Thursday, January 28, 2010

The Moral & Political Philosophy of Thomas Hobbes: A Reconsideration, Part 2 (a)

Our second post reviewing S.A. Lloyd's two books on Hobbes will focus largely on Ideals as Interests... (1992). I've divided the discussion of this volume into two parts, (a) and (b), so Part 3 will commence our discussion of Morality in the Philosophy of Thomas Hobbes... (2009).

Among the many tantalizing conclusions reached by Lloyd we begin with one related to a principal topic woven throughout the text as evidenced in the title: "[Hobbes is] the first philosopher to offer a systematic philosophical analysis of civil disorder generated by transcendent interests." Such interests are not of course the only species of interests Hobbes treats, but it is his recognition of the ubiquitousness and powerful effects of transcendent interests that Lloyd brings to our attention. Transcendent interests are non-material and non-prudential (bearing in mind that the interest in salvation is defined as a transcendent form of self-interest), and thus beyond the interest in self-preservation. Transcendent interests are typically (thus not exclusively) moral and religious, and originate in beliefs, opinions, or doctrines passionately held. When such interests are more or less understood and exercised in a proprietary sense, they can be described as "private judgments." As Lloyd carefully explains in her latest book, while Hobbes had an abiding appreciation of the "defeasibility of the natural aversion to violent death, its susceptibility to cultural modification, and its subordination to the satisfaction of transcendent interests," this did not preclude the use of this "natural" aversion in his normative moral theory owing to a conviction that one of the constraints of such a theory is the desirability and likelihood of its justification and adoption (a 'reasonability' constraint?) to those subject to it:

Here the fact of the natural desire to avoid untimely death becomes important, because while it may be true that each person cares most about avoiding bodily death, it is highly probable that people would judge a moral theory that systematically required them to sacrifice their lives to be unreasonable. People are not to be required to behave as if their survival meant nothing to them, and to be subject to blame and moral censure for wanting to resist death. That is too much to ask of men, who, while rational animals, are nonetheless animals, subject to the demands of their animal nature [cf. the Buddhist who speaks about the natural power of a 'will-to-live' throughout sentient existence], who cannot be sure that they would, in the force of a mortal threat, even be capable of squelching thier impulse to defend themselves. Hobbes insists throughout his writings that, absent special obligations, the effort to defend one's life must be accounted blameless. To condemn a man for acting from this impulse, considering its naturalness, is to condemn him simply for being a man; and it is also to self-centeredly criticize God for having made men with the nature he did. This is why 'Among so many dangers therefore, as the natural lusts of man do daily threaten each other withal, to have a care of one's self is so far from being a matter scornfully to be looked upon.... It is therefore—neither absurd or reprehensible, neither against the dictates of true reason, for a man to use all his endeavors to preserve and defend his body.... But that which is not contrary to right reason, that all men account to be done justly and with right.' As this passage clearly illustrates, Hobbes's insistence that all men naturally and strongly desire their bodily preservation is in the service of the normative claim that we ought to allow as justified actions done from this motive. ...[W]e should acknowledge self-defense as morally permissible, ceteris paribus: 'That which is done out of necessity, out of endeavor for peace, for the preservation of ourselves, is done with right, otherwise every damage done to a man would be a breach of the natural law, and an injury against God.' Hobbes's concern in establishing the naturalness of a strong impulse toward self-preservation is...only to ground his claim that actions sincerely meant in defense of one's life are not to be judged blameworthy.

In other words, Hobbes's invocation of the right to self-defense and self-preservation is for fairly restricted purposes and is not reflective of a belief that such a reasonable or prudent self-interest invariably trumps all other possible interests or that it is simply our principal motivating interest. So while Hobbes recognizes and utilizes within his normative theory the apparently incontrovertible fact that people have "narrowly prudential interests in their physical survival and in 'commodious living,'" his foremost focus is on the socially disruptive force of what are typically "transcendent interests." It is "moral interests in fulfilling their individual duties and moral obligations, religious interests in fulfulling their duties to God, and 'special prudential' interests in achieving salvation," that move people to act that are best described (typically) as "transcendent interests." As Lloyd says, "Hobbes viewed certain disruptive, or competing, passionately held beliefs—beliefs upon which people are willing to act even at the expense of their self-preservation—to be the cause of disorder...." Hobbes's solution to the causes of this disorder eschews coercion, aiming rather at their correction "through a process of redescription and reeducation." An intimation of the "redescription" half of this solution is seen in the following:

Hobbes's recurrent attack on pride is an attack on the sort of pride exhibited in private judgment generally, and in religious judgment particularly—the pridefulness involved in taking one's own private opinion of right and wrong, good and bad, just or unjust, or one's own interpretation of Scripture, as right and reason, and then acting on it in defiance of constituted authority, and attempting to impose it over and against the judgment of others. Social disorder arises from diversity of opinion in conjunction with each person's insistence that his judgment is authoritative and this insistence bespeaks tremendous hubris. Pride becomes a central concept in Hobbes's analysis of social disorder.

In aiming to reconcile competing or conflicting (and thus socially disruptive) transcendent interests, Hobbes endeavors to provide "his readers with a sufficient reason, given all the interests they actually took themselves to have, for affirming and acting on a principle of political obligation that, generally and widely adhered to, could ensure the perpetual maintenance of effective social order." Hobbes's concerns and subsequent ambition in this regard resonate in our own time if only because Rawls's Political Liberalism is well known for

addressing a closely related problem, the problem of discovering how a just democratic system of social cooperation might reproduce its own support among those who affirm competing and irreconcilable comprehensive doctrines. Both philosophers are attempting to respond to the fundamental problems posed by pluralism: Hobbes to the problem of order simpliciter assuming brute pluralism, and Rawls to the problem of establishing a just social order that could endure within a reasonable pluralism. Both problems arise when people within a society either cannot or will not allow each person free reign to act on his or her own comprehensive doctrine.

But as Lloyd proceeds to point out in Morality in the Philosophy of Thomas Hobbes, "although their [i.e., Hobbes and Rawls's] problems are related, it is their approaches to a solution that distinguish them...." And Lloyd's genius consists in an analytically lucid, nuanced, and original appreciation of Hobbes's approach, an approach that generally speaking and in brief,

involves identifying commonly acceptable resources for settling doctrinal disagreement, and then arguing that these support a unique conception of religious duty fully compatible with civil obedience. Through this process Hobbes aims to move all of his intended audience from their idiosyncratic beliefs to a single comprehensive doctrine, and then to use the full force of the state's power to enforce and to reproduce allegiance to that comprehensive doctrine.

Hobbes's solution is clearly illiberal and one of the reasons that, although we may justifiably view Hobbes's moral and political philosophy at various points to be directly or by implication "proto-Liberal," we lack sound reason(s) for calling Hobbes a Liberal.

Hobbes sought to enunciate a principle of political obligation (i.e., 'a statement of the conditions under which subjects or citizens are to obey the commands of the government of the commonwealth of which they are members') that his readers could find sufficient hence compelling reason to affirm and subscribe to so as to atttain the ends of perpetual domestic peace and order. The foremost price to be paid for peace and commodious living in such a commonwealth is agreeing to constraints on our unfettered liberty, including curtailment of our capacity to dominate others. And here Hobbes does appeal to our basic prudential interests, that is, "the interest in self-preservation and thus in the security of our persons, and the interest in 'commodious living' [which 'requires the possession of personal property and the enjoyment of a certain minimal degree of liberty']." And this appeal is minimally rational insofar as it depends on a principle of reciprocity, for if

each person who has an interest in securing his own preservation and commodious living has a reason from narrow prudence to want others to adhere to the principle [of political obligation], then each has a natural duty not to reserve to themselves any right that they would not be content to have others reserve as well, in this case a right to violate the principle they want others to observe.

While the Hobbesian principle of political obligation is, to put it mildly, stringent, obedience being owed to a sovereign "in all things wherein their obedience is not repugnant to the laws of God," it is clear that a key assumption or condition of such obedience is the ability of the sovereign (or the state) to protect its citizens, to provide them with the security that satisfies the aforementioned interest in self-preservation and commodious living. A state unable or incapable of providing for the "protection and security of its citizens" in effect "extinguishes" obligatory obedience and citizenship, for "if an association can't protect, then either it is not a commonwealth or your are not a member of it, but in neither case are you obligated to obey its political authority."


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