History of Modern Ethics
Stephen Darwall
<<< Previous Next >>>

Hobbes Lecture 2

I. Recall Hobbes's problem: how to account for the normativity (oughtness) of the laws of nature, consistently with with empiricism and materialism. Again, the orthodox view of Hobbes's solution is that (a) he holds a subjectivist theory of value, (b) he assumes that all human beings have a desire for self-preservation, and (c) that the laws of nature are empirical generalizations about what is necessary for self-preservation.

II. The problem with this solution is that: (a) it collapses the distinction between what I actually desire and what I should desire, (b) it can't account for fundamental ethical disagreement. Moreover, the basis on which commentators attribute it to Hobbes (6.7) is insufficient. What Hobbes says there is that whenever we desire something we call it good. He doesn't say that calling something good is saying of it that we desire it.

III. Against this I will argue:

  1. Hobbes explicitly analogies the case of value to color. (To think about ethical properties on the model of secondary properties is very common these days.)
  2. He offers a projectivist account of color.
  3. He offers a projectivist account of value (and of normativity).

IV. We should begin with Hobbes's theory of color in 1.4. First, there is the ``seeming, or fancy'' ``which men call sense; and [which] consisteth, as to the eye, in a light, or colour figured; to the ear, in a sound; to the nostril, in an odour…'' These experiences are ``a representation or appearance of some quality, or other accident of a body without us.'' Our experience of color, for example, represents it as in the objects we experience. However, considered reflection on our experience shows that this cannot be so. There is nothing in the object ``that causeth [our experience] but so many several motions of the matter, by which it presseth our organs diversely.'' There are only the material properties of the object that cause us to see it as colored. The colors and sounds that we experience bodies as having are not in the bodies themselves. ``For if [they were] … they could not be severed from them, as by glasses, and in echoes by reflection, we see they are: where we know the thing we see is in one place, the appearance in another.'' So there is nothing, actually, to color but the material processes in us and in the objects we experience, although this is not what appears to us. Color appears to us as in the object, although it really isn't.

V. This account of the sensible experience of colors, sounds, savors, odors, etc., is importantly analogous with Hobbes's account of value. And in making this analogy, Hobbes may well be the initiator of a metaethical tradition that seeks to understand value on the model of what Locke called ``secondary qualities''---e.g., color, sound, odors, tastes, etc. [Another important figure would be Hume; there has recently been a resurgence of different versions of view like this from writers like John Mackie, David Wiggins, David Lewis, Michael Smith, John MacDowell, and Mark Johnston.] Let us see how Hobbes sets it out.

We may begin with Hobbes's theory of action in Ch. 6. He starts with a distinction between vital and animal motion. The former is common to any living thing, the latter is ``otherwise called voluntary; as to go, to speak, to move any of our limbs, in such a manner as is first fancied in our minds.'' (6.1)

  1. Every voluntary action begins wih an ``endeavor'': ``these small beginnings of motion, within the body of man, before they appear in walking, speaking, striking, and other visible actions.'' These ``endeavors'' always have some object of thought to which they are directed (what philosophers sometimes call an ``intentional object''). ``[W]hen it is toward something which causes it, it is called appetite or desire.'' ``And when the endeavour is fromward something, it is generally called aversion.''

    Desire and aversion are the same thing as, respectively, love and hate (6.3) ``save that by desire, we always signify the absence of the object; by love, most commonly the presence of the same.''

  2. In addition to these motions toward or from a "fancied" object, there is also an associated experience or fancy of the desire, which Hobbes calls ``delight'' or ``pleasure''. (6.10)

    So far, the analogy between this color experience is as follows:

    1. the material motion of endeavor (desire/appetite) is analogous to the material underpinnings of sense experience.
    2. ``delight'' or ``pleasure'' is analogous to the ``seeming'' or ``fancy'' involved in color experience.
    3. In color experience, this fancy is as of color (as an objective, categorical property). What is the object of delight or pleasure when we have a desire? Here is Hobbes's answer: ``pleasure therefore, or delight, is the appearance or sense of good.'' (6.11)

IV. Now let's read Hobbes's passage about good and evil: ``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 version, evil.'' (6.7) This does not say that in calling something good we say that we desire it. Rather, Hobbes's view must be this. Whenever we desire something we see it as (and call it) good. As in the case of color, we project a property onto it that it literally does not have. This is a projectivist theory of value.

V. Return now to our question about the normativity of the laws of nature. We can agree with the orthodox interpretation that Hobbes is assuming that everyone wants self-preservation. According to that interpretation, the reasoning involves in laws of nature is something like this:

  1. I want to preserve myself.
  2. I can preserve myself only if, say, I keep covenants (the 3rd law of nature)
  3. Therefore, I should keep covenant.

The problem with this analysis, as we saw, is that we seem to be getting an `ought' out of an `is'. As I interpret him, Hobbes is indeed assuming that everyone desires self-preservation, but his view is that when we desire something we accept an evaluative (or normative) premise.

  1. '  Preserving myself is good.
  2. '  I can preserve myself only if, say, I keep covenant
  3. '  Therefore, I should keep covenant.

VI. We can leave it open whether Hobbes is committed to thinking that, literally, all ethical propositions are false (like Mackie's error theory), or whether he would accept some noncognitivist projectivism. It is clear, however, that Hobbes thinks that ethics is unavoidable, since deliberation is unavoidable so long as we have desires and desires are unavoidable so long as we are alive. (See 6.49,53 on deliberation, also 6.55 and 6.58)

Leviathan is an ethical work in the sense that it is addressed to deliberating agents.

<<< Previous Home Next >>>
Hobbes Lecture 1   Hobbes Lecture 3