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Irreconcilable Differences: The Moral Views of Hobbes and Kant Essay

This paper will explore the specific distinctions between Hobbes and Kant around the basic grounding of moral theory. The basic thesis here is that the two writers are opposites, poles apart, and hence, mutually exclude each other. One must “lean” to one direction or another, and, in this essay, this writer leans towards the Kantian position in reaction to the basic egocentrism of Hobbes. Hobbes, in short, does not seek to transcend the basic animal drives of human beings and therefore, does not provide a satisfying account of moral ideas and their theoretical grounding.

Hobbes’ basic moral grounding might be taken from Chapter 17 of his Leviathan: For the laws of nature, as justice, equity, modesty, mercy, and, in sum, doing to others as we would be done to, of themselves, without the terror of some power to cause them to be observed, are contrary to our natural passions, that carry us to partiality, pride, revenge, and the like. And covenants, without the sword, are but words and of no strength to secure a man at all. This speaks volumes about Hobbes’ basic moral approach.

First, this passage implies pure egocentrism, that the ego is at the center of all human action, and that this ego is based around passion, not reason. Second, this passage holds that these egos are matter in motion, not based around any transcendent cause, and therefore, cannot be bought to any kind of productive harmony without the “terror” that derives from the state. This is the ultimate reductionist moral approach: the ego as the passionate engine of human action, leading to endless clashes (the state of nature) until they are brought into a terror-induced harmony by the armed might of the state.

From this we have the following propositions: First, that man is essentially alone, an ego enclosed within a passionate human body, that acts sole from the basic desire or aversion objects or states of affairs create in the ego itself. Second, reason is a slave to the passions, in that desires and aversions are fundamental, reason is secondary, in that it only serves to make clear the means to most effectively accomplish the ends presented to the ego by desire or aversion.

And third, this constitution of the human person, the very grounding of morality itself, cannot be reconciled with other embodied egos unless the state, the Leviathan, is erected by the consent of the passionate egos exhausted from fighting and clashing, places these egos under its control. Immanuel Kant, on the other hand, begins from the transcendent, rather than imminent, basis for moral work. Duty and sociability are the primary starting points for this de-ontology.

If anything, Kant is writing to deal with the skeptical approaches to morality placed in the English universe by Hobbes and Hume, both of whom might be said to be utilitarians, morality is based around the pleasure of the greatest number, defined by Hobbes as the ability to live a productive life without danger of violent death that typifies the state of nature. The problem that Kant faced was that the reductionism of Hobbes and Hume led to a strictly instrumental and reductionist idea of morality that provided no actual test for moral acts.

Kant rejected consequentialism for this reason. For Hobbes, the moral action of the person was to achieve freedom, which for Hobbes meant the obedience to a sovereign that would protect life and property from other passionate egos (Hobbes, ch 21). It might be inferred that, therefore, a moral action from an ego is derivable from the terror felt by crossing the sovereign, and hence, acting in such a way as to maintain the life and property of others, lest the punishment be dire.

What sort of morality is that? Kant was very unsure and uncomfortable with such a utilitarian and reductionist approach to moral action: such an approach does not provide a “test” for moral action as such, just for moral consequences. Hence, Kant reacts to this reductionism by holding to a theory of de-ontology, the question of absolute moral duties that do not depend upon consequences (Korsgaard, 1996, 77). Kant’s sense of duty that is described by Korsgaard (77-79) is satisfying for several reasons.

First, it does not depend on consequences, but on the source of the action. In other words, it assumes that man is a rational being first, one that can control his passions in the interest of sociability. Hobbes writes as if the social life of humanity is some error, some unnatural state tht needs to be maintained solely by force and the habits that force provides. Second, the question of “contradiction” is a particularly easy and interesting approach to moral action.

If our axiom is that one cannot act in any way that cannot itself be reduced to a universal law, the concept of human sociability is assumed as proper within the “ontology” of the moral world. In other words, Kant’s take on the law of contradiction provides a satisfying idea of social life specifically, and moral life secondarily. This issue needs some explanation: in the first part of the Grounding, Kant holds that the basic task of morality is that one must find that which is good without exception, that is, in itself (Kant, 1993, 7).

But the purpose of this is something that Hobbes does not consider: the instrumental reason of Hobbes can say what is good at a specific time (namely, the preservation of life and property), and even ground that in the reductionist idea of a material ego driven by passion, but Hobbes cannot provide an idea of the summum bonum, the supreme good. Outside of a well ordered state and the habits of obedience that are formed there, Hobbes does not provide any real test for moral worth outside of a vaguely stated utilitarian calculus.

In other words, Hobbes gives a series of specific goods in context, but there is no independent ground to show how these specific goods are all “Good. ” But for Kant, the social life of the person is built into the principle of non-contradiction and hence, the nature of the “good will” is what “collects” all the specific goods of social life into a neat whole. Kant writes, “Moreover, a worse service cannot be rendered to morality than to derive it from examples. ” (Kant, 1993, 20). What does this mean? It is a central argument for Kant (as well as Plato) against the utilitarians.

Examples assume that there is already an absolute standard of morality under which the example can be filed as “moral. ” Hence, Hobbes has put the cart before the horse, he has sought to deal with the consequences of moral action prior to the development of an absolute standard (and one may argue that Hobbes never really creates such as standard). For Kant, it makes far more sense to being with the grounding of morals, and then see how such a grounding works out in specific situations. The principle of contradiction is an admirable attempt to provide such a grounding.

The nature of non-contradiction holds that an action may be judged morally correct if and only if such an action can be adopted by all members of a given society without destroying that society. It is a brilliant deduction of moral worth and social life. Hence, to use a very simple example, for one to steal money suggests that stealing money is either a good action or an action basically neutral in moral content (that is, given a context). But the person stealing is implying by his action that everyone can steal.

If this is not said, then the agent is making an exception of himself over and above the entire society, saying in some way that “I am special,” and I may thus do as I please. But if the concept of stealing was made into a universal practice, society would collapse into the Hobbesian world of war, since no money would be safe, and hence no property. Society could not function, and war would ensue. Hence, this is the principle of contradiction: action x is justified if action x does NOT lead to the Hobbesian state of nature (Kant, 1993, 20-23).

Hence, Kant is implying that the Hobbesian state of nature is an unnatural state of man, a state where individuals do not realize that they are essentially social beings. Hence, at an elementary level, while Kant believed the Hobbesian state of nature to be unnatural (that is, something against the grain of the human constitution), Hobbes believed human community to be in some sense unnatural. Hobbes assumes that since a human being is an “enfleshed” ego and is driven by the various desires of that flesh, that human sociability makes no sense, since such a poor constitution of the human person is anti-social to a feline degree.

But Kant cannot accept this, human beings are communal by nature in that nothing can get done outside of the well structured community. Hence, the entire moral worth of the principle of contradiction as Kant sees it is based on community first as the very condition for human life, and hence, the categorical imperative implies that the human community is just that – a socially based community. As much as this writer prefers Kant to Hobbes, there is one problem with Kant that needs to be addressed.

In reading the Grounding as well as Korsgaard, it became clear that the good will is something that, in order to be good, cannot be motivated by objects other than duty. Of course, for Hobbes, the will is motivated solely by objects and never by duty as such. In other words, Kant cannot countenance moral action that is based on any specific interest. In other words, if one is motivated by the object of getting wealthy, then one’s actions without exception will be immoral, since a specific object is the ground for action.

But, if one looks closely at this element of the categorical imperative, one might detect a specific object that underlies duty, one that this paper has already alluded to: the health and welfare fo the community, and that as a strictly instrumental end. Where does the categorical imperative come from? Why the will over all things? The only real answer is that Kant holds a quasi-utilitarian view himself: human society is a good for man, it produces all he needs, educates him, provides his food and transportation, etc.

Hence, the categorical imperative might not here come from the will, but from the desire to see a smoothly running society. If this is true, or only even partly true, then Kant’s categorical imperative is false: it is motivated by a specific interest and possible a passionate desire, a desire to see a well ordered community providing for the various needs of its members. This is also vaguely alluded to in Korsgaard in her essay “Skepticism about Practical Reason,” where the major issue is the “content” of the moral test in the Kantian imperative.

In other words, not merely the fact that the Imperative has no content (it is merely a thought experiment), but that its grounding is only arbitrarily placed in the service of the will. Kant was so determined, in other words, to refute the utilitarianism of Hobbes and Hume that the basically immoral basis of the healthy community (or any other such non-will centered source) had to be discounted as a moral source (cf. Korsgaard, 1996, 314). But there seems to be no other reason for the Imperative then to held create and maintain a healthy community.

Even further, can it be maintained that Kant already had the picture of a healthy community in his mind when developing his moral views, and saw the CI as a method of maintaining it? There can be little doubt that the CI is basically a social and communitarian axiom, since it, in its very formulation, takes other wills, as well as the society as a whole, in to account. What is being contradicted in the CI’s principle of contradiction if not the healthy society itself? Therefore, this paper must conclude in holding that utilitarianism is doggedly difficult to dislodge.

To hold that morality is merely the greatest pleasure of the greatest number is a powerful axiom, but it explains too much, pleasure should be the end of all moral action, but it says nothing about the source of moral action. Kant attempts to create this source against Hobbes and Hume, but it still is vulnerable to a utilitarian critique by merely saying that the CI does not derive from the will alone, but from the interests for a healthy community, the rule of law that applies to all, and the harmonization of wills under an easy to grasp axiom.

In fact, if this writer had more space, there is no question that the “unpacking” of the CI would be a major priority: maybe dozens of specific propositions concerning the community and other wills can be taken from the very formation of the CI itself (i. e. not concerning its consequences, but in its very “abstract” statement). The CI then, it seems to this writer, is still a utilitarian construct that mystifies its origin by making the claim that its only source is the will, not the social world around the writer who accepts such a moral approach and the desire to see the rule of law, etc.

Nevertheless, Kant remains far preferable to Hobbes, if for no other reason that Kant holds that social life is natural to mankind, and hence, morality can be enforced by something other than Leviathan. References: Hobbes, Thomas. 1651. Leviathan. Oregon State Online Libraries. Kant, Immanuel. 1993. Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals. James Ellington, trans. Hackett. Korsgaard, Christine. 1996. Creating the Kingdom of Ends. Cambridge University Press. Reading this book was a great idea. I really helped me in putting Kant’s morality in a historical context.


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