Philosophical Ethics: Hobbes On The Source Of Authority

In a series of posts this semester, I am blogging all (or almost all) the lecture topics for the two Philosophical Ethics classes I am teaching this semester. Each of these posts primarily explicates the reading or a theme that dominated class discussion in a way that should be accessible to novices (such as my students are). I also offer some degree of analysis of the ideas considered and then pose suggested discussion questions. These posts usually feature more speculation than argumentation from me as I try to stimulate your thinking rather than stake out my own positions. Some of my students are responding to these short discussion primers in a private forum through the university. I’ve told the students they are free to discuss the blog post versions of these discussion primers as well, so they might show up here. The text we are using and from which all citations are taken is Ethical Theory: classical and contemporary readings, edited by Louis Pojman. Wadsworth: California, 2007). This post explores Hobbes’ basic theory of human nature in the state of nature, how it leads to the social contract and to sovereign authority, and finally how all of these issues raise moral questions about the nature of just authority.

Thomas Hobbes conceives of the “state of nature” as the situation human beings would be in were there no social order.  In the “state of nature” there is no such thing as justice but rather there are only beings with the power to do whatever it takes to assure their own preservation.  In this situation of what Hobbes sees as “war of all against all” (bella contra omnes), the cardinal virtues for human beings are “force and fraud.”  Violence and deception are the most indispensable and approvable means at our disposal for our ends of self-preservation.

According to Hobbes we join society out of incentive.  It is practically infeasible for us to be at constant war with each other.  This is because both (1) war is risky, often even when we are the one(s) more powerful and more likely to be victorious, and (2) having each other’s cooperation is often useful for our own purposes.  While subjugating you and reducing you to being my slave might be optimally to my benefit if I can do it, it’s too difficult and risky to attempt this and if I fail I risk being in a worse off position than if I just make an arrangement by which we both contract to support one another of our own free wills.  While I lose the shot at having a slave and will have to do some less than maximally convenient things to accommodate your needs, desires, and freedoms, I am better off than were I to wind up either enslaved by you or otherwise losing your cooperation altogether.

It is out of these sorts of considerations (formalizable in terms of the prisoner’s dilemma as contemporary game theorists and then moral philosophers have discovered) that we can judge it rational for people to cooperate with each other rather than harm one another, even should we believe them to be only motivated by their own self-interest and nothing else.  When our consideration of our own self-interest has to take into account the actions of others which will be happening independently of our own actions and often in response to our actions, what is most in our self-interest comes to be what mutually coordinates our actions with those of the other agents which intersect with our own.

When we participate in society, we implicitly agree to a “social contract” by which we all agree to surrender our state of nature rights to injure, kill, rape, and plunder each other in favor of an implicit agreement to cooperate with each other and respect each other’s person and property.  We each mutually coordinate with each other to uphold the social contract because it serves our own self-interest, even though in particular cases we have to forego immediate self-interests.  When I discover you have left your room unattended with the door open, I realize that I could raid your room and take whatever I want that I can smuggle home without getting caught.  If I am a self-interested agent with no intrinsic interest in you, this option of robbing you is my primary interest.  But I forego this opportunity because of the social contract.  I do not want to live under with the risk of others doing the same to me so often that even with my chances to steal from you I wind up on the short end of the stick at the end of the day.  It’s better for me to try to accumulate what I can within the terms of our social contract which forbids all recourse to such personal abuse.

But what about the “free rider?”  What about someone who realizes that as long as everyone else is playing by the rules, he can break them with no harm to himself?  The free rider calculates that as long as everyone else is mutually coordinating their actions to cooperate with each other, society will not fall into chaos of war of all against all, the social order will hold up.  He can realizes he can benefit from the cooperation of others while scamming them without their knowledge and in this way both satisfy his primary self-interests and gain the benefits of others’ foregoing their rights to the same and cooperating.

Hobbes’ solution to the problem of the free rider is that we need a fearful, powerful sovereign authority which can severely punish the free riders when they are caught.  Hobbes’ ideal sovereign would have the power to do whatever it took to assure the stability and security of a people.  The sovereign would have the power to make an example of the free rider which sent a message to future free riders that the risks of getting caught violating the social contract far outweigh the benefits of doing so.  In this way the social contract, while rationally in everyone’s self-interest to maintain, is enforced and reinforced through fear which helps us stick to the mutual coordination which is ultimately to our rational, personal benefit in those moments of temptation when our immediate gain at the expense of the contract seems most appealing.

Hobbes argues that outside of society, in the state of nature, there is no such thing as justice.  There is no injustice in injuring, killing, raping, plundering, and otherwise violating each other before there is the law of a sovereign over a people which creates justice and injustice for them.  Hobbes thinks independent of the sovereign there can be moral counsel about what naturally leads to pleasure and away from pain, but without a sovereign there is no authority to command that as a matter of law anyone must do anything.  Laws depend on law-givers according to Hobbes and so independent of sovereigns who lay down laws there are no imperatives we must follow.  Unlike Kant later would he does not think of each rational agent as legislating a moral law for himself.

For Hobbes the right to give laws comes from the power to do so.  In the state of nature, we have the right to impose a law on anyone else to the extent that we can impose our will on them and get them to accept it.  In society, we surrender such rights against each other to the sovereign who now has the full power to impose laws.  And whatever the sovereign imposes as law is just as long as he is sovereign.  And by accepting his sovereignty and protection, we surrender our rights to determine how we are to be protected.

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The sovereign’s task is to keep us safe and our society stable at all costs.  The only way the sovereign could lose authority is if the sovereign proves impotent at securing his people.  He cannot be deposed on grounds that his laws are unjust since there is no standard of justice prior to his acts of law giving.  There are no inviolable rights such as rights to free speech since it is up to the discretion of the sovereign whether certain speech might foment factions that could lead to civil war, for example, and the ultimate concern of the sovereign is the people’s security and preventing such consequences at any cost.  For Hobbes a people is free only insofar as it is not subjugated by a foreign invader, not insofar as the people may do whatever they choose.  It is at the sovereign’s discretion to judge that to protect you from being enslaved by a foreign authority, he must silence your freedom to say or think things that he judges might lead to that result.

There are difficult questions that arise from a consideration of Hobbes’ ideas.  Does might indeed make right or could there be means we have for deriving a standard of justice which would be true and morally binding even were society to disintegrate?  On what grounds might we derive and defend a standard of justice that was pre-social in such a way?  Is a natural or rational grounding of justice in some way necessary for us to challenge existing laws with moral authority?  Can we say with Augustine, Aquinas, Martin Luther King, Jr., and others that “an unjust law is not a law”—that laws can be judged by a moral test and be deemed morally not authoritative if they violate a true conscience that has properly determined what is truly moral and immoral?  Without such principles is there any moral authority that individuals oppressed by their own governments could have to appeal for changes?  From where might we derive such principles?  Would some other paradigm of morality and ethics be required altogether or can we defend such notions of a justice which supersedes that of sovereigns purely on voluntarist grounds (which argue that laws must be expressions of wills in commands)?

The same questions also return on the level of God?  Were there an all powerful rational personal being, would its will be morally authoritative over all other rational beings simply by virtue of its power?  Does moral authority ultimately stem from the powerful will’s ability to command and enforce its commands or from somewhere else?  And if from somewhere else, where else?

Finally, going back to the prisoner’s dilemma, do you think that cooperative actions done out of mutual coordination for the sake of one’s calculation of self-interests through cooperation are, properly speaking, moral ones? Or do you agree with Kant’s idea that if self-interest motivates an action it may not be called ideally moral, regardless of how good its consequences it might be and regardless of whether the action happens to be the same one which duty would prescribe the agent should perform.

Your Thoughts?

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.


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