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  • Just Lie: Lessons from Hobbes on the cultivation of peace
  • Samantha Frost (bio)

[I]t can never be that Warre shall preserve life, and Peace destroy it.

— Hobbes1


In her thoughtful analysis of philosophical and popular evaluations of lying, Sissela Bok argues that, generally speaking, we tend to believe that it is wrong to lie, that we are responsible for misfortunes that occur consequent to our deceit, and that mishaps that occur consequent to our telling the truth are horrible and tragic and yet not something for which we are morally culpable.2 Among other things, this tendency suggests that a Kantian sensibility permeates our ethical and political thinking: Immanuel Kant claims that any deceitful declaration in response to a direct question is morally wrong for “a lie always harms another.”3

Curiously, however, Thomas Hobbes suggests that sometimes it is better to lie than not to. For example, he suggests that if we despise or have no respect for another person, we should nevertheless not “declare Hatred, or Contempt” by any “deed, word, countenance, or gesture” (L, 15, 112). Likewise, he says that even if we believe ourselves to be far superior to another, we should not declare or act in such a way as to convey this to others but rather we should each publicly “acknowledge other for his Equall by Nature” (L, 15, 112). Admittedly, Kant would have us avoid declaring hatred or our sense of our superiority to others, but in doing so he would have us actually believe in the principle of equality or in the principle that we each have an absolute worth as persons. In his concern for the quality of our regard for one another (for what we truly think about one another) Kant is after our souls, as Richard Flathman might say, whereas Hobbes is concerned only with our behavior.4 Indeed, it is the fact that Hobbes wants us merely to treat one another as equals and as worthy folk — and possibly lie in the course of doing so — rather than actually regard one another as equals and worthy folk that interests me.5 For what is curious about Hobbes’s encouragement to engage in lying is the fact that the forms of lying he advocates appear to have some sort of ethical or moral value: the mandates mentioned above are some among the laws of nature that he depicts both as a pre-condition for and as an on-going condition of political life. In other words, for Hobbes, lying is a crucial part of ethical life in a polity — not all kinds of lying, it is important to say, but certainly some, including the form of deceitful statements in response to direct address of which Kant so heartily disapproves.6

With the possibility before us that Hobbes does not simply not disapprove of lying but indeed advises us to adopt it as an important element in a coherent set of ethical practices, we are compelled to ask the following: In what respect can lying be conceived as a part of ethical practice? For those of us who are committed to peaceful coexistence in a pluralistic world, what is the value or significance of Hobbes’s claim that lying is ethical and ethically necessary? The answers to these questions turn on Hobbes’s conception of the will, or more particularly on the relationship he conceives between willing and social causality. According to Hobbes, our willing is always and ineluctably heteronomous, embedded in and determined by the physical, material, and social forces that give shape to our lives. What is at issue in our lying, then, is the effect of our actions upon the conditions within which one another’s desires are formed. For Hobbes, since we are vulnerable creatures aware of our vulnerability, the desires that are formative of our willing are often informed by our anticipation of danger (L, 13, 184–186). We all suffer from the instabilities and flashes of violence that arise when people live in insecurity; we cannot live together peacefully or well when some or all of us feel threatened. As a consequence, the standard for evaluating our lies is whether or...

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