Front Page Titles (by Subject) Hobbes and Conventional Morality - Literature of Liberty, Spring 1980, vol. 3, No. 1
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Hobbes and Conventional Morality - Leonard P. Liggio, Literature of Liberty, Spring 1980, vol. 3, No. 1 
Literature of Liberty: A Review of Contemporary Liberal Thought was published first by the Cato Institute (1978-1979) and later by the Institute for Humane Studies (1980-1982) under the editorial direction of Leonard P. Liggio.
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Hobbes and Conventional Morality
“Thomas Hobbes: Moral Theorist.” Journal of Philosophy 76(October 1979):547–559
Gauthier claims Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679) was the greatest of English moral theorists. Hobbes ingeniously derived morality from three propositions, whose combination would seem to deny the possibility of morality. The propositions are: (1) value is a subjective, individual preference; (2) a rational individual tries to maximize value; (3) interests are “non-tuistic,” i.e., interacting persons do not take an interest in one another’s interests.
Hobbes’s argument is that it is rational for men to seek peace in the state of nature. Man’s natural condition is war, says Hobbes, because if each person tries to maximize his own notion of value, he will do whatever he can to preserve himself. This, of course, is rational given Hobbes’s maximizing notion of rationality. He believes that every man has a right to whatever he wants in the state of nature. This right—which is more aptly called a liberty since there is no obligation corresponding to such a blank check on one’s actions— leads to an unstable situation for all. Each person’s prospect of preserving his life is sharply curtailed by this war of all against all. Accordingly, each person seeks peace for the sake of his self-preservation. Peace requires laying down one’s unlimited right to everything and introducing a constraint not to injure others. This self-constraint means that one accepts an obligation, i.e., a limit on one’s maximizing behavior: morality has now entered Hobbes’s picture. This morality is conventional: the main reason Hobbesians would accept this constraint not to injure others is that they know most men will accept the constraint and expect others to accept it.
Hobbes responded to “the Foole” by arguing that people will expect others to cast out the covenant-breaker from society, and this belief makes adherence to the constraint more rational than breaking it. Gauthier points out that Hobbes’s reply only weakens the idea of morality as a rational, conventional constraint. For if each person’s good is maximized by following the covenant, and thus not injuring others, then morality is no longer a conventional constraint. Each person’s rationality will lead him to follow morality regardless of whether others do. On the other hand, if the Foole is right, and each does worse to follow morality, then “does worse by following morality” is a conventional constraint, but it is no longer rational. In either case, Hobbes’s notion of morality as a rational conventional constraint fails.
Yet there is a reply Hobbes could have offered. Once one has decided not to do whatever is necessary to preserve one’s self, then one has also decided not to appeal to the standards of rationality that were present within the state of nature, i.e., subjective maximization. Since one has decided to seek peace, the standard of reason now becomes peace, not subjective maximization. Thus the Foole cannot appeal to “reason” in the state of nature to show the rationality of breaking covenants. Once one agrees to the covenant, the standard of rationality becomes peace. Thus reason itself becomes conventional. We only accept it and expect others to accept it. Hobbes is a dual conventionalist: conventional reason supersedes natural reason and thus justifies a conventional constraint which constrains self-maximizing behavior.
Gauthier concedes there are two problems with this framework: (1) though the move to morality is rationally justified, men may not be motivated to accept it, and may prefer to break covenants anyway; (2) the morality that is justified is quite minimal.