Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) is a philosopher whose work has been important in political philosophy as well as in ethics. Hobbes believed that although Humankind is selfish by nature, it is able through reason and its selfish desires to create a government in which we can live in peace.
First, however, we need to describe Hobbes’ theory of human psychology. Hobbes was a Psychological Egoist. This means that Hobbes believed that everyone always acts selfishly; in other words, we always looks out for No. 1: ourselves. No matter what we do, we are acting selfishly, according to Hobbes.
The State of Nature
Hobbes’ theory of Psychological Egoism allows us to investigate what would be in our own best self-interest. Should we always take what we want, whenever we want it? Is that in our own best self-interest? Or would it be better to live some other way?
Let’s look at Hobbes’ State of Nature — the way Humankind lived before a government was created. In the State of Nature, goods are scarce and there is competition for them. (Not everyone can own beachfront property and be the Chair of the Board of General Motors.) One reason for the competition is that by the Right of Nature everyone has the right to do whatever is necessary to preserve and enhance his or her life.
According to Hobbes, “The right of nature, which writers commonly call jus naturale, 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; and consequently, of doing anything, which in his own judgment and reason, he shall conceive to be the aptest means thereunto.” In other words, you have a right to everything you need to preserve and enhance your life.
One result of this is that people are so busy trying to protect what they have that they have no time to create new goods. If someone has many goods, they have to continually watch over and protect them because if they don’t, someone will try to take the goods away from them.
Furthermore, in the State of Nature, everyone is roughly equal in the ability to kill. I would say that this is true today. If I have a gun, I can shoot Arnold Schwarzenegger and strong as he is, he won’t be able to stop a bullet. Hobbes also believed that people are roughly equal in intelligence and other abilities.
Therefore, in the State of Nature, there is no justice or injustice, no right or wrong, because there is no room for them. Justice/injustice and right/wrong come into play only when we have a government to enforce laws. However, in the State of Nature, there is good and bad, but these terms are relative.
The State of Nature leads to war, because of the desire and competition for scarce goods that cannot be shared. War comes about for three reasons, according to Hobbes: 1) competition for scarce goods, 2) diffidence, or fear that others may harm you if you don’t harm them first, and 3) the desire for glory. In a famous quotation, Hobbes wrote that in the State of Nature “what is worst of all, [there is] continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man [is] solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”
However, Humankind has found a way out of the State of Nature, thanks to Humankind’s selfish nature and the use of his reason. The State of Nature is a poor state to be in indeed. Because of the competition for scarce goods, you can’t enjoy whatever you have because someone is always trying to take it from you. Therefore, we need Peace so that we can enjoy our life and whatever goods we have without worrying about other people trying to take them from us.
The Articles of Peace and the Commonwealth
We can achieve Peace by using the Articles of Peace and forming a Commonwealth (“a nation or state governed by the people; a republic” — The American Heritage Dictionary). There are several Articles of Peace, which are rules discovered by the use of our reason.
The first Article of Peace is “that every man ought to endeavor peace, as far as he has hope of obtaining it; and when he cannot obtain it, that he may seek and use all helps and advantages of war.” This first Article of Peace can be divided into two parts. The first part is “Seek peace and follow it.” The second part is “Defend ourselves by all means possible.”
Hobbes is saying here that everyone should endeavor to be at peace with his or her neighbors. When you are at peace, you are not planning to attack your neighbor, even if your neighbor has something that you desire. However, if peace is not available, then you can resort to war. Therefore, you let your neighbor enjoy his or her life in peace; however, if your neighbor should try to harm you, you are justified in trying to harm your neighbor.
The second Article of Peace is “that a man be willing, when others are so too, as far forth as for peace and defense of himself he shall think it necessary, to lay down this right to all things; and be contented with so much liberty against other men, as he would allow other men against himself.” According to the Right of Nature, you have a right to everything — if someone else has something you desire, you have the right to take it from him or her. However, this leads to the State of Nature, in which other people are taking to take from you the things they desire. To get out of the State of Nature, you don’t try to take from other people what they have — as long as they don’t try to take from you what you have. It’s important that you realize that you are not giving up your Right of Nature for all time, you are merely restraining it — as long as other people do the same thing. If they don’t, then you may — if you choose — go to war.
The third Article of Peace is “that men perform their covenants made.” We need an enforcer to make sure people keep their covenants (agreements); therefore, we need a government (commonwealth) to be this enforcer. One of the great inventions of Humankind is Law. Hobbes believed in a social contract theory of government. Human beings have an agreement with their government. In this agreement, all humans are supposed to obey the laws; if someone disobeys the laws, that person can be punished.
Everyone benefits from the formation of a just government with a system of laws and with police to make sure that everyone obeys the laws. Human beings are able to escape from the State of Nature. Instead of piling up goods, then having to worry constantly about people trying to take them from you, you will be able to relax a little more. Other people may not keep their agreement to restrain their right to everything and they may try to take your goods, but you have the power of the government behind you. It’s the duty of the police to protect your goods and to capture and punish anyone who illegally tries to take your goods. Because people fear punishment, they are very likely to leave you and your goods alone.
There are many other Articles of Peace. One of the more interesting is “that in revenges [— that is, retribution of evil for evil —] men look not at the greatness of the evil past, but the greatness of the good to follow.” Apparently, Hobbes believed that punishment should be rehabilitative in nature.
Interestingly, Hobbes believes that all of the Articles of Peace can be summed up in one formulation of the Golden Rule: “Do not that to another, which thou wouldst not have done to thyself.”
Be sure that you understand this point: Hobbes believes that all of us always act selfishly; however, he believes that it is in our own best self-interest to form a government with a system of laws and with police to enforce the laws, and for us to obey the laws so that we can escape from the State of Nature.
Note: The quotations by Hobbes that appear in this essay are from his book Leviathan.
Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved
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