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Selfish Morality and Thomas Hobbes

Philosophers love writing about morality, and Thomas Hobbes was no exception. Hobbes wrote long and influential works that aided greatly in the growth and understanding of man’s morality. The following philosophical essay produced as part of the essay writing services provided by Ultius, examines Thomas Hobbes’ interpretation of man’s morality.

Selfish Morality and Thomas Hobbes

Regarding man’s natural state, Hobbes infers, “Nature that made men…equal” insofar as the differences in physical and cognitive abilities are ultimately of little consequence (XIII). While one with superior strength can be bested by the cunning of another, or an amalgamation of weaker men, one of superior mind can likewise be bested by a lesser but more experienced mind. Coupled with man’s somewhat dynamic relationship and changing moral values, Hobbes points out the selfish nature of man’s view of morality.

Hobbes’ theory of conflict

Hobbes posits three principal causes of conflict among men stemming from modern individual conflict all the way to full-scale military conflict:

  • Competition–the intent to gain influence by violent means
  • Diffidence–refers to distrust that leads to conflict within the context of the need to defend against the aforementioned competitors
  • Glory–tantamount to one’s honor, ego, or reputation, and these being sensitive in nature, also require defense against the slightest of cavils

Due to these causes, Hobbes suggests that without a Leviathan, (a common, awful power to regulate), the war between men would be incessant starting at local disagreement and escalating to interstate conflict. Because of the violent instability inherent to the state of all men engaged in war, other things are rendered inert, such as:

  • Industry
  • Trade
  • Security
  • Art
  • Science
  • Literature
  • Peace

The only assurance in war is danger and a consistent state of fear. In a state of continual upheaval, Hobbes states, that

“nothing can be unjust… [because] where there is no common power, there is no law: where no law, no injustice” (XIII).

Hobbes suggests that there is no justice inherent to man’s faculties, but rather only an egoistic urge to act upon desire and to retain what is desired as long as he might. Hobbes concludes his thesis on the natural state of man by positing that man’s sole dissuasion from war is his fear of death and desire to thrive; humans are, therefore, simple egoists whose avoidance of war and establishment of government are accomplished with the sole impetus of self-interest.

Natural state according to Hobbes

In order to connect man’s natural state of being, Hobbes proceeds to discuss the laws of nature, their influence on the nature of man, and the inevitable, unspoken contract that follows.

  1. The first law of nature, “to seek peace and follow it,” is a direct consequence of the instability brought on by anarchy (XIV). Hobbes supports the desire and adherence to peace as being a law of nature, by first explicating that a right denotes nothing more than what one is at liberty to do, and that because there are no hindrances, i.e., laws, to prevent man from acting upon his nature, the only system of government to man is reason—and it is reason that deems peace as the prime method of retaining the most liberty.
  2. The second law requires “that a man be willing, when others are too, as far-forth, as for peace, and defence of himself he shall think it necessary, to lay down this right to all things; and be contented with so much liberty against other men, as he would allow other men against himself” (XIV).

It is by reason that man is able to identify the first law of nature, and it is from the first law, that the second law is based. For the first law is a non-sequitur without the accompaniment without its derivative second law. The first law is therefore based on the expectation of reciprocity, as the second law clearly elaborates.  Peace can only be attained if a mutual desire among conflicting parties exists.

Hobbes’ view of peace

Hobbes, therefore, asserts that a social contract is initiated in the mutual interest of peace. Peace in and of itself, of course, is not the primary goal, it is rather to provide security for certain liberties through the sacrifice of others. The sacrificed liberties refer to the forfeiture of rights over other persons or their property. It is through this forfeiture that the security of oneself and one’s property are assured. It is through such an understanding, or contract, that the golden rule and variations of it are devised. But even with such rules, understandings, and contracts in place, Hobbes suggests that such rules are not as powerful as that of man’s passion, and coercion is required to ensure that such agreements are abided by. In this manner, Hobbes’ ideas can be applied in political realms and are similar to the ideas of John Locke.

Coercion and power

This coercion, by which Hobbes means a governing power, is arrived at by Hobbes third law of nature:

“that men perform their covenants made” (XV).

The significance of a promise is the expectation of honesty of both parties, without it, the promise is made null. Absent the third law, the contract that Hobbes describes, nor a coercive power to ensure its longevity, could exist in the first place. It is through this third law, Hobbes explains, that the notion of justice and injustice arise:

For where no covenant hath preceded, there hath no right been transferred, and every man has right to everything; and consequently, no action can be unjust.  But when a covenant is made, then to break it is unjust: and the definition of INJUSTICE [sic], is no other than the not performance of covenant.

Ergo, the laws of man are a response to the laws of nature, a response in the best interest to all who subjugate themselves before them.  And the successful ongoing implementation of these laws can only be accomplished through a power greater than the individuals involved.

Morality as a product of social contract

Though moral systems vary between individuals within any given system of governance, Hobbes is correct in suggesting—if he is indeed doing so—that morality, at its core, is essentially a product of social contracts. This aspect of political philosophy suggests that morality, after all, would be meaningless if no social interactions occurred. Take for instance a world where there existed but one conscious creature, a man for our purposes.  What would be the utility of morality for him?  As there are no other conscious beings to be affected by his actions, morality would neither have meaning nor function for him.  A rock has no sense of propriety, nor does it care how many times one steps on it.  Only through social interactions can morality even exist, and only through consequences observed through actions counter to Hobbes’ laws of nature can a sense of desirable and correct behaviors be engendered.  As Hobbes notes, only when

Only when “correct” behavior has been established can injustice and wrong behavior be said to exist.  

Hobbes is further correct in insinuating that these laws, systems of governance, and ethical codes are products of man’s egoistic nature. Humans could not understand the golden rule if they were not affected by it. How could one comprehend pain or loss if these things have never been experienced? It would seem then that even the most sophisticated moral systems are derived from egoism, for the consequences of actions would be of no concern if said consequences had not first been experienced by the moral agent.


The recapitulation of Hobbes’ case for the social contract is as follows: there exists a natural state among men in which no right is limited. It is because the rights of individuals often conflict, constant war is fundamental to this state. Hobbes infers that three consequent laws of nature exist:

  • Peace is desired above all else to assure the security of one’s liberties
  • The condition of peace rests on the prerogative of all parties involved in conflict
  • Agreements of peace rest on the assumption that both sides will abide by it

Hobbes insists that man’s passions are more powerful than his promises and a coercive power is necessary to maintain the viability of such agreements. It is through the establishment of such agreements that terms such as justice and injustice are able to be understood, for without behavioral guidelines they would be meaningless. It is man’s egotism that Hobbes attributes the establishing of such laws, agreements, and, ostensibly, morality. Hobbes is correct in this inference as personal understanding the affects the consequences of undesirable actions have is vital to understanding how these actions affect others.

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