Hobbes’s Moral Philosophy: A Proposal

(The proposal sketched in this post is further developed in my paper “Hobbes’s Theory of Peace,” presented at the 2021 Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association.)

Hobbes portrait1.  What is the point of Thomas Hobbes’s moral philosophy? What question or questions  of moral theory did he think he had settled?  In writing Leviathan, Hobbes evidently took great pride in his would-be achievement, in that field specifically.  Near the end of the book’s First Part, “Of Man,” he claims to provide “the true and only moral philosophy.”  He comes back to this in the closing lines of the Second Part, congratulating himself for having achieved what “neither Plato, nor any philosopher hitherto” had been able to do – “set into order, and sufficiently or probably proved, all the theorems of moral doctrine” that are pertinent to public life. He goes so far as to wager the practical relevance of his political teachings on the clarity and cogency of those proofs of his moral doctrine.

What exactly was he talking about?   Leviathan has earned Hobbes an uncontested place in the history of moral philosophy (albeit chiefly for his service as a foil for the objections and protestations of subsequent writers).   But there is something odd in how Hobbes is read, given the pride that he took in his clarity and comprehensiveness.   On the one hand, the moral theory attributed to Hobbes is usually felt to be starkly simple, even crudely reductive. On the other hand, it is curiously difficult to find just where in Leviathan where the theory attributed to him is propounded, proved, or defended. There has also been a persistent obscurity over exactly how that theory is supposed to be reflected in what Hobbes does have to say about his putative “moral theorems,”   the nineteen rules that he designates “Laws of Nature.” (A “theorem” for Hobbes is a rule.)

Hobbes undoubtedly deserves a share of the blame for these obscurities. But I believe that a greater share may lie with us, his readers. The absence of any clear statement or defense of the doctrines we are disposed to attribute to him may be due less to his negligence or indirection, than to a mistake on our part over his self-understanding as moral philosopher. We have trouble discerning his arguments, because we persistently tax him with answering a question that he never addresses, and which need be no part of his enterprise. Or so I would like to propose.

Hobbes introduces his Laws of Nature as “Articles of Peace, upon which men may be drawn to agreement.”  He concludes his exposition of them by reiterating that together they constitute “the way, or the means, of Peace” – and are properly seen as measures of moral virtue and vice for this very reason.   Yet somehow none of this is found to be very interesting by his readers, for it seems merely ancillary to the philosophical project attributed to him.   For a variety of reasons, we tend to assume that a further, and deeper theoretical task is incumbent on him: to explain why complying with the rules he prescribes is what people want for themselves – or would be, anyway, if they knew what’s in their best interest. The commonest view is that Hobbes is some sort of moral hedonist, who recommends behaving in ways that he thinks best serves the balance of men’s desires, or the most important of them, or maybe just the most urgent. Not all of Hobbes’s commentators have accepted this view, but their proposed alternatives have invariably shared this assumption: somehow or other, the burden of his moral philosophy is to formulate those rules of conduct which can be shown to best answer to the interests or wants of deliberating agents.  It isn’t enough for Hobbes to set forth a canon of moral precepts. It is thought he must also explain why men would do well to follow them, for their own benefit.

Yet Hobbes never claims to be doing anything of the kind – not in Leviathan, anyway.   It corresponds to one popular notion of what moral philosophy should be expected to offer, and there are various reasons why Hobbes is believed to be especially tasked with the issue. The question is, whether or not it plays any part in Hobbes’s own understanding of what moral philosophy involves.    It seems to me that when Hobbes’s commentators have attempted to supply his intended answer to the problem of moral motivation, the result has been to disfigure his actual project beyond recognition. His project as moral philosopher can be properly seen only once we recognize this other issue to be foreign to his purposes.

In short, I would like to suggest that the question, ‘Why be moral? is nowhere on Hobbes’s philosophical agenda. This is not, let me stress, because he takes a skeptical view of the matter, or because he covertly wishes to license amoral insouciance. It is because this is not a question Hobbes sees as admitting of a philosophical answer, or calling for one. He simply has nothing staked on the question, one way or another.   For it need be no part of his business to make behavior in compliance with these norms seem attractive or desirable, from the perspective of singular agents deciding how to act.   His moral philosophy is intended not to motivate behavior in compliance with his favored norms, but simply to show that those norms are morally valid – as standards for evaluating human conduct.   What matters for him is to show that these norms are the relevant ones – supplying the proper criteria for moral approbation and blame – in assessing the conduct of other people.

What I wish to propose is that when Hobbes claims to have “clearly or probably proved” his “theorems of moral doctrines,” he means nothing more (and nothing less) than to have demonstrated their viability as moral norms, for use in distinguishing between acceptable and blameworthy conduct.  His concern is to show that the breach of these rules, in the circumstances to which they apply, is properly to be seen as a moral offense — deservedly reprehended, provoking ill will and well-founded hostility. His moral philosophy aims to clarify what may properly be counted just or unjust, equitable or iniquitous; gracious or spiteful, modest or arrogant — a moral taxonomy, as it were, a lexicon of moral approval and blame.

“Morall Philosophy,” as Hobbes defines it in Leviathan, “is nothing else but the Science of what is Good, and Evill, in the conversation and Society, of man-kind.” This science’s concern is not the flourishing of men taken singly (or even collectively), but the ways in which human conduct may either be conducive to the furtherance of social intercourse, or else tending to undermine it. (‘Society’, in this definition — like ‘conversation – refers not to a collective entity, but a mode of human interaction, or engagement.) Hobbes takes his bearings in this from the intuition that certain sorts of behavior are inherently antithetical to human social intercourse, and are open to blame on those grounds.  (Further, and deeper: that it is wrong to cast to blame on those who do nothing offensive.) He believes he has properly specified precisely those norms that are needed, lest human relations devolve to brute force, or brutal intransigence. This, I propose, is what he has in mind in boasting of his unique success in having “set into order, and sufficiently or probably proved [his] theorems of moral doctrine.”   The untoward pride in that boast is offset by a lucid sense for the limits of the undertaking.

2.  According to my proposal, then, Hobbes’s intended proofs of his moral theorems has nothing directly to do with their serviceability to an agent, in procuring or producing some independently-specifiable benefit.  His concern is simply to show them to be morally requisite, prescribing those attitudes and behaviors required to sustain social intercourse – ‘the way, or means, of Peace.”

Hobbes’s notion of peace is routinely discounted. (Thus S.A. Lloyd, in Morality in the Philosophy of Thomas Hobbes [Cambridge, 2009]: “Hobbes makes it clear that these precepts all tend to promote peace, but because commentators typically do not see peace as an end in itself, nor believe that Hobbes saw it so, they look for a more basic function these precepts promoting peace ultimately serve.”) This response follows almost inevitably from the way Hobbes’s moral philosophy is typically read.  If it were true that Hobbes recommends moral rules as but the means by which agents obtain desirable states of affairs, then it would follow his notion of peace would be similarly instrumental. Hobbes’s interpreters overwhelmingly tend to assume that by ‘peace’ he means nothing further than whatever modus vivendi optimally satisfies men’s desires or interests, a purely technical question.. As if ‘peace’ were no more than ‘tranquility’ or at best ‘détente’- a strategic equilibrium, nothing else than the absence (or suppression) of the chaos and bloodshed suffered in war. As if the difference between peace and war were simply a matter of the more or less efficient deployment of force, the more or less stable distribution of fear. As if making war on one’s neighbors and living in peace with them are alternative means for pursuing much the same end, with nothing but strategic considerations to be said for one or the other. 

This is not how Hobbes conceives peace in Leviathan. (Whether this holds for his other books is a separate, more vexing question – best left for another occasion.)   Peace for Hobbes is an inherently moral idea, its content specifiable only with reference to moral norms. To put it another way:   Leviathan’s moral philosophy is meant as a theory of peace. He first defines it in a way that sounds deceptively paltry: merely as “all other time” than when there is war. But this comes right after he makes a point of stressing ‘war’, as he understands it, encompasses any situation in which men are made to reckon with others’ disposition to use hostile force, whether or not there is actual bloodshed. A state of affairs in which men desist from fighting merely on account of fear is not to be counted as peace, but smoldering war – “they live as it were, in the procincts of battaile continually” (as he puts it later in the book). In Leviathan’s thirteenth chapter, Hobbes famously dwells on the factors which tend to make it seem as if aggression, intimidation, and mutual suspicion are mankind’s inevitable lot. But then he expressly denies that conclusion, declaring that men are capable of living together otherwise than this – and broaching the theme of his moral philosophy. “Reason suggesteth certain convenient Articles of Peace, upon which men may be drawn to agreement.” Articles of Peace: norms for peaceable interaction, standards by which men’s readiness for peace may be known.

“Laws of Nature,” Hobbes goes on to say, is simply what these “Articles ” are “otherwise called.” Let me suggest (for now) that his use of that term is finally no more than a lexical convenience, faute de mieux — a concession to the moral vernacular of his time and place, and to his own personal habit in previous books. The relative unimportance of the designation is unfortunately obscured by Hobbes’s characteristic fussiness over terminology, with its peculiar mix of fastidiousness and opportunism. Having seized on the compound term, he goes into contortions to supply himself a rationale for both of its parts – sending misleading signals with cryptic, equivocal statements regarding his precepts’ status as laws, and also their connection with ‘nature’.   This makes for some tricky exegetical knots — all of which turn out to be peripheral to his actual, substantive arguments on behalf of the various precepts.

Those actual arguments are consistently devoted to showing that the conduct enjoined by each of these precepts is conducive to peace, and its opposite destructive of it. Hobbes’s attention lies chiefly with the latter: in nearly every case, his point is that the breach of the rule tends to undermine peace: either by vitiating some practice essential to it (mutual covenanting, recourse to impartial arbitration), or else simply by inciting others’ hostility or mistrust. With none of these rules does Hobbes seem especially concerned with benefits or harms that might accrue to an agent for adhering or violating. His concern is simply to explain why the misbehavior proscribed is inimical to peace — and is open to blame for that reason. Men are to forego superfluous pleasures where others’ vital needs are at stake’; to refuse to do this, is to make oneself ‘guilty of the war that is to follow.” They are to forgive the offenses of those who repent, when safe against future offenses from them; to refuse is “a sign of aversion to peace.” Those entrusted to arbitrate among disputants are to deal impartially with all parties concerned; to do otherwise is to “deter men from the use of judges, and arbitrators; and consequently (against the fundamental law of nature) is [to be] the cause of war.” (Notice that this is itself a moral designation: to be a “cause of war” — a causa belli — is to incite others’ hostility.)

With his account of the Laws of Nature, then, Hobbes seeks to show how peace is possible, so that brute imposition and intransigence needn’t be decisive in human affairs. It is part of his theory that peace is not fully possible except where government wields sufficient force for its authority to brook no serious challenge, so that the norms of peaceable conduct may be reliably enforced. But it is equally part of his theory that for peace to be real, public authority must be established — and exercised — in a manner consistent with those same norms.

3. Of the various Laws of Nature that Hobbes presents in Leviathan’s fourteenth and fifteenth chapters, the one that pertains most obviously to his political doctrine is the Third, prescribing the keeping of promises – the adherence to which, Hobbes defines as the essence of justice. In the book’s Second Part, “Of Commonwealth,” he goes on to argue that civil obligation – the duty of subjects to comply with their sovereign’s laws – derives from a (tacit) promise made by each and every citizen to his fellows, upon setting up or joining the civil commonwealth in which they are members. Hobbes has a great deal to say about what that promise entails, and a great deal to say about why men are willing to make it.  He has virtually nothing to say about what is to motivate their readiness to honor that promise, performing their covenanted obligations. Yet somehow it is this other question, the reasons for continuing compliance, that has endlessly occupied Hobbes’s commentators – to the point that the coherence of Hobbes’s theory is generally thought to stand or fall on its capacity to yield an answer to it.

A measure of how greatly this other question has eclipsed Hobbes’s stated concerns is that leading scholars have repeatedly dismissed the initiating promise – ostensibly the cornerstone of Hobbes’s political doctrine — as holding little real importance or practical significance. (Thus Richard Tuck, in the Introduction to the Cambridge University Press edition of Leviathan: “It is fair to say that the contract in Leviathan has little independent force.”)   This odd turn of affairs has tended to make the interpretation of Hobbes’s doctrine a curiously free-floating affair, but it does have a certain logic to it. Generally speaking – it is fair to say – the practice of making and keeping promises won’t seem to carry much independent weight, if we insist on limiting the horizon to a single agent deliberating in isolation. The practice is intelligible only insofar as at least one other person is always involved.  A man’s motivating reason for making a promise is one thing – his own business, as it were. The reason why a promise is to be kept is a different sort of reason entirely: it pertains to the morally-cognizable interests (the rights, we might say) of the person to whom that promise is made.  If someone who has made a promise to you then defaults on that promise, there is no clear reason why you should care about his self-interested reasons for doing so. To default on a promise, without good reason which the other party can accept, is inherently to do that other party wrong — to commit an offense. The promise-maker may at the moment feel otherwise, or may not greatly care. That is irrelevant. Indeed, the practice of promising exists in order to make it irrelevant. To suppose otherwise would leave the practice with little real point.   Anyone can see this, of course. The question is, why we insist on assuming that Hobbes somehow did not.

Hobbes’s political doctrine is thoroughly ill-suited to restricting moral discourse to singular agents’ private deliberations. Its outstanding feature is the proposition that obedience to a commonwealth’s laws is an obligation traceable to a mutual covenant among citizens.  This being so, breaking the law does one’s fellow citizens wrong, defaulting on one’s (tacit) promise to them, inviting reproach and opprobrium.  Calculations of prudential self-interest or strategic advantage have nothing to do with it.

Hobbes wants to show that to disregard the sovereign’s laws is morally wrong, in that it betrays the implicit contract between every citizen and his fellows. To appeal to men’s private desires or interests as the reason for them to avoid doing wrong would be both presumptuous, and otiose. Hobbes does clearly hope that his doctrine might serve a practical purpose, toward quieting civil disorder. But that purpose does not consist in persuading those disinclined to abide by the law that their better interest is served by obedience.   It consists in redressing what he sees as pervasive confusions over the extent and the nature of those civil obligations, civil authority being what it is. It would suffice for his purposes to show what those obligations entail, and that they are founded on a valid moral principle. His concern is simply to show that any who claim for themselves greater latitude in construing their civil obligations are in error, and do an injustice to their law-abiding fellow citizens when they act on their views.

The kind of mischief that Hobbes hopes he might help to forestall is not the kind done by those who are a tempted (upon whatever motive) to disregard civil law for their private advantage. (In a well-constituted commonwealth, the business of ensuring compliance with the laws is performed by the sanctions of criminal justice – the deterring threat of punishment.)   It is rather the mischief committed by those who contest the sovereign’s legitimacy – that is, who take offense at the legitimate exercise of sovereign authority, and who assert for themselves a right to take arms in their self-vindication. The reason he spends so much time discussing the rights of sovereigns (far more than he does the duties of subjects) is that he wants to deflate such rebels’ moral pretensions, once and for all.   He needn’t care if such rebels find his doctrines persuasive, or pay heed to it at all. It isn’t to them that his teachings are directed. It’s to everyone else – who might otherwise be confused into unduly crediting such pretensions.

[originally posted June 2, 2015]

Hobbes portrait

Thomas Hobbes. Portrait by John Michael Wright.

National Portrait Gallery, London.

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