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AS/POLS 2900.6A
  Perspectives on Politics

January 11 – Hobbes’s Central Argument

Hobbes will base his specifically political theory on a provisional conclusion, that the natural state of man, the state of nature, is a ceaseless struggle among all individuals for power. We must see how he gets to this provisional conclusion, how he deduces it from his analysis of what the nature of the human individual is.  Doing this will allow us to see how it is that Hobbes brings in observations and assumptions not about the individual, but about society, and interpolates them into his reasoning. It will turn out that Hobbes is basing his view of the state of nature not strictly on his view of what the individual is, but upon unexamined and questionable assumptions about what is the nature of society as such. In the next lecture we will identify the kind of society he had to be imagining or observing in order to import these  particular assumptions about society as such into his deduction of the state of nature. The most important chapters of Leviathan for our present purposes are 6, 8, 10 and 11. The best analysis of this central part of Hobbes’s argument was worked out by C.B. Macpherson in two places, both of which are on your list of supplementary readings. I will be relying heavily here on Macpherson’s analysis and interpretation of Hobbes.

Let’s begin with chapter 6. By the end of chapter 6 Hobbes believes he has established that all human behaviour is reducible to the will to continued motion. Everything we do can be seen to be aimed at the primary goal of keeping us in motion, alive and capable of doing further actions to keep us alive. Hobbes will go on to reduce the will to the consequences of future actions. The particular action we will is based upon our foreknowledge of the possible result of our act. These possible consequences are the results of calculations that take place when sensation and memory interact with reason. Apart from a few simple involuntary motions (what we would call reflex actions), all the rest are voluntary. (Since these calculations are going on continuously and swiftly, we do not have to think of ourselves as being aware of all of them all the time; they do not have to be fully present to our awareness to be voluntary.) All voluntary motions are undertaken with a view to getting some benefit. And imagining a possible consequence carries with it what Hobbes calls an “endeavour” either towards the imagined object or goal or away from the imagined object or goal. The endeavour is the first, small reaction in a specific direction towards/away from an imagined consequence. All voluntary acts, according to Hobbes, are strictly determined by calculations about the imagined results. (You might note here Hobbes’s play on the word “deliberation”; deliberation is a term used to note this process of calculation that is going on, and Hobbes plays on its literal derivation: once deliberation [calculation] is over, we are de-liberated, our freedom of movement is over. Action must always follow the path indicated by our calculations; the question of whether there might be freedom after knowledge no longer arises, is now meaningless.)

By this route Hobbes arrives at his first major proposition. 1) Men are moved by appetites and aversions. There are some qualifications and explanations that go along with this. Except for a few innate appetites (let’s say for oxygen to breath, etc…) the rest of the appetites we have are acquired through experience. We learn to desire specific things and avoid specific things. Therefore appetites are always changing, as between different individuals and in the same individual. Appetite itself is incessant. Without appetites there is no life. Or as Hobbes puts it, “felicity is a continual progress from one object to another” [compare that with Aristotle’s idea of the highest good]. Moreover, appetites are of different strengths in different people. Hobbes thinks this can be established from observation and believes that these different strengths of appetite are partly a result of differences in the way individuals are constituted and partly as a result of their education.

Hobbes’s next proposition 2), is actually a definition of a man’s power; power is one’s “present means to acquire some future apparent good”.  His third proposition, which follows from the first two, is 3) that everybody must always be seeking some power. Because we already know that appetites are of different strength in different people, the fact that everyone must seek some power does not mean that everyone has to seek as much power as everyone else has, nor necessarily more than they now have. In other words, Hobbes has not yet said anything about the relations between the powers of different individuals. But Hobbes will introduce a new assumption later on when he offers an expanded definition of a man’s power.

He does this in the course of making a distinction between one’s original or natural power and one’s acquired or instrumental power. There he will change his definition of one’s original power (proposition 2)  from merely present means to acquire some future good to  the “eminence” of the power of one individual relative to others’ power. By this changed definition, I only have power to the extent that it is relatively greater than yours.

There is something very fishy here. Why is it that eminence, relative superiority, is necessary to establish my original power? Hobbes can revise his definition of power only by making another assumption, which is proposition 4): that the power of one man affects and hinders the power of another; that a man’s power is the excess of his power over that of someone else’s power. Hobbes will back up this proposition from observation (but observation of what?) It is extremely important to realize that this proposition, this revised understanding of power is not deduced from Hobbes’s analysis of human physiology and psychology., that is from individual human nature. Propositions 1) through 3) do not necessarily lead you to proposition 4).

But, once you have (incorrectly) accepted 4) as somehow following from 1) through 3), you can move on to proposition 5):  that all acquired power consists in the command over the power of others. Hobbes sums up propositions 4) and 5) in chapter 10 of Leviathan: “the value and worth of a man is his price; that is today what would be given for the use of his power.”

Now all that simply needs to be added is a contention that would be extremely difficult to refute from observation or any other way, and that is proposition 6): some people’s desires are unlimited. If this were not the case, then there would be no real problem in maintaining social order, since no one would be seeking an unlimited transfer of power from someone else to himself.

Propositions 4) through 6) yield Hobbes’s provisional conclusion, proposition 7) Each person is constantly pulled into a competitive struggle for more power, or as he puts it in ch. 11 “the perpetual and restless desire for power after power that ceaseth only in death”.  This ceaseless desire for ever more power takes place for the individual because in the situation described in propositions 4) through 6), no individual can assure their present power (even if it is a modest, only sufficient amount corresponding to limited desires) without the acquisition of more.

What is crucial and revealing about this deduction is that Hobbes cannot move logically from proposition 3) to proposition 7), which he needs to do in order to arrive at his description of  the state of nature, without importing, via observation of his existing society, ideas about power that do not follow from his psychology.  This is to imply that Hobbes does not in fact derive the nature of society from human nature (in the state of nature), but instead  (incorrectly) derives individual human nature (and the state of nature) from his observation of a very specific type of human society, and one that is only very late upon the scene in human history.

If his ideas about the nature of the human desire for power requiring a universal competitive struggle do not follow from his ideas about human psychology, what then do they follow from? I will suggest (again following Macpherson) that they follow from the peculiar power relations of a capitalist market society. But before we go on with that analysis, it is worth pausing and looking at some of the implications of Hobbes’s analysis of human psychology that could perhaps be challenged by perspectives not centrally interested in the relations between Hobbes’s political theory and his assumptions about the nature of social relations.

We can start with Hobbes’s notion of “deliberation”. For the ancients, deliberation was one of the highest powers of reason. But for Hobbes, as we said, deliberation was merely a calculation of the sort that could be done by a machine. For the ancients, having reason meant being able to  free one’s activities and judgements from the passions. In Hobbes, “deliberation” is purely determined and instrumental, merely a set of calculative operations governed by appetite and aversion, by the deepest, strongest most self-interested passions. Once the deliberation is over, freedom of movement is over; one is de-liberated. Therefore reason(ing) turns out to be nothing more than an instrument in the service of the passion to stay in motion.

Secondly, Hobbes dispenses with the ancients’ distinction between the good in itself and either an apparent or instrumental good.  Hobbes is developing a strictly external understanding of human beings; they are to be understood, as simply a complicated bit of matter in motion, as an object among objects. “Freedom” here is at most the self-consciousness of calculation. It “exists” only so long as calculation is taking place. For Hobbes, the good is simply that which preserves continued motion, and the bad is simply that which threatens it. Decisions are conceived to be in fact completely determined by attraction and repulsion in the “physical” world. Any distinction between an apparent good and a real good in the sense either Plato or Aristotle might have meant it goes under, disappears. There is no possible tension between the good life and mere life. No qualitative difference. The “good life” here is merely more of mere life.

Third, it turns out that the “virtues” are merely passions and all are of equal value. All virtues, in fact, turn out to be different modes of power seeking. For Hobbes, hope (one of the principal Christian virtues) is simply desire for something combined with the idea that one will acquire that something. Despair, as you would expect, is simply the same desire for something combined with the idea that you won’t get it. Hobbes develops similar analyses of many states of character and mood, such as fear, courage, laughter, pity… All of these are simply states of the calculating machine rather than virtues or vices. There is no more struggle between passion and restraint at the basis of the achievement of virtue. The virtues themselves are reduced to one or more passions. Liberality, for example, is always in the service of selfishness; liberality is giving for the sake of getting; it can get me allies and is therefore potentially in the service of continued motion. It is not undertaken for its own sake, as something fine, inherently good. Gratitude, similarly, is not considered a virtue, but a maxim of prudence. It helps in my continued motion by rewarding someone who (for his own reasons) might have done me a benefit. All such character states are viewed as mental states of equal value; all are viewed externally, purely from the perspective of calculating the chances of continuing motion. None are inherently higher or lower, better or worse. In fact, anything which previously would have been treated as good in itself, Hobbes simply transforms as a maxim of prudence. If everyone can be persuaded to behave prudently (rather than virtuously), everyone’s self-seeking is maximized. Selfishness underlies every “virtue”.

Therefore, fourth, all “oughts” are deduced from the “is”, from the imperative to continued motion. This attempt to derive the ought from the is implies that they have first been separated. In the classical tradition, they had not been; the tradition was simultaneously normative and descriptive. Hobbes is the first in the political-philosophic tradition of the West to both separate ought from is and then deduce value from fact. Following upon Machiavelli, he does not accept that there could be a natural moral order, that nature or the real could be a purposive scheme aiming at, striving for, the highest good.  Instead what is good is to be derived from what is, understood as fact(s) not already ordered by any higher purpose. My continued motion has no higher purpose than continued motion. All so-called “higher purposes” are to be seen as nothing but roundabout ways to help ensure the purposeless (from the ancients’ point of view) motion which I am. This “neutrality” of nature also lies behind Hobbes argument for equality among human beings.  For him it simply is a fact that among human beings there is at least a rough equality in our abilities to kill each other. Even the weakest human beings would be able to catch the strongest human beings in their sleep. Game over. For Hobbes this is evidence and argument enough that humans are fundamentally equal. Natural rankings of individuals and social classes are cancelled by this fact. Classed as entities seeking continued motion, there really is not much possibility of the qualitative differences among humans that the ancients (and medievals) all but took for granted. For the ancients, men were fundamentally unequal, when viewed from the perspective of the highest end, i.e. wisdom. What Hobbes sees as fundamental is simply self-preservation and each human being is fundamentally on the same plane when it comes to self-preservation. And in the state of nature each person can do anything useful in order to preserve themselves.

So deliberation is not the power of reason to measure possible actions in relation to a standard or model of what is inherently best. It is instead a function of the passions themselves, inherently in their service, and completely determined. Reason is not free, nor is it an end in itself. On the basis of this analysis of Reason and the Passions, Hobbes will erect his new morality.  It goes something like this: he studies men and himself. From that study he derives propositions about the human being as such. That is, he takes (at best) the actions and relations of his time and ascribes them to human nature and then proceeds to construct his special theory, his theory of obligation and sovereignty on the basis of “human nature”.

This theory of human nature is and leads to the set of deductions we followed above, the deductions that end in the universal, incessant and unlimited struggle of each for power over others, which is Hobbes’s picture of man in the state of nature. To get to the state of nature, Hobbes has to abstract from society and also from the fear of violent death (which is, of course, what governs our reason). The state of nature describes how individual humans would act if they were ignoring their fear of death (their reason).  But in order to arrive here, at the limit possibility of a state of nature, Hobbes had to, 1: bring assumptions into his ideas of individual human nature that are drawn from observation of social relations in one particular kind of society; and 2: abstract from the fear of death (he argues, for example, that vanity can interfere with this most reasonable of fears).

But notice: not only does Hobbes have no notion of individual human nature as open to moral development in a teleological fashion (a la Aristotle); he also has no notion of the possibility of a historical development of human nature. What dominates is the idea of freeing “reason” (from traditional illusions about virtues and the meaning of life) so that the human being can live by his own nature, which is just the desire for ever more power to sustain the possibility of ever more motion.

Next time we will look at how Hobbes models his model of human nature on the social relations of a specifically capitalist market society and also at his notions of a social contract, obligation and its relation to sovereign power.

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