Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The Moral & Political Philosophy of Thomas Hobbes: A Reconsideration (Part 1 of 3)

In a book I plan to discuss in more depth anon, Larry May's Crimes Against Humanity: A Normative Account (2005), we find a conception of "moral minimalism" beholden to arguments from Hobbes used to justify jus cogens norms that, in turn, support basic moral and legal principles in international criminal law, principles that sanction fairly widespread agreement in notions of moral and legal responsibility in the pursuit of international criminal justice. Intrigued and inspired by May's original if not philosophically persuasive resort to Hobbesian moral reasoning, I decided to look afresh at Hobbes's moral and political philosophy not only because of May's novel invocation of Hobbes, but because it goes against the grain of references to and reliance upon allegedly Hobbesian ideas and reasoning in modern international law and politics, be it descriptively and normatively by unabashed Realists on the one hand, or critically by those who fancy themselves part of what Hersch Lauterpacht termed the "Groatian Tradition in International Law," on the other, representatives respectively of the traditions of legal positivism and natural law philosophy.

In my re-examination of Hobbes's moral and political philosophy I learned of two remarkable works by S.A. (Sharon) Lloyd: Ideals as Interests in Hobbes's Leviathan: The Power of Mind over Matter (1992), and Morality in the Philosophy of Thomas Hobbes: Cases in the Law of Nature (2009). Together these books make a critical and original assessment of Hobbes's moral and political thought in a manner that is analytically perspicuous, philosophically sophisticated and exegetically thorough, so much so that one can state emphatically, with Lloyd, that this is "not your father's Hobbes." In brief, these books dethrone the regnant intepretations of Hobbes's moral and political philosophy, interpretations exemplified, for instance, in such otherwise justly influential works of political thought (or 'theory') by C.B. Macpherson, David Gauthier, Jean Hampton, and Gregory Kavka. Moreover, Lloyd enables us to see precisely why "two of the most celebrated analytical approaches to present-day political philosophy—namely, Rawls's Political Liberalism, and Gauthier's Moral Contractarianism," cannot rely on the "real Hobbes...to support [their] admittedly philosophically interesting projects," both Gauthier and Rawls having "claim[ed] Hobbes as their first illustrious ancestor."

A pedagogical incarnation of what Lloyd rightly labels "the standard philosophical interpretation" of Hobbe's moral and political reasoning is here illustrated in a widely adopted text in the undergraduate Political Science curriculum, Glenn Tinder's Political Thinking: The Perennial Questions (6th ed., 2004):

No one has so masterfully argued that people are essentially estranged as Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), the mordant and witty English philosopher. The natural human state, Hobbes maintained, is one of war 'of every man against every man,' When there is no central government 'to overawe them all,' then 'men have no pleasure, but on the contrary a geat deal of grief in keeping company.' Life in such a state, Hobbes asserted in one of the most famous phrases in the literature of political theory, is 'solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.'

There are, so to speak, two levels of estrangement in Hobbes's philosophy. The surface level is psychological. People are estranged because they are essentially egotistical. One is concerned above all with the preservation of one's own life; one also seeks such things as wealth and prestige. None of these benefits can be gained without power. Thus Hobbes attributed to human beings 'a perpetual and restless desire of power after power, that ceaseth only in death.' We care nothing about others except as they can help or hinder us in reaching our private goals. Such ego-centeredness is not perverse, nor is it avoidable; it is our true nature. To be human is to be concerned exclusively personal interests and personal power.

David L. Norton's exposition of eudaimonistic political theory: Democracy and Moral Development: A Politics of Virtue (1991), likewise reproduces the standard portrait, albeit with more subtlety, as Hobbes is held historically responsible, along with Machiavelli, for "realpolitik's derivation of morality from politics—its 'politicization of virtue:'"

In Hobbes's conception, moral life in civil association is a matter from beginning to end of the selfish acquisition of material goods and power, with such concessions to others as are necessary to the selfish enterprise. For Hobbes there are no upper limits to the intelligent pursuit of material goods and power, no limit beyond which more of these things is recognized as debilitating to persons who continue to pursue them. [....] The notion of sufficiency in material goods and power makes no appearance in Hobbes because the wolf is always at the door. Behind civil association is the state of nature, to which civil association is ever in danger of reverting, and in which life is 'solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.'

Finally, the "standard philosophical interpretation" of ideas putatively of Hobbesian provenance is axiomatic within the Realist school of international law and relations, as summarized in an important article by Allen Buchanan and David Golove:

Typically, the Realist characterizes international relations as a Hobbesian state of nature, with the following features: (a) There is no global sovereign, no supreme arbiter capable of enforcing rules of peaceful cooperation. (b) There is (approximate) equality of power, such that no one state can permanently dominate all the others. (c) The fundamental preference of states is to survive. (d) Given conditions (a) and (b), what is rational for each state to do is to strive by all means to dominate others in order to avoid being dominated (to rely on what Hobbes calls 'the principle of anticipation'). (e) In a situation in which each party rationally anticipates that it is for others to dominate, without constraints on the means they use to do so, moral principles are inapplicable. (Allen Buchanan and David Golove, 'Philosophy of International Law,' in Jules Coleman and Scott Shapiro, eds., The Oxford Handbook of Jurisprudence and Philosophy of Law, 2002: 872-873).

The three examples above help illustrate the continuing power and occasionally pernicious influence of the "standard philosophical interpretation" of Hobbes's moral and political philosophy, distinguished by its adherents' allegiance to the following characteristic features:

that Hobbes intended to derive a necessary form of political organization from fundamentally egoistic, even preservation-centered, human nature; that Hobbes was a materialist, moral subjectivist or relativist, and atheist; that political obligation is prudentially based; that might makes order and, correspondingly, that fear of death and the desire for self-preservation are the strongest motivating passions; and that the state of nature represents a prisoner's dilemma.

When not systematically revealing their shortcomings, Lloyd decisively refutes the arguments that animate this standard interpretation to devastating effect, leaving in its stead a far richer portrait of Hobbes as a profound, prescient and, yes, moral political philosopher deserving of reconsideration.


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