MARTIN JENKINS re-examines the work of Thomas Hobbes to counter the popular prejudice that humans are naturally competitive and aggressive isolationists.
Will human nature act as an impediment to socialistic political change? Are we naturally greedy or selfish in seeking to gratify our desires and needs? Thinking people on the ‘left’ maintain that human beings are not wholly selfish, aggressive, and competitive. Those on the ‘right’ of political thought maintain that we are, and it underpins their political and social policies. One of the most notable thinkers utilising this approach was Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679).
My point in the following article is not to analyse the social and material conditions which led to the ideas promulgated by Hobbes. It is to analyse a perennial allegation levelled against socialism – namely, that it is contrary to human nature and therefore doomed to fail. Hobbes in his book Leviathan (1651)  advocated a sophisticated philosophical version of this allegation. In refuting this, I also defend the intellectual viability of democratic socialism.
Hobbes lived through the English revolution of the 1640s. He was a royalist, believing that society rested upon the recognition of a central authority. Left to themselves, without any such authority, human beings will return to their natural, anarchic condition. This natural condition is to compete and struggle against each other in order to live. In this “condition of war”, as Hobbes calls it, there will be no peace, no industry, no products of industry, no culture, no trade, “and which is worst of all, continually feare and danger of violent death: And the life of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish and short.” .
This is a pessimistic view of human nature maintaining that it is natural for human beings to be selfish, atomistic and to struggle against each other. Although complimentary with the competitive capitalist worldview, it is a view irreconcilable with the co-operative and socialistic view of human nature. Why did Hobbes hold such a dismal view? To answer this, I will provide a brief overview of Hobbes’ philosophical views on human nature. From such views derive his political conclusions.
Being a materialist, Hobbes did not believe in non-material phenomena (soul, ego, idealism, and so on) but only in material phenomena in motion. Motion is the key to an understanding of Hobbes’s view of human nature and the political conclusions he draws from it. Following Galileo, Hobbes maintained that motion and not rest is the natural condition of phenomena. They remain in motion until hindered or frustrated by other phenomena. As Hobbes writes: “When a body is once in motion, it moveth (unless something else hinder it) eternally, and whatsoever hindreth it cannot in an instant, but in time and by degrees: quite extinguish it…” 
With those objects known as human beings, external objects in motion “presseth the organ proper to each sense”. Such pressing, by mediation of nerves “strings and membranes of the body”, engenders a response or “endeavour” from the heart or brain. This is sense – the motion of the body in response to the external object – manifesting itself in sight, touch, hearing and imagination. Upon sense arise the voluntary motions of “appetite” or “aversion”. A person either wants something and acts to acquire it (appetite) or is repulsed by something and acts accordingly (aversion).
Appetite and aversion are aided by the power a person has at his or her disposal. Power is “natural” (innate strength, intelligence, luck) or “instrumental” (acquired friends, reputation, influence, wealth). Hobbes writes that power increases as it proceeds, just like fame or a falling object. The more one has, the more one wants – not for its own sake but because it furnishes the satisfaction of perpetually arising appetites. Appetites are never satisfied, the satisfaction of one leads to another appetite arising; there is no final state of rest or satisfaction. (Hence the importance of motion for Hobbes).
Appetites keep human beings in motion. There being no final aim or end state when appetite ceases, increased power is essential to both procure the satisfaction of present appetites and, to assure that others, which arise in the future, are satisfied. Power has to keep pace with the perpetual demands of appetites. Consequently, Hobbes perceives a restless desire of power characterising all men. Conflicts of appetites and power naturally lead to contention, enmity and the condition of war. Hence human beings could be described as “sensuous egoists“ although Hobbes himself never used the term.
The solution Hobbes proposes so that humans can extricate themselves from the condition of war is for people to agree to give one of their number the power to rule over them, providing peace and security. So each makes a covenant with each to create a sovereign power – a monarch. They thereby pass from the natural condition of war to an ordered political society or “Commonwealth”. The needs of the situation require the sovereign to have absolute power. The latter is necessary to secure peace and to prevent the re-emergence of the condition of war in his subjects.
Hobbes’ human being is as written, a sensuous egoist. The basis of all behaviour is the gratification of appetites. Each seeks to pursue his or her appetites as far as possible without hindrance or limit. Opposition or hindrance is to be overcome enabling future gratification. It does not take a great leap of political imagination to posit such an understanding of human nature as irreconcilable with a co-operative and socialistic view.
Criticism of sensuous egoism
Even accepting Hobbes’ view of human nature, the conclusions he draws can be contested. For the gratification of appetites and aversions does not necessarily entail a war of isolated egoists competing against each other. If gratification of desires is the aim, then the gratification of desires met by collective means has a higher likelihood of success than isolated, individual competition.
For instance, each single car driver seeks to arrive at his or her goal as soon and as safely as possible. As such, collectively obeyed road rules facilitate a safe and speedy journey for each driver. In the absence of such observed collectivism, and on the basis of isolated competitive individuals (drivers), there would be anarchy on the roads. Each would be concerned only with themselves and travelling would be less safe, successful and, consequently, appetites would be less likely to be satisfied. So building on Hobbes’ conception of human nature – that each seeks the gratification of their appetites – a conclusion different to the one Hobbes makes is possible. Individual gratification can also be met collectively and each has a higher chance of their appetites being gratified through the collective act of all.
Secondly, again accepting Hobbes’ premises about human nature, conclusions contrary to those of Hobbes can be drawn. Hobbes concludes that egotistical gratification of appetites entails only selfish conduct. It is, however, quite feasible to maintain that egotistic behaviour can also entail non-selfish behaviour that benefits others. My appetite for pleasure, for example, might be satisfied by my acts of solidarity, giving, and caring towards others. As such they are self-interested but not selfish acts. So, contrary to Hobbes, gratification of appetites does not always entail selfishness but also non-selfish, other-regarding behaviour. Acts of altruism and concern for others also follow from Hobbes view of human nature.
Another line of criticism rejects Hobbes understanding of human physiology and nature all together. Concentrating on appetites, Hobbes relies too heavily on causality (in other words, that motion A causes effect B which causes effect C, and so on), and ignores the argument that human agency is moulded a great deal by social context. Thus for him, objects in motion impinge on the senses, causing the effects of appetite. Appetites then cause the human to act to satisfy those appetites. From this causal basis results the sensuous egoist, concerned only to satisfy his ever-present appetites against other human beings who are doing the same.
Left out of this schema is the deliberation prior to or accompanying actions. For example, I do not have to eat the cake; I can save it for later or give it to another, even if I am hungry. Whatever the underlying justification, human beings can deliberate about their actions and are not the causal flotsam and jetsam of appetites Hobbes seems to think we are.
Hobbes might reply that he does not offer such a causal view of human nature. Appetites do not control the human being. For in the commonwealth, human beings alter their behaviour. Fear of the punishments of the monarch deters law breaking. Appetites are thus repressed and not acted upon because of aversion to the consequences. The allegation of causality, whereby appetites would compel us to act for their gratification, is rejected, and Hobbes is vindicated.
Well no, for Hobbes reply can be seen as a contradiction. For in his reply, human nature is subject to alteration and this occurs in society. By the very act of avoiding punishment, human beings are reflecting on their behaviour and learning from experience. People rarely place their hand willingly in the fire after the first time.
Therefore, human beings are not identical with their appetites. On the contrary, appetites are moderated and controlled by fear of punishment. Hence human nature is altered. From this, it is feasible to propose that human beings are affected to some degree or other by the society they are situated in.
The way appetites are expressed, repressed or interpreted is dependent upon the social environment an individual is born into, assimilates, lives in, learns from and may contribute to. For example, we have the appetite of hunger. I do not kill or trap a wild animal to devour raw flesh as our primitive ancestors might have done. I engage in a definite social practice and go to a supermarket. Such things as dieting can even transgress the appetite of hunger – arguably to conform to socially created ideals of how we ought to look.
Human beings are not identical with crude, never changing appetites. Appetites, how they are expressed, repressed or understood, changes over time due in no small degree to social context. Hobbes’ argument that appetites and aversions necessarily make us selfish and aggressive falls if those appetites, aversions and how they are expressed, are altered by social circumstance and, altered by conscious human agency.
I hope, in this short essay, to have proven that Hobbes’ view about human nature is not conclusive. Human beings, from out of their nature, do not necessarily enter into a state of war against each other in the absence of state power “to keep them in awe”. Utilising Hobbes’ own categories and concepts, I hope to have demonstrated there is scope for co-operation and collective practices between people and not, of a necessity, aggressive competition.
So, by means of arguing against Hobbes, I hope to have shown the theoretical possibility of co-operation. I believe this possibility is an actuality, verifiable in the daily living of real human beings. By returning lost purses, coming to the aid of an accident victim, having sympathy towards the unfortunate, in social clubs, and social activities within and without the workplace – human beings co-operate and act collectively.
In co-operating we interact, learn, give and receive, altering the world and ourselves. This reality is buried under the popular prejudice that we are naturally competitive and aggressive isolationists. Such co-operation has enabled human beings to survive and without it life would not be possible. It is such co-operation that needs to be realised and practically encouraged to create a civilised and peaceful society on socialistic lines.
- Thomas Hobbes. Leviathan. Cambridge University Press. 2001. Edited and Introduction by Richard Tuck. Thomas Hobbes. Leviathan. Penguin. 1991. Edited and Introduction by C.B. Macpherson.
- p89. Ch 13. Ibid.
- For further discussion of these and related issues see Macpherson, Introduction. Ibid
- p15. Ch.11. Leviathan.
- p37. Ch6. Leviathan.
- p62. Ch10. Ibid.
- p70. Ch11. Ibid.
- Hobbes’ view of human nature is seen, by some scholars, as underpinning a ‘bourgeois’ or capitalist view of society. Upon the appetitive view of human nature, competition and acquisition of wealth follow quite naturally. However, Hobbes desire for an authoritarian, absolute state ran counter to the demands of free trade and the minimalist state. See for example: C.B. Macpherson’s introduction to Leviathan. Op cites. And his excellent The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism: Hobbes to Locke. Oxford 1962.
An analyses of what can be understood by ‘human nature’ merits another essay at a future time.
- By justification I mean the various and varied philosophical views of how mind and body interact – that is on the understanding that they are actually distinct.
See Stephen Priest. Theories of the Mind. Penguin 1992.
- That human nature is to be changed by the establishment of the commonwealth is presumably, one of the main reasons for such an establishment away from the state of nature which is a state of war. Without such a change, what would be the point of establishing the commonwealth?
- “Hereby it is manifest, that during the time men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, (my emphasis) they are in that condition which is called Warre; and such a warre as of is of everyman against every man.” p88. Ch13.
The ‘common power’ (monarch) keeps his subjects “in awe” to “tye them by fear of punishment, (my emphasis) to the performance of their covenants…” p117. Ch17.