Of Hobbes and Reason

This was originally a term paper of mine, written in markdown, and appears here because reasons.

Update: The revised and significantly better final verison of this paper now appears here. You aren't missing much, it's much better than the original.


In his Leviathan, Hobbes presents an epistemology, an account or ontology of the various passions and thoughts of people, and theory of ethics founded upon individual equality and egoism from which he develops a political theory of absolutism. This theory of ethics purports to show how humans existing in a "state of nature" at odds with all other humans can discover contracts and governments for their mutual protection through the use of what Hobbes names Reason.

Hobbes defines Reason to be the faculty of the mind whereby we perform any task founded upon the "adding" and "subtracting" of ideas to produce and communicate results (5.2). In 5.4, Hobbes expounds that Reason "is not the finding of the sum and truth of one of a few consequences, remote from the first definitions and settled significations of names, but to begin at these and proceed from one consequence to another". Geometry, logic and law are listed as examples of such consequential productions from first definitions to conclusions. An interesting aspect of Hobbes' conception of Reason is that it explicitly excludes his conception of Prudence (5.4).

Where Hobbes conceives Reason to be quite literally symbolic arithmetic, this conception of Prudence is distinct from and free of Reason as it has no component of Language, merely that of Memory. Prudence is defined to be that faculty of remembering past events and their sequels and, supposing that like sequels will follow like actions, projecting the consequences of like actions on the present condition (3.7). This point Hobbes emphasizes by pointing out that it is not prudence which distinguishes man from beast (3.9), for there are "beasts that at a year old observe more and pursue that which is for their good more prudently than a child can do at ten" but rather Reason alone which accounts for the elevation of man by God, the "first author of speech" (4.1).

This distinction between Reason with Language and Prudence from Experience is critical for Hobbes, as the goal of his project is to show that humans can invent his platonic state and all the requirements for it from a state of nature having no prior experience of a state of any kind. This production demands that there be no possibility that human beings miss the mark and fail to arrive at his platonic state. This distinction Hobbes illustrates (4.21) by describing two swordsmen, one of infinite Prudence, the other of infinite Science both having total mastery of their weapon. Both having total mastery, they are equals and well matched, "both useful, but the latter [Science/Reason] infallible".

This distinction between Prudence and Reason in infallibility is critical for Hobbes' defeat of The Fool. Were the derivation of the command to keep contracts founded on experience or aught but Reason common to all people, then it could not be a universal command for there would exist the possibility that some person having a life experience which lead them to conclude that from Prudence they need not keep their contracts. While Hobbes allows that some people from Pride or other faults will fail to realize the truth of his assertions and that society many (indeed must) be established to thwart them

Just as Hobbes' conception of Reason is not in keeping with the definition of reason in common usage, so his production of Natural Law and his plan for the escape from the War of All Against All involve a little gymnastics. In order to reach at Hobbes' derivation of Natural Law, we must first appreciate his conception of Passions and the Will presented in chapter 6 of Leviathan as it is ultimately the will of a man (in the common not Hobbesian sense) which determines that which he does and under what principles he will do so.

Through Deliberation (6.49) humans take the sequent sum of their appetites, aversions, hopes, fears and other interests. The Will of a human is, for Hobbes, then the last element or term in this sequence of inclinations and aversions and it is then from this final Will that actions occur (6.53). An important aspect of this production as noted in 6.53 is that this definition of the Will by no means demands that the Will be rational. As the sum of inclinations and aversions, the Will of a man may indeed be counter to all reason (this being insanity) and yet still constitute voluntary action. However, the Will of a man according to Hobbes must include Reason as a factor, for part of the calculation of Will is Hope which is defined to be the Opinion (7.4) that something is possible or achievable as a product of Reason (5.16,17).

Natural Law (14.3) is not so much then the an absolute rule or set of principles which humans need rationally and consciously seek and discover each for themselves. Rather it is a set of products of the various inclinations and aversions of man presented in chapters 11 and 13 which influence the Will of all humans overwhelming other "lesser" inclinations and aversions by their weight in the calculation of a person's Will. Of such weight are these considerations that in all cases where they become engaged they must dictate the outcome of Deliberation unless the person Deliberating commit some error of Reason such as to suppose false premises.

The Right of Nature (14.1) exemplifies this pattern, in its declaration that "each man hath to use his power as he will himself for the preservation of his own nature". That is, from 13.14 "the passions that incline men to Peace are the Fear of death" for Fear (6.17) in keeping with the common usage. As death is the end of life and thus frustrates all Hopes unless the alternative to death be itself death, no computation of Will according to Hobbes could outweigh the horror of suffering death. The horror of death being common to all people, thus unless they Will against all Hope or reason (14.4) no person many take their own life or take actions which they may foresee by Reason or even Prudence will lead to their own death.

Hobbes' First Law of Nature follows from a similar production. As all people may lay equal claim to any thing out of desire for ease, power or any other reason (11) with equal strength to destroy one another and hold the desired article (13.1) this being Hobbes definition of War (13.7) by the same argument to the fear of death used in the construction of the Right of Nature all people, save perhaps glory seekers, must revile the condition of War for it is by definition the persistent threat of death being the most fearful possible thing. Rather, people should "seek peace and follow it", that is take whatever steps necessary to escape the state of nature and prevent a return to it through the establishment of governments, regulation of their own conduct and so forth or failing this the Right of Nature demands the conclusion that if there be no hope of Peace and people must exist in the state of War, then they must Will to employ all the advantages of war to protect themselves.

The Second Law of Nature is derived from the First, and depends on the idea in the Right of Nature that through equal strength (capacity of threatening death to another) all people have equal Right or Liberty (14.3, 14.4) to claim all things. If this be true, then the only path to reducing the fear that another may assert their Liberty at ones' expense is to somehow get others to abandon their Rights thereby reducing competition and distrust. As no person will lay down a Right(s) and thus ensure the security of another without due compensation, exchanges of Rights must occur and these Hobbes terms to be a Contract (14.9). The proof of such an exchanges being that as by strength (even of arms) no person can secure themselves (13.1) and the sources of Fear are competition, diffidence and glory seeking (13.6) no person can reduce the competition by elimination of their competitors without thereby increasing diffidence towards them, nor so eliminate the glory seekers. Only by seeking aid (11.5) in the form both of protection and the renunciation of others liberties at the price of their own various liberties may people reduce their fear and achieve Peace. As with the First Law of Nature, while by reason one may formally deduce this Law of Nature, people will exemplify it as an emergent phenomenon for it is the only mechanism by which individuals may reduce the competition which threaten them and thus achieve Peace.

The Third Law of Nature follows from the Second and the First. As without Contracts being kept, no person may have Hope for Contracts allowing them to reach the state of Peace, Reason gives the result that no person can Will the abandonment of Contracts without also abandoning those which bind their erstwhile competitors from causing them harm for The Fool's abandonment of Contracts signals to others that their Contracts for safety with The Fool may not be honored and thus while The Fool may have made no direct threat against anyone save the person damaged to attack one is to renounce the support of all. "He, therefore, that breaketh his covenant and consequently declareth that he thinks he many with reason do so, cannot be received into any society that unite themselves for peace and defense but by the error of them that receive him; nor when he is received be retained in it without seeing the danger of their error; which errors a man cannot reasonably reckon o as the means of his security; and therefore if he be left or cast out of society he parisheth" (15.5). Thus the relative certainty of death should one become either cast out of or simply unable to enter a civil society and the fearfulness of the prospect of death factored together must compel people by Reason on the weight of their fear to keep their contracts lest they be unable to escape the state of War.

Students of game theory should readily realize that Hobbes here is simply founding his ethics upon the Nash equilibrium of a game of mutually assured destruction. That is, Hobbes' theory of human nature and the State of Nature is so constructed that any behavior by any person but that "dictated" by the Laws of Nature is with certainty harmful (or at least fearful) compared to the outcome of behavior in accordance with the Laws. The other Laws of Nature presented by Hobbes in chapter 15 are merely corollaries to the above three Laws supporting the equilibrium of peaceful mutual contracting. Those dictates to gratitude, complacence equity and pardon are not fundamental to this theory. Rather they are consequences serve to reduce conflict and thus preserve peace. The same is true of the others, especially the injunctions against arrogance and pride which Hobbes explicitly lists in chapter 6 as being the vain-glorious cause of strife. These corollaries correspond directly to the game theoretic results of the optimally of cooperation and forgiveness from the Prisoner's Dilemma problem. For their proof, Hobbes need refer only to the Right of Nature and the principles of fear of death and equality thus giving this behavior as universally optimal.

While this interpretation of Hobbes works in that it is consistent with his definitions of Will, Deliberation and consequently validates his theory of Natural Law, that it derives Natural Law from Reason rather than from Deliberation is not as clear cut as I would wish. Remember Reason is defined to be the process of adding and subtracting quantities denoted by language to produce sums to which language alone gives meaning, this being the reason Hobbes gives for Reason's apparent uniqueness to humans and absence among beasts. The above interpretation of Natural Law derives entirely from the approbations and fears of people abstracted to be only sufficiently conscious as to recognize that which of which they approve or disapprove and to perform almost utilitarian calculations thereon (this being the nature of Deliberation) in accordance with the principle of egoism not of general public utility. As Hobbes gives us language for expressing our appetites and aversions and in so doing ascribes such language to mankind generally one may argue that the process of Reason on the language (being the summation) of appetites and aversions is strictly equivalent to the calculation of Deliberation being likewise the summation of appetites and aversions. This is not correct however because Hobbes specifically ascribes Reason only to the application of language (thus in exclusion of dumb beasts) and to beasts ascribes Deliberation and thus Will. The salvation of this reading seems to be in 6.55 in which Hobbes gives forms of speech expressing the various passions of people and also in the conception of Hope as a factor in Deliberation (unique to humans due to its foundation on Reason being the Opinion that something is possible). This gives us a round trip production between appetites and aversions through Language to Deliberation, and as we have the Deliberative subjunctive forms of speech (6.55) we may speak of things to come from appetites and aversions thus having Hope for our appetites and thus by Reason having Deliberations and Wills conducive to our goals.

The obvious criticism of this account of natural law is that it presumes humans to be rational actors who fear death overwhelmingly and above all else. Clearly this is a false premise. People voluntarily sacrifice their own lives for those of their friends and family, risk death for strangers in acts of heroism and so forth. Hobbesian selfish actors would do no such things. One could posit that Hobbes would say those who choose to so sacrifice themselves simply cast up wrong reason in finding their Will weighing Valor too heavily next to their own life. While Hobbes does not directly address this concern, from the game theory results the presence of some optimistic players does not alter the Nash equilibrium so long as the players are generally willing to retaliate under Lex Talonis or the Right of Nature as Hobbes terms it.

A related criticism is that Hobbes' formulation of the Right of Nature forbids suicide under any circumstances. However one could clearly argue that if the alternative to death was ongoing suffering or otherwise degraded quality of life the pain of such would outweigh any Hope of other pleasures or ends on which the dominant fear of death is founded thus giving us a quantity which in the reckoning of Deliberation must cast up death as the Will.

The formulation above Natural Law from Deliberation (being from Language and appetites) seems potentially problematic in that it fails to give any account of how through like Deliberation bests without the use of language may not practice Natural Law out of their own Deliberation purely from their appetites and fears. To this Hobbes would seem to answer that without the use of Language animals cannot truly have Reason nor communicate it to others like themselves though they may by Prudence practice in accordance with the Laws of Nature and the Right of Nature, they cannot have found the Laws for the production of the Laws requires the application of Language and Reason to find the consequences of obeying and disobeying the Laws and having weighed them both to find the Laws universally superior to their alternatives.

Thus while perhaps Hobbes gives a poor accounting of why we should treat others well in comparison to Kant and other philosophers his ontology and theory of natural law is at least internally consistent albeit somewhat difficult to understand due to pervasive overloading of terms in common usage it remains a complete accounting of how reason and reason alone can lead humans to discover Natural Laws, and thus liberate themselves from the State of Nature through the establishment of a Commonwealth.

^d