Hume vs. Hobbes

Notes for March 25

Main points

According to Hardin, Hume’s chief improvements on Hobbes’s theory stem from his analysis of conventions. He claimed this was superior to Hobbes’s use of contracts. That’s what we talked about.

What’s the difference?

Conventions are created and sustained by the interests of those who participate in them. Both A and B want to get across the river, neither can achieve this without rowing, so each one will row so long as the other does.

Contracts involve attempts by parties in a prisoner’s dilemma situation to commit themselves to giving up what would otherwise be their dominant strategy. They need to do this to get their counterparties to trust them. Tena won’t agree to trade her pen for my dollar unless she believes that I really will hand over the dollar so I can’t get the pen unless I can get her to believe that.

Hobbes was of two minds about how commitment could work. On the one hand, he often said that commitment only works if it is backed by coercive force. On the other hand, he gave a pretty good argument to the effect that those who care about their reputations will have strong reasons to keep their commitments. That’s his reply to the fool.

Hardin takes the former to be Hobbes’s view and concludes that Hobbes held there could not be any cooperative behavior in the state of nature. Given that reading of Hobbes, it’s pretty clear why Hume’s view is superior: there obviously can be cooperative behavior in the state of nature.

However, I think Hardin was too hasty. The reply to the fool still counts, along with all the other evidence of cooperative behavior in the state of nature: remember the social dimensions of power from chapter ten? And Barry made a good case for thinking that Hobbes really did have a conception of obligation that doesn’t just boil down to being forced to do something by the sovereign. The differences between Hobbes and Hume will have to be more subtle.

The chief difference between conventions and contracts, as far as I can see, is that contracts involve an explicit commitment to a course of action while conventions do not. In a contract, my explicit statement that I will do X makes doing X something that is in my interest, even though it was not in my interest to do X prior to my explicit statement. That’s what happens when I put my reputation on the line with my explicit statement.

Conventions are not established that way: no one has to promise to row the boat, it’s just obvious that this is the thing to do. I suppose that conventions work on an individual’s reputation as well: if you don’t comply with the normal standards of behavior, you won’t be trusted, even though you haven’t said that is what you would do.

Since that is so, I’m with Eliot in thinking that Hume is bound to do a better job of explaining the origins of things like property and promises. They might have come about through conventions, but there’s no way they came about through contracts. Of course, Hobbes never said they did. He didn’t say much about the origins of the practice of promising or contracting and he explicitly argued that property depends on the state.

On Hobbes’s side

Not all relationships surrounding property and the state are best analyzed as cooperation games. Since individuals can break the rules without threatening social order, there are prisoner’s dilemmas surrounding property and political obligation.

Eliot thought this was misleading. He noted that since our interactions with others are repeated (or ‘iterated’), the fact that any particular interaction is a prisoner’s dilemma doesn’t mean it makes sense to follow the dominant strategy. You will want to comply with the rules for familiar reasons of reputation and trust, provided you’re dealing with people who will remember you as a cheater (or the group is small enough that its conventions will break down with cheating even if the culprit isn’t caught).

He’s got to be right about that. But it’s going to work best in small groups and less well in large ones. Hume is quite right to say that the need for government arises when society gets too large. But his explanation struck me as off. He said that government keeps us focused on our true, long-run interest (See “Of the origin of government,” ¶ 6). But I think Hobbes was right to note that it can often be in our true, long-run interest to cheat; Hume just assumes it isn’t.

(In a way, Hobbes thinks it’s a problem that we’re so focused on the long-run. We need to accumulate endless amounts of power because we’re worried that we might need it in the future. We’re on a hair trigger in the state of nature because we’re worried that our neighbors might attack us. And, of course, we’re constantly fretting about the afterlife and the unseen causes of everyday events.)

Incidentally, Hume tried to anticipate Julio’s objection that appointing one short-sighted person to govern another doesn’t obviously solve the problem of the latter’s short-sightedness. He said that “civil magistrates, kings and their ministers, our governors and rulers … have no interest, or but a remote one, in any act of injustice; and, being satisfied with their present condition, and with their part in society, have an immediate interest in every execution of justice, which is so necessary to the upholding of society” (¶6).

One other thing struck me that is worth noting here. Hume noted that government can also create mutually beneficial solutions among groups that are too large to form conventional solutions to their problems (¶8). I thought that was clever.

This page was written by Michael Green for Hobbes Seminar, Philosophy 185s, Spring 2013. It was posted March 25, 2013.
Hobbes Seminar