The Laws of Nature Notes for February 25

Main points

We addressed the following questions about what Hobbes calls the laws of nature.

  1. How does he argue for them? It appears that he just starts off with assertions about what rights are or are not.
  2. How does he show that they make any difference? So what if there is a law of nature that requires us to keep our covenants. How is that moral theory relevant to achieving a sociological condition, peace? To put it another way, why think that people will ever comply with these laws?

While our discussion formally concerned all the laws of nature, we predominantly talked about Hobbes’s first three laws of nature. These are:

  1. “that every man, ought to endeavour peace, as far as he has hope of obtaining it” (Lev. ch. 14, par. 4)
  2. “that a man be willing, when others are so too, as far-forth, as for peace, and defence of himself he shall think it necessary, to lay down this right to all things; and be contented with so much liberty against other men, as he would allow other men against himself.” (Lev. ch. 14, par. 5)
  3. “that men perform their covenants made” (Lev. ch. 15, par. 1)

How does he argue for them?

Where do the laws and rights of nature come from? How does he know that these claims are true? Why should anyone else believe what he says about them? It appears that he just starts off with assertions about what rights and laws are or are not. But surely that can’t be what’s going on, can it?

Actually, appearances are not deceiving in this instance. Chapter 14 does begin with a rapid succession of definitions and assertions. It’s (supposed to be) like Euclid’s geometry. These are the axioms, propositions that are regarded as being established, accepted, or self-evidently true.

We can see this by looking at one of the major breaking points in the book. Leviathan has four parts. The first two involve natural reason; the last two are based on knowledge revealed to us by a supernatural being, God, through prophets and holy books.

What’s the difference? Natural reason concerns things that anyone can know without the assistance of divine intervention.** So he couldn’t prove that the laws of nature come from God in any chapter prior to the 32nd. Perhaps this explains the meaning of the cryptic final paragraph of ch. 15. Hence, when we turn to revealed knowledge, we get this handy summary of what he regarded as the accomplishments of the parts devoted to natural reason.

“I have derived the rights of sovereign power, and the duty of subjects, hitherto from the principles of nature only; such as experience has found true, or consent (concerning the use of words) has made so; that is to say, from the nature of men, known to us by experience, and from definitions (of such words as are essential to all political reasoning) universally agreed on. But in that I am next to handle, which is the nature and rights of a CHRISTIAN COMMONWEALTH, whereof there dependeth much upon supernatural revelations of the will of God; the ground of my discourse must be, not only the natural word of God, but also the prophetical.” (Lev. ch. 32, par. 1)

Hobbes’s epistemology, that is, his theory of what we know and how we know it, is not our present concern. So grant for me that these two kinds of knowledge are different. The important bit for us comes next.

When he says he has derived the rights and the duties from what we know about human beings through experience and through definitions “universally agreed upon”, he’s referring to the definitions and assertions that we’re asking about. Those claims are supposed to be just as obvious as definitions of points or lines.

And if they are contentious rather than obvious?

Well, he has a problem.

For instance, I think that most people would agree with him that people are permitted to defend themselves against threats to their lives. I am permitted to use even deadly force in my own defense against an attacker.

Hobbes tries to extend this in two ways:

  1. We have a right to whatever we might need to stay alive, even if that means using force against people who do not themselves pose a direct threat to us.
  2. In the state of nature, where threats are pervasive, we have a right to all things. This has the consequence that no one has anything as “their own” since everyone has the same rights to every thing, including one another’s bodies.

We talked about whether a more modest formulation of the second point would be sufficient for his purposes. The more modest formulation was: each person has a right to any thing that they need to save their lives.†† According to the dictionaries, “their” can be used as a genderless singular pronoun. It grates on my ear, but we need it and there’s no point in fighting linguistic change anyway. Speaking for myself, I think that would be good enough.

Could we modify the first in a similar way? That’s a good question.

What difference do these “laws” make?

This question is addressed most directly in Hobbes’s reply to the Fool in chapter 15. There, Hobbes points out how valuable it is to have a practice of covenants. That way, a group of us can agree to defend one another. Our agreement means something because we have bound ourselves to keep it.

Ah yes, but our agreement is just words. True enough. But words do, in fact, matter. There are “defensive confederacies” in the state of nature and they are sustained by the mutual trust of their members (see ch. 15 and ch. 17).

What’s foolish about the Fool is that he runs the risk of being found out and thus excluded from defensive confederacies. People don’t put their lives in the hands of untrustworthy people, after all. So the Fool runs a hearty risk of being all alone in the state of nature. And that means his life will be shorter than it otherwise would be.

Hobbes’s reply to the Fool has its limits. But it’s OK as far as it goes: it shows that we have pretty good reasons for keeping our word at least some of the time.

In fact, it’s a good thing that the argument does not extend too far. If Hobbes had really shown that it is always crazy to break your word, even in the state of nature, he would have undercut his case for the state. If people could rely on one another always to keep their word, then they could pretty easily live in peace without establishing a state. They just need to start laying down their rights in mutually satisfying ways as the second law of nature instructs them to do.

In other words, if the reply to the Fool were stronger than it is, it would make a case for anarchy, not the state. It would amount to showing that people can live peacefully with one another in the state of nature, without a sovereign or all the rest of that stuff. But that is very much not the conclusion that Hobbes wanted to establish. And, for what it’s worth, it isn’t true either.

But that still falls short!

There’s a kind of objection to this whole approach that you can find in Plato. Hobbes’s moral philosophy doesn’t show that we have any reason to value being just for its own sake. Plato, by contrast, was very interested in the question of whether justice was something desirable for its own sake.

Hobbes wasn’t.‡‡ Warning: Highly contentious claim on my part. His answer to the Fool is broadly like Glaucon’s account of justice. Both argue that the social consequences of being thought to be unjust are dire enough that individuals have good reason to be just.

But Glaucon, Adeimantus, and Socrates/Plato were unhappy with this kind of explanation of the importance of justice. They thought that its truth would pose a kind of challenge for justice. Hobbes, by contrast, regarded it as a compelling explanation of why an individual should care about being just. He didn’t give any indication that he thought there was some further question to be addressed about whether justice is valuable “for its own sake.”

So what did Hobbes want from moral philosophy?

What did Hobbes want out of his moral philosophy if not an answer to Plato’s kind of question? I think there are three broad answers.

First, he wanted to develop an account of rights, obligations, and justice that he could use in his political theory. The analogy with geomtry is helpful here. Euclid starts with definitions and then goes on to show how to construct figures and to prove propositions about these figures using these definitions. In my opinion, this was Hobbes’s primary use for his moral philosophy: to support his political philosophy.

Second, he wanted a moral philosophy that would explain why good or virtuous behavior and character traits are valued as a general matter. He took it as a fact that virtues are praised, meaning that people think they’re good. He wanted to explain why.

He thought his theory gave the answer. He defined a law of nature as “a precept or general rule … by which a man is forbidden” to do things incompatible with his own preservation (Lev. ch. 14, par. 3). He then claimed to show that all of the familiar rules of everyday morality fit this definition: they are all rules that are conducive to peace and, thus, to extending our lives when they are followed. So why does it make sense to praise these rules and those who follow them? If you have to ask ….

If this seems too obvious, remember the main competition: Aristotle. Aristotle theorized that virtuous character traits all fall between extremes of excessive and deficient feelings. The courageous person feels just the right amount of fear while the reckless man feels too little fear and the coward feels too much. See the last paragraph on the handout.

Aristotle’s theory is what Hobbes refers to as the view that the virtues consist in a “mediocrity of passions” (Lev. ch. 15, par. 40). Whatever the merits of Aristotle’s theory of the virtues, it doesn’t do much to explain why they would be praised§ Hobbes also criticized the theory’s fit with the commonly recognized virtues. He thought the “causes” of courageous behavior (fortitude) or generosity (liberality) matter more than the factors Aristotle identified. After all, who cares about whether his character traits fall between two extremes? It might be interesting in an academic, knowledge-for-its-own-sake kind of way. But, really, does that explain why we think it’s desirable that people follow rules like the laws of nature?

Finally, Hobbes was interested in what value justice has from the perspective of the person who has to decide whether to be just or not. But his interest was more concerned with a question about how the laws of nature could be sustained as a working social phenomenon. What would move individuals to comply with these rules, such that they could play a genuine role in regulating a society? His answer is most clearly given in the reply to the Fool. It falls short of Plato’s standards but, as I have already said, I don’t think that Hobbes was asking Plato’s question.

Whether he should have done so is for you to decide.

This page was written by Michael Green for Social and Political Philosophy, Philosophy 33, Spring 2008. It was posted March 11, 2008.
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