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.

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