Leviathan’s Science of Morals

1. Time for another go at Hobbes’s moral philosophy.  This time around, I’d like to take a closer look at how Hobbes himself defines moral philosophy in Leviathan, and how he makes use of that definition. “Morall Philosophy,” he says, “is nothing else but the Science of what is Good, and Evill, in the conversation, and Society of man-kind.”  It’s with reference to this definition that he makes his case for regarding his doctrine of the Laws of Nature as the “true, and onely moral philosophy.”

In “Hobbes’s Moral Philosophy: A Proposal,” I suggested that the point of this “Science” of morals is to elucidate the difference between commendable and blameworthy conduct, with respect to  ‘the conversation, and Society of man-kind.’  It is a science of manners, as it were – intended to spell out the minimal standards of conduct required for human social intercourse generally.  This interpretation is much at odds with the usual reading of Hobbes. It is usually  thought that he bases his doctrine on purely self-regarding considerations.    In previous posts, I’ve been arguing that Hobbes is far less interested in providing agent-centered reasons to motivate compliance with the rules of his moral canon, than he is concerned to elucidate these rules’ validity in evaluating human conduct (others’ conduct, as much as one’s own), relative to the good of peaceable social intercourse.  The only thing he claims to have shown about these rules is that together they constitute “the way, or means of Peace.”  In previous posts I’ve examined how this intention informs the way he formulates and explains the rules in his canon.  (In “Surveying the Whale,” I’ve also discussed how this fits within Leviathan‘s overall project.)  What I’d like to do now is look at his stated reasons for seeing this the as the proper business of moral philosophy.

 

2.  The relevant passage is found at the end of Leviathan’s 15th chapter (the latter of the two devoted to the Laws of Nature).  Having completed his exposition of the nineteen rules in his canon, Hobbes now credits himself with providing the one  true moral philosophy.  He proceeds to back up this claim with a dense bit of argumentation:

And the Science of them [i.e., “the Lawes of Nature”] is the true and onely Moral Philosophy.  For Morall Philosophy is nothing else but the Science of what is Good, and Evill, in the conversation, and Society of man-kind. Good, and Evill, are names that signifie our Appetites, and Aversions; which in different tempers, customes, and doctrines of men, are different: And divers men, differ not onely in their Judgement, on the senses of what is pleasant, and unpleasant to the tast, smell, hearing, touch, and sight; but also of what is conformable, or disagreeable to Reason, in the actions of common life. Nay, the same man, in divers times, differs from himselfe; and one time praiseth, that is, calleth Good, what another time he dispraiseth, and calleth Evil: From whence arise Disputes, Controversies, and at last War. And therefore so long a man is in the condition of meer Nature, (which is a condition of War,) as private Appetite is the measure of Good, and Evill: And consequently all men  agree on this, that Peace is Good, and therefore also the way, or means of Peace, which (as I have shewed before) are Justice, Gratitude, Modesty, Equity, Mercy, & the rest of the Laws of Nature, are good; that is to say, Morall Vertues; and their contrarie Vices, Evill. Now the science of Vertue and Vice, is Morall Philosophie; and therfore the true Doctrine of the Lawes of Nature, is the true Morall Philosophie. 

This is actually the first time in Leviathan that Hobbes describes his work as a venture in   moral philosophy.  (It’s an interesting question, why he waits so long.) By this point in the book, he has already presented and explained, in as much detail as he cares to supply,  the entirety of his account of the Laws of Nature. It’s also the first in which he uses the word ‘moral’ at all with reference to these Laws.  These two things go together. It’s by explaining how it is that these rules serve to distinguish moral virtues and vices — aspects of good and evil, morally speaking —   that he undertakes to show that his ‘science’ of these laws is the one true moral philosophy.  (To avoid misunderstanding: by ‘virtues’ and ‘vices,’ Hobbes simply means, qualities of some positive or negative worth; nothing in what he says implies any distinction between  the exercise of a virtue and adherence to the relevant rule.)

Consider the argument’s structure.  Hobbes first defines moral philosophy – “the Science of what is Good, and Evill, in the conversation, and Society of man-kind.”  Then he considers what we mean, in general, by ‘good’ and ‘evil’. He notes the variousness and vicissitudes in our use of such terms, which in turn prompts a remark on how this state of affairs necessarily makes for strife and contention.  A short bit of reasoning later, he arrives at this further proposition: “all men agree on this, that Peace is Good.” (I’ll be coming back to the question of how this could possibly follow.)  The rest is a brisk run of syllogistic deduction:  If all men agree on the goodness of peace, then it follows that those manners of conduct which are “the way, or the means of Peace” are likewise good, “that is to say, Morall Vertues” – and the opposite manners, “Vices, Evill.”  His foregoing account has already shown that the standards of peaceable conduct are those rules he’s identified as “Justice, Gratitude, Modesty, Equity, Mercy, & the rest of the Laws of Nature.” So it follows, too, that these same Laws of Nature (or, to be more precise, the behaviors prescribed therein) are to be counted as moral virtues and vices.  And thus Hobbes’s science of these Laws is none other than the science of moral virtue and vice.   Quod erat demonstrandum: “Now the science of Vertue and Vice, is Morall Philosophie; and therfore the true Doctrine of the Lawes of Nature, is the true Morall Philosophie.”

It’s revealing that Hobbes should see any need for an argument here at all.  He has already, well before this, identified specific rules in his canon with such familiar moral terms as justice, equity, and the like — as if the meaning of these terms were fixed in his formulation of the rule.  (Thus his propensity to use these terms to stand for the relevant precept, when he speaks of “Justice, Gratitude, Modesty, Equity, Mercy, & the rest of the Laws of Nature” – all items in the same series.) This can feel rather peremptory, and more than a little arbitrary – it’s really just a matter of bare stipulation on Hobbes’s part.  The interesting thing is that Hobbes seems to recognize this, and to recognize too that something further is needed.  The burden of his argument here is to vindicate  the genuine moral salience of those stipulations.

Another thing to notice, before getting down to the details.  The argument he gives in this passage has nothing whatever to do with the concept of natural law.  It turns out that “the true Doctrine of the Lawes of Nature” is the true moral philosophy — but that isn’t by virtue of its truth as a doctrine of natural law.  It’s rather that the set of rules that Hobbes habitually calls by that name are the proper concern of  moral philosophy. These rules’ moral salience lies simply and solely in  their bearing on peace.

 

3. Now to the tricky part.  How does Hobbes get to that remarkable proposition that lies at the crux of the argument –  “all men agree on this, that Peace is Good”?  How could this possibly follow, from what he’d said just before? Hasn’t he just been saying that men’s opinions about good and evil are endlessly various and discordant?

Let’s take it from the top. “Good, and Evill, are names that signifie our Appetites, and Aversions.”  Taken alone, this is not saying much.  Hobbes needn’t intend any substantive claim about the impetus for those judgments, whether in general or in any given case. Hobbes typically uses the word  ‘appetite’ in a special, technical sense, corresponding to the Latin appetitus: it refers generically to anything found appealing or attractive in any way, as an ‘aversion’ is anything found repugnant or repellent.  (In other words, it’s not limited to ‘appetites,’ in the sense of unthinking cravings.)   To judge from what comes next, I suspect that Hobbes’s point in this opening gambit is simply to stress that when calling things good or evil, it is always our appetites and aversions that we signal —  which may or may not coincide with anyone else’s.   At any rate that’s where he’s heading.  He goes on to note that our appetites and aversions are various and divergent, “in different tempers, customes, and doctrines of men.”  It’s not just with matters of taste; and there’s no use in appealing to reason to settle these differences:  “And divers men, differ not onely in their Judgement, on the senses of what is pleasant, and unpleasant to the tast, smell, hearing, touch, and sight; but also of what is conformable, or disagreeable to Reason, in the actions of common life.”  Our judgments in all such things are neither consistently uniform, nor uniformly consistent.  “Nay, the same man, in divers times, differs from himselfe; and one time praiseth, that is, calleth Good, what another time he dispraiseth, and calleth Evil.”

If this were the last word in the matter – if our use of the terms ‘good’ and ‘evil’ tracked nothing beyond our haphazard, mutable leanings – we would be perpetually at odds, incapable of agreement.  “From whence arise Disputes, Controversies, and at last War. The prospects look bleak. But then suddenly the skies clear:

And therefore so long a man is in the condition of meer Nature, (which is a condition of War,) as private Appetite is the measure of Good, and Evill.  And consequently all men agree on this, that Peace is Good…”

Why consequently? Whence this agreement, if men’s appetites and aversions are so multifarious and inconstant?  How can all men agree on the goodness of peace, if their multifarious judgments of good and evil lead only to riotous discord?

Most readers seem to assume that Hobbes must be thinking something along the following lines:   Whatever variety or variance in men’s appetites and aversions that there may be, there’s nothing that’s worse, more fearful, than war.  In our calmer moments, at least, we’re all able to see that the violence of war imperils our prospects of satisfying anything else we might want.  Our sundry wishes and wants are outweighed by the paramount, over-riding value of self-preservation.   So we rationally prefer peace, and adhere to those rules consistent with that prudent preference.  In short: what we have here is the nub of the classic ‘Hobbesian’ argument, one more riff on a tune he’s continually humming.

Really? Read the passage again. If this is what Hobbes wants to argue, he’s somehow neglected to mention just about everything that would be needed to complete the argument.    (A curious sort of negligence, this — coming as it does at the moment he vaunts his achievement  as a philosopher.) He does not state that men’s fear of violence exceeds their other appetites and aversions, and he doesn’t provide any reason why it might or it should. Nothing Hobbes actually says here  gives much reason  to think that out of the mutable plenitude of desires and disinclinations, there might be any one ultimate interest or dominant preference.    He mentions no metric  for ranking or aggregating desires, nor any calculus for discounting them against the cost or the difficulty of their fulfillment.

The standard response to that textual difficulty is to concede (or complain of) Hobbes’s frequent negligence and obscurity, and then to fill in the gaps with notions gleaned from elsewhere —  whether from elsewhere in Leviathan, or from another of his books.  The latter especially: this is one of the reasons for the peculiar ascendancy, among Hobbes’s commentators, of the earlier Latin treatise De Cive over Leviathan — an unfortunate tendency, as I see it,   for the reasons I’ve given in my prior post “Hobbes’s Swerve” and its sequel.  (It’s only in De Cive that we find Hobbes positing death as the ultimate evil, universally shunned [D.C. 1.7].)  I grant that his earlier books contain arguments along these lines.   It’s clear that Hobbes knew how to argue that way, if that were what he wanted to do.  In all likelihood, he had De Cive open on his desk when writing this chapter.  He’s chosen not to repeat what he’d written there.  Mightn’t that be deliberate?

 

4.   It seems to me that the real clue to Hobbes’s reasoning here lies in the very abruptness with which the argument halts, when he gets to that impasse of clashing personal judgments. “From whence arise Disputes, Controversies, and at last War.”  Full stop.  He does not see fit to continue,  ‘and war is so awful that men’s wish to avoid it outweighs all their other desires.’  He doesn’t see the need to mention the miseries suffered in war, nor the peril of lives cut violently short. He is content to limit himself to noting how the state of affairs thus described is a sure recipe for discord and contention. Somehow that suffices, for Hobbes, to precipitate his desired conclusions.

The next thing he says is  simply  a summing up of that impasse: “And therefore so long a man is in the condition of meer Nature, (which is a condition of War,) as private Appetite is the measure of Good, and Evill.”  So long as we lack any measure of good and evil but our own  “private appetite,” we remain mired in “meer Nature,” a state of continual war… Ah yes, the Hobbesian state of nature. But let’s focus on what’s going on here, without assuming he’s merely alluding to what he says about this when he’s dealing with different issues.  The problem here isn’t the intensity or intemperance of men’s appetites.  It’s not about human nature; it’s not about greed, or fear, or vainglory.   It’s simply the fact that there’s no basis for coming to any shared understanding, our appetites and aversions being so various and inconstant. Only that isn’t really a fact. It’s just a conceit, a presumption.  The thrust of Hobbes’s reasoning here is to expose its incoherence, as a basis for ethics – a classic reductio ad absurdum.

The impasse of war in this argument is not the strategic predicament Hobbes elsewhere associates with the state of nature.  It’s a theoretical aporia – a philosophical dead-end. It isn’t that war tends to be miserably unpleasant for the parties involved, nor that their lives are at risk of being cut violently short.  It’s simply that war is the antithesis of the thing that moral philosophy is all about — ‘the conversation, and the Society of man-kind.’  (A synonym of ‘peace’ for Hobbes is ‘concord’ — that is to say, agreement.)  If there’s to be a science of morals, it cannot take the “measure of Good and Evill” from anyone’s “private appetite.”  What it must do instead is take its bearings from this recognition.

Suppose that the question were not, as we somehow assume it must be, How best can singular men get what they want, all things considered?   Suppose, instead, the question went something like this: What makes for viable social intercourse? How is it that conversation needn’t devolve to sheer, idiotic bickering? How is it that social relations needn’t come down to the sway of the strongest or stubbornmost?  (Not: What keeps us from the worst?, but rather: What makes the alternative even intelligible?)  Given that nothing but discord would come if each was left to his singular, private judgments, how then is this idiocy and brutality not all there is to the human condition?  How is it that we do after all understand what it means to agree?

Why assume that if  Hobbes would have us credit a value in peace, it must be relative to the wants or interests of men taken singly?  Everything  in this passage militates against this  — starting with Hobbes’s definition of moral philosophy.  The pairing of ‘Society’ with ‘conversation’ in that definition is all to the point. ‘Society’ is not just the milieu in which individuals do their business; it’s a common engagement, a manner of getting along — a mode of living together, a shared form of life.

Perhaps the argument comes into better focus if we hear the stress differently:  “All men agree on this, that peace is good.”  Upon this much, all men agree — if and when they agree about anything. (Upon this much.) If we can ever agree — and insofar that we do — we acknowledge the goodness of peace.

Neither here nor elsewhere in Leviathan does Hobbes say that all men prefer peace to war, nor even that they would if they knew their best interest. (In an earlier chapter, Hobbes counts this among  of those many things about which men differ, depending on their tempers and circumstances: “Needy men, and hardy, not contented with their present condition; as also, all men that are ambitious of Military command, are enclined to continue the cause of war” [Leviathan, ch. 11].)   Men’s preferences needn’t have anything to do with it.  How strongly or weakly men feel about peace, or  how strongly or weakly they’re moved to adjust their behavior, in accord with the proposition that peace is good  — none of that need not be at issue.  After all, even those who find peace a tiresome encumbrance, do normally grant that peace is in principle to be desired.  (Might there be some who refuse to grant even this much, so intent upon getting their way as to acclaim violence for its own sake?  If so, it’s irrelevant: there’s no talking with them.)    Assent to the goodness of peace is the price of admission to social intercourse.

To agree on the goodness of peace is to reject the  barbaric conceit giving rise to the impasse of war.  It is to acknowledge the evil in conduct and attitudes which impede or subvert social intercourse. It is to endorse agreement itself as a good: and to reprove (anyway, to regret) behavior and attitudes that are destructive of it. It is to repudiate any wish to make others accede to one’s own merely private judgments — and to see the attempt to do this as a species of forcible imposition.

 

5. Should we find it surprising, that Hobbes omits any attempt to explain this capacity for agreement?  Should this pose any difficulty to his famously mechanistic reduction of mind to matter? Perhaps we’d better rethink what that supposed reduction entails.

Is the issue here really so different, after all, from his taking for granted that human beings are able to learn and understand language?

Explanations come to an end somewhere.

 

 

 

Previous posts in this series:

1. Hobbes’s Moral Philosophy: A Proposal

2. Surveying the Whale: A Fresh Approach to Hobbes’s Leviathan

3. Hobbes’s Swerve: From De Cive to Leviathan

4. Further on Hobbes’s Swerve: Laws of Nature in De Cive and Leviathan