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Human Nature And Philosophy

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Human Nature

Human beings are physical objects, according to

Hobbes, sophisticated machines all of whose functions

and activities can be described and explained in

purely mechanistic terms. Even thought itself,

therefore, must be understood as an instance of the

physical operation of the human body. Sensation, for

example, involves a series of mechanical processes

operating within the human nervous system, by means of

which the sensible features of material things produce

ideas in the brains of the human beings who perceive

them. (Leviathan I 1)

Human action is similarly to be explained on Hobbes's

view. Specific desires and appetites arise in the

human body and are experienced as discomforts or pains

which must be overcome. Thus, each of us is motivated

to act in such ways as we believe likely to relieve

our discomfort, to preserve and promote our own

well-being. (Leviathan I 6) Everything we choose to do

is strictly determined by this natural inclination to

relieve the physical pressures that impinge upon our

bodies. Human volition is nothing but the

determination of the will by the strongest present


Hobbes nevertheless supposed that human agents are

free in the sense that their activities are not under

constraint from anyone else. On this compatibilist

view, we have no reason to complain about the strict

determination of the will so long as we are not

subject to interference from outside ourselves.

(Leviathan II 21)

As Hobbes acknowledged, this account of human nature

emphasizes our animal nature, leaving each of us to

live independently of everyone else, acting only in

his or her own self-interest, without regard for

others. This produces what he called the "state of

war," a way of life that is certain to prove

"solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short."

(Leviathan I 13) The only escape is by entering into

contracts with each otherÐ'--mutually beneficial

agreements to surrender our individual interests in

order to achieve the advantages of security that only

a social existence can provide. (Leviathan I 14)

Human Society

Unable to rely indefinitely on their individual powers

in the effort to secure livelihood and contentment,

Hobbes supposed, human beings join together in the

formation of a commonwealth. Thus, the commonwealth as

a whole embodies a network of associated contracts and

provides for the highest form of social organization.

On Hobbes's view, the formation of the commonwealth

creates a new, artificial person (the Leviathan) to

whom all responsibility for social order and public

welfare is entrusted. (Leviathan II 17)

Of course, someone must make decisions on behalf of

this new whole, and that person will be the sovereign.

The commonwealth-creating covenant is not in essence a

relationship between subjects and their sovereign at

all. Rather, what counts is the relationship among

subjects, all of whom agree to divest themselves of

their native powers in order to secure the benefits of

orderly government by obeying the dictates of the

sovereign authority. (Leviathan II 18) That's why the

minority who might prefer a different sovereign

authority have no complaint, on Hobbes's view: even

though they have no respect for this particular

sovereign, they are still bound by their contract with

fellow-subjects to be governed by a single authority.

The sovereign is nothing more than the institutional

embodiment of orderly government.

Since the decisions of the sovereign are entirely

arbitrary, it hardly matters where they come from, so

long as they are understood and obeyed universally.

Thus, Hobbes's account explicitly leaves open the

possibility that the sovereign will itself be a

corporate personÐ'--a legislature or an assembly of all

citizensÐ'--as well as a single human being. Regarding

these three forms, however, Hobbes himself maintained

that the commonwealth operates most effectively when a

hereditary monarch assumes the sovereign



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