On Hobbes and Rights (I’ll Leave Calvin Out of It and Bring Malcolm X Into It)
I recently read Ben’s post on “Calvin, Hobbes, and Rights,” which is the inspiration for my current post. First, I want to say that I love Ben’s blog and think he’s a fantastic theologian, so this is not meant in a negative spirit or anything of the sort; rather, his post made me think about certain aspects of Hobbes’ philosophy that seem to me to fall within (instead of transcend) the critique that Ben offers. Second, I haven’t read Ben’s full paper, so perhaps some of what I say below doesn’t really apply to his position at all. Third, I’m no Hobbes expert—and with this I’ll stop with the qualifications—but I have my doubts as to whether Hobbes has really moved out of the realm of individual rights and toward a community of virtue etc. After setting out his fundamental law of nature (Lev., chapt. 14, viz., to seek peace), Hobbes moves to the second law of nature, which states that we must give up our right to certain liberties (of course only if others agree to do so as well). This then leads Hobbes to his discussion of a social contract as a mutual transference of rights by the people to a sovereign for the sake of securing peace. Hobbes goes on to say that injustice is a violation of contract, which suggests that justice and injustice only come into play after a compact has been established. (Perhaps there are ways to get around this, but it is not clear to me how to do so). We also seem to have the negative implication that the sovereign cannot be guilty of injustice because the citizens have willfully given their rights over to him/her. In short, the justice and injustice presented here seems a bit fishy to me.
In addition, Hobbes seems to have a rather degraded view of human beings. His account of natural law is based on self-preservation, and society is to help us toward that end. Fair enough. But for Hobbes, science and virtues, although goods to possess, are not morally required, as they are not possessed by all. This is not, however, to say that Hobbes’ natural right leaves one completely without a moral framework, as one cannot simply do whatever he or she pleases, but only that which promotes self-preservation. Likewise, according to Hobbes, on the one hand, the human condition as such is dishonorable, and it is good to be concerned for honor. However, Hobbes also notes that this very concern for honor, and our anxieties about the ways in which others perceive us is problematic and distracts us. After all, we can become self-deceived via vainglory. Hobbes, one might say, is a hard-core realist (in the non-philosophical sense) who doesn’t want us to shy away from the uglier side of life. Again, fair enough. However, given that Hobbes has rejected the claim of a final telos for human beings, has in many ways re-defined the virtues (what is honor and justice for Hobbes?), and promotes instrumentalized reason, with what kind of human does he leave us?
Picking up one of these threads, for Hobbes, reason understood as “power-thinking” (=calculative reason, an instrumentalization of reason) is crucial if we are to live life successfully. How does such a view contrast with Aristotle? For Aristotle, happiness involves a complete life lived in accord with reason (which is not a narrow view of rationality; rather, it includes both practical and theoretical reason). As is well-known, Aristotle’s view places stress on the need to cultivate various virtues. Hobbes, in contrast, does not want to specify such a particular activity as the highest for all human beings. In other words, there is no single life that is best for all. (Of course, I admit there is a certain appeal to this view; I’m simply trying to bring out what seem to me significant differences between the two thinkers). Rather, there are many different goods for different people, that is, the human good is always relative to the individual (Lev 10). The good is the object of the desire that is believed or perceived to be good by the individual (sounds pretty subjective to me). Also, in contrast to Aristotle, Hobbes speaks of the noble and the beautiful in terms of power (i.e. a present means to a future present good) and usefulness (instrumentalization again). That is, for Hobbes, the noble (as well as the good) must be understood in terms of what is perceived to be useful.
Also, does a view of reason as calculative rather than teleological in the Aristotelian and Thomistic sense harmonize better with a materialistic view of human beings? Hobbes is after all promoting a materialistic view. Even if Hobbes claims that reason is present in the state of nature, he does not seem to be saying, as Aristotle does, that reason has a natural (teleological) purpose. Rather, Hobbes’ conception of reason is that of calculative reason. In order for Hobbes to have a teleological conception of human beings in the premodern sense, he would have to argue that humans have a particular end toward which they are oriented. But Hobbes rejects this view and sees it as “too lofty” a goal for humans. As some would argue, once forms/natures are removed (which Hobbes’ account does), whatever order one finds in nature comes about by chance and is not guided by a telos. For example, regarding self-preservation, Hobbes stresses that humans are naturally inclined to self-preservation; however, this means something fundamentally different than what a premodern such as St. Thomas means. Why? Because the doctrine of inertia plays a crucial role in modern thought and does away with the need for a teleological view of the universe—matter is now the cause of motion—formal and final causality are no longer needed. In much of modern thought, self-preservation is simply the tendency of an organism to preserve itself—there is no telos in view here in the ancient sense. (Okay, I’ll bring Calvin in here and in a positive way. Calvin, like Augustine and Thomas, would no doubt see our final telos in God).
I base my claim that Hobbes promotes materialism on what he says in the first two parts of Leviathan (as well as De Corpore), where he asserts that bodies are all that exist. How would a premodern respond to this? If all that exists are bodies, then there are no natures (in the premodern sense). If there are no natures, then my experiences and your experiences are always private. (Whether this is the full story is another issue). This then leads to the subject/object dichotomy prevalent in much of modern thought, as well as the problem of how ideas “in” the mind correspond to extramental reality. Some scholars argue that Hobbes is not a strong materialist but a mere “methodological” materialist. If in fact Hobbes is a more full-orbed materialist (as I believe he is), then his view of humans (compared with a premodern view) is degraded, as personhood and mind itself must be understood on a physicalist model and become nothing more than emergent properties. Likewise, human freedom—something stressed by the Christian tradition as essential to humans as imago Dei—is destroyed, and emotions such as love and hope are given purely physico-chemical explanations.
Given what I’ve outlined above, to the question at the end of Ben’s post, “what is right,” I don’t see how Hobbes’ philosophy can give us a very satisfactory answer.
Regarding the issue of advocating for civil and other human rights, I think such activities are incredibly important. Of course we may ultimately want more—for example, we may see the entire socio-economic structure as problematic or in need of a serious overhaul. I’ll grant all these; however, I’m not convinced that Enlightenment/modern philosophy is completely wrong in its emphases—emphases such as the call to treat humans as ends rather than means (Kant), the recognition of the importance of human freedom and the value of the individual. What I would like to see is a “grounding” of these emphases in Christian doctrines. Can we not acknowledge differences in intellectual and other giftings (e.g., some people have the gift of perfect pitch), and yet strive toward an equality for all when it comes to job and education opportunities, fair wages, workers rights etc.? When I say “for all” I of course am aware that some people, say a person who has lost her arms, is not going to be the next basketball star, nor is a child born with serious mental challenges likely to become a renowned physicist. Yet, if one studies the history of America, for example, particularly with regard to the civil (and human) rights movement, it is clear that grave injustices were committed against African American persons. These injustices have to be addressed in the “now”—that is, we can’t wait until the perfect political structure is in place, which is basically to wait until the new heavens and new earth are ushered in. Personally, I am thankful for the work of people like W.E.B. De Bois, Rosa Parks, Marcus Garvey, Martin Luther King Jr. and yes, Malcolm X, who as a child watched his house burn to the ground by the hands of white supremacists and whose family was destroyed by a racist system. (Malcolm’s father’s death was in all likelihood a murder, but the “official” ruling was suicide –a ruling that allowed the insurance company to refuse to pay Malcolm’s mother, Louise, any benefits. This led to Louise’s mental breakdown as she could no longer care for her seven children. Malcolm ended up in the foster care system, which, if you have any clue as to the state of our current foster care system in the US, must have been in those days, especially for a black child, a living hell).
So what’s the answer? I don’t know. But I’m not convinced that we as Christians should give up fighting for civil and human rights even if we see serious problems with the socio-political structures we happen to inhabit. It seems to me that on at least one read, the current Pope doesn’t think so either (cf. Caritas in Veritate, II.25, III.35, V.59-64).
 As Malcolm puts it in his autobiography, “How could my father bash himself in the head, then get down across the streetcar tracks to be run over?” (14).