Philosophy 104/Fall 2011 (R. Jay Wallace)
Notes on Hobbes’s Ethics
1. Hobbes’s argument starts with individuals, conceived as basically egoistic or self-interested in
their primary aims and drives. His goal is to show that it would be rational for such individuals to
be moral (to conform to certain principles of justice), under conditions in which there exists an
absolute political ruler or sovereign. Morality is thus to be interpreted as a matter of enlightened
self-interest, doing what is rational relative to one’s basically egoistic or self-interested goals.
2. To get clear about Hobbes’s argument for this conclusion, begin with his interpretation of the self,
of basic human motives and drives. Hobbes’s approach to human psychology is
thinks of human beings as fundamentally bodies in motion, which is to say that all that they do can
be explained in terms of the motions of matter.
One type of motion in the human body Hobbes calls endeavour. This is basically a question of
impulsion towards or away from external objects or goals; i.e. appetite or desire, and aversion (chap.
6, para. 1). The nature of the human body is to be perpetually in motion; and this generates a
constant stream of new desires, so that to be alive is for Hobbes to be in a state of desiring new
things or objects all the time (chap. 6, para. 58). “Felicity” is accordingly defined, not as a state of rest
or achieved satisfaction, but as “continual success” in obtaining the things which are desired (chap.
6, para. 58; chap. 11, para. 1).
This leads Hobbes to say (famously) that “a perpetual and restless desire of power after power, that
ceaseth only in death” is a general inclination of all mankind (chap. 11, para. 2). This doesn’t mean
that we have a literal infinitude of desires, nor that we are obsessed with a mad yearning for
domination over our fellow humans; but that we generally and incessantly seek the means to satisfy
our future desires. Not our only basic tendency, but a universal one.
3. Hobbes argues in chap. 13 that the natural condition of humans, given his understanding of their
psychology, is a state of war of all against all. The argument can be reconstructed as follows:
of natural endowments and mental powers leads each equally to hope for the attainment
of his ends, and the means of such attainment.
[b] Scarcity of natural means of attaining our ends, together with this basic equality of hope, leads
people to a condition of
[c] Competition for scarce resources in turn leads to
, a general condition of distrust and
[d] But the condition of general diffidence or distrust makes it rational for each to try to attain what
she needs, not by productive industry, but by
, that is, using force or wiles to master the
persons of others; or a tendency to strike first, before waiting around to be taken advantage of.
[e] This general tendency to resort to force first, in securing scarce resources and goods, just is the