welcome covers

Your complimentary articles

You’ve read one of your four complimentary articles for this month.

You can read four articles free per month. To have complete access to the thousands of philosophy articles on this site, please


Hobbes on Good and Evil

Craig Ross on how a philosopher with few illusions made a mistake.

Beating up senior citizens while high on drugs may be good, and giving to charity may be evil. Or at least, so Thomas Hobbes would seem to have to admit. Hobbes’ Leviathan has been described as perhaps the only masterpiece of political philosophy written in English. While I think this is true, Hobbes’ argument does face some difficulties.

Good and Evil

For Hobbes the words ‘good’ and ‘evil’ are synonyms of ‘desired’ and ‘hated’. If we dislike something we call it evil, but this is based on our beliefs about the consequences of the thing for us. Evil is not in the thing itself. Similarly things that we label good are either pleasant, or are means to something else thought to be pleasant, or produce the hope of something pleasant. Hobbes believed that the universe was physical matter in motion, so things that we think are good actually produce motions deep in us. This motion we call ‘delight’.

All of the terms we have for our responses are based on our desires and aversions. People feel ‘pity’ because they see someone suffer something terrible and feel the possibility of something similar happening to them. People are ‘cruel’ when they see no possibility that such a disaster might befall them.

Crucially, things can be labelled good and evil either by sovereign states (through their laws) or by individuals. In the absence of a sovereign state, individuals must make their own judgments, and apply their own labels. Drug users can therefore find beating up senior citizens to be good, and this activity may itself produce in them delight, or be a means to something else found pleasant, for example drugs. If there is no sovereign state in existence then there is no law, and this behaviour cannot be unjust. In a state of war, which must exist without authority, force and fraud are the two cardinal virtues.

When we deliberate, we judge the world on its ability to satisfy our hopes. Our will is simply our last desire or aversion, having deliberated. The drug user desires drugs, considers the possible sources and the risks involved, and either acts, or concludes that action is impossible.

Endless success in satisfying our desires is what we all want. This is happiness. We, like the universe, are in motion, and will have desires and fears until we die. We will be happy if we can obtain the desirable and avoid the fearful.

Why accept a sovereign state?

If everyone is entitled to decide for themselves what is good and what evil, and if everyone pursues their desires, then Hobbes saw that the consequences would be collectively disastrous. He thought that people were almost equal, both in the mind and the body. We think that we are much smarter than others because we are vain, and because we pick friends who confirm us in our opinion. Any differences that do exist are not enough to prevent people from challenging one another for the things that they think will satisfy their desires. For example, senior citizens may lack the vigour of their youth, but many of them retain the ability to use a rifle, and may find it to be good to secure their wealth and person by declaring open season on drug users. As the useful things in life are in limited supply, and because happiness is the satisfaction of desire, people will kill and enslave one another.

The situation is made worse by those who not only desire the means to satisfy their desires, but also enjoy the very act of conquest. Faced with these people, even those who would be happy with what they have must act like the worst kind of tyrant, in order to try and secure themselves. People also desire to be accorded respect and esteem, and ideally to be accepted as top dog. This desire also produces conflict and violence.

Without a guarantee that we will benefit from our labour none of us will work, so we could have none of the advantages of civilisation. We would also be in a state of constant fear. So without security the life of man would be “... solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short”. Hobbes does not think that men are bad. A desire, in and of itself, is not bad, and neither is an action unless it breaks some law, which cannot exist without a sovereign authority to make law.

Our passions and our reason allow us to escape from this awful condition. We passionately do not want to die, and we hope to be able to obtain the good things in life through work. Our basic right to judge the world and act on our judgment is not one that can be possessed by everyone without producing chaos, poverty and death. Our reason tells us this, and we owe it to ourselves to use our reason. So we all must transfer our right to judge good and evil to a sovereign authority, which will lay down laws that will regulate our pursuit of our desires.

Hobbes’ argument is frequently misunderstood. He does not think that ordinarily people actually agree to establish a sovereign authority. He says that it is ‘as if’ every person had said to every other that they would accept sovereign authority if they also accepted it. In point of fact authority is established by many methods, including force, but it should be accepted nonetheless. Nor does Hobbes believe that sovereign authority requires a monarch. An assembly, a parliament or congress, can be sovereign, indeed it is possible to have a sovereign assembly where everyone is a member. Readers also typically ignore the caveat that Hobbes places on our submission to sovereign authority. We accept sovereign authority both to be physically secure and to obtain “... the means of so preserving life, as not to be weary of it”. We do not agree to be impoverished, far less destroyed. It is true that Hobbes stresses the enormous powers of sovereigns, but then his audience was composed of people inclined to challenge authority and to fight civil wars.

Relative and absolute good and evil

The great difficulty for Hobbes’ argument is the problematic status both of reason and of at least some of the passions.

Our liberation from the agonies and terrors of the state of nature, the condition of having no sovereign authority, is achieved partly by reason and partly by the passions. We desire not to die. While there is no summum bonum, or greatest good, there is a summum malum, or greatest evil, which is death. We passionately wish to avoid death, “And Reason suggesteth convenient Articles of Peace.” In other words, we see the need for a sovereign authority. Reason tells us that sovereign authority cannot be divided, or the parts may disagree, and produce civil war. Reason also tells us that sovereign authority cannot be limited, or people will disagree when the limit has been breached by the sovereign, again producing civil war.

Hobbes’ argument is complex, and the issues he addresses are complex. The men who fought the English Civil War, in Hobbes’ view, did not understand why sovereign authority could not be limited, did not understand why it could not be divided, and did not understand how a king could be the representative of his people. But the men who fought the war were not idiots, and nor was John Locke, who rejected Hobbes’ argument. The men who drafted the United States constitution did not understand, despite their familiarity with political philosophy, that the attempt to limit and divide the sovereign power must produce war; in this case the American Civil War. The Founding Fathers sought to divide sovereignty, most obviously in the Tenth Amendment to the constitution, and for anyone who understands and accepts Hobbes’ argument war was all but inevitable from that moment onwards. But Madison, Jefferson, Hamilton and the rest were brilliant men. How could they have made such an error in drafting the constitution, and how could the people have ratified it?

These considerations lead us to the grave difficulty in Hobbes’ account of good and evil. He sees that there are many things that promote the establishment of sovereign authority, and also many things that make it more difficult. Being able to understand the causes of things (such as civil wars), being grateful for gifts, being easygoing, accepting others as our natural equals and not showing contempt, accepting arbitration if we are in dispute, all these promote the peace. Reason allows us to see this. Sound reason also allows us to see the dangers of bad books (particularly philosophy books), organised religion, superstition and overwhelming passions (such as pride). Reason allows us to see why these things endanger the peace.

The difficulty is that people have not understood or accepted this. They have been unreasonable, or unreasoning. Hobbes also admits that many people will dispute his claims about the degree of sovereign power required to keep the peace. But he says that this is because men have not thought carefully. As he says, if all men had built their houses on sand this would not be a reason to do it. Reason can be applied to political philosophy as well as to house building. Hobbes thinks that men have not understood political philosophy because the poor do not have the leisure to consider these matters and the rich have not been curious enough, but whatever the cause they have failed to reason.

But this would then seem to mean, however, that good and evil can no longer be matters of individual judgment prior to the establishment of sovereign authority. Certain things seem to be absolute goods, regardless of what anyone thinks, because they promote the peace. A healthy fear of death, the desire to obtain the things that allow ‘commodious living’, the reasoning ability that allows you to follow Hobbes’ argument, these things are absolute goods even before the establishment of sovereign authority. Similarly anything which compromises a person’s reason or personality is an absolute evil. Drink, at least some drugs, boxing and anything that produces inattentiveness or impatience would seem to be unconditional evils, not matters of individual judgment. Hobbes does concede that “... drunkenness, and all other parts of Intemperance” are against reason, but says that as these habits tend only to the destruction of particular men they are not pertinent to his work of political philosophy.

It is said that Hobbes became drunk once a year for the benefit of vomiting. It might be no coincidence, then, that he failed to see what the consequences might be for someone making himself drunk, or otherwise intoxicated, on a regular basis. Supposedly private conduct, as Aristotle certainly understood, can have public consequences. It would certainly seem that good and evil can never be merely a question of individual judgment. If men find good, and engage in, activities that damage their ability to reason, or which give them unhelpful passions, they cannot establish peace. Certain things are therefore absolute evils regardless of anyone’s opinion and regardless of whether a sovereign authority has proscribed them. Peace may well require that people put down their intoxicants and pick up Leviathan.

© Dr Craig Ross 2006

Craig Ross teaches Philosophy and Politics at Langside College in Glasgow.

This site uses cookies to recognize users and allow us to analyse site usage. By continuing to browse the site with cookies enabled in your browser, you consent to the use of cookies in accordance with our privacy policy. X