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Hobbes on laws of nature and the state of nature


To: Plinio C.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Hobbes on laws of nature and the state of nature
Date: 26th January 2011 12:36

Dear Plinio,

Thank you for your email of 16 January, with your essay for the University of London BA Political Philosophy module, in response to the question, 'What does Hobbes mean by 'laws of nature'? What role do they play in his argument?', and your email of 21 January, with your essay in response to the question, 'What according to Hobbes are the causes of conflict in the State of Nature? Are there adequate grounds for supposing his view correct?'

These are both very good answers with which I can find very little to disagree. As the questions are so closely connected, I will deal with them together.

What does Hobbes mean by 'laws of nature'? You suggest two readings which on the face of it do not seem to be consistent with one another, an inconsistency which is not fully resolved.

On the first reading, laws of nature are hypothetical imperatives, in Kant's sense. They assume rationality, or at least the ability to perform modus tolens. They also assume that the antecedent of the conditional, summarized by the formula, 'the desire for self-preservation', is a given fact of human nature. Given the desire for self-preservation, and given certain other plausible assumptions about the conditions necessary for achieving it, the 'laws' so-called follow.

The second reading, which you don't fully spell out, would be that the laws of nature are God's laws, which suggests some kind of 'divine command' theory of ethics. You do note that the fear of God's punishment (or, one might add, hope of reward) would be another, alternative candidate for the antecedent of the conditional. Indeed, given the prospect of an infinite time in hell, or heaven, the desire for earthly self-preservation would on this reading definitely take second place. But this doesn't seem to have been Hobbes' view.

However, there is a way to preserve the intuition that God is somehow involved in this, and that the laws of nature in some sense derive from God. The world and the human beings who inhabit it are God's handiwork. The hypothetical imperatives which derive from the conditions under which men live are valid in the same way as the hypothetical imperatives which govern, say, car maintenance. (Given the way a particular make of car was designed, certain maintenance operations are required to keep it on the road, e.g. 'the front suspension should be greased every ten thousand miles'.)

In a similar way, given the way man and the world are 'designed', certain patterns of behaviour are required. It is a remarkable contingent fact, for example, that human beings need to co-operate in order to achieve their goals. One could imagine a race of intelligent sharks, with endless supplies of all the nourishment they need to survive, who sought one another's company purely for intellectual stimulation and otherwise had no need of it, nor any fear of violence from other members of their species.

The one thing that complicates this picture is Hobbes recognition that the pursuit of honour and the high regard of our peers is also a fundamental feature of human psychology. Is this part of the design too?

In your second essay you suggest that Hobbes believes that the pursuit of honour, when it conflicts with self-preservation is somehow irrational or even the product of 'disease'. This doesn't make a lot of sense to me. It would make more sense if Hobbes had recognized that it is one of the marks of intelligence that men pursue loftier goals than mere survival; that indeed all the things worth pursuing involve, in some way or other, the regard of our peers (cf. Nietzsche on the 'will to power'). Life with dishonour is not a life, at least not a life worth living.

This bears on the question of just how bad a state of nature would be, whether indeed it would be a 'war of all against all', rather than merely a Wild West scenario of loose confederacies (Cowboys and Indians) oscillating between uneasy peace and outright conflict, which as you argue only requires a Lockean ruler to ensure the peace prevails.

It is a fact of human nature, which Hobbes can surely have not failed to observe, that although men value the benefits of peace, they also enjoy fighting and making war, and will risk everything for 'honour'.

Your point about the rationality of keeping contracts is well taken (indeed, you remark that Hobbes recognizes this in his answer to the fool). If you keep your side of the bargain then when it comes to my turn, I will keep my side bearing in mind the benefits of future co-operation. That's what makes it reasonable to expect that confederacies of mutually co-operating individuals would arise. So why, then, does Hobbes still insist on his pessimistic picture of the state of nature?

Hobbes would reply that the problem is instability. Undoubtedly, the 'irrational' pursuit of honour is one of the causes, but as I have argued concern for the regard of our peers is part of what it means to live a human life and not merely physically survive. When Hobbes asserts that the state of nature is a 'war', this is consistent with understanding the term 'war' in the sense, e.g., of the Cold War. It is not necessary that human beings be fighting all the time, in order to live in a permanent state of war. The state of war is, above all, a state of fear and distrust, which blights our capacity to enjoy our lives and do the things that best express our nature.

This suggests to me that underlying Hobbes' view is a value judgement about the quality of human life, and what is necessary to live a fully human life. Co-operation is possible, in the absence of a sovereign. But peace is an unstable achievement, which can disappear in a moment when the outlaws ride into town. (Are things so different today? We have 'sovereign states' and laws -- and villainy and wars. This isn't the life for human beings that God envisaged when he created this world of ours, Hobbes would say.)

In your second essay, you make a remark expressing a view which seems quite common: 'By an absolute sovereign Hobbes does not necessarily mean an absolute monarch. Other forms of government could instantiate absolute sovereignty, e.g. an assembly of citizens or an aristocracy, as long as the sovereign entity in question did not ultimately share power (either legislative, executive or judicial) with any other entity and if it had ultimate authority over all aspects of life.'

This is not my impression. Hobbes supported the idea of an absolute monarch, at a time when the traditional view of the 'divine right of kings' was under attack -- the time of the English Civil War. It is true that Hobbes' 'prisoners' dilemma' argument can be adapted for the purpose of making the case for the more moderate claim that a country needs a sovereign government -- who would deny that? The problem is that the very same problem which Hobbes diagnosed amongst people living in a state of nature breaks out again when we consider, e.g. members of a legislative assembly, or any group of persons holding the reigns of power, whose mutual co-operation is not capable of being enforced by a higher power, because they already represent the highest power in the land.

All the best,