June 27, 2006

How I spent my summer vacation XII

Hobbes, Leviathan, ch 1-6, 10-18

Hobbes' work is most historically notable as the first presentation of an explicit social contract theory of civil society, in which individuals come together from a state of nature, sacrificing some natural freedoms in exchange for security and comfort. For our purposes, Hobbes is also notable as a Modern critic of the Scholastics and the epistemology he establishes in the early chapters, before turning to political philosophy proper.

Hobbes is explicitly quite critical of the Scholastics in a number of respects, arguing, for instance, that the metaphysics of matter and form, and the accompanying theory of perception, are unable to give an adequate account of dreams and hallucinations, and thereby inevitably lead to belief in spirits. In the discussions of language and reason, Hobbes also identifies the Scholastics as, essentially, throwing around a bunch of meaningless terms rather than developing rigorous demonstrations to prove their claims. Aristotelean physics is criticised as being anthropocentric, projecting human appetites and desires onto strictly inanimate objects.

By contrast, Hobbes is an early mechanist and empiricist. His entire epistemology reduces to a system of impacts: particles of light bounce from the apple, say, and hit our eye, and the impact causes the nerves to tug on the brain in such a way that we form ideas corresponding to the accidents of the apple. Abstract ideas are simply representations of parts of our sensory experiences using words -- and thus we can have no ideas that do not originate in experience. Note that this implies that we cannot, properly speaking, form the idea of God. The divine is simply posited as a first cause, with no other positive content except as we are gifted with revelation by miracles.

With this framework in place, Hobbes' real project now becomes clear. His method is inspired by geometry: we first give precise definitions of our terms, then reason from those to reach conclusions or 'theorems'. Definitions of complicated terms must be built using simpler ones, and thus a long list of virtues, vices, attitudes, and related states of human beings are defined as passions, ultimately referring to desire and aversion. Most importantly, an object is said to be good, according to Hobbes, if and only if it is an object of desire; and evil, by contrast, if and only if it is said to be an object of aversion. While there will be general agreement -- most everyone will think getting stabbed is evil, because most everyone does not want to get stabbed -- Hobbes' moral theory will never completely eliminate this subjective element; indeed, it will only grow more striking when we consider justice.

The most important emotion for Hobbes is clearly fear. Religion is fear of the supernatural; to show someone respect is to show that you fear them; and, most importantly, the state of nature is a state of living in fear of the unknown, so that the state of nature itself is to be feared over almost anything else in this world.

As mentioned above, Hobbes was the first to deploy a state of nature story to motivate his vision of ideal civil society. This state is described using two famous phrases, as a 'war of all against all' and as 'solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short'; it also says something about Hobbes' state of mind that he refers to the state of nature as 'civil war', Leviathan being written around the time of the English Civil War. Living in the state of nature, with no authority to compell harmony, Hobbes asserts that humans are guided only by the pursuit of their desires and the reatreat from their aversions, and that therefore no notion of justice can be legitimately formulated. While not as graphic as Augustine's indictment of the physical world in City of God, Hobbes spends a fair bit of time chronicling the chaotic savagery and utter horror of life in the state of nature. To escape, we must first develop a theory of natural law and a theory of authority, which in turn requires the notion of a covenant.

The natural laws are maxims that humans come to recognize after reflecting rationally on the chaotic vicissitudes of life in the state of nature. While far too numerous to list here, they mostly just come down to the Golden Rule: peace and order, and thus the first real possibility of satisfying our desires, can only be achieved by doing to others as we would have them do to us and setting aside our self-interest in the name of cooperation. But this cooperation cannot be guaranteed, especially not when we come together in the state of nature; we must each give up our autonomy to a sovereign, who will thereby have the power to enforce compliance with contracts. Compliance with contracts is, incidentally, precisely the way Hobbes defines justice.

It is at this step that things go crazy. Hobbes develops a theory of authority, by which an actor represents an author. This representation is fully legal, in the sense that the actor has the power to bind the author into covenants. The full extent of this representation is only revealed when Hobbes develops it into the theory of the sovereign.

In particular, when a multitude of individuals come together in the state of nature, they can covenant with each other to curtail their autonomy, awarding it to a sovereign Hobbes calls the Leviathan. The Leviathan enjoys total authority over the subjects; chapter 18 consists of an enumeration of rights enjoyed by the sovereign over his subects:
1. The subjects cannot change the form of government.
2. Sovereign power cannot be forfeited (ie, cannot be withdrawn by the subjects).
3. No member of the society can protest the decrees of the sovereign.
4. The sovereign cannot be accused of wrongdoing by the subjects.
5. The sovereign cannot be punished by the subjects.
6. The sovereign is the sole judge of what is necessary for peace and the defence of the society and what the subjects should be taught.
7. The sovereign is solely responsible for establishing laws concerning property and public action.
8. The sovereign has absolute control over the judiciary and arbitrartion.
And on and on. In each case, the argument for this totalitarianism runs something like the following: the sovereign is merely the actor, representing the subjects according to their covenant; hence, whatever the sovereign does to a subject, he does to himself, and in accordance with his own wishes; but, according to the fundamental natural right, it is contrary to reason for someone to wish harm on themselves; thus, it is contrary to reason, ie, impossible, for the subject to be harmed in any way by the sovereign.

Although they are not covered in the reading assignment, Hobbes uses this argument to spectacular effect in other sections of the book. My favourite is the argument for hereditary monarchy, as it is the form of government in which the fortunes of the Leviathan are intimately tied into the fortunes of the society, thereby making it utterly impossible for the sovereign to ever be corrupt.

Total pages read: 1260

Interesting philosophical link: dinosaurs consider the consequences of various epistemological theories for the possibilities of weaponized kissing

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