Smith discusses the Hobbesian theory of self‐​interest and why classical liberals were so intent on refuting it.

George H. Smith was formerly Senior Research Fellow for the Institute for Humane Studies, a lecturer on American History for Cato Summer Seminars, and Executive Editor of Knowledge Products. Smith’s fourth and most recent book, The System of Liberty, was published by Cambridge University Press in 2013.

In the first part of this series I wrote the following about Shaftesbury:

He was especially critical of a doctrine known as psychological egoism, which insisted that all human actions are necessarily self‐​interested. In one respect Shaftesbury did not object to this primitive hedonistic analysis, since all human action is motivated by the desire to attain happiness, or satisfaction of the self, in some sense. Nevertheless, it is a serious error to suppose that all human actions are motivated by self‐​interest, as that term is commonly understood.

“Psychological egoism” is a modern label; during the eighteenth century the same idea was frequently called, by David Hume and others, the selfish system. This is the doctrine that all human actions, however other‐​regarding or disinterested they may seem, are in fact motivated by considerations of self‐​interest. (There is also a theory known as psychological hedonism, according to which all actions are motivated by the desire for pleasure, or personal satisfaction, but I shall ignore that approach for now.)

Those leading eighteenth‐​century philosophers who criticized psychological egoism (e.g., Shaftesbury, Francis Hutcheson, Joseph Butler, David Hume, and Adam Smith) were typically classical liberals who wished to rebut the theories of Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679), especially as explained in his masterpiece, Leviathan (1651). Hobbes, according to his liberal critics, had parlayed psychological egoism into a defense of absolute sovereignty, along with the corollary doctrine that individuals must surrender their rights and obey an absolute government unconditionally in order to maintain social order. Thus, by attacking psychological egoism, Hobbes’s critics hoped to undermine his defense of absolutism at its root.

So what is the relationship between psychological egoism and political absolutism? I shall consider this issue presently, but first I should call attention to a possible glitch. According to some modern Hobbesian scholars, Hobbes was not a psychological egoist at all. Contrary to the many critics who linked him to the “selfish system,” Hobbes did not in fact believe that every motive can ultimately be reduced to self‐​interest. An able defender of this interpretation was the moral philosopher Bernard Gert. In his Introduction to Man and Citizen (translations of two early works by Hobbes, De Homine and De Cive, published in 1972 by Anchor Books), Gert argued that the Hobbesian approach “is not psychological egoism.” Rather, Hobbes merely argued that other‐​regarding motives, such as benevolence, play a minor role in human affairs. Their influence is “limited and cannot be used as a foundation upon which to build a state.”

This is not the place for me to debate this issue, even if I were inclined to do so, except to note that many passages by Hobbes definitely point in the direction of psychological egoism, whereas others seem to support Gert’s interpretation. Suffice it to say that Hobbes, who was a bear for consistency in philosophical reasoning, did not always practice what he preached.

In the final analysis it doesn’t matter much if Hobbes was a strict psychological egoist, for the essential points made by his liberal critics would still apply either way. His psychological theories were quite crude in any case, even by seventeenth‐​century standards, and they sometimes give the appearance of having been concocted ad hoc, as a rationale for vesting absolute power in a state.

Now, let’s take a look at some of the ideas defended by Hobbes that so alarmed his liberal critics and caused them to criticize psychological egoism, sometimes in considerable detail.

In De Cive (The Citizen), Hobbes denied the common maxim that man is naturally a social animal. Man does not desire social interaction for its own sake (i.e., because such interaction is inherently desirable or pleasurable) but because of the personal advantages he hopes to acquire. These gains are both material and psychological. In addition to the desire to profit from commerce and the like, which is motivated largely by our jealousy toward those who possess more than we do, social interaction also caters to our vanity, as we revel in the attention, praise, and esteem we receive from others.

Hobbes’s cynical view of human nature is painfully evident throughout his writings, and to reinforce and illustrate this cynicism Hobbes sometimes invited readers to imagine themselves in certain situations. Suppose you are at a social gathering. Your primary reason for participating in a conversation will be to get something from others or to puff yourself up; you will hope to “receive some honor or profit from it.” You may, for example, attempt to stand out by telling a funny story, often at the expense of someone else. Friends who are not present may have “their whole life, sayings, [and] actions…examined, judged, condemned.” Even participants who leave the gathering early may be the butt of sarcasm and ridicule, and all this for no reason other than to amuse their supposed friends. “And these are indeed the true delights of society,” according to Hobbes.

Hobbes was a witty fellow, but however humorous these and similar observations may be, it would be a mistake to dismiss them as mere witticisms. When Hobbes talked about the vanity inherent in human nature, he was making a serious point with serious implications. As he put it: “All society [i.e., all social interaction] therefore is either for gain, or for glory; that is, not so much for love of our fellows, as for the love of ourselves.” But no society can subsist if these selfish motives are permitted to operate unchecked. In a state of nature (a society without government), people would exploit others mercilessly, even to the point of murdering innocent people for their property, and the only remedy for this war of all against all is fear.

People will naturally pursue any goals that they regard as conducive to their own good, however much their selfish actions may harm others. Only fear—a counteracting self‐​interested motive—can persuade people to change the direction of their normal self‐​interested actions. Only the self‐​interested incentive of fear, especially the fear of death, can overpower our desire to exploit others by violent means, since we value our own lives more than we value the goodies that violence may yield. This is the basic rationale for a government with absolute power; only such a government can instill the continuous fear, including the fear of death, necessary to maintain social order. There are no other sentiments or dispositions, such as benevolence, sympathy, or a regard for justice, that can possibly override our selfish proclivities and sustain a voluntary social order. Thus an absolute government, one that enforces unwavering obedience by instilling perpetual fear among its citizens, is a necessary precondition of social order and internal peace.

Hobbes expanded on this theme in Leviathan. The following passage (from Chapter XIII) is typical. After asserting that men are roughly equal in their physical and mental abilities, such that a single person, no matter how strong or smart, always has something to fear from others, Hobbes continued:

From this equality of ability, ariseth equality of hope in the attaining of our Ends. And therefore if any two men desire the same thing, which nevertheless they cannot both enjoy, they become enemies; and in the way to their End (which is principally their own conservation, and sometimes their delectation only) endeavour to destroy, or subdue one an other. And from hence it comes to passe, that where an Invader hath no more to feare, than an other man’s single power; if one plant, sow, build, or possesse a convenient Seat, others may probably be expected to come prepared with forces united, to dispossess, and deprive him, not only of the fruit of his labour, but also of his life, or liberty. And the Invader again is in the like danger of another.

A little later in the same chapter, Hobbes identified a psychological factor that supposedly will cause conflict with our fellows unless we are all rendered afraid by a supervening power. We want others to value us as much as we value ourselves; and when they don’t, we get offended and angry—emotions that will lead to violent conflict and even to murder. This argument, though full of obvious holes, was presented by Hobbes with his typical self‐​assurance, as if he were making a profound and airtight point. (If, contrary to many modern philosophers, I appear to have a low opinion of Hobbes’s philosophical arguments and his supposed rigor, rest assured that I do.)

Againe, men have no pleasure, (but on the contrary a great deale of griefe) in keeping company, where there is no power able to over‐​awe them all. For every man looketh that his companion should value him, at the same rate he sets upon himselfe: And upon all signs of contempt, or undervaluing, naturally endeavours, as far as he dares (which amongst them that have no common power to keep them quiet, is far enough to make them destroy each other) to extort a greater value from his contemners, by dommage [i.e., injury]; and from others, by the example.

Given the innate dispositions of human nature that will supposedly generate a perpetual war of every man against every man in a state of nature, we might wonder if Hobbes was aware of how rational human beings can resolve their conflicts and agree to cooperate for the benefit of everyone concerned. Well, Hobbes was well aware of this possibility, and he discussed the fundamental principles of social order in Chapters XIV and XV of Leviathan. His second Fundamental Law of Nature (by “Laws of Nature” Hobbes meant normative principles that will further peace and social order) reads as follows:

From this [first] Fundamentall Law of Nature, by which men are commanded to endeavour Peace, is derived this second Law; That a man be willing, when others are so too, as farre‐​forth, as for Peace, and defence of himselfe he shall think it necessary, to lay down the right to all things [in a state of nature]; and be contented with so much liberty against other men, as he would allow other men against himselfe….[I]f other men will not lay down their Right, as well as he; then there is no Reason for any one to divest himselfe of his: For that would be to expose himself to Prey….

This brings us to the Hobbesian version of the social contract. I cannot adequately cover this complicated notion here, but I will mention a few points that relate to Hobbes’s defense of absolutism.

The first point may seem to split hairs, but it is important to an understanding of Hobbes’s theory. To refer to a “social contract” may be a bit misleading when speaking of Hobbes; more precise is the term “social covenant.”

A covenant, for Hobbes, is a type of contract, one that involves future performance. A contract is “the mutual transferring of right.” For example, if I sell you my car for $5,000, I agree to transfer the legal right (or title) to my car in exchange for the legal right to your money. This exchange of rights is the essence of contract. But there are different kinds of contract. Suppose I deliver my car with the understanding you will pay $5000 after three months. Here I execute my part of the bargain immediately, while trusting you to fulfill your part of the bargain in the future. Hobbes called this kind of contract—a contract that involves a future performance by at least one of the parties—a covenant, or pact.

According to Hobbes, the reciprocal agreements by citizens to deal with one another by peaceful means is a social covenant. It is a covenant wherein citizens rely on the future performance of other citizens. Such covenants involve serious and ultimately fatal problems if made in a state of nature, since, motivated by self‐​interest, the person who has not yet fulfilled his side of the agreement will almost always renege on his promise. (Hobbes seemed blissfully unaware of the power of unwritten customs and social sanctions that do not involve a government.) Without a government to compel the future performance of other parties, it would be irrational for a person to enter into covenants at all, because his trust in the other party is bound to prove unwarranted. Indeed, according to Hobbes, covenants made in a state of nature are not even morally binding. Only the fear of governmental punishment for violating a covenant can make covenants rational, and therefore morally binding.

This is the basic reasoning behind the Hobbesian defense of absolute government. Unless self‐​interested individuals fear being punished for their violations of agreements, such agreements will be impossible, and there will exist no foundation for social order. No allowance is made by Hobbes for the possibility that contracting parties will fulfill their agreements as a matter of honor or from a sense of justice. Indeed, these options would not even be rational in a state of nature, because the naïve party would leave himself open to being exploited by others, and this would not be in his self‐​interest.

The reciprocal agreement in the Hobbesian social covenant consists of everyone (except the sovereign) renouncing their right to pursue self‐​interested actions as they deem fit. But there is no contract (or agreement of any kind) between the sovereign and the citizens in this tortuous hypothetical scheme. Citizens do not transfer or delegate any rights to the sovereign. Rather, they agree to renounce their rights, provided others agree, and this social covenant is then enforced by the sovereign, who retains the same fundamental right (to do whatever he likes, in effect) that he possessed in the state of nature. In other words, after the social covenant occurs, the sovereign is left with complete discretion in deciding what to do with the citizens. The citizens, in contrast, having renounced all their rights (with the sole exception of the right of self‐​preservation, which is inalienable, even for Hobbes), have no right to disobey or even to question the sovereign, who remains in a state of nature vis‐​à‐​vis the citizens. And those (virtually) rightless beings certainly don’t possess the rights of resistance and revolution, regardless of how unjust or tyrannical the sovereign may be. On the contrary, justice itself has no meaning apart from the will of the sovereign. Whatever the sovereign decrees is just, by definition.

We can now understand why Hobbes painted a terrifying picture of a society without government. If people are to submit unconditionally to an absolute ruler, their only alternative—a state of nature—must be sufficiently horrible to justify this drastic measure. Hobbes admitted that men will agree to the social covenant from fear alone, specifically, the fear of death in a war of all against all. But covenants motivated by fear, he insisted, are still binding.

I have presented this summary so that readers unfamiliar with Hobbes will appreciate why so many liberal philosophers targeted him for attack. Although Hobbes did not spawn many disciples per se, parts of his analysis found their way into the writings of other important philosophers, as we see in Samuel Pufendorf’s writings on international law. (We even find some aspects of the Hobbesian approach to self‐​interest in the libertarian classic Cato’s Letters, by Trenchard and Gordon.) Some key Hobbesian ideas influenced later sociological thinking, as we see in the work of Ferdinand Tönnies, and Hobbesian elements are evident in some modern economic theories. (Those economists who invoke Hobbes frequently show little understanding of his ideas.) As I noted at the beginning of this essay, liberal philosophers thought it necessary to attack not only Hobbes’s political conclusions but also the premises on which he built those conclusions. Chief among those premises was the Hobbesian notion of self‐​interest and how that supposedly ubiquitous motive renders social order impossible, unless it is severely restrained by the fear of an absolute government. I shall discuss some of those criticisms, especially as they pertain to psychological egoism, in my next essay.