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  • Desire and Ethics in Hobbes's Leviathan:A Response to Professor Deigh

According to the "orthodox" interpretation of Hobbes's ethics, the laws of nature are the products of means-end thinking. According to the "definitivist" interpretation recently offered by John Deigh, the laws of nature are generated by reason operating on a definition of "law of nature," where the content of this definition is given by linguistic usage.2 I aim to accomplish two things in this note. First, I want to locate as clearly as possible the point at which the orthodox and definitivist interpretations must disagree. Second, I want to show that once the claim on which these interpretations disagree is made clear, it is the orthodox interpretation that turns out to be the superior.3


Deigh takes as the initial test case for the various interpretations of Hobbes's moral theory the passage in chapter fifteen of Leviathan commonly known as "the reply to the fool." The fool, it will be recalled, argues that the precept that covenants be kept is not a rule of reason; Hobbes argues that the fool's "specious reasoning is neverthelesse [End Page 259] false," for to break a valid covenant is to violate a dictate of reason.4 Deigh summarizes his criticism of the orthodox interpretation of this passage as follows.

On [the orthodox] interpretation, the dispute between Hobbes and the Fool concerns the deliverances of reason when reason is exercised in the service of self-interest, that is, when its exercise consists in determining the fittest means to achieving the ends set by egoistic desires. Such an exercise falls outside of the definition of reason that Hobbes gives in chapter five. It exemplifies strategic or means-to-end thinking and not deduction. Indeed, it corresponds to what Hobbes, in chapter three, defines as seeking . . . Hence, the orthodox interpretation of the laws of nature implies that Hobbes, in expounding the laws of nature, went back on the notion of reason he defined in chapter five. It implicitly attributes a fundamental inconsistency to Hobbes's philosophy.5

The laws of nature—among which is the rule requiring the keeping of covenants6 —are held by Hobbes to be precepts of reason.7 Hobbes deems them, collectively, a science,8 by which he means that they are the deliverances of reason that pertain to a specific subject-matter.9 But, argues Deigh, Hobbes understands reason in a very specific way, a way that is distinct from the sort of means-end thinking that Hobbes describes in detail in chapter three and labels "seeking." Thus the orthodox interpretation of Hobbes's moral theory is at odds with Hobbes's own conception of the laws of nature individually as dictates of reason and collectively as the science of the true moral philosophy.

It is of course true that the sort of thinking that Hobbes calls "seeking" and the sort of thinking that Hobbes calls "reasoning" are fundamentally different. Seeking takes its origin from experience: we have seen certain events following other events, and we retain a trace of that experience in imagination. Thus when we have some desire, there arises "the Thought of some means we have seen produce the like of that which we ayme at; and from the thought of that, the thought of means to that mean; and so continually, till we come to some beginning within our power."10 Those that are able to engage in this sort of thinking well are prudent,11 and on Hobbes's view, humans with comparable experience will exhibit a comparable degree of prudence.12 And because seeking requires only desire to regulate thought and some experience of events succeeding other events, there is nothing distinctively human about this form of thinking, and indeed Hobbes acknowledges that prudence is common to humans and other animals.13 By contrast, the process that Hobbes calls "reasoning" [End Page 260] is characterized independently of desire. All that is essential to reasoning is that it involves the drawing of consequences that follow from sentences formed from aptly-defined general terms.14 Thus all deliverances of reason are, either explicitly or implicitly, conditional in form: necessarily, if p...


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