Hobbes: Moral and Political Philosophy
The English philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) is best known for his political thought, and deservedly so. His vision of the world is strikingly original and still relevant to contemporary politics. His main concern is the problem of social and political order: how human beings can live together in peaceand avoid the danger and fear of civil conflict. He poses stark alternatives: we should give our obedience to an unaccountable sovereign (a person or group empowered to decide every social and political issue). Otherwise what awaits us is a “state of nature” that closely resembles civil war – a situation of universal insecurity, where all have reason to fear violent death and where rewardinghuman cooperation is all but impossible.
One controversy has dominated interpretations of Hobbes. Does he see human beings as purely self-interested or egoistic? Several passages support such a reading, leading some to think that his political conclusions can be avoided if we adopt a more realistic picture of human nature. However, most scholars now accept that Hobbes himself had a much more complexview of human motivation. A major theme below will be why the problems he poses cannot be avoided simply by taking a less “selfish” view of human nature.
Table of Contents
2. Life and Times
3. Two Intellectual Influences
4. Ethics and Human Nature
1. Materialism Versus Self-Knowledge
2. The Poverty of Human Judgment and our Need for Science
4. Political Philosophy
1. The Natural Condition of Mankind
1. The Laws of Nature and the Social Contract
2. Why Should we Obey the Sovereign?
3. Life Under the Sovereign
2. References and Further Reading
Hobbes is the founding father of modern political philosophy.Directly or indirectly, he has set the terms of debate about the fundamentals of political life right into our own times. Few have liked his thesis, that the problems of political life mean that a society should accept an unaccountable sovereign as its sole political authority. Nonetheless, we still live in the world that Hobbes addressed head on: a world where human authority is something thatrequires justification, and is automatically accepted by few; a world where social and political inequality also appears questionable; and a world where religious authority faces significant dispute. We can put the matter in terms of the concern with equality and rights that Hobbes’s thought heralded: we live in a world where all human beings are supposed to have rights, that is,moral claims thatprotect their basic interests. But what or who determines what those rights are? And who will enforce them? In other words, who will exercise the most important political powers, when the basic assumption is that we all share the same entitlements?
We can see Hobbes’s importance if we briefly compare him with the most famous political thinkers before and after him. A century before, NicoloMachiavelli had emphasized the harsh realities of power, as well as recalling ancient Roman experiences of political freedom. Machiavelli appears as the first modern political thinker, because like Hobbes he was no longer prepared to talk about politics in terms set by religious faith (indeed, he was still more offensive than Hobbes to many orthodox believers), instead, he looked upon politics as asecular discipline divorced from theology. But unlike Hobbes, Machiavelli offers us no comprehensive philosophy: we have to reconstruct his views on the importance and nature of freedom; it remains uncertain which, if any, principles Machiavelli draws on in his apparent praise of amoral power politics.
Writing a few years after Hobbes, John Locke had definitely accepted the terms of debate Hobbes...