Hobbes, Thomas (1588–1679)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DA041-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 2002
Retrieved July 04, 2022, from

5. Ethics

After physics,’ Hobbes writes in chapter 6 of De corpore, ‘we must come to moral philosophy; in which we are to consider the motions of the mind, namely, appetite, aversion, love, benevolence, hope, fear, anger, emulation, envy &c; what causes they have and of what they be causes’ ([1655] 1839 I: 72). The use of the term ‘moral philosophy’ for the doctrine of the motions of the mind is unfortunate; elsewhere Hobbes says that the precepts of his natural law doctrine add up to a moral philosophy. ‘Ethics’ is another label he sometimes uses, and it is preferable. The reason ethics comes after physics is that the motions of the mind ‘have their causes in sense and imagination, which are the subjects of physical contemplation’. What Hobbes means is that when a body registers in a sensory representation – when, for example, a person sees something – the thing imparts motion to the innermost part of the organ of sight. One effect of the motion is to set up an outward reaction which produces visual experience. But there can be a further after-effect. As Hobbes puts it in chapter 8 of Elements of Law, the ‘motion and agitation of the brain which we call conception’ can be ‘continued to the heart, and there be called passion’. The heart governs ‘vital motion’ in the body, that is the circulation of the blood. In general, when motion derived from an act of sense encourages vital motion, the sentient creature experiences pleasure at the sight, smell or taste of the object and is disposed to move its body so as to prolong or intensify the pleasure. If the object of the pleasure is at a distance, then the creature will typically move towards it. There is a symmetrical account of displeasure. This is an after-effect of the act of sense consisting of a hindrance of vital motion. A creature experiencing a hindrance of vital motion will try to counteract it, typically by retreating from the object of sense. Aversion consists of the small inner movements that initiate the evasive action, just as ‘appetite’ names the internal beginnings of approach behaviour.

The pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain are the basic drives recognized by Hobbes’ psychology, and they determine the systems of valuation of different individuals. The individual takes as good what it has learned to pursue and regards as bad what it has learned to avoid. In developing a system of valuation, a creature is not discovering an objective distinction in nature between things that are good and things that are bad. Nothing is good or bad independently of its effects on creatures, and the effects may vary from creature to creature. At most, things are good or bad to individuals, not good or bad ‘simply and absolutely’. In the same vein, Hobbes denies that in the sphere of good and bad things there is one that is the highest and whose attainment constitutes happiness. Instead, there are many different goods for many different individuals. Becoming happy in life is not a matter of being successful in the pursuit of one favoured good, but of being continually successful in the pursuit of many.

Hobbes’ account of the constraints on the pursuit of human happiness is the connecting link between his theory of the motions of the mind and his moral and political philosophy proper. To attain happiness, people need to know what goods to pursue and how to pursue them. But in the absence of a science of good and evil, pleasure is their main criterion of the good, displeasure the main criterion of bad. Both pain and pleasure, however, are unreliable guides to the good and bad. A person may find a thing pleasant on one occasion and call it ‘good’, only to change their mind later. Two people can react differently to the same thing, so that it produces pleasure in one and pain in the other, and is called ‘good’ and ‘not good’ simultaneously. Pleasure biases judgment in favour of the nearer and more intense good, even if the cost of pursuing this good is displeasure later, and so on. Part of the correction to these distortions is to judge the good of various things not by how they feel when they are enjoyed or shunned, but by the consequences of enjoying or shunning them. If the costs of the consequences outweigh the present benefits, then a supposed good may be merely an apparent good. Again, if someone detached from the pursuit or avoidance of a thing can judge it good or bad, then it may really be so; while if no-one else can see the attraction or repugnance, it may be illusory. Hobbes thinks only science can supply knowledge of the consequences of actions needed to counterbalance valuations derived from pain and pleasure; and he thinks science does not come naturally to people. Abiding by the value judgments of arbitrators does not come easily either, since people are attached to their valuations and unwilling to lose face by deferring to the judgments of others.

Citing this article:
Sorell, Tom. Ethics. Hobbes, Thomas (1588–1679), 2002, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DA041-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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