbes's life and works.
- Sorrell, Tom, ed (1996) The Cambridge Companion to Hobbes (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge)
- An excellent set of essays on all aspects of Hobbes's intellectual endeavors.