Hobbes, Thomas (1588–1679)

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

8. Problems with Hobbes’ political theory

In order to legitimize the powers of sovereigns, Hobbes invites his readers to think of sovereigns and states as the creations of free, self-interested people. The condition of subjection to a sovereign, even if it is not entered into by an original contract, can nevertheless be freely endorsed by each subject, since there is a good argument from self-interest for the condition. The argument says that the alternative to subjection is a dangerous chaos, which is infinitely worse than an intrusive but protective civil power. This is the argument directed against people who are already subjects; is the same argument effective when directed at people who do not yet belong to a state, who are in a state of nature? The issue can be sharpened by pointing out that the process of trading the state of nature for the commonwealth involves each person giving something now for the sake of a benefit later. Each person agrees to lay down their right of nature if everyone else will do likewise for the sake of peace. Granting that the condition of peace is better for each than the condition of war, is it not even better for anyone who can get away with it, to retain their right of nature while others give away theirs? Is it not better to pretend to lay down that right and then to take advantage of those who genuinely do so? If the answer to this question is ‘Yes’, how can the best outcome, from the point of self-interest, be one in which everyone performs and lays down their right of nature?

The question is taken up in a famous passage in chapter 15 of Leviathan where Hobbes replies to the fool who pretends that there is no such thing as justice. Commentators have likened it to the question posed by ‘prisoners’ dilemmas’ where, for example, the outcome that would be best for each of two prisoners is for the other to confess and solely take a punishment for a crime, but where it turns out to be rational for each to confess and receive a punishment less severe than the maximum. The question is how this ‘lesser’ outcome can be the better one. In the case of the opportunistic non-performer of covenants discussed by Hobbes, the answer is that there is more security in the performance than in the non-performance of covenants. Someone who takes advantage of another’s laying down the right of nature can only do so once and expect to get away with it. And the temporary advantage they gain may in any case not counterbalance what they will lose by being opposed by all those whose trust is threatened or betrayed.

Another problem with Hobbes’ theory turns on the supposed moral urgency of each person’s laying down the right of nature. Hobbes thinks that the biggest threat to the stability of states is the existence of too much scope for private judgment. The more each person is entitled to think for themselves in matters of wellbeing, the worse it turns out for everyone. This implication is supported in Hobbes’ theory by a supposedly scientific understanding of the diversity of the passions and the way that the passions get the better of judgment in human beings. By delegating their power of judgment to someone who is not affected by the individual passions of the people ruled over, people actually get access to a more effective (because more dispassionate) means of securing themselves than their own individual judgments. But, by the same token, they forgo any intellectual contribution to public life. They function in the state not as citizens in the full sense but as subjects only: political life for the many consists solely of submission to law. It is by their passivity rather than by the application of their powers of judgment that people promote the public good. This may have seemed persuasive in a time when the Biblical example of Adam and Eve would have been widely understood to illustrate the dangers of private judgment of good and evil, but to contemporary sensibility it verges on the paranoid. In fact, Hobbes’ point is not quite that the judgments of human beings about their wellbeing can never be trusted, but rather that their prescientific judgments cannot be trusted. Prescientifically, people are moved by their feelings of pleasure and displeasure to call things ‘good’ and ‘bad’ – few have either the resources or the circumstances to be taught any better. But there is a better conception to be inculcated: Hobbes indicates that it consists of showing how things that are genuinely good, as opposed to pleasant, promote peace or self-preservation, while things that are genuinely bad, as opposed to unpleasant, are conducive to war and self-destruction.

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