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


Laws of Nature in De Cive and Leviathan

Fourth in a series.

The first two posts in this series sketched my proposal for reading Hobbes’s moral theory in Leviathan, together with some remarks on the bearing of that theory on the book’s political argument.  In the third, I pointed out some discreet, but decisive differences between Leviathan‘s Laws of Nature and their antecedents in De Cive, Hobbes’s earlier treatise in Latin.  De Cive’s Fundamental Law of Nature is formulated as a twofold dictate of instrumental reason, addressed to the singular agent’s strategic self-interest: “That Peace is to be sought after where it may be found; and where not, there to provide our selves for helps of War.” (“quærendum esse pacem ubi haberi potest; ubi non potest, quærenda esse belli auxilia.” De Cive, 2.2).   The Fundamental Law in Leviathan is instead a general norm for social interaction, concerned solely with the furtherance of peace: “Seek peace, and Follow it.” Leviathan’s argument on behalf of this rule is held studiously apart from strategic or instrumental considerations.  In De Cive, the desirability of peace is subordinate to the self-regarding agent’s bedrock interest in his self-preservation.  In Leviathan, that conceptual priority is inverted.   Hobbes posits a prima facie right to self-regarding, self-defensive behavior, but this right is conditioned by the positive requirements of peaceable social intercourse.  Only where there is no prospect of peace does Hobbes now grant men unlimited rein in their self-defensive measures. It is ultimately in the interest of peace that this so-called “right of nature” is affirmed.

I ended the previous post by observing that Hobbes’s reconception of the Fundamental Law makes for a decisive shift in his treatment of his other Laws of Nature as well.   The various specific Laws of Nature in  De Cive are supposed to hold good both as rules for living in peace, and also as the surest means for obtaining advantage in war (i.e., acquiring allies or confederates).  This  had the effect of leaving them  hostage to a simplistic, ad hoc hypothesis concerning the strategic balance of power (i.e., safety in numbers). It also implied that peace was of no more than instrumental value.  Both implications are avoided in Leviathan.  Hobbes now offers his specific Laws of Nature as “Articles of Peace” — protocols of peaceable social interaction, without regard to any given agent’s self-regarding interests or strategic advantage.

To see how this difference plays itself out, consider how  Hobbes has altered the Law which enjoins the making of covenants, requiring men to accept certain limits to their natural liberty.   (To forestall a confusion over Hobbes’s numbering of the relevant rule in the two books:  Whereas in Leviathan, this is known as the Second Law of Nature, as the next in the sequence after the Fundamental Law, in De Cive the numerical sequence begins only after that book’s version of the Fundamental Law, with this particular precept at the head of the series, numbered First.)  De Cive’s version of this Law is simple and open-ended. “That the right of all men, to all things, ought not to be retain’d, but that some certain rights ought to be transferr’d, or relinquisht.” (“ius omnium in omnia retinendum non esse, sed iura quaedam transferenda, vel relinquenda esse” DC 2.3.)  Notice that nothing is said in the rule about when men’s natural rights should be waived, nor to whom.   As the rule owes its rationale to strategic considerations, then so too, presumably, does its application.  After all,  If the reason one is to seek peace is that the solitary individual is too weak to protect himself against others’ assaults, then it is presumably the consideration of one’s relative weakness that ought to dictate whether submission is proper. Nothing is said, in the earlier formulations, of what one is to expect in return.  Peace is the rational course of action of those too weak to rely on their strength; the strong are at their discretion to do otherwise. The natural inference would be that the weak are to submit to the strong, the isolated to the more numerous and better organized.

Leviathan’s Second Law of Nature is different.  “That a man be willing, when others are so too, as farre-forth, as for Peace, and defence of himselfe he shall think it necessary, to lay down right to all things; and be contented with so much liberty against other men, as he would allow other men against himself.”  There is a built-in principle of reciprocity: The directive to abandon or surrender one’s natural liberty is now limited to the condition in which one is met with others’ readiness to do the same.  Hobbes goes on to observe that the underlying principle here is none other than

that Law of the Gospell; Whatsoever you require that others should do to you, that ye do to them.  And that Law of all men, Quod tibi fieri non vis, alteri non feceris  [i.e., “Do not that to another, which thou wouldest not have done to thy selfe,” as Hobbes renders it elsewhere].  (Leviathan, ch. 14.)

As I’ve noted before, Hobbes’s argument here is concerned solely with identifying requirements for peaceable interaction, independent of strategic or prudential factors.  Thus specified, those requirements would be fully satisfied by men’s agreement to a truce — which may or may not make anyone safer (depending on the parties’ continuing good will, among other factors).   The reference to the parties’ concern to provide for their own self-defense does not mean that this is the rule’s underlying rationale.  All it means — in the context of the  built-in principle of reciprocity —  is that the parties’ concern for their safety is to be acknowledged as legitimate, no bar to their putative peaceableness.   Hobbes makes a point of explaining that the reason why concessions must be mutual, is  to ensure that weak not be made to suffer the bullying or intransigence of the strong: “if other men will not lay down their Right, as well as he; then there is no Reason for any one, to devest himsefle of his: for that were to expose himself to Prey (which no man is bound to) rather than to dispose himself to Peace.” Note that Hobbes’s specific concern in this statement is to clarify what counts  as a peaceable disposition  — which also amounts to clarifying the condition under which the rules of peaceable conduct apply.  It is other men’s readiness to lay down their arms that constitutes the condition in which it is incumbent on those who would wish to be taken for peaceable to show themselves ready to do the same, in like measure.  (In the absence of this, Hobbes believes, it is morally senseless to demand of the peaceable that they make unilateral concessions.  Actually, it is worse than senseless: it is positively obnoxious.)

The basic difference in Hobbes’s reasoning in the two books is somewhat masked by the fact that in De Cive, too, he eventually introduces a norm of reciprocity.  De Cive’s Eighth Law of Nature holds that men are to be counted equal by nature; the Ninth, that whatever rights any man retain for himself, be granted to others as well.  (These same Laws appear in Leviathan, numbered Ninth and Tenth, respectively.)  In explaining these rules — unlike in the case of Leviathan’s Second Law —  Hobbes supplies a rationale that  amounts to a prudential consideration: those who claim unequal rights for themselves will inevitably find those claims contested, and can’t be so sure of always coming out on top in a fight.   (Much same rationale appears on behalf of the corresponding rules of Leviathan – but that seems a case of authorial laziness, re-using an earlier passage with nothing much staked on it.)   The point is that Hobbes needs some such prudential argument in De Cive, if the book’s Laws of Nature are to bear any semblance to familiar moral norms.  He need no longer be burdened by this in Leviathan. 

As I noted in the previous post, Hobbes concludes De Cive’s account of the Laws of Nature with the reminder that every one of those Laws is “deriv’d by a certain artifice from the single dictate of Reason advising us to look to the preservation, and safegard of our selves” (“…artificio quodam ab unico rationis, nos ad nostri conservationem & incolumitatem hortantis, dictamine derivataDC 3.26).  This statement is omitted from the corresponding paragraph in Leviathan, with good reason.  That summative paragraph differs from its antecedent in De Cive in other ways as well.  In both versions, Hobbes refers to the same norm of reciprocity that (as we’ve seen) he also invokes in Leviathan with reference to the Second Law: “Do not that to another, which thou wouldest not have done to thy selfe.” (In his 1668 Latin translation of Leviathan, Hobbes also quotes the Golden Rule in this passage.)  But the similarity ends there.

The paragraph in De Cive is concerned the question of why men so often fail to honor these rules, when it is their own self-interest at stake.  Hobbes’s answer is rather conventional: men’s judgments are often swayed by short-sighted, irrational passions. He introduces the maxim of reciprocity as the heuristic device by which we are able, when calm, to correct for this irrationality. The idea is that how we treat others is a reliable predictor of how they are likely to treat us: those to whom harm is done, do harm in return. (A subsequent paragraph elaborates further, identifying rationality with a lucid appraisal of the future consequences of one’s acts.)

Hobbes drops all of this when rewriting this paragraph for Leviathan. Instead,  the precept of reciprocity is now simply offered as the epitome of the various specific Laws, a handy formula into which they are all ‘contracted.’  This is just to reiterate what he has argued throughout, having already introduced this same maxim in his gloss on the Second Law of Nature. So this now is Hobbes’s concluding reminder of the principle underlying his account (as the statement about the paramount dictate of self-preservation had been in the earlier book.)  In De Cive the maxim had been endorsed as an aid to men’s self-interested deliberations. In Leviathan, Hobbes treats it instead as a device for keeping one’s own “selfe-love” from tipping the scales when “weighing the actions of other men with his own.” Not the rationality, but the reasonableness of human conduct is now what hangs in the balance  — and it’s the assessment of other mens conduct that Hobbes now puts at the forefront of his concern as a moral theorist.


Preceding posts in this series:

  1. Hobbes’s Moral Philosophy: A Proposal
  2. Surveying the Whale: An Approach to Hobbes’s Leviathan
  3. Hobbes’s Swerve: From De Cive to Leviathan

Hobbes’s Swerve: From De Cive to Leviathan

Third in a series.

De Cive Frontispiece detail1. The preceding posts in this series have proposed reading Hobbes’s moral philosophy in Leviathan as a theory of peace.   Departing from the widely-held view that Hobbes’s theory is addressed to singular agents’ prudential or strategic interests, I have argued that Hobbes means to do no more (and no less) than identify appropriate norms for peaceable social intercourse, suitable for use in the practice of moral evaluation.  The moral rules that Hobbes calls ‘Laws of Nature’ are offered not as guidance for self-regarding agents, but as morally valid standards for discriminating between acceptable and blameworthy conduct.    I have  suggested that the designation of these rules as “Laws of Nature” amounts to no more than a concession to the moral vernacular of Hobbes’s time and place (and his own linguistic habit), with little real importance or significance to his moral theory.

My proposal pertains solely to Leviathan – not to any of Hobbes’s earlier books.    This alone would be enough to make it seem highly eccentric, and probably objectionable, to scholarly experts on the subject. The prevailing scholarly opinion is that Hobbes’s clearest and most fully elaborated statement of his moral theory is not Leviathan at all, but an earlier treatise, written in Latin, De Cive (“On the Citizen”). Where Leviathan’s treatment of the subject has seemed obscure or elusive, commentators routinely draw on De Cive to supply missing premises or conclusions. A number of prominent scholars have gone so far as to hold that De Cive is to be taken as the authoritative statement of Hobbes’s thinking on this matter.   (When it comes to Hobbes’s political theory, by contrast, it is generally acknowledged that Leviathan’s version constitutes a further, more sophisticated iteration of his thought.) The reason for preferring De Cive in this is precisely that this earlier text provides a more elaborate explanation of the status of the Laws of Nature as such, and their grounding in a sort of natural necessity – namely, every man’s instinctive pursuit of his own survival. That certainly seems inconvenient for my proposal, to say the least.

The objection can be met head on.  It seems to me that the privileged status accorded to De Cive is unwarranted, and has merely contributed toward perpetuating long-standing misunderstandings of Leviathan.   What we take to be Leviathan’s gaps and obscurities, might be better be regarded as the sign of a discreet, but decisive swerve away from his former line of thinking.   There are enough incidental parallels between the two books’ respective accounts of the Laws of Nature to make it likely that Hobbes had the earlier one open on his table when writing later. The interesting question is why he chose not to follow it more closely than he did.


2. De Cive’s first chapter opens with a dark meditation on human beings’ natural unfitness for society. (This, more than anything found in Leviathan, is the source for what is commonly known as the ‘Hobbesian’ view of human nature.) Dismissing the contrary view as merely naïve, Hobbes appeals to worldly experience, inviting his readers to consider how much selfish, self-absorbed, and mean-spirited behavior pervades all social life. He grimly maintains that we would be unwilling to put up with each other in society at all, did we not seek to gain some self-regarding advantage, or else obtain validation for our own good opinion of ourselves. “All Society therefore is either for gain, or for Glory; (i.e..) not so much for love of our Fellowes, as for love of our Selves.” (I quote from the first English translation, of 1651.   In Hobbes’s Latin: “Omnis igitur societas vel commodi causa, vel gloriæ, hoc est, sui, non sociorum amore, contrahiturDC 1.2.) Every man is in it for himself alone, and seeks as much for himself as he dares get away with. Men are undoubtedly better off with one others’ assistance, yet all would more gladly obtain what they want through domination than mutual help – did they not more greatly fear others’ domination. Mutual fear, not fellow-feeling, is the basis of social cooperation.

In the state of nature, each person is a menace to every other. As each is impelled by nature to shun harm to himself, all may rightfully endeavor to preserve themselves against danger. “Therefore the first foundation of naturall Right is this, That every man as much as in him lies endeavor to protect his life and members.” (“Itaque Iuris naturalis fundamentum primum est, ut quisque vitam & membra sua quantum potest tueatur.DC 1.7.) Nobody can be expected to defer to anyone else’s judgment in what measures might be needful for his safety (unless that judgment should happen to coincide with his own). On the other hand, no one is in fact able to provide for his safety, acting alone.   The only rational course of action is to compensate for one’s relative weakness by forming strategic alliances. “And so it happens that through feare of each other we think it fit to rid our selves of this condition, and to get some fellowes; that if there needs must be war, it may not yet be against all men, nor without some helps.” (“Atque ita evenit ut mutuo metu, ē tali statu exeundum & quærendos socios putemus, ut si bellum habendum sit, non sit tamen contra omnes, nec sine auxiliis.” DC 1.13.)

De Cive codifies this conclusion in its statement of the Fundamental Law of Nature: “That Peace is to be sought after where it may be found; and where not, there to provide our selves for helps of War.” (“quærendum esse pacem ubi haberi potest; ubi non potest, quærenda esse belli auxilia.” De Cive, 2.2). Peace is the preferred alternative, because it makes for a more optimal solution to the problem, but formidable allies in war is the next best thing. Strategic considerations aside, the difference between peace and war holds no great theoretical significance.   What matters either way is providing for one’s safety.


3. In Leviathan, too, Hobbes dwells on the factors which naturally tend to bring men into conflict.   In the famous 13th chapter – “Of the Naturall Condition of Mankind, as concerning their Felicity, and Misery” – he identifies “three principall causes of quarrell”: competition, diffidence (i.e., mistrust), and glory (i.e., reputation).   What he has to say about each of these three is reminiscent of his prior treatment of this theme in De Cive – enough so that countless readers have found this alone sufficient basis for judging Hobbes an inveterate misanthrope.   Readers familiar with De Cive tend to assume that the only real difference is that in Leviathan Hobbes is more brisk with analysis, and more grandiloquent in his rhetoric – somewhat briefer on the causes of strife, and more emphatic in lamenting the miseries suffered when conflict gets out of hand.

And yet there’s a difference. Absent from Leviathan’s version is anything approaching the prior book’s assertions concerning the selfish basis of human society in general. (He continues to reject any notion that men are naturally fitted for political society, but that’s now a separate issue for him.) Gone is De Cive’s grim appeal to worldly experience, decrying the cruelty, the greed, and the vanity on display whenever men gather for business or pleasure; gone the bullying knowingness that dismisses all doubt about this as mere naïveté.   What one finds in Leviathan instead is a sober consideration of factors which, if unchecked, naturally tend to make conflict inevitable and intractable. In claiming that these factors inhere “in the nature of man,” Hobbes is attributing them not to any inherently anti-social motive or propensity, but simply to the natural predicament in which human beings would find themselves, if abandoned to their own devices. The predicament consists in sheer uncertainty of their situation – which is partly a matter of moral uncertainty, in the absence of any authority acknowledged by all.  It suffices that there are always some people who can be expected to try to get the better of others in this situation, that others will reasonably want to forestall their being taken advantage of.  The trouble is that in asserting themselves to prevent this, they merely exacerbate the endemic, anarchic uncertainty.

In De Cive, the circumstance which makes the state of nature so irredeemably volatile is men’s roughly equal ability to do one another harm. The problem is each singular agent’s relative helplessness in providing for himself against all comers; the problem is solved – straightforwardly enough — through the pooling of many men’s strength, in strategic alliances.   In Leviathan Hobbes introduces a further complication. The paradigm instance of the insecurity which results from men’s roughly equal capacities is no longer the case of each against all, but rather of several together, ganged up (“by confederacy”) against a friendless third party:

…if one plant, sow, or possesse a convenient Seat, others may probably be expected to come prepared with forces united, to dispossesse, and deprive him, not only of the fruit of his labour, but also of his life, or liberty. And the Invader again is in the like danger of another.

Man’s predicament is not his small chance for success when confronting an array of single adversaries roughly as strong as himself, but rather his helplessness when confronted with others in league against him – who for their part are no more secure. What had formerly been the solution is now merely part of the problem.  And Hobbes pointedly declines to provide any comparably strategic answer to the problem thus reconceived.

These differences bespeak a shift in Hobbes’s theoretical agenda. De Cive’s first chapter begins with a set of assertions concerning men’s inherent selfishness and natural antagonism, and works its way toward a rationale for strategic cooperation.   The corresponding chapter in Leviathan begins with a survey of factors that naturally tend to bring men into conflict, and which tend to make it interminable.   Yet that chapter concludes on a different note, denying that strife is inevitable. “Reason suggesteth convenient Articles of Peace, upon which men may be drawn to agreement.”


4. The immediate argument leading up to Leviathan’s formulation of the Fundamental Law of Nature – in the opening paragraphs of Chapter 14 – is far briefer than the corresponding one in De Cive’s.   It sounds similar enough to De Cive’s to lend credence to the assumption that Hobbes had much the same thing in mind on both occasions.   But here, too, crucial differences emerge on closer inspection.

In a manner reminiscent of De Cive, Leviathan posits an initial situation of anarchic war, in which each may do whatever he sees fit to defend himself against all comers. Hobbes then remarks on the impasse arising from this, in that all would be thereby exposed to assault or invasion, and nobody’s life would be safe. Without further ado, he then formulates the following “precept, or generall rule of Reason”: “That every man, ought to endeavour Peace, as farre as he has hope of obtaining it; and when he cannot obtain it, that he may seek, and use, all helps, and advantages of Warre.”

Leviathan‘s two-branched “generall Rule” obviously sounds very much like De Cive’s two-branched Fundamental Law. But there’s a crucial difference. De Cive’s Fundamental Law is a twofold imperative: seek peace when possible; otherwise, seek allies in war. The clauses concerning peace and war are strictly parallel, with identical syntax. (Both are expressed in the Latin with a future passive participle, used to express a requirement or duty). Whereas in Leviathan, only the first of the clauses states a requirement. The second is merely permissive.

The first branch of which Rule, containeth the first, and Fundamentall Law of Nature; which is, to seek Peace, and follow it. The Second, the summe of the Right of Nature; which is, By all means we can, to defend our selves.

Thus Leviathan’s Fundamental Law is simply “Seek peace, and follow it” – full stop.   Where there is any prospect of peace, it is to be sought. Only when there is none, do men retain an unlimited right to discretionary self-defense.

The impasse in De Cive arises because of the unstable balance of power, on account of men’s relative incapacity to repel others’ assaults. Leviathan’s version of the impasse makes no reference whatever to the parties’ relative weakness or strength. Instead, it is said to arise simply as a consequence of each person enjoying an unlimited right to do whatever he deems needful for his self-defense. In other words, what Hobbes now has in mind is a theoretical aporia, very different from De Cive’s strategic conundrum.

The difference is admittedly somewhat obscured by the way Hobbes leads into this argument, at the outset of Chapter 14.    The chapter opens abruptly, with a definition of the Right of Nature reminiscent of De Cive’s: “The RIGHT OF NATURE, which Writers commonly call Jus Natural, is the Liberty each man hath, to use his own power, as he will himself, for the preservation of his own Nature, that is to say, of his own Life.” Coming as this does without preamble or explanation, this definition is easily mistaken for a substantive thesis – as if Hobbes were asserting the existence of such a right, as a natural fact. Finding no argument in the text to support this assertion, commentators look to De Cive to supply the unstated rationale. Yet to do so fatally distorts the shape of Leviathan’s argument. The Right of Nature in De Cive is supposed to be grounded in natural necessity, and the corresponding Law of Nature is but a strategic imperative, answering to that same exigent necessity. Whereas Leviathan’s version of these principles involves no such appeal to necessity. In Leviathan, the definition of the Right of Nature is no more than that – a bare stipulation. Its existence and extent are merely posited, hypothetically, as it were.   That hypothesis pertains not so much to the single agent’s interest in his survival, but to the possible terms upon which peace might be possible. (Thus the significance of Hobbes’s announcement at the close of chapter 13 of his thematic concern in the following ones.) Hobbes’s underlying intuition here is that no progress toward peace is possible, even in principle, unless would-be parties of peace acknowledge one another’s legitimate interest in their safety, and their right to exercise discretion in providing for it. That this immediately gives rise to a self-negating aporia simply shows that this principle is inadequate on its own, and requires the complement of a positive requirement: that peace be actively sought.

Concerned solely with peace, Leviathan’s  Fundamental Law of Nature  is in no way subordinate to any other interest or principle. Its only limitation lies in the scope of its proper application, by virtue of its built-in conditionality.  Peaceable conduct is required whenever there is peace to be had. If peace is neither present at hand, nor viably within reach, Leviathan’s residual Right of Nature gives men license to defend themselves as best they can. But only then – not otherwise. Where there is reasonable hope for making or furthering peace, that peace must be sought — irrespective of strategic advantage.

A question that barely came up at all in De Cive now comes to the forefront of Hobbes’s concern: When is peace in the offing? Allow me to suggest that Leviathan’s ensuing account of the various specific Laws of Nature is as pervasively concerned with this question, as with the question of what peace requires. It is really the same question, asked from different perspectives. The precepts for peaceable conduct supply the criteria by which other men’s readiness for peace is to be known.


5.  In both De Cive and Leviathan, the statement of the Fundamental Law of Nature is followed by the detailed exposition of a series of further Laws. Most (but not all) of these Laws are the same in both books, and the stated rationale provided for each is usually (although not always) much the same as well. But their significance to Hobbes has changed, in keeping with the change in how he conceives the Fundamental Law. The various Laws of Nature in De Cive are offered as corollaries to that book’s twofold strategic imperative. Hobbes asserts that these rules prescribe the rational means to obtain either of the two objectives indicated in the Fundamental Law; “they direct the wayes either to Peace, or self-defence” (“præcipiunt… vias vel pacis vel defensionis acquirendæDC 2.2.). If they are useful as recipes for making peace, they are equally useful as techniques for amassing allies in war. Their universal validity rests upon nothing but the (doubtful) assertion that the very same behavior is best adapted to either purpose. Hobbes concludes their exposition with a pointed reminder that all of these rules are “deriv’d by a certain artifice from the single dictate of Reason advising us to look to the preservation, and safegard of our selves” (“…artificio quodam ab unico rationis, nos ad nostri conservationem & incolumitatem hortantis, dictamine derivataDC 3.26).

That statement is omitted from the corresponding paragraph of Leviathan, where the series of Laws is put on a different footing. True to his altered formulation of the Fundamental Law, Hobbes consistently refrains from proposing adherence to these rules as the means to provide for one’s self-defense. He no longer feels the need to hazard so doubtful (because empirically contingent) a rationale for their validity. It suffices that they specify “the way, or means or Peace.” They are protocols for peaceable conduct, nothing more. And nothing less.

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


Previous posts in this series:

1. Hobbes’s Moral Philosophy: A Proposal

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


De Cive Frontispiece detail 2

Detail from the frontispiece of the first edition of Thomas Hobbes’s De Cive, 1642.


Surveying the Whale: An Approach to Hobbes’s Leviathan

Second in an ongoing series.

Leviathan title pageIn last week’s post, I sketched a proposal for reading Hobbes’s venture in moral philosophy in Leviathan. Today I would like to develop that proposal further, opening a broader perspective on the argument of Leviathan as a whole.

My proposal — to recapitulate in brief — is that the various moral rules that Hobbes calls ‘Laws of Nature’ are intended primarily as evaluative norms, providing criteria for moral blame and approbation. They prescribe the basic requirements for peaceable social intercourse, with reference to which human beings may recognize one another’s conduct as either conducive to peace or else destructive of it – a basis for telling acceptable behavior from offensive. The rule that Hobbes calls the First, or Fundamental Law of Nature is simply “Seek Peace, and Follow It.” The succeeding eighteen Laws are further specifications of the first, identifying various attitudes and practices that Hobbes thinks are needed if social interaction is not to devolve to brute force or intransigence. These rules are intended to supply a coherent lexicon for moral approbation and blame – providing a (somewhat) determinate meaning to such terms as justice and injustice, gratitude and ingratitude, modesty and arrogance. In this Hobbes makes no attempt to show that adhering to these rules is instrumental to the attainment of any benefit or advantage to the agent. He intends simply to set forth a coherent basis for determining “what is Good, and Evill, in the conversation, and Society of man-kind.” Why Hobbes prefers to refer to these rules as ‘Laws of Nature’ is a trifle obscure, but this turns out to have only incidental bearing on their validity as moral norms.

This reading of Leviathan’s moral theory departs from the prevalent scholarly interpretations of Hobbes’s conception of the Laws of Nature. It will also sound foreign to the argument of Leviathan as a whole, according to the usual view of the latter. But there’s a curious thing about this. The usual view of Leviathan actually has little use for the Laws of Nature at all — little use for Hobbes’s actual treatment of them, anyway. It tends to consign nearly all of the actual contents of the chapters devoted to the topic to irrelevance or redundancy. It seems to me that we can do better, if we attend more closely to the structure of his argument.

Leviathan is read and remembered chiefly for two things. The first is its depiction of man’s natural state as anarchic, perpetual war, in which justice is senseless and no one is safe. This is found in the book’s First Part, “Of Man,” in its famous 13th Chapter (“Of the Naturall Condition of Mankind, as concerning their Felicity, and Misery”) — which contains his much-quoted line about the nastiness and brutishness of this state of war, and also his dark pronouncement that “Force, and Fraud, are in warre, the two Cardinal Vertues.” The other thing for which the book is remembered is Hobbes’s contention that the only redress to this anarchy lies in submitting to an all-puissant sovereign, the sole and supreme arbiter and enforcer of right. This is found in the book’s Second Part, “Of Commonwealth” — beginning in Chapter 17. There Hobbes posits men’s desire to escape the misery and perils attendant on their natural lot as the reason why they choose to forego their natural liberty, accepting the restraints that come with membership in a commonwealth. In doing so, he goes on to argue, they are bound to accept the rule of an absolute sovereign, in whom all plenary powers of government must be vested. The resulting political doctrine is uncompromisingly authoritarian, whereby the subjects’ duty to obey is nearly indefeasible, so long as the sovereign retains the ability to keep them safe.

Wedged between these two things — in Chapters 14 & 15, near the end of Part I — is Hobbes’s account of the Laws of Nature, the ‘science’ he proclaims as “the true and onely Moral Philosophy.” What does Hobbes mean to accomplish, in the course of the argument of those chapters? How does it advance the book’s larger argument?  On the usual reading of Leviathan, chapter 17 picks up more or less exactly where chapter 13 had left off. The two-chapter sequence devoted to the Laws of Nature can seem on this view no more than a nebulous, long-winded bridge between Hobbes’s dismal doctrine of man and his correspondingly grim doctrine of sovereignty. Consistent with this view, Hobbes’s commentators tend to limit their attention to just a few, apparently haphazard passages, which seem merely to amplify what Hobbes has already said in Chapter 13, or else merely to fumble toward what is to come in Part II. Statements are seized upon which seem to warrant the conclusion that for Hobbes a ‘Law of Nature’ is simply a prescription of self-interested, survivalist prudence, telling men how best to provide for his safety. Little notice is paid to the fact that almost nothing that Hobbes has to say in these chapters on behalf of the various rules in his canon seems especially suited for this. That whole business is read with impatience, assumed to be mostly superfluous to the real thrust of the book.

I believe that this involves a double mistake: about Hobbes’s purpose in those particular chapters, and about the nature of the larger project in Leviathan as a whole. The mistake comes down to assuming that whenever Hobbes discusses anarchy and its redress, he is talking about the same issue, with the same narrow polemical intent. This is why it seems that Chapter 17 can seem to pick up just where Chapter 13 had left off, and why much of Chapters 14 and 15 can seem otiose or redundant. In fact, different issues are in play on each occasion, as befits different stages of a complex argument.

As I suggested in the previous post, Hobbes’s moral philosophy is intended as a theory of peace. It identifies requisite standards for peaceable social intercourse, in default of which social life devolves to ceaseless quarrels and the sway of mere force or intimidation. It emerges in the course of elucidating this moral theory, that the way of life prescribed by these norms cannot in practice be realized without the institution of government, able to ensure general compliance and provide for the authoritative resolution of disputes. In a certain sense, then, Part I’s moral theory remains incomplete without the political theory presented in Part II. But the latter requires the former as its foundation. For the desideratum of Hobbes’s political theory is not simply an (empirical) state of tranquility, but the (moral) condition of peace. His aim in Part II is precisely to show what terms of political association, and what use of political power, might be rendered consistent with the norms of peaceable interaction.

Already at the end of Chapter 13, Hobbes indicates that the nastiness of permanent strife is not after all the most men are capable of, despite the facts of the human condition which tend to make it endemic. Among human beings’ multifarious passions, there are some that revolt at the prospect of endlessly insecure indigence, and among human intellectual endowments is the faculty of reason, which points the way toward transcending antagonism. “Reason suggesteth convenient Articles of Peace, upon which men may be drawn to agreement.” Leviathan’s Laws of Nature, as expounded in the following chapters, are precisely those “articles of peace”; they provide a basis for distinguishing peaceable conduct from hostile, that the latter might be duly reprehended (anyway, regretted) as “intolerable in society.” By the end of Chapter 15, Hobbes feels entitled to congratulate himself on having identified the relevant norms, showing that the specified rules are indeed “the way, or the means, of Peace.” He sees nothing missing, for this purpose, in the fact he is yet to provide any account of the basis of a government, or men’s reason for submitting to one. That’s a separate problem for him, conceptually distinct.

There are admittedly certain things that Hobbes says in Leviathan that tend to muddle the distinction. The most vexing of these is his insistence on referring to his “Articles of Peace” as ‘Laws of Nature.’ On a few occasions when he feels self-conscious over his use of that term, he feels it incumbent upon himself to highlight a connection between these rules and the furtherance of human life – this being the only meaning of ‘nature’ that his philosophical scruples allow him to countenance. A few such statements are cryptic and ambiguous enough to lend seeming support to the notion that Hobbes’s whole theory is addressed to nothing but self-interested agents’ desire to secure themselves against violence. Yet this reading leaves deeply obscure why Hobbes has settled on these particular rules, none of which seem formulated with an eye to that end. Hobbes’s commentators typically cope with this difficulty simply by disregarding the specific Laws, except insofar as they seem to comport with the apparent thrust of the argument in Part II. On the usual view, the only one of the Laws of Nature  of decisive importance is the one which prescribes escaping the perils of war by relinquishing natural freedom, submitting to government.

The trouble is: there isn’t actually any such Law to be found in Leviathan — not in these chapters, nor anywhere else in the book. Readers have often assumed that some such a rule is contained in Hobbes’s formulation of the Second Law of Nature. It goes like this: “That a man be willing, when others are so too, as farre-forth, as for Peace, and defence of himselfe he shall think it necessary, to lay down [his presumptive] right to all things; and be contented with so much liberty against other men, as he would allow other men against himself.” Hobbes conceives of this on the model of a mutual covenant, and the statement of the rule is followed by a lengthy discussion of the conditions in which covenants of various sorts are either viable or invalid. When it comes time to present his account of the formation of a commonwealth, in Chapter 17, he will draw on this prior discussion, for it is through a special sort of mutual covenant, too, that the Hobbesian commonwealth is established. And yet — that is not to say that the Second Law prescribes entering that very special sort of covenant (not necessarily, anyway). The requirement spelled out in the Second Law would be fully satisfied by the readiness to enter a truce, when met with others likewise ready to do so. Nothing is said about any mechanism to deter any party’s breach of such an agreement, nor of any authority with power to adjudicate and punish alleged violations. Nor is anything said of any provision for concerted collective action of any kind among the parties concerned. Those omissions are no unintended oversights on Hobbes’s part. The Second Law is far more complex and elaborate than the corresponding rule in his earlier books, and some care must have gone into its formulation. He wants to leave the question of government out of the picture, at this stage of his argument.

Unlike the non-existent, pseudo-Hobbesian Law prescribing submission to government, Leviathan’s actual Second Law makes no sense as a strategic or prudential maxim, addressed to an agent’s self-interest. (That is, unless one insists on attributing to Hobbes the intention to make certain rather far-fetched arguments, nowhere found in his book). A truce comes with no guarantees — it lasts exactly so long as the parties choose to honor its terms, which simply expire on the suspicion of a violation. Among would-be parties to peace, a truce is simply a step toward alleviating mutual fear and limitless recrimination. Honoring the requirements of the Second Law does not make anyone any safer, except in the sense it formulates a norm whereby men of good will are not necessarily doomed to remain forever at odds.

So why then does the Second Law of Nature state that one must be ready to enter on truces “as farre-forth, as for Peace, and defence of himselfe he shall think it necessary”? [Emphasis added.] The answer is simple: because the legitimacy of this concern is to be acknowledged, among all who would seek to live peaceably. To hold otherwise would leave social intercourse hostage to the bullying impositions of the strong — and this Hobbes declines to do. His various Laws of Nature are consistently formulated in such a way to leave men a right to stand up for themselves, when their legitimate interests are belittled or threatened.

Like the further seventeen Laws that Hobbes goes on to enumerate (in Chapter 15), the Second Law of Nature is offered as a corollary to the First, “Seek Peace, and Follow it.” This Fundamental Law forms one half of a more comprehensive, two-branched, “generall rule of Reason”: “That every man ought to endeavor Peace, as farre as he has hope of obtaining it; and when he cannot obtain it, that he may seek, and use, all helps, and advantages of Warre.” The latter half of this two-branched rule tends to grab readers’ attention, in affording such seemingly limitless discretionary license in the conduct of war. (Hobbes speaks of this latter branch as “the summe of the Right of Nature”: in short, “By all means we can, to defend ourselves.”) The important thing to notice, however, is that Hobbes in fact strictly limits this discretionary license to the circumstance in which no hope for peace is possible: it is literally nothing more than a right of desperation. When within reach, peace is to be sought, and followed — all strategic or prudential calculations aside.

Neither the Fundamental Law of Nature, nor its numerous corollaries, are addressed to strategic exigencies. In the case of the Second Law, the readiness to enter a truce is in no way made contingent on the other parties’ relative strength, as potential allies or adversaries, but only their attitude, their own readiness to reciprocate. So, too, in general: other people’s readiness to abide by the Laws of Nature is the only relevant datum for judging whether the conditions for peace are ripe. Those who fail or refuse to adhere to these norms, in the situations to which they apply, are to be seen as hostile to peace — and open to blame for that reason.

(To be continued.)

Next in this series: Hobbes’s Swerve: From De Cive to Leviathan.

Preceding post in this series: Hobbes’s Moral Philosophy: A Proposal.


Beached Whaleengraving by Jacob Matham, 1602.  

Hobbes’s Moral Philosophy: A Proposal

(First in a series.)

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.

Next in this series: Surveying the Whale: An Approach to Hobbes’s Leviathan.
Hobbes portrait


Thomas Hobbes. Portrait by John Michael Wright.

National Portrait Gallery, London.