NOTES on Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679): A Psychological Egoist, and Joseph Butler (1692-1752): A Critic of Psychological Egoism

Joseph Butler (1692–1752), Bishop of Bristol from 1738-50, then Bishop of DurhamONL_(1887)_1.073_-_Bishop_Butler

Joseph Butler (1692–1752), Bishop of Bristol from 1738-50, then Bishop of Durham

The Ethical Question

The ethical question that all of us ask is, What ought I to do?

When we ask that question, we assume two things. First, we assume that we are free. In other words, we assume that have a choice: We can choose to do the ethically right act, or we can choose to do the ethically wrong act.

We also assume that moral knowledge is possible. That is, we assume that we can come to know what is the ethically correct act in a certain situation.

Psychological Egoism

A philosophical theory that attacks both of these assumptions is psychological egoism. According to the proponents of this view, humans are always selfish and in fact always do what is best for themselves. Psychological egoists believe that no one ever acts benevolently. Even if you hold up the example of Mother Teresa, the nun who attended the sick and dying in Calcutta and all over the world, psychological egoists will say that Mother Teresa is doing what she really wants to do and so is acting selfishly.

Before I explain some of Thomas Hobbes’ philosophy, allow me to quote a conversation used as an example of bad reasoning in Anthony Weston’s A Rulebook for Arguments (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Co., 1992):

A: Everybody is really just selfish!

B: But what about John: look how he devotes himself to his children!

A: He is only doing what he really wants to do: that’s still selfish! (Weston 10).

As Mr. Weston points out, the above passage is guilty of the fallacy of equivocation (giving the same term two different meanings in the same argument). As Mr. Weston explains:

Here the meaning of “selfish” changes from A’s first claim to A’s second. In the first claim, we understand “selfish” to mean something fairly specific: the grasping, self-centered behavior we ordinarily call “selfish.” In A’s response to B’s objection, A expands the meaning of “selfish” to include apparently unselfish behavior too, by broadening the definition to just “doing what you really want to do.” A saves only the word; it has lost its original, specific meaning. (Weston 10)

I feel that Hobbes is also using the term “selfish” in a manner that differs from the ordinary meaning of the term.

However, speaking of fallacies, we don’t want to commit the error of making an ad hominem attack upon Hobbes. Often, I have read students’ essays that stated that Hobbes was a bitter old man whose arguments should not be taken seriously for that reason. It doesn’t matter who makes an argument; what is important is that we evaluate an argument fairly: that we determine whether the premises are true, whether the premises adequately support the conclusion, and whether a fallacy has been committed.

A Psychological Egoist: Thomas Hobbes

The major advocate of psychological egoism is Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), author of the important philosophical work Leviathan. He believed that reality consists of matter in motion (an idea that probably came to him through the influence of the rise of modern science) and humans are fundamentally matter in motion.

Humans differ from other things merely in the kind of motion they have. According to Hobbes, if humans make a voluntary motion toward something, their attitude toward that thing is love, and the value they give that thing is good. Of course, humans do make motions away from some things, and they are neutral toward other things. This list summarizes the kind of voluntary motions Hobbes felt than humans make:

  • When the Motion is Toward, the Attitude is Love, and the Value is Good.
  • When the Motion is Fromward, the Attitude is Hate, and the Value is Evil.
  • When the Motion is Neither, the Attitude is Contempt, and the Value is Vile.

For Hobbes, good and evil are relative terms. If you like something, it’s good; if you dislike something, it’s bad. Of course, I may like something you dislike, and so the same thing is both good and bad: good according to me, but bad according to you.

Hobbes’ psychological egoism is very simple. All of us have particular passions (or desires), and all of us have love for ourselves (self-love). And, according to Hobbes, we show love for ourselves by satisfying our passions.

Critic of Psychological Egoism: Joseph Butler

However, Joseph Butler (1692-1752) came up with a better, more complex theory of human psychology that refuted Hobbes’ theory. Instead of believing that Humankind is matter in motion, as Hobbes believed, Butler thought of Humankind as being a system. In this system, we have particular passions: Some passions are directed toward some things, while other passions are directed away from other things.

Although Hobbes believed that we show love for ourselves by satisfying our passions, Butler believed quite differently. Butler believed that satisfying different passions would lead to different consequences. Some passions lead to happiness for the self, while other passions lead to misery for the self, or to happiness for others, or to misery for others. Hobbes believed that if we desire something, that thing is good; Butler knew that we sometimes desire things that bring misery to us. For example, a passion for cocaine can lead to addiction and much pain.

Three Rational Regulating Principles

Fortunately, Butler discovered that three rational regulating principles monitor our passions. The first of these is cool self-love, whose function is the happiness and well-being of the self.

  1. Cool Self-Love

For example (this is Donald Borchert’s example, which he told during classroom lectures), suppose I go to my classroom one day and start delivering what I consider to be a well-organized, very interesting lecture. But I see one student, whom I have been trying to help in my spare time (which I have little of), reading our campus newspaper. My face turns red, I start breathing heavily, and I consider walking over to the student, ripping the newspaper from his hands, and punching the student in the face. However, my cool self-love intervenes and says, “Wait! If you punch out that student, it might feel good for a little while, but you could lose your job!”

In this case, my cool self-love rationally regulates my particular passion to punch out the student.

  1. Benevolence

A second rational regulating principle is benevolence, whose function is the happiness and well-being of others. For example, let’s say I have $100, and I’m thinking of buying a new jacket for myself. Here my particular passion is to spend some money on something worthwhile, and my cool self-love could suggest that the jacket I’m wearing now is getting old and I really do need a new jacket. However, my sense of benevolence also could intervene and suggest that perhaps I ought to buy a new jacket for a nephew who needs a jacket and whose parents lack money. In this case, I have a conflict between my cool self-love and my sense of benevolence.

  1. Conscience.

Fortunately, I also have a sense of conscience, whose function is to arbitrate conflicts between cool self-love and benevolence. In this case, what my sense of conscience leads me to decide would depend on how badly I need a new jacket. If I really, really need a new jacket, I would spend the $100 on a new jacket for me. On the other hand, if I decide that my nephew needs a new jacket more than I do, then I would spend the $100 on a new jacket for my nephew.

Of the two theories of human psychology, it seems to me that Butler’s is a more accurate accounting of my experience than is Hobbes’. The weight of the evidence is against the theory of psychological egoism.

Three Kinds of Philosophical Arguing

However, we can criticize psychological egoism on three other grounds, each of which illustrates a form of philosophical argumentation.

  1. Reduction to Absurdity

First, we can use the strategy of reduction to absurdity. In discussing benevolence, Hobbes makes the comment that benevolence is really nothing more than delight in the use of one’s power. For example, if a person donates $1 million to Children’s Hospital, we would probably consider that person to be benevolent. However, Hobbes would say that that person is really showing off his great wealth and the immense power he has as a result of that wealth. Thus, in being benevolent, that person is really delighting in the use of his power.

However, we can think of other people who delight in the use of their power — for example, sadists. The real-life person on whom Dracula is based Vlad the Impaler — impaled hundreds of people on stakes. He delighted in the use of his power and in doing so was very cruel. Thus, Hobbes’ theory leads us to equate benevolence with cruelty, since both consist of delight in the use of one’s power. Of course, it is absurd to say that benevolence equals cruelty, and so Hobbes’ theory has been reduced to absurdity.

  1. Counterexamples

We can also use the strategy of counterexamples to argue against Hobbes. Hobbes says that every act is selfish, so if we can find just one act that is not selfish, we have refuted his theory.

Let’s suppose that you don’t have much money, so you can’t afford to give many presents. But your friends next door do have money and they give their children very nice and very many presents indeed. If you feel happy for the children because they have nice presents and compliment them on their presents, you are acting benevolently toward them, yet you are not delighting in the use of your power (because you don’t have the money that would allow you to give them these nice presents). Thus your act is not selfish.

  1. Rejection on Pragmatic Grounds

Finally, there is the philosophical strategy of arguing on pragmatic grounds. One way to choose between theories when there is no other way to choose between them is on the basis of their consequences. If a theory leads to bad consequences if adopted, and if we have no compelling reason to adopt that theory over its rival, which has good consequences when it is adopted, we are justified in adopting the theory that has good consequences. (Of course, if the evidence is in favor of the theory with bad consequences, we must adopt that theory.)

What would happen if we adopted the theory of psychological egoism? One result is that might would make right. If psychological egoism is the correct theory, how could we ever judge which acts are right when people conflict over them? One group wants to build a dam because it will create jobs and electricity; another group is against building the dam because it will harm the environment. There’s no way to tell which group is right, so the two groups will just have to fight it out.

Additional Notes on Thomas Hobbes and Joseph Butler

Hobbes was influenced by the new science (science was just beginning in his era) in that the new science was mechanistic. It regarded reality as consisting of matter in motion. Hobbes also regarded reality — including human beings — as consisting of matter in motion. Humans differ from other kinds of reality in the kind of motion they make. For example, humans can make voluntary motions. Hobbes believed that if you move toward something, you love that thing. For example, on a beach you might move toward a radio playing music you like. However, you can also move away from something, which indicates that you hate it. For example, on a beach you might move away from a radio playing music you hate. Hobbes regarded human beings as essentially mechanistic: We seek to satisfy our own desires, and we cannot do otherwise.

Butler was influenced by the new science’s emphasis on systems and relationships. For example, astronomy reveals the universe as consisting of a number of systems of stars and planets in solar systems. In environmental science, we learn about the water cycle: how water runs through a cycle of being evaporated into the air, then returned to the earth in the form of dew, rain, hail, or snow, and then being evaporated again. Butler saw the human psychology as consisting of a number of different parts that interact with each other and decide how to act. (Which particular passions will you satisfy?) Butler’s human system of decision-making includes cool self-love, benevolence, and conscience, all of which are related to each other.

Your particular passions are your desires.

An important function of Butler’s cool self-love is that it evaluates your desires to see if satisfying them is likely to make you happy or miserable. Some desires, if satisfied, will make you happy. Other desires, if satisfied, will make you miserable.

Benevolence evaluates your desires to see if satisfying them will make other people happy or miserable.

The conscience arbitrates conflicts between cool self-love and benevolence. The conscience also passes judgment upon persons, including yourself. Your conscience tells you whether you are a good or a bad person.

All of these things — the particular passions and the three rational regulating principles of cool self-love, benevolence, and conscience — work together in a system. You are virtuous if the things you do don’t upset the system. For example, you give some money to charity, but not so much that you can’t pay your bills. In this case, both your benevolence and cool self-love are working properly. You are guilty of vice if the things you do do upset the system. For example, you give all your money to charity and can’t pay your bills. In this case, your cool self-love should have restrained your benevolence. (Of course, in the case of a conflict between cool self-love and benevolence, your conscience ought to step in and make the decision.)

To be virtuous, you need to make sure the various parts of the human system of decision-making are working properly together. Sometimes, being virtuous means that you will do something that will make you happy; for example, you decide to buy a much-needed new coat instead of giving money to charity. Other times, being virtuous means that you will do something that will make someone else happy; for example, you decide that your coat is still in good shape, so you decide to donate some money to charity. (Butler points out that usually cool self-love and benevolence are two sides of the same coin; for example, you decide to buy a new coat for yourself and donate your old but still-good coat to charity.)

An important part of Butler’s concept of cool self-love is that it evaluates our desires to see if satisfying them will make us happy or sad. Butler believes that you show love for yourself by satisfying those desires that will make you happy. In contrast, Hobbes believes that you show love for yourself by satisfying your desires, whatever they be.

Here’s my favorite example to illustrate the difference between Hobbes’ self-love and Butler’s cool self-love: Let’s say that you have a particular passion (desire) for cocaine, and let’s see how Hobbes and Butler would advise you.

Hobbes believes that you show love for yourself by satisfying your desires. Therefore, he would advise you to buy some cocaine and snort it.

Butler’s cool self-love, on the other hand, would evaluate your desire for cocaine to see if satisfying it is likely to make you happy or miserable. Some people become addicted to cocaine and lead miserable lives. Other people have an allergic reaction to cocaine and die after taking it (e.g., Lenny Bias and River Phoenix). Therefore, Butler would advise you not to take cocaine.

This is how Butler’s interpretation of self-love strikes at the heart of psychological egoism: Psychological egoism says people always look out for No. 1, but Hobbes’ theory would lead you to self-destructive behavior — in fact, taking his advice can get you killed!

One more point: According to Butler, we unfortunately don’t always do what we should. I may have a desire for cocaine and unfortunately choose to satisfy my desire. In this case, my system of human decision-making is not functioning properly and I am engaging in vice.

Three Ways of Criticizing Philosophically

Reduction to absurdity means showing that a philosophical position logically leads to something that is obviously false. Butler uses reduction to absurdity against Hobbes’ theory of psychological egoism when Butler shows that Hobbes’ theory leads us to say that benevolence and cruelty are the same thing.

A counterexample is a specific example that a theory is supposed to be able to explain, but cannot. For example, Hobbes says that we always look out for No. 1. However, if that is true, then how can Hobbes explain the actions of people who harm themselves by taking drugs?

“Rejection on pragmatic grounds” means that if we do not have any way to tell whether a theory is true or false, then we can take a look at the theory’s consequences and decide whether to accept or reject it. (Of course, if the evidence is sufficient to show whether a theory is true or false, then we need to believe the evidence.) However, psychological egoism leads to bad consequences (might makes right) and so we can reject psychological egoism on pragmatic grounds.

Additional Notes on Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679): Leviathan

Mr. Hobbes is a great philosopher whose work has been important in political philosophy. Mr. Hobbes believed that although humankind is selfish by nature, it is able through reason and its desires to create a state in which we can live in peace.

First, however, we need to describe Hobbes’ State of Nature — the way humankind lived before a state was created.

This is a famous quotation by Hobbes about the State of Nature:

[…] what is worst of all, there is continual fear and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.

There is no room for right and wrong, or for justice and injustice, in the State of Nature, because you can’t have those until you have laws. Instead, people simply exercise the “Right of Nature,” which states that we can do anything necessary to preserve or enhance our own life, even if it means killing someone else. War breaks out because people are in competition for scarce goods. In addition, Hobbes believes that we are nearly equal in our ability to kill each other. Even if a person is very strong, other people can overcome the strong person by teaming up against him or her.

Good and bad do exist in the State of Nature, but according to Hobbes, they are relative to the individual. If an individual desires something, then that thing is good. If that individual hates something, then that something is bad.

Because the State of Nature is so horrible, people realize that it is in their own best self-interest to escape from it. The way to do that is explained in the Articles of Peace. Basically, people restrain their freedom to take and do anything, and form a commonwealth (republic) with laws and with police to enforce the laws. Hobbes believes that law enforcement is necessary, otherwise we will end up in the State of Nature again.

Note this: Although Hobbes believes that human beings are always selfish, he also believes that it is in our own selfish interest to obey the laws.

In the State of Nature, goods are scarce and there is competition for them. One reason for the competition is that by the Law of Nature everyone has the right to do whatever is necessary to preserve and enhance his life. One result of this is that people are so busy trying to protect what they have that there is 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 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. Guns enable the weak to kill the strong. Mr. 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 state to enforce laws. However, in the State of Nature, there is good and bad, but these terms are relative. If I desire something, then I consider it good. If I hate something, then I consider it bad. Obviously, you may desire the thing I hate and so the same thing can be both good (to you) and bad (to me).

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 Mr. Hobbes: 1) mistrust, 2) equal ability to kill, and 3) the desire for glory. In a famous quotation about the State of Nature Mr. Hobbes wrote that “what is worst of all, there is continual fear and danger of violent death; and the life of man, 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. In the State of Nature, we know that there is a Right of Nature: You have a right to everything you need to preserve and enhance your life. We also know that the State of Nature is a poor state to be in indeed. Therefore, we need the Articles of Peace and a Commonwealth (“a nation or state governed by the people; a republic” — The American Heritage Dictionary).

The First Article of Peace has two parts. The first part is “Seek peace and follow it.” The second part is “Defend ourselves by all means possible.”

The second Article of Peace is “People should be willing, in order to achieve peace and self-defense, to lay down their natural rights to all things and be content with as much freedom against other people as they will allow other people to have against themselves.” Of course, 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.

Since we need an enforcer to make sure people keep their covenants (agreements), we need a state to be this enforcer. Then you have justice and injustice, right and wrong.

Note: The quotations by Hobbes that appear in these notes are from his book Leviathan.


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


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