The Moral Philosophy of

Thomas Hobbes (Leviathan)

Moral Philosophy

March 14/2001

Many consider Thomas Hobbes, as the father of analytic philosophy. His moral and political philosophy, survive to this day, as heavily influential. In chapter fifteen (Of Other Law of Nature), in his work Leviathan, Hobbes gives his own definition of what moral philosophy is: “For moral philosophy is nothing else but the science of what is good, and evil, in the conversation, and society of mankind.” (Hobbes 217, I, 4)[1] Hobbes directly links moral philosophy to political philosophy, disregarding the artificial split ensuing in later years. What is good and evil is placed within a social context (society of mankind). Furthermore, for Hobbes, what is good and evil in the social contract, is based on the “laws of nature, [which] is the true moral philosophy.” (Hobbes 217, II, 1) Hobbes pessimistic view of human nature, as mutually antagonistic, precipitates a need for a common societal bond, which constrains man’s natural liberties. Hobbes describes the natural state of human affairs in his oft quoted line, as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” (Hobbes 206, I, 4) For Hobbes, ethics take on a decidedly social flavor. Indeed, it would seem logical to assume, that ethics cannot exist without more than one person. Without a plurality of persons, ethics would seem almost incomprehensible. It is into this system that we must and will engage Hobbes.

What is of intrinsic worth or value? i.e. What is the good?

Hobbes starts his theory of value from an empirical and psychological hedonism. He states this as such:

But whatsoever is the object of any man’s appetite or desire, that is it which he for his part calleth good: and the object of his hate and aversion, evil; and of his contempt vile and inconsiderable. For these words of good, evil and contemptible, are ever used with relation to the person that useth them: there being nothing simply and absolutely so; nor any common rule of good and evil, to be taken from the nature of the objects themselves. (Hobbes 201, II, 1)

The good for Hobbes is not found intrinsically in objects themselves, rather they are relative to the needs and desires of men. Hobbes divided the desires or appetites of men into two specific areas, those men are born with, such as excretion and hunger, and those developed from experience, such as love of family. Hobbes displays an empirical grounding of the good, by locating it in the individual responses and appetites of man. He states this quite clearly saying, “Pleasure therefore, or delight, is the apparence, or sense of good; and molestation, or displeasure, the apparence, or sense of evil.” (Hobbes 202, I, 2) Hobbes’ location of the good in pleasure proceeds to its radical individuation. Every human being finds different things distasteful or wrong. In this postmodern age where the good and ethics itself have been greatly relativized, Hobbes would seem to have a companion. Hobbes’ distinction between the good and an absolute intrinsic good or as he states, nor any common rule of good and evil, is a fundamental aspect of his theory. However, he does come to some sense of the good, as we will soon see.

It is important to not become bogged down with semantics when approaching any ethical theory or communication itself. While Hobbes has stated his belief in a relative good, he does come to some sense of ethical good in his conception of natural laws and how they work in relation to the social contract. In Chapter 14, Hobbes states:

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. (Hobbes 207, I, 5)

While Hobbes, distinguishes a right from a law, he does conceive of the natural fight for human survival. As we have seen, this natural right in human nature or liberty, allows man to pursue whatever he wishes, whatever he perceives as good. However, Hobbes formulates that without this social contract, human life would be jeopardized by the state of war or of naturally antagonistic liberties. It is