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Event: Hobbes's Theory of the Good

Updated: May 29, 2019

Workshop on "Hobbes's Theory of the Good" June 15 at the University of Edinburgh.

Abstract: This text outlines Hobbes’s substantive theory of the good and of his proposed scientific reformulation of the meaning of ‘good’. Goodness for Hobbes is a relational property—something good is always good for someone—so that Hobbes’s theory of the unconditional good amounts to a theory of agents’ felicity. Although people are disposed to call “good” what they happen presently to find pleasant and hence desire—so that in its prescientific, customary sense ‘good’ denotes the objects of present desire—their true good, in terms of which Hobbes proposed to settle the scientific meaning of ‘good’, is grounded in their ongoing, future felicity (which an individual may or may not presently desire). For Hobbes, felicity consists in a life of pleasure and freedom from pain. Yet Hobbes departed from classical, Epicurean hedonism in two important respects. He did not take either felicity or pleasure to be a “final” end either in the sense that it is the ultimate aim of all valuable action or in the sense that it marks the termination of desires. This is because agents may derive pleasure from aiming at things other than pleasure, on the one hand, and because Hobbes did not take felicity to consist primarily in greater pleasures of satisfaction, on the other. Instead, Hobbes took felicity to consist primarily in the ongoing experience of mental pleasures of hopeful anticipation. The text ends with two complications concerning instrumental goods. I argue that on Hobbes’s substantive theory, something is instrumentally good for agents in virtue of the fact that it will actually enhance their felicity, but that his reforming, scientific definition reserves the term ‘good’ for those actions or states that they can reasonably expect will do so. Moreover, in some circumstances an action or state might (reasonably-expectably) promote one’s felicity, but calling it instrumentally “good” would (reasonably-expectably) diminish one’s felicity overall. Under these prescriptively subversive circumstances, one has an epistemic reason to call the action or state good, but a prudential reason not to. In deeply subversive circumstances, moreover, the very fact that some action or state is called “good” may actually make it the case that the action or state itself will (reasonably-expectably) diminish one’s felicity. Hobbes’s great political insight was that individuals in the state of nature face deeply subversive circumstances with respect to all the social means of self-preservation save one—namely, covenanting to enter a commonwealth—and that the subjects of a commonwealth, by contrast, face prescriptively self-fulfilling circumstances in which agreeing to call some things instrumentally “good” actually makes those things the relevant means for securing peace. This is why, ultimately, what the sovereign declares to be the social means to peace and hence instrumentally “good” will turn out to be good.


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