History of Modern Ethics
Stephen Darwall
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Hobbes Lecture 4

I. We begin with Hobbes III, VI.--IX., concerning the ethics as a science of the laws of nature, Hobbes' definitions of science, theorems, etc.

To sum up the conclusion, Leviathan aims to provide an interrelated account of human nature and of political authority and relations. And the two will have to be related, since the very existence of the state depends on the obligation of contracts, and that obligation will itself have to be explained as part of ethics.

II. The main steps in the argument begin Chapter 11:

A. Human desire never ceases, therefore ``felicity is a continual progress of the desire, from one object to another; the attaining of the former, being still but the way to the latter. The cause whereof is, that the object of men's desire, is not to enjoy once only, and for one instant of time; but to assure for ever, the way of his future desire.'' (11.1)

B. Therefore, ``the voluntary actions, and inclinations of all men, tend, not only to the procuring, but also to the assuring of a contented life.'' (11.1)

C. Therefore, human beings desire ``power after power, that ceaseth only in death.'' (11.2)

III. Conjoining this with Hobbes's projectivism, this gives us that everyone accepts that assuring their continued power is good or to be done. In Chapter 13, Hobbes turns, specifically to drawing some inferences from this premise, when it is conjoined with other features of the situation facing individuals who lack some common political authority (the state of nature), including features of human passion. These include:

A. Rough equality of physical and mental power (13.1-2) B. Common knowledge of A leads to rough equality of hope in attaining the power to assure a contented life. (13.3) C. Moderate scarcity leading to competition for power and goods. (13.6) D. Competition for reputation and glory (13.6)

IV. Hobbes concludes that in a state of nature individuals will find a state of war rationally unavoidable. The idea is not that individuals are naturally aggressive and war-like. Rather, given uncertainties about what others are likely to do, and the need to assure one's own power, then it will be rational for any individual to take an aggressive stance towards others.

A simplified version of this argument is to see it as modeling the state of nature on prisoner's dilemma, that is, a situation in which, for each person, the optimal individual strategy is aggression, but where this strategy is collectively (mutually) disadvantageous. An obvious problem with this is that in iterated prisoner's dilemma, when individuals plays affect others' future plays, then aggression is arguably not the dominant strategy. Greg Kavka argues that we should read Hobbes as having a more complicated argument, one in which individuals take it that there are at least some others who will be aggressive whatever they do. Uncertainty of this sort can make aggression the rational strategy even if it wouldn't be otherwise.

V. In any case, I propose to assume that Hobbes is right that the state of nature is a state of war, since I am interested in what Hobbes believes to be the route out of the state of nature, namely, covenant. At the end of Chapter 13, Hobbes says that the notions of right and wrong, justice and injustice have no place in the state of nature because ``where there is no common power, there is no law: where no law, no injustice.'' (13.13) Now for Hobbes the existence of both a common power and law depends upon covenant. So when he delimits the ``science of just and unjust'' in Chapter 9, he tells us that it is the science that draws consequences from ``speech … in contracting.'' What is it about covenant that gives it this special role? Or to put the point in a slightly different way, how do covenants obligate, in general, and how does a covenant with others to establish a sovereign create the obligation to follow his commands?

VI. If we look at Hobbes's definitions of `covenant', `right' and `obligation' it emerges pretty quickly that these are interdefinable.

A. Contract is a ``mutual transferring of right'' (14.9)

B. Covenant is a contract in which one party performs his part, trusting that other will do so when the time comes.

C. Obligation is the state one comes to be in by ``granting away'' or in some other way transferring a right.

If we take these definitions at face value, it simply follows from the fact that one has covenanted that one is obligated to perform. But can this be the whole of Hobbes's argument? Of course, Hobbes is free to define terms as he pleases, but these definitions can't assure that obligations, so defined, have any normative force. So what does that derive from? To put the point another way, what is the relation between the obligation to keep covenant, so defined, and the third law of nature: ``that men perform their covenants made''. (15.1) Next time we shall turn directly to that question, and to Hobbes's reply to the fool.

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