Summary of Hobbes’ Political and Ethical Theories

Hobbes and the Social Contract

Moving in western culture from the ancient and medieval periods into the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, we approach modernity. The discovery of the new world, developments in commerce and industry, the Reformation, the scientific revolution, and the rise of the secular alongside the decline of Christianity transformed western civilization. Inevitably, natural law theory would be scrutinized. The major figures of the period—Rene Descartes (1596-1650), Benedict de Spinoza (1632-1677), John Locke (1632-1704) and Gottfried Leibniz (1646-1716)—all tried, in one way or another, to reconcile the new secular ideas with traditional Christian morality. But the most revolutionary of all the new theorists was Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), who believed that ethical norms were not to be found in God’s cosmic plan but in our social and political agreements.

Hobbes detested violence. He had read Thucydides’ account of the Peloponnesian War and had personally witnessed the decades of English civil war which culminated with the beheading of Charles II. The desire to avoid war motivated both his moral and political thought. Hobbes’ philosophy began by considering what the world would be like without morality. He believed that it would be a state of nature; a terrible place without art, literature, commerce, industry, or culture. Most terrifying of all, it would be a place of “continual fear and danger of violent death; and the life of [humans] solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” But why would it be so bad?

In the first place, Hobbes believed that human beings endeavor desperately to fulfill their desires for food, clothing, shelter, power, honor, glory, comfort, pleasure, self-aggrandizement, and a life of ease. Unfortunately, such things do not exist in abundance; they are scarce. In addition, he believed that persons were relatively equal in their power. Given desires, scarcity, relative power equality, and the predominant sense of self-interest all human beings exhibit, Hobbes concluded that human beings, in a state of nature, would be engaged in a fierce struggle over scarce resources. Individuals would attack, steal, destroy and invade to protect themselves and prove their status. Thus, Hobbes’ first thesis: the state of nature is a state of war.

Hobbes’ second thesis was that individuals in a state of nature have no a priori (natural, before experience) moral law that obligates them to constrain their behavior. For Hobbes, self-preservation justified the use of force and fraud to defend ourselves in a state of nature. In this state, only the power of others limited what we can do. Hobbes called this the right of nature. But this state is antithetical to our survival and so the desire for self-preservation expressed itself in another way which was Hobbes’ third thesis: fear of death and the desire for a good life incline us toward peace. Hobbes called this the law of nature. Morality was defined by articles of peace, essentially, the rules to which any rational self-interested person would agree. The state of nature demands that we follow one of the two formulations of the self-preservation principle. In the state of nature, we should exercise our right of nature; in the state of peace, we should follow the law of nature. These laws of nature bear no resemblance to the medieval concept of natural law; they simply demand self-preservation. In other words, morality is the set of rules that make peaceful living possible.

This led to Hobbes’ fourth thesis: though it is in our own interest to agree to the articles of peace; it is not rational to comply with our agreements unless some coercive power forces us. Otherwise, we might feign agreement and, when the other complies, violate the accord. To prevent this, a coercive power must ensure that we comply with our agreements. This agreement between individuals to establish the laws that make communal living possible and an agency to enforce those laws is called the social contract.

A Theory of Morality

While issues surrounding the nature of the coercive agency which guarantees compliance with the social contract leads to political theory, the agreed-upon rules constitute morality. Morality is the agreed-upon, mutually advantageous conventions which, assuming others’ compliance, make society possible. Thus, self-interest ultimately justifies morality. We can easily see that killing, lying, cheating, and stealing are prohibited since they threaten society and are not in anyone’s self-interest. Whether the moral prohibitions against homosexuality, prostitution, abortion, or euthanasia are justified in terms of individual and societal interest is more debatable.

But whatever the agreed-upon rules, according to the theory they do not exist prior to human contracts. We create morality by our agreements within the constraints demanded by self-preservation and self-interest; we do not discover antecedent moral truths. Prior to the contract, actions are neither moral nor immoral. But after the contract is signed, society forbids some actions, allows others, remains undecided on a few, and continually renegotiates the contract to satisfy rival parties. Therefore, the moral sphere is one of continual bargaining and power-struggling where conflict is resolved through moral discourse, a political mechanism, or violence. Hobbes’ detested the latter option.

Why the Social Contract Theory is Attractive

First, it takes the mystery out of ethics, ethics has to do with all of us being able to live well. Second, it says that morality is objective, there are objective reasons we shouldn’t kill or lie, but there are no mysterious moral facts from on high. Third, moral rules aren’t meant to interfere in people’s lives. Fourth, it doesn’t assume we are altruistic, it assumes we are self-interested, probably a more realistic assumption. And finally, it gives us a reason to be moral—morality is in our self-interest.

The Problem of the Free Rider

Contract theory answers the question of why “we” should be moral, but not why “I” should be moral? Instead, why not be a free rider? That is, why shouldn’t I be immoral if I can get away with it? Yes, it is good collectively for us all to be moral, but individually it seems I always do best by being immoral if I can get away with it. [The prisoner’s dilemma.] This is the toughest question for a contract theory of morality. Hobbes’ believed that we should penalize the non-cooperative move in order to deter individuals from choosing it. But this raises the problem of corruption and injustice among the coercive agencies—governments and their law enforcement departments. Perhaps then this problem is intractable, and there will be no solution until we change the hard-wiring of our brains.

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