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Summary of Lecture on the Philosophy of Thomas Hobbes
Michael Jhon M. Tamayao
Who is man for Thomas Hobbes?
In the introduction of his work Leviathan, Hobbes tells us that man is like a machine, and the government is like an artificial human being. Everything that happens in man (bodily functions, emotions, and psychological processes) is a product of mechanical interactions, the center of which is the head. Like the human being, the government should have a head that guides the functions of the body. Inasmuch as he is just an aggregate of matter, man reacts to his environment according to how his body reacts to external stimuli. His material body pursues pleasure but disdains pain. He acts only according to the demands of his body, no more no less.
It is common to think of the Hobbesian man as a purely self-interested being. In his work De Cive, he boldly describes man as a greedy being who insists on taking what he could have and strives to avoid death at all cost. His acts are rationally geared towards self-interest and avoidance of death. But all too often, he acts contrary to his nature: he dies for love ones and his country, he thinks so much about how others think of him, persuaded by the altruistic doctrines of religions, and so forth and so on. What drives man to be selfish is his vulnerability, his pathetic existence. His knowledge is limited and his reason is often led astray by emotive language, meaningless judgments, and bad theology. Thus, for Hobbes, man must only expect for little happiness in his life. More so if he lives with other selfish beings, he is expected to abide by the established norms that puts all of them at peace and at bay. This will be elaborated in Hobbes’ political philosophy.
What does Hobbes tell about ethics?
In the state of nature, there are no moral constraints. Everything is relative to the judgment of the acting agent. However, there is one universal rule which all human beings ought to follow, that is, that he must avoid the state of nature by all means. Why is this obligatory? Because it satisfies the selfish desires of individuals which is ultimately peace and tranquility. With this it is safe to say that Hobbes embraces “ethical egoism,” the belief that the goodness of an act depends on how it satisfies the desires of the self.
What did Hobbes tell about human knowledge?
Hobbes emphatically states that human knowledge is unreliable. It needs to be guided by the sciences. Emotions and passions usually blocks our reason. Religion and Christian philosophy, and theology create beings which are not at all founded on reality. For Hobbes, a true judgment is that which is based on something real. Beliefs about supernatural entities, spirits, angels, and the like are meaningless. This is the strict application of his empiricism.
The capacity to reason relies on limited language and thus prone to error. When language centers on its emotive significance and neglects its factual significance, which it usually does, man loses its view of truth.
What was Hobbes’ explanation of the emergence of human communities?
From his pessimistic account of human nature, Hobbes constructed his socio-political philosophy, with which he was very famous of. He started by defending the idea that the “natural state” of man is a state of war. Man is a wolf to another man, and he is also in constant fear of violence (or death) which his fellow might inflict on him. Men compete for their basic needs, often violently. To ensure personal safety, they challenge one another and fight out of fear. Some establish their reputation so that no one will challenge them.
Moreover, Hobbes states that the sovereign or political authorities are not natural to man. For Hobbes the only natural authority is that of a mother over her child. The child is powerless and vulnerable to other beings, so it needs the protection of the mother. Aside from the indebtedness of the baby, the mother is far stronger than the baby thus giving her the absolute authority over the baby. But for Hobbes, among adult men, there is no natural authority. Although it is true that some are stronger and wiser than others, each of them has the capability to kill another. Since even the strongest needs sleep, the weakest can just take that opportunity to slit the other’s throat. It is completely clear for Hobbes that there is no natural right for anyone to rule.
Hobbes speaks of man’s “right of nature.” This is the right to self-preservation at all cost. We all do not want to suffer a violent death from the hands of others. From this primary right comes the right to judge what will ensure our self-preservation. Under the state of nature, judgments are very drastic. Having in mind the constant threat from his kins, man is “insecure” and “cynical” to others. Even the possibility of trusting a third party in the resolution of a problem is unlikely to happen. No one can serve as a judge for another because of the radical distrust we have for each other in the state of nature. We must, by all means, be a judge for our own causes. Even if my judgments make me do such things as enslaving or killing other men, as long as they ensure my existence, then no one (in the state of nature) has the right to say that my judgment is wrong. It is true that we have varied judgments about things, but what is right “for me,” regardless of what you think, is and will always be right “for me.” If two individuals each think that they are entitled to kill the other, then no one can say which of them is wrong because in the state of nature everyone has the right to judge for himself.
All moral judgments are limited to individual judgments and never raised to general principles. This makes moral judgments in the state of nature “amoral.” Thus the over-all picture in the state of nature is that it is the interaction of selfish and amoral human beings.
The state of nature is an unfavorable situation for man. He is in constant threat of a violent death. He therefore ought to avoid it and endeavor for peace. As the core of his teachings about the laws of nature, man must treat his fellow the way he wants others treat him. In order to implement this, man must enter into social contract wherein he surrenders his right of nature to the sovereign power and drastically limiting this right only to right to defend oneself from immediate threat. Only the sovereign ruler retains his right of nature because all judgments about the affairs of the community are delegated to him. He decides the norms of action and the rules of property. He judges disputes and resolves them.
The horrors of the state of nature can only be overcome through the institution of a government. This is done through a social contract. Man’s voluntary entrance into such contract marks the transition from state of nature to civil society. In the civil society, only the sovereign authority is the true judge.