Thomas Hobbes: A Realist Take on Humanity, Community, and Morality

From absolute monarchy to the concept of the social contract, Thomas Hobbes has always been remembered for his immense work in the study of politics. Being heavily influenced by Francis Bacon, Thomas Hobbes was among the early pioneers of empiricism. Stemming out from the Machiavellian philosophy that Bacon describes as “…write what men do, and not what they ought to do” and influenced by the emergence of modern science, Hobbes embraces the deductive examination and explanation of the human condition both in its civil and ethical dimension. Spearheading the philosophy of utilitarianism, he deduced political philosophy through egoistic psychology and used self-interest as the foundation of moral and political obligation (Boucher, 1998). With that said, this article will be discussing the realist perspective of human nature through the lens of Thomas Hobbes and how morality is perceived from this point of view.

In the studies of political philosophy, Machiavelli’s The Prince has always been remembered as a transitional point of how Europeans view the concept of proper rulership. Contrary to the popular belief in good rulership at the time, which emphasizes the concept of benevolence, wisdom, and piety, Machiavelli argues for the importance of cunningness, fear, and vigilance, establishing the earliest form of realist perspective of politics. Like Machiavelli, Hobbes took a much dimmer view towards the state of human nature.

Hobbes (1651) argued that nature made men in equal condition, both in mind and body. As a consequence, despite the manifestation of different superiority and specialty that can be found within each individual, these distinctions no longer will not be a matter of concern once they are reckoned together. This is because one man can thereupon take claim on the benefits of other’s superiorities that they individually may not have possessed. These circumstances of natural equality and mutual danger compel humanity to exercise power over others for the sake of security. Even with a considerable amount of power, its continued enjoyment can only be appropriated through the pursuit of more (Boucher, 2009). Through this interpretation of human nature, Hobbes credited mankind’s hostile nature purely to the need for survival. Nature is described as inherently chaotic and dangerous, and with that, mankind is forced to do whatever it takes to preserve its existence. The application for this can be observed through Hobbes’ interpretation of Thucydides.

In the Melian Dialogue, Thucydides described how the Athenians believe that there is no such thing as justice and injustice in the international realm. There is no inherent order among states, and therefore an existing order can only be maintained through the powerful rule. Hobbes adopted the precepts of nature used by Thucydides in the Melian Dialogue to explain the nature of human beings at the individual level in justifying the previous notion. Within the state of nature, there is no joint authority. Auxiliaries of war can be gained through the means of consent or conquest, through superior power and might, to do whatever it takes in ensuring its security and the insurance for stabile power (Boucher, 2009).

To add to the argument, Beitz (1999) argued that the absence of a common judge shows proof that there is no positive law. There has never been a sensical reason to evaluate international actions through a moral basis. Even if the assumption that there is the correct answer to all moral questions is being applied, there is no particular office or authority to provide that answer. With that being said, it becomes confusing to understand how a nation-state is even possible to be formed in the first place if such a hostile environment enforces humans to live in constant danger among themselves. Especially with Hobbes’ argument that such broad groupings with the diversity of opinions and desires and mutual envy will remain highly unstable, once a common danger is no longer existent, then the alliance will only be encumbered itself upon these predicaments among its members and will end up breaking apart (Boucher, 2009).

On the case of states, Hobbes described the commonwealth as an institution, consisting of an assembly of men, agreeing to be represented by a chosen person (sovereign), who has the authority over its actions and judgments as if it is their decisions, for the goal of peaceful life among themselves and protect against others. This in turn means that the individuals have become a part of the commonwealth, and the commonwealth becomes the individual entity itself. The commonwealth has the absolute freedom to do whatever it deems necessary for its self-perseverance, acting as rightfully an individual within the state of nature. With no common law nor power, the commonwealth is not tied to the idea of injustices (Hobbes, 1651). This condition is what makes moral objectivity becomes a possibility within a state. The existence of a common authority and common principles above the folk emphasizes moral values to thrive and enforce. On the other hand, states themselves have become the highest authority in the state of nature (i.e., international system). The once position filled by individual humans is now replaced by nation-states, roaming in constant danger and fear for its demise.

Subsequently, like the nature of man, so does apply to the nature of states. Hobbes saw that states had enriched themselves the same way as families have done previously. Excessive cruelty, unnecessary laying of waste on the means of working, is dimmed as dishonorable, as families view individual acts as wrong. Focusing on enhancing internal commonwealth affairs, it instead prioritizes itself upon the improvement of its well-being. The defense against hostile entities is the insurance of no such hostilities that may take place in the beginning. Therefore, states will abandon unnecessary hostilities and instead prioritizes peaceful means in securing their existence. The military might be to protect itself when such hostilities should come and prevent such predicaments from coming in the first place. The state’s perseverance becomes its primary goal; each decision is focused upon the national interest, meant to secure its existence (Boucher, 2009).

In conclusion, through his realist standpoint, Thomas Hobbes supports the principle of moral skepticism. In his work, Leviathan, he argued that human hostility is purely tied towards the survival of the individual. The pursue of power becomes necessary for the benefit of continuous existence and security from danger. He also agreed to the Thucydides’ Melian Dialogue, so much so that he would apply the same basis used by Thucydides for the logic of human nature. Without a higher authority or common power and law, the concept of justice and injustice becomes irrelevant. This argument was supported by Beitz (1999) in which moral objectivity becomes useless due to the lack of enforcement. For Hobbes, morality grows from the concept of appetite and aversion, returning to the principle of survivability. With states’ existence as the higher authority, moral objectivity becomes a possibility by developing shared values within a society. However, the rules become the same once the level goes higher beyond the authority of the state, ushering a new level of anarchism among states and the re-existence of moral skepticism.

Boucher, David. (2009). Political Theories of International Relations: From Thucydides to the Present. Oxford Univ. Press.
Hobbes, Thomas. (1999). Leviathan, or, The Matter, Forme, & Power of a Common-Wealth Ecclesiasticall and Civill. Printed for Andrew Cooke …, 1651.Beitz, Charles R. Political Theory and International Relations. Princeton University Press.

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