Sunday, February 28, 2010

David Hume on Religion (Part 1): Terminology, Structure and Interpretation

This post in part of my short series on David Hume's critique of religion. For an index see here.

As mentioned in the index, I am working off an article by J.C.A. Gaskin from the Cambridge Companion to Hume. Gaskin begins his article with an overview of the terminology, structure and interpretation of Hume's critique. I follow suit in this part.

1. Terminology
Hume's writings on religion follow the terminology of such debates as it was in his lifetime. This may be confusing to the modern reader. So it is necessary to provide a short bluffer's guide to the somewhat recondite language.

a. Type of Information
The first set of definitions relate to the different types of religious information to which we have access. The first type is that emanating from natural theology. This is the application of reason and logic to observations of the natural world.

The second type is revelation. This is the information which God has revealed to humankind. There are two varieties of revelation: (i) general and (ii) particular. General revelation comes from everyday experience of the presence of god; particular revelation comes from supposedly historical documents such as the bible.

b. Types of Argument
The second set of definitions relates to the different types of argument one encounters in religious philosophy. Nothing too spectacular here, just a distinction between a priori arguments and a posteriori arguments. Hume deals with the latter.

c. Types of Belief
The third set of distinction all relate to the type of belief one has. Deism rejects the existence of an interventionist god but accepts the existence of some divine creating intelligence. Providence accepts the existence of an interventionist God. Hume appears to have objected to being labelled a deist and was certainly not a providentialist.

Two corruptions of religious belief were discussed in Hume's day: (i) supernaturalism and (ii) enthusiasm. Supernaturalism is a state of emotional dread or fear that arises from ignorance and melancholy, and manifests itself in ceremonies, observances and sacrifices. Enthusiasm is equivalent to what we would now call fundamentalism.

Finally, we have fideism: belief grounded in faith, not reason. Hume's critique of early modern philosophical reason is often thought to mandate fideism.

2. The Structure of Hume's Critique
I mentioned this in the index, but a little repetition never hurt anyone. Hume adopts a two-pronged assault on religious belief. First, he critiques the standard reasons and arguments offered for the existence of god. Once he has effectively demolished these arguments, he moves on to consider why religious belief persists in the absence of a sound intellectual foundation.

Hume's critique is spread out over several works. His Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding contains his famous criticisms of belief in miracles and a first-airing of his criticisms of the design argument. These criticisms are more fully developed in Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, which is arguably his best work on religion. His explanation of the persistence of religious belief is contained in Natural History of Religion. Several other essays cover religious topics, such as "Of Suicide" and "On the Immortality of the Soul".

It should also be noted that Hume's work, taken as a whole, advances a deeply sceptical attitude to all knowledge claims. This supports and complements his work targeting religion. Indeed, it may be the extension of the sceptical approach into the domain of religion that is Hume's most original contribution to philosophy. After all, many of his predecessors promoted sceptical arguments (Decartes and Berkeley spring to mind). But they all rescued objective knowledge by grounding it in God; Hume made this an illegitimate move.

3. Interpretation of Hume
One thing that is never clear from Hume's work is the actual content of his religious beliefs. It may seem that someone who advances such a rigorous scepticism is an obvious candidate for atheism. But Hume, famously, nearly always followed his sceptical arguments with apparent professions of piety. For example, after demolishing the design argument he says no one can doubt the existence of supreme intelligent force.

Gaskin suggests that Hume is clearly adopting a prudential irony in these passages: his professions of piety are attempts to protect his reputation in an era in which public pronouncements of atheism would have been dangerous. Nevertheless, Hume does not seem to embrace a complete atheism: his scepticism would appear to extend to professions of negative belief as well.

In conclusion, Hume would appear to be a practical atheist, but an intellectual agnostic.

Hobbes on Lust

As a coda to my recent entries on the morality of sex, I thought I might share this quote from Thomas Hobbes on lust.

Hobbes is, of course, known for his pessimistic attitude toward human nature. And yet for all that he appears to be lust-loving humanist at heart. (Quote is from The Elements of Law Natural and Politic 1994, OUP, p. 55)
The appetite which men call LUST . . . is a sensual pleasure, but not only that; there is, in it, also a delight of the mind: for it consisteth of two appetites together, to please and to be pleased; and the delight men take in delighting, is not sensual, but a pleasure or joy of the mind, consisting in the imagination of the power they have so much to please.
So we see here that Hobbes saw the sexual act as not simply an expression of animal instincts, but as an intellectual act of moral reciprocation. An act in which the humanity of the other person is appreciated.

I mention this simply because, in his article on sexual morality, Belliotti argued in favour of a Kantian approach to sex. This required the existence of a hypothetical sexual contract that did not commodify the parties to the contract, but recognised their moral agency. It appears that Hobbes got there first.

I read A.P. Martinich's biography of Hobbes some years back, and I can't recall many details emerging about Hobbes's sex life. He certainly wasn't married and died without heirs, as far as I recall.

David Hume on Religion (Index)

Not only was Hume one of the greatest philosophers of all time, he also seems to have been a great guy. You certainly get that impression on reading about his jovial attitude towards his own demise in Boswell or in letters from his close friend Adam Smith. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that if I could aspire to be like anyone it would be David Hume.

Apart from the unhealthy adoration which his writings instill in me (one should never really aspire to be like another), Hume was perhaps the quintessential religious sceptic. He articulated a devastating critique of religious belief that remains cogent to this day. 

If you are yet to read the Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion then you are seriously missing out. I always like to imagine myself a participant at the after dinner conversation imagined therein. Nothing can beat that: good food, congenial surroundings, intelligent companions and intelligent debate. Actually one thing can beat that: when you "win" the debate with a combination of wit, charm, logic and evidence (in that order).

Hume's religious critique was a total critique. Like everything that he did, Hume approached religion with the equivalent of an intellectual pincer movement. The first arm of the pincer took on the arguments in favour of religious belief. In particular, Hume targeted the design argument, the argument from revelation and miracles, and the argument from morality. The second arm of the pincer tried to explain the persistence of religious belief in psychological and cultural terms.

I want to give an overview of Hume's attack on religion in the next few posts. To help me accomplish this, I will rely on the article "Hume on Religion" by J. C. A. Gaskin in the wonderful Cambridge Companion to Hume.

Gaskin's article is divided into two main sections. The first section covers the terminology, structure and interpretation of Hume's critique; the second section gives a summary of Hume's main arguments against religious belief. I will follow Gaskin's order in subsequent entries.


Saturday, February 27, 2010

Sex by Raymond Belliotti (Part Two)

This post is part of my series on the Blackwell Companion to Ethics. This entry is my second on the article about the ethics of sex by Raymond Belliotti.

In Part One, I covered Belliotti's discussion of the historical views on sexual morality. In this part I cover contractarian approaches, along with some critiques from the political left.

The Informed Consent Model
Before getting into the philosophical details, let's just set the scene by imagining a caricatured example of casual sexual congress. It's a Saturday night. Young (and not so young) men and women are gathering in gloomy pubs and nightclubs, tempted by the prospect of carnal interactions with the opposite sex.

Let's take two of these individuals (say, male and female as a bow to the heterosexual majority) for illustrative purposes. They meet, talk inanely, drink, dance and retire to one of their places of residence. To describe the remainder of their evening, I'll hand things over to Simon Blackburn:
The boy and girl back from the bar, stumbling and stripping in the hall, tongues lolling and panting for "it," know what they want. It's simple enough. They want sex.
So what are we to make of this? Is their sexual encounter morally acceptable?

For the contractarian, the answer is simple. As long as both parties know what they are about, and both consent to the activities, their sexual encounter is morally acceptable. We can call this the "informed consent model". This seems to chime well with moral intuitions. For instance, the crime of rape is defined as sexual penetration without consent.

Kantian Modification
Belliotti thinks the contractarian model just described is libertarian in form. It permits an excessive commodification of the human body. He illustrates his concern with the example of someone agreeing to sever their finger in order to please a sadist. For a real life example, I suggest you read about Armin Meiwes, the infamous German cannibal whose victim agreed to be eaten.

Belliotti suggests we cannot agree with this level of commodification. He thus argues for a Kantian modification of libertarian contractualism. This modification would force us to consider the other party to the contract as a complete moral agent and not simply as a means to your own gratification. In other words, we accept the basic merit of the contractual approach but adds a need for moral reciprocity.

Although this Kantian modification is Belliotti's preferred approach to sexual morality, he admits that it is always somewhat fictional. In the sweaty, fumbling urgency of the one night stand, no one stops to formulate a contract (oral or written) that could be morally significant.

Marxist and Feminist Critiques
Traditional heterosexual sex is often criticised by those of the political left. Most prominent among them are the Marxists and Feminists (indeed feminist critiques owe much to Marxist theory). How could they object to good clean fun between consenting adults?

Easy, by arguing that the consent is the product of indoctrination in a particular bourgeois or patriarchal ideology. For Marxists, sex within the bourgeois family is merely a form of prostitution and exploitation. Legitimate heirs are needed to perpetuate the system of private property. So, women are deliberately excluded from the public sphere and limited in their sexual freedom in order to prop up capitalism.

For Feminists, the position is similar. Catherine MacKinnon argues that women are simply socialised to meet the sexual wants and needs of their male oppressors. In doing so, MacKinnon seeks to unmask the political implications of sex. The most extreme expression of this philosophy is the lesbian separatist movement within radical feminism (e.g. Jill Johnston). They argue that lesbianism is the only way to undermine the patriarchy.

The following are some critical questions that can asked of radical feminism (they can be modified to embrace Marxism):

  • Is it really true that men are capable of nothing but oppression and exploitation?
  • Does radical feminism demean women by suggesting they can never be autonomous or exercise informed consent?
  • Does it too readily assume that sexual activity is the core aspect of feminine identity?
  • Is it impossible to argue with? If we assume people are indoctrinated into an ideology, we assume they can never be sincere if they claim to embrace this ideology. 
  • How did radical feminists manage to escape indoctrination?
And with that, I call this entry to a close.

Monday, February 22, 2010


Don't worry, I haven't abandoned this blog. I'm exceptionally busy at the moment trying to write my PhD thesis. I'll have to be more modest in my posting schedule over the next few months. But I will still try to get stuff up a couple of times a week.

Also, I appear to be getting constant hits from the same google images search (unknown browser, unknown location). I have removed the image, but it hasn't stopped the constant hits. Does anybody who is more knowledgeable than I know how to stop this, or whether I should even care?

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Sex by Raymond Belliotti (Part One)

I've burdened myself with the task of blogging every article in the Blackwell Companion to Ethics. Today, with the help of Raymond Belliotti, I cover everyone's favourite topic: sex.

Belliotti's essay covers a lot of ground, dealing with many historical views on sex. However, his focus is mainly on sexual activity (broadly defined) and its moral permissibility, and not on issues pertaining to sexual identity.

Part One will cover Belliotti's discussion of historical schools of thought on sex; Part Two will cover more modern approaches, along with some critiques.

When in Greece...
As with everything philosophical, we begin with the Greeks. And within the Greek tradition we focus on the Pythagoreans. They, famously, set up a duality between body and mind. The human mind was part of a great spirit, but it was corrupted by the body. Sex was bodily and thus corrupting.

This view was influential on Plato's vision of philosophy as a preparation for human assimilation with the divine. And the Stoics were likewise eager to distance us from the material and bodily.

This dualistic approach naturally supported a form of sexual asceticism and predated Christian influences.

Judaeo-Christian Thought
The Old Testament had a reasonably positive attitude toward sex. We are all familiar with the injunctions to be fruitful and multiply. Likewise, although Jesus condemned adultery and divorce, he had little else to say on the topic of sexual morality.

It was with St. Paul that Christian attitudes toward sex started to turn sour. For Paul, we were all living in the end times and so the goal in life was to achieve eternal salvation. Sex was an unnecessary distraction from this goal. That said, Paul did not think sex was inherently evil.

As Christianity began to spread, it absorbed some of the Greek dualism and asceticism. St. Augustine in his work Of Holy Virginity and On Marriage and Concupiscence was the most systematic expositor of such idea. Central to his rejection of sex was the concept of the Fall. Before the Fall, sex was uncontaminated by raging passion; after the Fall there was no way to engage in sex without being consumed with sinful passion. Sex became a necessary evil. Only permitted in marriage and then only for the purposes of reproduction.

Aquinas reiterated Augustine's views, but dropped the suspicion of bodily pleasure within marriage.

Protestants and Catholics
For the early protestant reformers, such as Luther and Calvin, sex was still a distasteful business. However, they did not accept celibacy as an ideal. Sexual activity within a marriage was acceptable if it was restrained, decorous and procreative.

The Catholic position on sex has remained consistent for a very long time: sex is only permissible within marriage, and only then if performed for procreative purposes. At this juncture it is appropriate to watch this video:

Of course, there can be some modifications of these positions. For example, it might be argued that all sexual activity within a marriage is acceptable because sexual pleasure is a legitimate aspect of the marital relationship.

Criticisms of Christian Views
For those who don't accept the metaphysics of Christianity, there will be little reason to think that sex is corrupting. But even if we leave that to one side and adopt a more secular perspective, there are problems with the Christian position.

Chief among them is that the Christian view adopts a narrow functionalistic view of human nature. Proponents simply pick out some aspect of sexual "nature" (reproduction) and argue that it is the only acceptable one. Furthermore, it is difficult to see why a marriage ceremony makes sex any more legitimate than it might otherwise have been.

The Exaltation of Sex
A more interesting and modern development, associated with Roger Scruton and Vincent Purzo, is the view that sex is legitimate only if it is accompanied by love and intimacy. In other words, it must take place between two partners who are deeply committed to and trusting of each other. This requires an ability to rationally reflect on the needs, wants and thoughts of the other.

This view elevates sexual activity to a quasi-spiritual level. Sex without love and intimacy is said to be psychologically disintegrating and dehumanising.

The problem with this approach is that the exaltation of sex ends up being just as irrational as the crude functionalism of Christian attitudes to sex. Furthermore, it is not clear that psychological disintegration actually does result from sexual activity without love and intimacy. And even if it did, it does not follow that it is morally impermissible for we would first have to establish that any acts that lead to existential fragmentation are morally reprehensible.

Okay, that's it for now. In Part Two the informed consent model will be discussed.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Abortion (Part 2) by Mary Ann Warren

It's been awhile, but today I will finally complete my discussion of the article on abortion by Mary Ann Warren.

Part One covered two arguments in favour of a right to access abortion. They were the disastrous consequences argument and the right to autonomous choice argument. In this part, the moral status of the foetus is addressed.

Moral Status
Warren begins this discussion by looking at the general question of moral status. All ethical theorists, be they utilitarians, Kantians or virtue ethicists, need to have some criterion for distinguishing morally relevant beings from morally irrelevant beings. What is this going to be?

Warren looks at four possible criteria:
  • Life
  • Genetic Humanity
  • Sentience
  • Personhood
Let's see what these are and how they might apply to the abortion question.

1. Life
Albert Schweitzer argued that the chief moral criterion was whatever property it is that distinguishes life from non-life. Living things are functionally organised in such a way as to ensure their own survival and reproduction. As living beings we share in this functional organisation, so we should have a moral concern for all beings with this property.

Warren suggests that a concern for life really flows from ecological and aesthetic concerns. In other words, from a desire to preserve a well-balanced ecosphere for practical (food, medicine, clothing) and aesthetic (beauty, wonder, awe) reasons.

The problem with using life as a criterion is its over-inclusiveness. While life is valuable, it is not unqualifiedly valuable. There are occasions in which it is necessary to kill another living being. The most obvious of which comes from our need to kill in order to eat (that holds for vegetarians as well since plants are most definitely "alive").

2. Genetic Humanity
The second proposed criterion is shared genetic humanity. In other words, any beings who share a sufficient amount of the human genetic code qualify for special treatment.

Warren dismisses this criterion with some alacrity. She thinks that moral criteria cannot arise simply from evolutionary accidents of birth. I would add that it is not at all clear from evolutionary biology that the idea of a shared genetic humanity makes sense.

Although humans do share a large amount of their genetic code, it is also true to say that evolutionary thinking is anti-essentialistic in its thrust. In other words, post-Darwin it doesn't make sense to see humanity as some sort of fixed, immutable essence shared by all human beings.

3. Sentience
The third proposed criterion is sentience. This is the idea that beings that are capable of experiencing pleasure and pain are worthy of moral respect; beings that are not capable of such experiences do not deserve moral respect.

This is certainly a more robust moral criterion, but it suffers from some problems. First, it is not clear which beings have sentience and which do not. Philosophers are fond of informing us that our friends and family could be zombies, who look and behave as normal humans do but have no conscious experiences.

Dismissing such philosophical concerns (as we must) we might propose that a minimum condition for sentience is the possession of a nervous system, along with some basic behavioural responsitivity. It is suggested that foetuses only develop these properties in the second trimester. Thus early-term abortions would be acceptable and late-term abortions would not.

There are two problems with this criterion. First, it too is over-inclusive as it covers a large swathe of the animal kingdom. Put it this way: a fly has a functioning nervous system, does this mean swatting a fly is morally condemnable in the same way that homicide is? Second, the criterion does not, by itself, establish any exception clauses. It cannot be that all sentient beings must be preserved irrespective of the harm it does to other sentient beings. And yet this is exactly what some women claim arises in the case of the foetus, i.e. that it does them harm.

4. Personhood
The fourth proposed criterion is personhood. This is a somewhat nebulous concept. It is usually associated with what we might call "higher" mental capacities. In particular, the capacity for developing hopes and aspirations for the future.

Warren disagrees with these traditional conceptions of personhood. She argues that what is truly distinctive about persons is their capacity for moral reciprocation. That is: their ability to recognise other people as being the possessors and holders of moral rights.

Foetuses almost certainly do not have this capacity for moral reciprocation (they cannot appreciate that their mothers, say, have moral rights). The problem is that neither do young children or mentally handicapped adults.

Thus, the personhood criterion seems over-inclusive.

Is Birth Morally Significant?
The problem in identifying a clear moral criterion leads Warren to consider a different issue: the unique biological relationship between a mother and a foetus.

The problem is this: even if the foetus is a morally significant being, its significance is only sustained by another morally significant being. So the moral question is not primarily one of significance, but one of competing significances.

Birth becomes a morally relevant demarcation because it is the point at which the child can be offered equal basic rights without violating anybody else's moral rights.

Potential Persons?
Finally, Warren addresses the potential person argument. This is the idea that a foetus has certain minimal moral rights due to its potential to develop into a full human being (with full moral rights).

The problem with this is that in no other domain would a potentiality argument work. For instance, Warren argues that every child born in America is a potential voter. But this does not mean they should be accorded a right to vote (note: I think there is a need to unpack that analogy in a bit more detail, but since Warren does not go into it, neither will I).

Furthermore, the potentiality argument goes too far. Every possible sperm-egg fusion is a potential life. Does this mean we have to expend resources ensuring that every sperm finds an egg?

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Hobbes's Moral Theory (Part 2): Material Definitions

This post is part of my brief series on Thomas Hobbes's moral theory. The series works off the discussion in David Gauthier's The Logic of Leviathan. For an index, see here.

In Part One I covered the formal definitions of Hobbes's key moral concepts. These formal definitions were detached from Hobbes's psychological theory.

In this part, I cover the material definitions of the key moral concepts. These are connected to Hobbes's psychological theory.

It is worth noting at the outset that Hobbes's psychological theory is mechanistic and egoistic. That is to say: Hobbes's argues that the mind is material, is structured like a machine, is attracted to particular things (and repulsed by others), and functions so as to move the human body toward the attractive things and away from the repulsive things.

With that out of the way, we can move on to the material definitions of the moral concepts.

1. The Right of Nature
The right of nature has a very straightforward material definition. As follows:
A has the natural right to do X = A doing X is initially believed by A to be conducive to A's preservation.
This is simply saying that in the state of nature, men and women will do whatever they believe to be conducive to their own preservation. They may be incorrect in what they believe, but they will do it nonetheless.

It is this natural inclination that Hobbes thinks leads to a state of perpetual war. Why? Because we compete for scarce resources, because we anticipate and retaliate attacks from others, and because it behooves us to cultivate a reputation for violence.

2. The Laws of Nature
According to the formal definition, a law of nature was a precept, discovered by reason, that told us what was conducive to our preservation. The material definition is practically identical:
Law of Nature = Precept laying down what is required for preservation.
Hobbes puts some flesh on these definitional bones by proceeding to identify approximately 19 laws of nature. Of these, three are most relevant here:
  1. "Every man ought to endeavor peace as far as he has hope of obtaining it."
  2. "A man [must] be willing, when others are so lay down his right to all things and be contented with so much liberty against other men, as he would allow other men against himself."
  3. "That men perform their covenants made". 
What Hobbes is saying here is that the war of all against all is a deeply unpleasant state of affairs and that we must do all we can to avoid it. His own description of this still sparkles with despair:
In such condition, there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain; and consequently no cultivation of the earth; no navigation nor use of the commodities that may be imported by the Sea; no commodious Building; no Instruments of moving and removing such things as require such force; no Knowledge of the face of the Earth; no account of Time; no Arts; no Letters; and which is worst of all, continuall feare, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish and short.
Who could countenance living in such a state of affairs? No one, and as soon as they appreciate the grim, ineluctable logic of violence they will follow Hobbes's laws of nature: they will seek peace; they will give up the right of nature; and they will comply with any covenants they happen to make.

3. Obligation
We learned in Part One that an obligation only exists if a covenant has been made. Well, the material definition of obligation arises from the second law of nature (discussed above), which allows a person to give up their natural right to do anything in the interest of self-preservation. The definition is the following:
A has an obligation not to do X = A has laid down the natural right to do X, in accordance with the second law of nature.
Now there are limitations on what we can give up the right to. In particular, we cannot give up the right to self-defence (there are other restrictions that pertain to Hobbes's religious views, they can be ignored here).

4. Justice
Like obligation, the material definition of justice arises from the second law of nature:
X is a just act = X does not involve the breaking of a covenant undertaken in accordance with the second law of nature.
That's it for now, in the next part we'll cover a whole suite of problems that arise from Hobbes's moral concepts.

Friday, February 5, 2010

In case you were wondering...

Just to let you know, I'll be away for the next week. Alas, that means no new stuff til next friday.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Hobbes's Moral Theory (Part 1): Formal Definitions

This post is part of my series on Hobbes's Moral Theory. The series covers material from David Gauthier's book The Logic of Leviathan. For an index, see here.

Gauthier argues for a particular interpretation of Hobbes's moral theory, an interpretation that is contested by others. Given its contested nature, Gauthier expends considerable energies in justifying it. I see no need to follow his justificatory programme. I will simply outline his interpretation.

Gauthier divides his discussion into four segments. The first segment formally defines the crucial moral concepts employed by Hobbes. The second segment offers material definitions of these concepts. The third segment covers the problems that arise for these moral concepts. And finally, the fourth segment asks whether or not Hobbes has a "moral" theory (as opposed to a theory of rational choice). In this post I will cover the first segment.

Now you may be wondering: what differentiates the formal and material definitions? The answer is that the formal definition detaches the moral concepts from Hobbes's mechanistic psychology; whereas the material definition connects the moral concepts to Hobbes's psychology.

The four concepts employed by Hobbes are:
  1. The Right of Nature
  2. The Laws of Nature
  3. Obligation
  4. Justice
Let's see what the formal definitions of each of these is.

1. The Right of Nature
Hobbes defines the right of nature as "the liberty each man hath, to use his own power, as he will himself, for the preservation of his own nature". The concept is not moral, in the strict sense of "moral". That is to say: Hobbes is not saying people have a moral right to use their power as they see fit; he is saying that they can do this (it is within their power to do this).

Another way of looking at this is to say that, for Hobbes, the right of nature gives rise to no correlative duties. I am under no obligation to respect any actions you perform for your own survival; and you are under no obligation to respect actions I perform for my own survival.

Hobbes does bring reason into his definition of the right. He says that it is not contrary to reason to preserve one's life (it is a "blameless liberty"). It is important to realise that "reason", in this context, does not implicate Hobbes's psychological egoism. It is possible to be reasonable without being egoistic.

Anyway, after all this, we end up with the following formal definition of a right of nature:
A has the natural right to do X = A doing X is initially in accordance with right reason.
The use of the word "initially" may puzzle some, but it is there only to indicate that these definitions apply only in the state of nature, and so all come prior to the social contract (or construction of Leviathan).

2. Laws of Nature
The laws of nature flow directly from the right of nature. Hobbes defines them as precepts which are discovered by reason, and that help a person to avoid self-destruction. In other words, they are rational precepts that guide conduct.

Gauthier offers two definitions of the laws of nature:
(a) X is contrary to the laws of nature = Doing X is contrary to right reason.
(b) Law of nature = a precept laying down the requirements of right reason. 

3. Obligation
The definition of an obligation is tricky. Mainly because Hobbes is not himself explicit about it. Nonetheless, Gauthier thinks the concept is, in Hobbes's theory, intimately linked to the idea of a covenant or contract.

For Hobbes. all obligations are self-imposed. After all, the right of nature allows us to do anything we see fit to preserve our existence. Any restrictions on action must be voluntary.

The formal definition is the following:
A has an obligation not to do X = A has laid down the natural right to do X
It is important to realise that this has no psychological element to it. In other words, we are not at this stage wondering about the psychological motivations that might lead a person to give up their rights.

4. Justice
Finally we come to justice. For Hobbes, the just act is one that does not involve the contravention of a covenant.

As follows:
X is a just act = X does not involve the breaking of a covenant.
 That's it for now. In the next part, I'll cover the material definitions of these concepts.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Hobbes's Moral Theory (Index)

Thomas Hobbes has always held a particular fascination for me. I am drawn to his unrelentingly mechanical understanding of human behaviour and his valiant attempts to derive a moral theory from this mechanistic understanding. I'm not convinced that he succeeds in his attempts (can anybody?), or that his solution is pleasant, but he is still worth reading; there is a breathless, urgent and poetic quality to his prose.

One of my favourite works of Hobbesian scholarship is David Gauthier's The Logic of Leviathan: The Moral and Political Theory of Thomas Hobbes. It was published in 1969 and was, as far as I know, one of the first attempts to undertake a game theoretic analysis of Hobbes's work. Of course nowadays it has become de rigeur to highlight the similarities between Hobbes's state of nature and the prisoner's dilemma.

Anyway, over the next few posts, I want to go through Gauthier's chapter on Hobbes's moral theory. I think it is informative, thought-provoking and will find a congenial home in my swelling archive on moral theory.


1. Formal Definitions of Hobbes's Moral Concepts

2. Material Definitions of Hobbes's Moral Concepts

3. Problems (Lots of them)

4. A Moral Theory?