Hobbes on Moral Duties

Some might claim that a social contract transforms our moral psychology so that we come to act from a sense of duty to others and not just selfishly. In this essay, I will express why Hobbes’ theory that people always act from self-interest would not change people’s moral psychology. Hobbes argues that being involved in a social contract does not transform our moral psychology, so that we act from a sense of duty, but rather from selfishness. Hobbes begins with mental and physiological parts on nature.

The mental theory is that all people have desires, and that the goal of all people is to have power in order to get what they desire (ch. 6, pg. 5). Hobbes infers from his state of nature that humans are unavoidably self-interested (ch. 14, pg. 13). Everything people do is motivated by the desire to better themselves, and satisfy as many desires as possible. The physiological theory is that all men are created and remain equal in intelligence and strength (ch. 13, pg. 11).

This equality means that every man is a threat to every other man in that there is no one man that cannot be killed or outsmarted. Hobbes comes to the conclusion that by nature, every man will be in a state of war and be wary of with every other man (ch. 13, pg. 12). Hence, society must form a social contract, by which men surrendered their natural liberties in order to enjoy the order and safety of the state, since war is in no ones’ interest. In the organized state, it removes the state of war where people were in continual competition for goods and powers and trying to keep them.

However, having a social contract does not remove Hobbes’ doctrines about human nature and motivation, which by nature, people act always and only from self interest and motivated by desires and aversion. Thus, Hobbes believes that being in the social contract will not change their moral psychology to act from a sense of duty, since it is used to only bring peace, while people still act from self interests and motivated by desires. In Hobbes’ view, being involved in a social contract will not change our motivation such that we come to act from duty.

I agree with Hobbes that being involved with the social contract does not change human nature on acting out of self-interest, but rather it removes the state of war. Cases that falsify the generality that all human acts are selfish are cases of people acting unselfishly. While creating a peaceful society using the social contract, we still would not see people helping the elderly cross the street, donating to charities or volunteering because there are no self benefits, yet people do these unselfish things.

It certainly appears that people sometimes act in ways that are not in agreement with their own interests like the soldier who takes an array of bullet to save his buddies or the person who runs into the busy street to save a child about to be run over. Even if the Hobbes still insists on claiming that all human acts are self-interested, he must deal with the puzzling fact that some acts appear to be non-self-interested. Hobbes can always argue that altruistic deed done is always done for potential award, such that the volunteers hope potential reward.

Conversely, I cannot think of a reason Hobbes can provide to support a soldier covering a bomb to save his buddies because it has no self benefit. People don’t think about self benefits when lives are in danger, for example, that you save your friend’s life by giving him CPR. Similarly, you see a child run into a busy street. Do you now stop and calculate how much happiness you’ll receive if you save the child? No. It doesn’t follow that if you get good feelings or rewards after saving the person’s life that you saved his life in order to get those good feelings or rewards.

You didn’t save the person in order to feel good, but rather, you feel good because you saved a life. Of course it is true that we get satisfaction from acting unselfishly, but it is not necessarily true that we perform unselfish acts solely for the sake of that satisfaction. The social contract does not require people to save others nor does it require you to help others, but rather it creates a peaceful society. Therefore, it is not the social contract that changes people’s motivation to act from a sense of duty.