Selected Criticisms of Hobbes and Ethical Egoism


     Copyright © 2013 Bruce W. Hauptli


1. Are there no other reasons for states besides protection?  What of promotion of liberty, community, friendship, etc.? 


2. In his “Ultimate Principles and Ethical Egoism,” Brian Medlin maintains that ethical egoism is deficient as a moral theory because it is not universalizable:


obviously something strange goes on as soon as the ethical egoist tries to promulgate his doctrine.  What is he doing when he urges upon his audience that they should each observe his own interests and those interests alone?  Is he not acting contrary to the egoist principle?  It cannot be to his advantage to convince them, for seizing always their own advantage they will impair his.  Surely if he does believe what he says, he should try to persuade them otherwise.[1] 


I have a "lecture supplement" to the essay.  


3. In his The Structure of Justification, Robert Audi notes that:


the foundational desires of a rational person, particularly early in life, may be for internal states, such as pleasure and the elimination of pain; but these desires are not for these things as one’s own: what is desirable about escaping the clutches of the blackberry bushes a child is trapped in is getting rid of the pain, not eliminating the pain as its own.  Dislike of pain is psychologically more primitive than one’s self-concept.  I know who I am more by what I like and dislike than the other way around; and I can know what I like and dislike even if I do not know who I am.[2] 


4. In her “Sustaining Trust,” Annette Baier maintains that:


our actual motivation, in situations where trust comes into play, is not very helpfully seen as a mixture of egoistic and nonegoistic, unless we can be fairly sure which strands are egoistic, which altruistic.  But many of our motives resist easy classification in these terms.  Is parental concern egoistic or nonegoistic?  It is treated by Hawthorn as a rare exceptional instance of nonegoistic motivation, but others, such as Richard Epstein, take concern for the continuers of one’s own selfish genes, plausibly enough, to exhibit a variant of egoism.  Is our pleasure in each other’s company, and our preference for a life that gives us opportunities to get some such pleasure, egoistic or nonegoistic?  Is it egoistic to wish to have the respect of others?  Is our will to sustain friendships to be decreed egoistic to the extent that our concern for our friends is for ones who are “second selves” to us?  Is the desire for revenge, even when we must bring the temple down on ourselves as well as on our enemies, egoistic?  Is patriotism a clear case of extended egoism, or is “selfless patriotism” a possibility?  The ego’s boundaries are less clearly marked than are most nations’ boundaries, but in the absence of clear boundaries we cannot be sure when our concern is for ourselves alone, when for others.[3] 


5. In his “Morals Without God?”, Frans De Wall maintains that:


even though altruistic behavior evolved for the advantages it confers, this does not make it selfishly motivated.  Future benefits rarely figure in the minds of animals.  For example animals engage in sex without knowing its reproductive consequences, and even humans had to develop the morning-after pill.  This is because sexual motivation is unconcerned with the reason why sex exists.  The same is true for the altruistic impulse, which is unconcerned with evolutionary consequences.[4] 


6. Hobbes’s sovereign will require henchmen or enforcers.  But is it in one's self-interest to act in such a dangerous capacity?  A response to this objection may well be to take seriously Hobbes' statement that where the refusal to perform a dangerous deed frustrates the “end for which the sovereignty was ordained, there is no liberty to refuse.”  Given that that end is the rational egoists’ own safety, if the refusal frustrates that end, the egoist must face the danger.  Whether s/he is in the civil state or the state of nature, of course, this is the case.  This raises the further question as to whether waiting till such danger arises will undercut the civil state's ability to provide protection however. 


7. John Locke contends that we give up power to the state to better ourselves.  Will Hobbes’ subjects better themselves?  Locke will not allow for an absolute sovereign!  Power which is dispersed is less dangerous than a highly concentrated and centralized power.  [Lord Acton’s famous saying is relevant here.]  In his Moral Knowledge, Alan Goldman makes this point as follows:


the standard objection to [Hobbes’] political philosophy at least since Locke is that his cure is worse than the disease of anarchy.  Our problem here is that the self-interest of citizens would not be served by making the police powerful enough to threaten and impose punishments sufficient to render it never in a prospective criminal’s interest to act wrongly, even were this possible.  The costs in terms of resources, loss of privacy, and increased probability of wrongful conviction would outweigh any gain from crime reduction.  This would make it imprudent, hence irrational, to try to solve the problem of the rationality of wrongful behavior in this way. 

  ....We trade social order for privacy and liberty, reducing the costs of the former by tolerating some costs of the latter.  But this reasonable compromise defeats the appeal to prospective punishment in the argument in support of the claim that the risk of wrongdoing can never be worth the projected benefit from the point of view of self-interest.[5] 


Goldman also notes that:


one may have self-interested reasons for generally complying with fair agreements, or with social relations that might have arisen from fair agreements; but individuals will much more rarely be prudent to acquiesce in unfair distributive shares, even if their governments support such injustice.  The Hobbesian argument that it is prudentially rational to comply with agreements made, or with existing social agreements, if others are complying, must therefore contain a tacit appeal to fairness if it is to be plausible.[6] 


There appear to be situations in which individuals can maximize their own benefits by free riding on or exploiting others, situations in which others are behaving properly, in which exploiters can violate the rights of these others and hence act wrongly, but can benefit themselves, can better satisfy their self-interested desires, by doing so.  If it can be reasonable or prudential to break a valid covenant, then the third law of nature is not a rule of reason, or reason cannot be equated with prudence.[7] 


If one knows that a particular encounter will be the last, then one will not be deterred by the thought of future sanctions for present behavior, and it will not pay to co-operate.  But then if one knows that co-operation cannot pay on the last encounter, and one knows that others know this, then one also knows that co-operation cannot pay on the next to last encounter....[8] 


Here, I would add, it seems we are presented with a version of the “paradox of the surprise exam.” 


Alan Goldman notes that:


...the rationality of moral restraint according to the self-interest maximizing conception depends on the likelihood of retaliation in the future for present misconduct, or upon one’s inability to predict escaping retaliation.  The truth of the claim that one cannot reliably make this prediction in turn depends on a host of empirical factors.  If further interaction with particular individuals or groups is unlikely, if your present behavior is unlikely to be recognized so as to affect your reputation or future opportunities, if the psychology of present potential victims renders them unlikely to retaliate, if you can profitably take advantage now without restraint and not being penalized for doing so, if you can be reasonably certain that any or all of these conditions obtain, then you can profit from wrongdoing.[9] 


Goldman’s overall rejection of Hobbes’ moral theory (in Chapter I of his Moral Knowledge) hinges upon the idea that while there is much to recommend the equation of moral obligation and rational prudence (especially the idea that “moral rules exist to make peaceful social relations and co-operative interactions among individuals possible”), “what is implausible is that these reasons always override others that a self-interested agent may have, that it can never be profitable for her to break the rules that generally are to guide her behavior toward others if she is prudent....Where these exceptions exist, the reduction of rightness to rational prudence fails.”[10] 


8. In his The Rational and the Moral Order: The Social Roots of Reason and Morality, Kurt Baier maintains that:


...if such a state [the sort of flawlessly efficient civil state Hobbes needs] is indeed possible, the cost of maintaining it would be staggering.  It is more than doubtful whether, under such a monstrous police state, the loss in freedom and the risk of false conviction by a court could possibly be outweighed by the gain in having rationality and prudence coincide, as Hobbes’ theory of practical reason would seem to require.[11] 


Conversely, its officials whose task it is to ensure that the laws are enforced, have reason to bend the law in favor of those who are able and willing to make it worth their while.  Given the unequal ability of people to promote their own interest in these various ways, a society of consistent adherents of this theory will tend to depart from stringent uniform enforcement of the laws.  What is worse, every such person will want, by lobbying and similar methods, to ensure that the laws are written so as to favor him more than others.[12] 


9. In his The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism, C.B. MacPherson maintains that: 


I have shown that Hobbes’s argument from the physiological nature of man to the necessary attempt of all men in society to seek ever more power over others requires the proposition that every man’s power resists and hinders the powers of others; that this proposition, even if supposedly deduced from a physiological postulate that all men innately desire limitless power over others, requires at least the further assumption of a model of society which permits continual peaceful invasion of each by each; and that if the proposition is taken to be deduced from the physiological postulate that only some men innately what ever more, it requires a model of society which not only permits continued invasion of each by each but also compels the moderate men to invade; that the only model which satisfies these requirements is the possessive market society, which corresponds in essentials to the modern competitive market society; that Hobbes’s explicit postulates (notably, that labour is a commodity, that some men want to increase their level of delight, and that some have more natural power than others) are essentially those of a possessive market society; that the model of society which Hobbes constructed in his analysis of power, valuing, and honouring, and confirmed in his analysis of commutative and distributive justice, corresponds essentially to the possessive market model....[13] 


...if there is no alternative to the market society, or if the only alternative is anarchy, every man in it who sees his true position has no rational alternative but to support a political authority which can maintain that society as a regular orderly system.  In other words, every individual in it can and must in his own interest acknowledge obligation to a political authority with enough power to enforce the rules of a competitive society.  And this obligation may as well be called moral as prudential; it is the highest morality of which market men are capable.[14] 


I have found only two faults with his doctrine.  The first is that he mistakenly attributed the characteristics of market society to all societies, and so claimed a wider validity for his conclusions than they can have....The second is that he failed to see, or give sufficient weight to, the class division which a possessive market society necessarily generates, and so concluded mistakenly that the sovereign power must and could be in a self-perpetuating person or assembly.[15] 


10. In his “Hobbes on Obligation,” Thomas Nagel maintains that:


moral obligation is something that plays a part in deliberations, and it has an influence in situations in which a person might not perform an action if he considered only his own benefit, whereas the consideration of a moral obligation, to help others, for example, leads him to do it anyway.  Nothing could be called a moral obligation which in principle never conflicted with self-interest.  But according to the theory of motivation...[of] Hobbes, the only thing by which men are ever motivated is the consideration of self-interest.  So a genuine feeling of moral obligation can never play a part in their deliberations.”[16] 


11. In her “Hobbes, Patriarchy and Conjugal Right,” Carole Pateman maintains that:


his picture of natural, atomized individuals, who spring up like mushrooms—”consider men as if but even now sprung out of the earth, and suddenly, like mushrooms, come to full maturity, without all kind of engagement to each other”—denies any significance to the mother-child relationship and the dependence on the mother that provides the first intersubjective context for the development of human capacities.  Di Stefano claims that there is no room for nurture within the family in Hobbes’ state of nature; “men are not born of, much less nurtured by, women, or anyone else for that matter.[17] 


12. In her “The Normative Question,” Christine Korsgaard maintains that:


Samuel Clarke, the first defender of realism, was quick to spot what he took to be a fatal flaw in the view I have just described.  Hobbes, Clarke complains, tries to derive obligation from the social contract, from our agreement to obey the laws of a sovereign who will make social cooperation possible.  But why are we obligated to conform to the social contract....If the need to establish a cooperative system can obligate us to conform to a social contract, why doesn’t that same need obligate us to behave ourselves in cooperative ways in the first place?  Or, if we say that obligation comes from the fact that the laws have been made by the sovereign, what then are we to say about why we are obligated to obey the sovereign?[18] 

Notes: (click on note number to return to the text for the note)

[1] Brian Medlin, “Ultimate Principles and Ethical Egoism,” in Ethical Theory: Classic and Contemporary Readings (fourth edition), ed. Louis Pojman (Belmont: Wadsworth, 2002), pp. 90-95, p. 92.  The essay originally appeared in Australasian Journal of Philosophy v. 35 (1957), pp. 111-118.  I have a "lecture supplement" to the essay.

[2] Robert Audi, The Structure of Justification (Cambridge: Cambridge U.P., 1993), p. 42. 

[3] Annette Baier, “Sustaining Trust,” in her Moral Prejudices (Cambridge: Harvard U.P., 1994), pp. 152-182, pp. 156. 

[4] Frans De Wall, “Morals Without God?”, New York Times, Opinionator, October 17, 2010.  Viewed on-line on 01/10/11. 

[5] Alan Goldman, Moral Knowledge (London: Routledge, 1988), pp. 36-37. 

[6] Ibid., p. 34. 

[7] Ibid., p. 34. 

[8] Ibid., p. 43. 

[9] Ibid., p. 44. 

[10] Ibid., p. 52. 

[11] Kurt Baier, The Rational and the Moral Order: The Social Roots of Reason and Morality (LaSalle: Open Court, 1995), p. 172. 

[12] Ibid., pp. 172-173. 

[13] C.B. MacPherson, The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism, (Oxford: Oxford U.P., 1962), pp. 67-68. 

[14] Ibid., p. 87. 

[15] Ibid., p. 99. 

[16] Thomas Nagel, “Hobbes on Obligation,” the Philosophical Review v. 68 (1959), pp. 68-83, p. 74-75. 

[17] Carole Pateman, “Hobbes, Patriarchy and Conjugal Right,” in Social and Political Philosophy: Classical Western Texts in Feminist and Multicultural Perspectives, ed. James Sterba (Belmont: Wadsworth, 1995), pp. 144-157, p. 144. 

[18] Christine Korsgaard, “The Normative Question,” in The Sources of Normativity, ed. Onora O’Neill (Cambridge: Cambridge U.P., 1996), pp. 7-48, p. 28. 


Revised on 09/12/2013

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