Thomas Hobbes may not have realized when he published Leviathan in 1651 that he would establish a base of Western political thought that would still be relevant over 350 years later. One of the most novel and controversial ideas to come out of Leviathan regarded the function of morality. Hobbes took a pessimistic view of human nature and believed that morality did not exist outside the constraints of the state or in our natural state without government. To fully understand Hobbes’ claim to our natural lack of morality and its function within society, I will first provide an overview of natural condition of mankind and the doctrine of egoism upon which his treatise is built. I will also briefly discuss the social contract, the origin of the state, and function of government. I will argue that Hobbes’ view of human nature and morality is problematic because egoism does not adequately explain human motivation and would not allow the initial creation of the state. Lastly, I will show that Hobbesian philosophy is still of value concerning international affairs within certain limitations.
Hobbes claims that nature endowed humans with a rough equality of ability. No one is born with an overly significant amount of strength or mental ability. He envisioned a state of nature for humans as a natural condition without laws, rules, or government inhabited by people with this inherent rough equality of ability. Further, everyone is of equal value and may act in any way necessary to protect or advance their interests. Most importantly, everyone would act out of self-interest at all times moved by short-term passion rather than long-term reason. The doctrine that individuals always act out of self-interest and self-interest alone is called psychological egoism and is key to Hobbes’ argument. He also believes that due to unchecked self-interest and this base, rough equality, “… ariseth, equality of hope in attaining of our ends” leading to competition for resources. Add to the equation the quest for prestige, respect and glory also inherent to human nature and a dangerous mixture is created. In fact, in a state with no laws and punishment where self-interest rules and competition for resources, justified paranoia, and quest for glory are ever present, enemies and violence are everywhere. This means that the state of nature is actually a state of war.
Life then in the state of nature then is, “solitary, poore, nasty brutish, and short.” For Hobbes, two Laws of Nature counter an unimaginable, uncivilized life without morality. The first Law of Nature is that humans should try to attain peace. If peace is not possible, one would have unlimited rights as in the state of nature. The second Law of Nature states that if everyone agrees to peace in mutual rather than individual defense then it is within reason to give up all rights inherent within the state of nature. These rights would be given to that entity that would enforce all agreements made within this social contract. That entity is the state or sovereign. In exchange for peace, rebellion, questioning authority, and breaking the social contract is expressly forbidden even if that sovereign abuses power to become a tyrant. The point is that even the worst state of government is better than the state of nature.
For Hobbes, morality does not exist in the state of nature nor is it part of human nature. The origin of government came about from the inherent desire of peace in a state of constant violence and passion for all that could not be possible in the state of nature. This includes culture, art, enterprise, and property that would be impossible without cooperation and a system that enforced certain rules of behavior. The function of government is simply to enforce the rules of cooperation necessary for society to function. Another way of stating the function of government is that it instills fear of punishment into its subjects. Morality functions then as promoting the rules of cooperation that restrain self-interested behavior. Since self-interest is natural, morality is unnatural and law is equivalent to coercion and lack of freedom. This is the price, however, we must pay for peace, progress and protection of our life, property, and enterprising interests. It is interesting that Hobbes believes that the very sovereign that allows our elevation out of the state of nature is, in fact, in a state of nature with other sovereigns. This makes sense because there are no sovereigns to govern sovereigns and therefore, no fear of punishment or reason to act out of anything other than self-interest. For Hobbes, morality from an international viewpoint does not exist.
Hobbes’ justification of authoritarian government is problematic and in many respects implausible. First, absolute psychological egoism would not allow our species to live more than a couple of generations at most. Life driven by passion without constraint would be too destructive to imagine. Mothers would not care for their babies who, more than likely, were fathered out of rape. If a baby were lucky (or unlucky) enough to make it to childhood, no one would take the time to teach her anything entailing no communication above a grunt or a club on the head. Without communication, the first social contract would be impossible. Hobbes’ first Law of Nature conflicts with the motivations within a state of nature. Only through reason is the social contract possible and as Hobbes stated, “A Law of Nature … is a Precept, or generall Rule, found out by reason …”. In the state of nature where reason is utilized to promote self-interest or protect oneself from the violence of others, reason would be overwhelmed and therefore, not allow cooperation necessary to begin to agree on even the simplest social contract. Some sense of morality and cooperation must have existed in humans before the first government originated. Ethical egoism is the doctrine that we should act according to self-interest while psychological egoism which is the doctrine that is part of our nature to always act according to self-interest. It is unclear whether Hobbes was an absolute ethical egoist or not but it is clear that absolute psychological egoism is not plausible. Lastly, it could be argued that altruism is a fantasy but there does seem to be evidence of genuine giving to others without personal gain of any sort. All of the major religions of the world promote altruism and abound with stories of self-stories of selfless giving in history and everyday life. The existence of communication, cooperation, and altruism seems to point to a more optimistic human nature than Hobbes claims thereby weakening his argument for the justification of authoritarian government. Lastly, it seems that Hobbes did not fully believe in a world completely without altruism thereby making his state of nature more of interesting thought experiment.
It is important to note that even though his argument is weakened, it does not entail that his political philosophy is not of value. As it concerns international affairs, Hobbesian philosophy is evident and sometimes necessary concerning relations between states. This is due to the difference between individual and populations along with the abuse of power that may develop within a regime. Imperialism that led to World War II and the U.S. invasion of Iraq could be argued to be an example of Hobbesian political thought in action since both are of questionable morality and seem to be driven by national self-interest. Political and military intervention by nations against other nations to stop genocide as in Darfur is also Hobbesian because of the questionable legality of interfering with another sovereign state. It could be argued that the United Nations makes such an intervention legal. Further, international morality and altruism also go against the Hobbesian idea of a state of nature between sovereigns, however, it is clear that disregard of a sovereign’s right to rule is both morally justified and Hobbesian. Much more could be said regarding Hobbesian political thought and international relations that is beyond the scope of this paper. Even though still somewhat controversial, it is likely that aspects of the philosophy of Hobbes will remain an important part of Western political thought.