The Relativist Thomas Hobbes and His Differences with Joseph Butler


By Charles Mathewes, Ph.D.University of Virginia

The responses to Hobbes from the moment of the Leviathan’s publication were immediate and vehement. Many called him an atheist or an immoralist. Interestingly, they really couldn’t call him a relativist because they didn’t have a language to talk about that charge; there really wasn’t much of a way to talk about Hobbes as a relativist at the time.

A statue of Lady Justice.
Ethical systems must be obeyed by the people inside them. (Image: 80’s Child/Shutterstock)

Thomas Hobbes as the Relativist

Hobbes certainly thought that any ethical system, once established, ought to be obeyed, the people inside it ought to obey it, not because of any kind of absolute moral command. If they didn’t obey it, the society would eventually go back into a state of nature, and that’s much worse than almost any moral system they inhabit. 

If anything, Hobbes has appeared as the centuries have gone on not as a relativist or an immoralist but really more of a tyrant, a defender of absolute power. But there, lurking at the heart of those views—those arguments for an absolute centralized power—is the first formulation of something that can be called relativism. It suggests that for Hobbes, he thought in some important way people’s understanding of evil is a social construct.

Since Hobbes, many people have challenged his views, both about the nature of human motivation in a state of nature, whether or not they are so ruthlessly self-interested, and whether morality has any purchase outside of social conventions.

This is a transcript from the video series Why Evil ExistsWatch it now, on Wondrium.

Josef Butler: The Challenger

A sketch of Joseph Butler.
Joseph Butler had different ideas from Thomas Hobbes about self-interest. (Image: Morphart Creation/Shutterstock)

Among the most important and profound challengers was an Anglican bishop, Joseph Butler, who lived soon after Hobbes. Butler understood that Hobbes had tried to reestablish moral order out of sheer individual self-interest, and part of his argument, Hobbes’s argument, was the claim that all moral actions would reduce to self-interest anyway. 

Butler thought that Hobbes’s view meant that humans always only acted out of self-interest. Even when they thought they were being kind to somebody because they should be kind to that person. After all, that person needed kindness; they were doing it out of self-interest. Butler thought that this rejection of a natural morality only worked if self-interest is one thing.

Joseph Butler and Senses of Self-Interest

This thought doesn’t work for Butler because there are two senses of self-interest. The first is the ordinary sense of self-interest in which people are interested in having their will fulfilled in the world. If they want a drink, they want a drink; If they want their child to get a particular teacher in school, that too is something they want to happen. 

If they want to give ten thousand dollars anonymously to charity, they want that gift to happen in the way they want it to happen as well. All of those things are forms of self-interest; in some sense, they’re all forms of people wanting their will fulfilled.

But there’s a second sense of self-interest, in which that last example of giving ten thousand dollars anonymously to charity is not obviously in people’s material self-interest, and Butler thinks that Hobbes confuses those two senses. 

Learn more about Saint Augustine’s “theodicy” of evil.

Game Theory: A Modern Concept

The phrase GAME THEORY is written on a tiny blackboard.
Game theory was an important 20th-century concept. (Image: Artur Szczybylo/Shutterstock)

Hobbes’s thought of his various intellectual descendants has had enormous influence in today’s society, mostly around this idea that Butler took on that humans are self-interested thoroughly in the ways that Hobbes proposes. But there’s been another dimension or a specification of this dimension in the 20th century that became very important: game theory. 

Hobbes’s picture of the humans as rooting everything they do in the structures of rational self-interest has been taken by a series of very, very sophisticated mathematical models and taken up and redefined as the practice of what’s called game-theoretical understandings of how people and possibly international states should interact.

Learn more about the power of evil within.

Profound Influence of Hobbes’s Theory on Politics

In this picture, game theorists will sometimes argue that people can imagine one nation attacking another nation before the second nation attacks the first entirely out of fear that the second nation will attack it. That is, the first nation might be rational on a Hobbesian, game-theoretical reading, it might be rational in striking another nation and destroying its military capacities—perhaps even its industrial base—in order to secure itself from the threat, the potential, possibly even merely threat, of that other nation. 

In offering that picture, Hobbes’s thought has had a profound influence on international politics and also on, interestingly, nuclear strategy. While one might think that a scholar who lived in a pretty quiet corner of the world during a pretty turbulent time—that is, England and France in the era of the 17th century and the English Civil War—wouldn’t necessarily have a lot of application to the world today, in fact, his thought is shaping the world every day.

Common Questions about the Relativist Thomas Hobbes and His Differences with Joseph Butler

Q: What was Hobbes’s ideas on obeying ethical systems?

Thomas Hobbes believed that people must obey the moral system. Not because they have to, but because disobedience brings them back to the state of nature, which is inappropriate.

Q: How did Joseph Butler interpret Thomas Hobbes’s views about humans?

Butler thought that Thomas Hobbes’s view meant that humans always only acted out of self-interest.

Q: What profound impact has Hobbes’s theory had on politics? 

Thomas Hobbes and his theories have had a tremendous impact on international politics as well as nuclear strategy. A nation tries to destroy the other nation in order to save itself from a potential attack.

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