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Hobbes' concept of the laws of nature


To: Pearl K.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Hobbes' concept of the laws of nature
Date: 26th March 2010 12:57

Dear Sachiko,

Thank you for your email of 19 March, with your essay for the University of London BA Political Philosophy module, in response to the question, 'How should we understand Hobbes' concept of the laws of nature? In what sense, if any, are they laws?

This essay is for the most part lucid and well argued, altogether an very good exposition of Hobbes. However, you are right about what you said in your email, 'I have a feeling I have missed a big chunk of something somewhere'. There is a drastic tail-off at the end of your essay, which leaves unanswered the main question underlying how Hobbes understands 'Laws of Nature' and in particular how Hobbes' view differs from that of Aquinas, given that both philosophers claim that these laws are in some sense grounded in God's will.

You pick on the central issue, the question whether self-preservation is itself a divinely based law (Aquinas) or merely a fact about human nature, but the one thing you needed to do was relate this to Hobbes' notion of Laws of Nature as not only objectively based in God's will but also rationally compelling independently of what, if anything, we know about God.

The whole question of how ethics can be based on divine command given the objection of circularity -- are moral laws right because God commands them or does God command them because they are right? -- is a fascinating one: you might be interested to look at a piece I wrote for my blog, 'Tentative Answers' about Geach and the Euthyphro dilemma. See:

For philosophers who follow Aquinas' view, it is sufficient that we know what God commands us to do. The Holy Scriptures provide ample information on that score. Hobbes' view is more complex: on the one hand, the laws of nature are divinely based, and that is what constitutes their objective grounding. But on the other hand, human beings are perfectly capable of deriving these laws for themselves by means of their God-given capacity for reason. Later, Kant was to argue for a similar conclusion, while conceding that belief in the existence of God can never be justified by reason but must be left to faith.

Hobbes *needs* the assumption of the principle of self-preservation as a given fact, a descriptive, non-moral axiom, in order to derive the laws of nature as 'theorems', as you call them. The challenge for politics, as Hobbes sees it, is to explain how it is that men can agree to live by laws which limit their freedom of action, to the benefit of all.

It is not enough that each man can see this benefit. That is the whole point about the so-called 'prisoners dilemma'. You give the example of Caligula as evidence backing up Locke's criticism of Hobbes' argument for the need for an absolute sovereign. But Hobbes would say that this just misses the point about the dilemma. If you get a group of people together -- e.g. parliamentarians in a Western democracy -- what laws, what sanctions, keep the lawmakers in check and prevent each man pursuing his own 'glory' to the detriment of others?

The answer is that there is an absolute sovereign, in effect, in the state. The institutions of the police, army and judiciary combine to form a power which no individual citizen can defy. You can't fight the law. If you take human beings in a Hobbesian state of nature, there is no way that they can create such a complex structure from scratch. An absolute monarch is the only solution that can work. If there is a criticism to be made of Hobbes on this point, it is that he did not recognize the possibility that the absolute power can evolve into what we have today, where the actual monarch is a mere figure head and power resides with the elected government.

But ARE human beings prior to any political organization in the 'state of nature' which Hobbes describes? This is a vulnerable point in his case, because he is basing this on a mere empirical hypothesis, for which he has no hard evidence. Human beings have evolved as social beings. Arguably, the conditions for an idea of justice can already be found in any human family, however primitive. On this view, Hobbes' attempt to account for the laws of nature -- the rules of justice and morality -- solely on the basis of self-preservation or self-interest is a heroic failure. We don't have to pull ourselves up by our boot-laces. As social beings, even in a primitive society, we are already where Hobbes wants us to be.

I apologize if I have strayed into expressing my own views on this question, but you can see this as just one possible way -- contentious though it may be -- of how the gap in your otherwise commendable exposition might be filled.

All the best,