Philosophy 433                         History of Ethics                                               Darwall                                    Winter 2008




I.  Classical Natural Law         

II  Hobbes’s rejection of CNL           

III  Anti-Thomist, Empiricist Method

IV  The Problem of Normativity

V  Traditional Interpretive Solutions

VI  A Projectivist Interpretation?

VII  Projectivism About Color



I.  As we learned last time, the combination of Aristotelianism and Christianity called now scholasticism influential before the early modern period was characterized by a (i) teleological and (ii) nonmaterialist metaphysics, and (iii)  by a rationalist epistemology.

            All natural things have an essence which includes a telos or final cause, and this essence can be known by reason.


II.  Hobbes rejects all three of these:

            (i)  He will have nothing of final causes.  He aims to explain all natural phenomena mechanically, in terms of prior causes and mechanisms, rather than teleologically. He rejects the Aristotelian notion of final cause as unintelligible except for creatures with "sense and will.”  (See De Corpore, The English Works of Thomas Hobbes, v. I, p. 131-2.   And for them, he re-identifies final causes as efficient causes, specifically, as the "endeavours" that cause all voluntary action.  Moreover, he denies that value is inherent in the nature of things:  "For these words of good, evil, and contemptible, are ever used with relation to the person that useth them:  there being nothing simply and absolutely so; nor any common rule of good and evil, to be taken from the nature of the objects themselves." (6.7)  [we will need to talk about this more!]      

            (ii)  He is a materialist.  Thus, when talking about the sorts of things that can be referred to by names, he includes, in the first instance, matter, qualities of matter, and the properties of our own bodies. (4.15-18)

            (iii)  He is an empiricist.  All knowledge, indeed all thought, begins with experience:  "The original of them all [the "thoughts of man"] is that which we call sense." (1.2) And reason "is nothing but reckoning, that is adding and subtracting, of the consequences of general names agreed upon for the marking and signifying of our thoughts." (5.2)  I.e., reason is the faculty which enables us to draw inferences from our experience.


III..  It would be difficult to imagine a more radical break.  And Hobbes has nothing but contempt for "the Schools."  Thus:

            "But the philosophy-schools, through all the universities of Christendom, grounded upon certain texts of Aristotle, teach another doctrine . . .  I say not this, as disproving the use of universities; but because I am to speak hereafter of their office in a commonwealth, I must let you see on all occasions by the way, what things would be amended in them; amongst which the frequency of insignificant speech is one." (1.5)           
            "For words are wise men's counters, they do but reckon by them; but they are the money of fools, that value them by the authority of an Aristotle, a Cicero, or a Thomas, or any other doctor whatsoever, if but a man." (4.13) 


            To enter into an “account” words must refer clear referents, again, something that:  (a) we have empirical access to “there is no conception in a man's mind, which hath not at first, totally, or by parts, been begotten upon the organs of sense." (1.2), and (b), consequently, is either: (i) "matter or body," (ii) "some accident or quality which we conceive to be in it [body]," (iii) "the properties of our own bodies," or (iv) other names (4.15-18), i.e. some material body or property.

            In contrast with this, scholasticism is replete with "insignificant speech":  "entity, intentionality, quiddity, and other insignificant words of the school."  (4.1) In particular, as we have seen, he rejects Aristotle’s category of natural ends (telos) or “final cause.”

            Thus, only material things can be referred to, because only they can be experienced.  Any attempt to use language to refer to anything which is not corporeal must yield nonsense.


IV.  When, however, when we turn to the heart of Hobbes’s ethics and political philosophy in Chapters 14 and 15, we note that he helps himself there to what appear to be fundamental normative axioms, viz., various “law of nature” and the “right of nature”  A LAW OF NATURE (lex naturalis) is a precept or general rule, found out by reason, by which a man is forbidden to do that which is destructive of his life or taketh away the means of preserving the same, and to omit that by which he thinketh it may be best preserved. (14.3)


PROBLEM:  How can Hobbes “account” for the normativity (oughtness) of these laws of nature?  What makes them other than insignificant speech?  After all, they would appear to  concern not what properties various material bodies (say, human ones) do have, but which they ought to have.  What does ‘ought’ refer to?


V.  Commentators differ as between two answers to this question:

            A.  One group (Taylor, Warrender, Martinich) take these normative propositions at face value and accept some kind of intuitionist or theological voluntarist account.  Here the problem is, how can Hobbes hold this consistently with his empiricist, materialist metaphysics and philosophy of language.

            B.  The more usual view (e.g., Gauthier, Hampton, Kavka, et al) is to take Hobbes’s empirical naturalism seriously, and to take Hobbes at his word when he says that the “dictates of reason” he calls laws of nature are really only “conclusions or theorems concerning what conduceth to the conservation and defence of themselves.”  (15.41)  Here the problem is:  where is the normativity?  How do we get any claim about how human being ought to act from such natural facts as that unless they act in certain ways, they will not survive?  For that don’t we need the proposition that they (I) ought to survive?  And where do we get that?

            A common answer is that Hobbes believes human beings can’t avoid desiring

their own survival and that the claim that my survival is good, or that I ought to survive, means the same thing as that I desire to survive.  In support, they offer the following passage:  “whatsoever is the object of any man’s appetite or desire, that is it which he for his part calleth good:  and the object of his hate and version, evil.” (6.7) 

            But how does this solve the problem? 

                        i.  First, isn’t subjectivism of this sort manifestly implausible?  That I desire something would seem to be just a fact about my empirical psychology, whereas if something is good then it is something that would warrant or justify my desire.  Moreover, if subjectivism were true, it would be difficult to

understand how there can be ethical disagreements.  If I want something to occur and judge it good and you are averse to its occurrence and judge it bad, then there is nothing over which we are really disagreed, since we can both agree that I want and you don’t want it.

                        ii.  Second, it is by no means obvious that Hobbes is asserting subjecivism in 6.7.  What he says is that whenever someone desires something she calls it good.  But that doesn’t mean that in calling it good she is saying that she desires it.

            How do we solve the problem?


VI.  To begin to see how I think Hobbes does this, we need to consider what he says about color and color perception.  I will be arguing the following:

            A. Hobbes explicitly analogies the case of value to color.  (To think about ethical properties on the model of secondary properties is very common these days (see, e.g., McDowell, Smith, Mackie, etc.  I believe that Hobbes is the first philosopher to have done this.)

            B. He offers a projectivist account of color.

            C. He offers a projectivist account of value (and of normativity).



VII  We should begin with Hobbes’s theory of color in 1.4.  First, there is the "seeming, or fancy" "which men call sense; and [which] consisteth, as to the eye, in a light, or colour figured; to the ear, in a sound; to the nostril, in an odour . . . "  These experiences are "a representation or appearance of some quality, or other accident of a body without us." 

            Our experience of color, for example, represents color as in the objects we experience.  However, considered reflection on our experience shows that this cannot be so.  There is nothing in the object "that causeth [our experience] but so many several motions of the matter, by which it presseth our organs diversely."  There are only the material properties of the object that cause us to see it as colored.  The colors and sounds that we experience bodies as having are not in the bodies themselves.  "For if [they were] . . . they could not be severed from them, as by glasses, and in echoes by reflection, we see they are: where we know the thing we see is in one place, the appearance in another." So there is nothing, actually, to color but the material processes in us and in the objects we experience, although this is not what appears to us.  Color appears to us as in the object, although it really isn't.