Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Morality and Death: Hobbesian Immoralism (I)

In an interesting move in his Leviathan, Hobbes does not simply derive the need for a commonwealth from his account of a state of nature; he imposes first an intermediary: natural law, or morality. What is especially odd is that, although the transition from the state of nature to the commonwealth requires only two laws of nature—to seek peace and to give away one’s right in order to make peace possible (though only under the appropriate circumstances)—Hobbes articulates a further host of them, concluding that the science of these laws “is the true and only moral philosophy.” He thus seems to be articulating—or clearly takes himself to be articulating—a moral system. I want to suggest instead that it is not a moral system at all. What Hobbes articulates is not a morality that differs from some other moral systems and yet finds its place among them but, quite simply, an anti-morality. He is, in other words, the arch immoralist.

To avoid confusion from the start, I am not saying that Hobbes is an immoralist because he grounds moral laws in something heteronomous or prudential, or because he approaches morality from an empiricist standpoint. Many others have done similarly—Hume, Mill, and Aristotle, just to name a few. But none of them are immoralists. What makes Hobbes an immoralist is not just his consequentialism, but the specific end of that consequentialism, an end that is not just contingently opposed to morality, but is opposed to its very essence: the preservation of one’s own life.

But let’s be charitable now. Hobbesian morality involves natural laws, which right reason discovers as a means to our ends. But he stresses in this connection that we do not all have the same ends. In fact, the diversity of goods and evils among humanity is an important part of his argument:

Good and evil are names that signify our appetites and aversions, which in different tempers, customs, and doctrines of men are different (XV)

This, in fact, is why the state of nature is a state of war: we all want different things, and in the state of nature every individual has his or her own, individual good and evil. This is bound to lead to conflicts. Through some extra steps, which we need not go into, the diversity of individual goods and evils is precisely the reason why the state of nature is a state of war. And, in fact, following the passage just quoted, Hobbes does derive the need for peace directly from this diversity of goods and evils. We might thus question whether Hobbesian morality has one given end. Furthermore, his morality appears heteronomous, but not at all immoralistic. But this is of course not the whole story.

The extra step occurs to us when we ask not simply why the diversity of human goods leads to a state of war, but—as if the answer were not already clear—why the state of war itself is such a bad thing and should be overcome. Moral precepts, or natural laws, are the rules that reason discovers as means to escaping the state of nature, but the need to escape the state of nature, and the fact that this need is a need for all human beings, is grounded in the fact that, ultimately, all human beings really do have the same end, the same ultimate good and evil. Hobbes’s moral framework is, in other words, aimed to be universal. The diversity of individual goods does not mean that morality is reducible to particular individual appetites; rather, this diversity is the reason why moral laws must have a universality. So what is such a universal law?

A law of nature, lex naturalis, is a precept, or general rule, found out by reason, by which a man is forbidden to do that which is destructive of his life, or taketh away the means of preserving the same, and to omit that by which he thinketh it may be best preserved

[These laws] are but conclusions or theorems concerning what conduceth to the conservation and defence of themselves

In other words, although human beings do have a diversity of ends, the problem with this diversity is precisely that that diversity leads to a consequence—war—which opposes another end that we all share: the preservation of our lives. It is clear that Hobbes defines morality as a system of principles dictated by right reason given the purpose of preserving one’s own life. This, of course, is Hobbes’s attempt to account for the universality of moral laws: If all human beings by nature want to preserve their own lives, then the prudential principles that best lead to such preservation are universal principles. As I will discuss in the next post, Hobbes focuses on the wrong aspect of morality: what is crucial is not simply its universality (which may, after all, be contingent), but the necessity of its universality, which is why morality must be not prudential but unconditioned. This is not in itself enough to show that Hobbes is an immoralist, but we can best show this by looking at what is entailed in the idea of an unconditioned morality.

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