Thomas Hobbes' Pseudo-Libertarian Fascism

I am currently reading the works of Thomas Hobbes. Well, I've come to conclude that Thomas Hobbes is kind of a terrible person, and also dreadfully self-contradictory.

Hobbes starts from a pretty rational and libertarian foundation, but then goes astray quite quickly. In De Homine, Hobbes starts with a theory of ethics that I mostly agree with.

"The common nature of all things that are desired, insofar as they are desired, is good; and for all things we shun, evil. Therefore Aristotle hath well defined good as that which all men desire.... Therefore good and evil are correlated with desiring and shunning. There can be a common good, and it can rightly be said of something, it is commonly a good, that is, useful to many, or good for the state....
"Moreover, the greatest of goods for each is his own preservation. For nature is so arranged that all desire good for themselves. Insofar as it is within their capacities, it is necessary to desire life, health, and further, insofar as it can be done, security of future time."—Thomas Hobbes (De Homine, Ch. 11)

He lays out a preference utilitarian variety of Aristotelian natural law theory. For Hobbes, good and evil are not defined by divine decree or metaphysical hocus pocus, but rather by preferences of individuals. However, humans all share a common nature as human beings—as members of a certain species that have the same biological needs—, so it can be said that there are certain core values and preferences that are universal amongst the members of the species. However, reason just as much as desire is part of human nature, so the right course of action is that which is logically calculated to achieve our desires.

"But since all do grant, that is done by right, which is not done against reason, we ought to judge those actions only wrong, which are repugnant to right reason, that is, which contradict some certain truth collected by right reasoning from true principles. But that wrong which is done, we say it is done against some law. Therefore true reason is a certain law; which, since it is no less a part of human nature than any other faculty or affection of the mind, is also termed natural. Therefore the law of nature, that I may define it, is the dictate of right reason, conversant about those things which are either to be done or omitted for the constant preservation of life and members, as much as in us lies."—Thomas Hobbes (De Cive, Ch. 2)

I can't help but think of Larry Arnhart's Darwinian Natural Right. Hobbes seems to be standing in a long tradition of philosophers who espoused a theory of ethics that is fundamentally compatible with naturalism, atheism, and Darwinism. Thomas Hobbes is not an "ethical egoist" as many have purported, a confusion that arises from a tendency to only read his Leviathan while ignoring his other writings.

When he turns to the question of civil society, he also starts with a good foundation. He attempts to justify the creation of civil government on the basis of his natural law theory. He starts with a notion of natural rights. In a state of nature, there are no rulers or authorities to which people can be held accountable, thus every individual has a natural right to do whatsoever they want.

"Nature hath given to every one a right to all; that is, it was lawful for every man, in the bear state of nature, or before such time as men had engaged themselves by any covenants or bonds, to do what he would, and against whom he thought fit, and to possess, use, and enjoy all that he would, or could get."—Thomas Hobbes (De Cive, Ch. 1)

Hobbes holds that this state of nature leads to a "war of all against all," which right reason beckons us to eliminate through forming alliances with other people and creating a civil society. Thus, reason dictates that we ought to voluntarily associate with other men in order to form a society that can protect us from the "perpetual war" inherent in the state of nature. In engaging in such a social contract, "the rights of all men to all things ought not to be retained; but that some certain rights ought to be transferred or relinquished."(De Cive, Ch. 1)

Thus far, Hobbes seems to have a coherent and libertarian theory of ethics and politics, one that even an anarchist could agree with. I can see his arguments (up to this point, that is) as being essentially compatible with the philosophy and methodology of Lysander Spooner or of Murray Bookchin. So far, he seems to be almost voluntaryist. But it is not long before Hobbes departs from this theory of ethics quite drastically. Through a certain sleight of hand, Hobbes suddenly flips his narrative on its head. Hobbes is not really concerned with envisioning an ideal/just society. In reality, Hobbes is seeking to justify already existing governments by conflating such arrangements with more voluntary arrangements in a theoretical society based on social contract and natural justice.

In entering into the social contract, one gives up some of their natural rights, but Hobbes does not think that agreement must be explicit and expressed in order for the social contract to be valid. If a person is complacent and non-resistant to others attempting to rule over them, then that person can be said to have implicitly agreed to the terms of the social contract.

"But he is said to part with his right, who either absolutely renounceth it, or conveys it to another. He absolutely renounceth it, who by some sufficient sign or meet tokens declares, that he is willing that it shall never be lawful for him to do that again, which before by right he might have done. But he conveys it to another, who by some sufficient sign or meet tokens declares to that other, that he is willing it should be unlawful for him to resist him, in going about to do somewhat in the performance whereof he might before with right have resisted him. But that the conveyance of right consists merely in not resisting, is understood by this, that before it was conveyed, he to whom he conveyed it, had even then also a right to all; whence he could not give any new right; but the resisting right he had before he gave it, by reason whereof the other could not freely enjoy his rights, is utterly abolished."—Thomas Hobbes (De Cive, Ch. 2)

By a certain sleight of hand, Hobbes has turned an apparently voluntaryist theory of ethics into a justification for totally involuntary arrangements. In chapter 8 of De Cive, Hobbes uses this notion of conveyance of right consisting of not resisting to justify the institution of slavery. He contends that one can justly acquire a right to ownership of animals and other people "by force and natural strength."(De Cive, Ch. 8)

Following this sleight of hand, Hobbes completely lays aside his Aristotelian natural law theory of ethics and substitutes an authoritarian alternative. For Hobbes, the preference utilitarian approach combined with right reason only really applies to man in a state of nature. Once man finds himself living in a civil society, he has already abandoned his natural rights and conveyed upon others the right to rule over him. At this point, it is no longer the individual's private preferences that matter, but the will of the sovereign, the king or civil magistrate. Now, to do good is to keep the social contract and obey the sovereign. Thus, good and evil are now defined solely by the will of the sovereign, so that righteousness has become synonymous with obedience.

"But one and the first which disposeth them to sedition, is this, that the knowledge of good and evil belongs to each single man. In the state of nature indeed, where every man lives by equal right, and has not by any mutual pacts submitted to the command of others, we have granted this to be true; nay, [proved it] in chap. r. art. 9. [But in the civil state it is false. For it was shown (chap. vr. art. 9)] that the civil laws were the rules of good and evil, just and unjust, honest and dishonest; that therefore what the legislator commands, must be held for good, and what he forbids for evil. And the legislator is ever that person who hath the supreme power in the commonweal, that is to say, the monarch in a monarchy.... Since therefore it belongs to kings to discern between good and evil, wicked are those, though usual, sayings, that he only is a king who does righteously, and that kings must not be obeyed unless they command us just things; and many other such like. Before there was any government, just and unjust had no being, their nature only being relative to some command: and every action in its own nature is indifferent; that it becomes just or unjust, proceeds from the right of the magistrate. Legitimate kings therefore make the things they command just, by commanding them, and those which they forbid, unjust, by forbidding them. But private men, while they assume to themselves the knowledge of good and evil, desire to be even as kings; which cannot be with the safety of the commonweal. The most ancient of all God's commands is (Gen. ii. 17): Thou shalt not eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil: and the most ancient of all diabolical temptations (Gen. iii. 5): Ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil."—Thomas Hobbes (De Cive, Ch. 12)

Hobbes also thinks that monarchy is the ideal form of government, but that aristocracy might be more stable over time. As far as Hobbes is concerned, republicans and democrats tend to be crypto-anarchists. Republicans and democrats tend to hold that the legitimacy of government depends on the continued consent of the governed and the justice of the government itself, so revolution and tyrannicide are justified whenever the sovereign government loses the consent of the governed.

"The third seditious doctrine springs from the same root, that tyrannicide is lawful, nay, at this day it is by many divines, and of old it was by all the philosophers, Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Seneca, Plutarch, and the rest of the maintainers of the Greek and Roman anarchies, held not only lawful, but even worthy of the greatest praise."—Thomas Hobbes (De Cive, Ch. 12)

For Hobbes, there can never be any legitimate reason to remove a ruler from power, and any attempt at establishing autonomy or self-rule by the people is really just tantamount to anarchy. Hobbes holds that there are only three types of government—democracy, aristocracy, and monarchy—and that the other three classical forms of government—anarchy, oligarchy, and tyranny—are merely terms that express one's displeasure with the corollary form of government.

"Now, although ancient writers of politics have introduced three other kinds of government opposite to these; to wit, anarchy or confusion to democracy; oligarchy, that is, the command of some few, to aristocracy; and tyranny to monarchy; yet are not these three distinct forms of government, but three diverse titles given by those who were either displeased with that present government or those that bear rule. For men, by giving names, do usually not only signify the things themselves, but also their own affections, as love, hatred, anger, and the like. Whence it happens that what one man calls a democracy, another calls an anarchy; what one counts an aristocracy, another esteems an oligarchy; and whom one titles a king, another styles him a tyrant. So as we see, these names betoken not a diverse kind of government, but the diverse opinions of the subjects concerning him who hath the supreme power."—Thomas Hobbes (De Cive, Ch. 7)

As I'm reading Hobbes, I keep thinking of Murray Rothbard's Ethics of Liberty. Both Hobbes and Rothbard attempt to justify man's domination of man on the basis of voluntary contract, but Rothbard starts with a more individualistic and propertarian foundation. A major difference between Rothbard and Hobbes lies in their understandings of contract. For Hobbes, a contract can be asymmetrical—the citizen is bound to obey the sovereign by the social contract but the sovereign is not bound to protect and serve the citizen. By entering into the social contract, the citizen has given up his right to self-determination, so the sovereign has the right to alter the rules and terms of the contract, as his will now stands in for the citizen's. Hobbes uses this rationale to justify slavery. Rothbard, on the other hand, does not think that one can relinquish their natural rights. A "voluntary" slave contract would be illegitimate, null and void, from the outset. One cannot simply relinquish their natural right to self-determination. Furthermore, Hobbes holds that one can give implicit consent to a contract and thereby enter into a voluntary arrangement without explicitly expressing agreement. Not resisting domination amounts to consenting. Rothbard, on the other hand, holds that one must explicitly agree to the terms of a contract in order for it to be binding. The legitimacy of the enforcement of the ruling of a private court or judge within an anarcho-capitalist system, according to Rothbard, would be predicated on the fact that the individuals involved would have voluntarily agreed beforehand to comply with the rulings of said court. The people under the jurisdiction of the courts and private security firms in a Rothbardian system would have explicitly agreed to obey the ruling of the courts and cooperate with the security firm in their enforcement to the extent that the court and security firm do not violate their natural rights.

Perhaps a more thorough comparison of Rothbard and Hobbes will be the topic of a future post. It's also very likely that I will have more thoughts to express on the topic of Hobbes as I read his Leviathan.

Commenting on this Story will be automatically closed on May 2, 2018.