The difficult task of determining what motivates people to join and form a government is one that has long preoccupied political philosophers, especially Thomas Hobbes. Hobbes famously asserts that people are primarily motivated by self interest and that it is in their self interest to form a government that has absolute power. In this paper I will address why Hobbes believes that appealing to self-interest is the only way of getting people to fulfill their duties in civil society. I will also address what explanations for human motivation his thesis leaves out and why that is as important as what it puts forth.
Unlike most of the ancient philosophers, Thomas Hobbes rejects the existence of an “utmost aim” or “greater good” that either drives or should drive human behavior. In chapter XI of Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes explores “the qualities of mankind” that relate to our ability to co-exist with one another. This passage introduces many of the key ideas that make up Hobbes’s political philosophy and elaborates on the sort of traits that the overriding desire for power produces across members of society. For example, Hobbes draws an interesting connection between curiosity, fear, and religion. He notes that curiosity leads men to seek causes, the cause of causes inevitably leads them to God, which makes them aware of powerful unseen forces within their lives, which drives them to either religion or superstition based on their level of fear.
In the previous chapter Hobbes draws a correlation between power and worth, noting that titles of nobility are only of value in the lands where they are formally recognized. Acquiring nobility or titles are therefore not a good in and of themselves, which ties into Hobbes’s belief that there is no summum bonum or greatest good. It would be easy to misread Hobbes in this passage and think that what he is actually saying is that power is the greatest good. Instead Hobbes is taking his argument a step further and denying that there is an “utmost aim” at all. The implication behind an utmost aim or greatest good is that once it has been achieved or secured, there is no more to life. If life has a singular purpose, it follows that securing the purpose leads to peace of mind and total tranquility. Hobbes notes that this seems to never be the case, and offers the pursuit of passions not as a substitute good but as a counterargument to the existence of an utmost aim. This self-interested pursuit of passions is what drives human action, and therefore what we should base our ideas of political life on.
Unlike a greatest good, the pursuit of passion can never be satisfied. It is implied that it is human nature to want more and to explore our limits. For example, if we get an internship at our dream company, we are not satisfied to simply spend the summer there and then reflect on it fondly. Instead we seek to gain employment after the internship. Not content with landing our dream job, we eagerly seek to set ourselves apart from other employees and gain a promotion. Not content with our promotion we seek a higher position at a more prestigious company, and so on. A greater good necessitates a lull in human activity, which Hobbes seems to be inherently skeptical of. Hobbes additionally dismisses the notion that human reason possesses the power to discover natural law. The sovereign defines the natural law or the greater good as he sees fit, which means it is ignored. There is only striving for power, happiness, or perfection- nothing else.
One of the logics of a greater good existing is that it would inspire humans to act and diligently pursue some purpose in life. Since the greater good does not exist however, Hobbes believes that most people seek to maximize their power. Because we can never truly be secure in our own power, we are incentivized to constantly further it lest some rival take it away from us. Placing the desire for power as a basic human function and then arguing for a society where only one individual has absolute power might seem counterintuitive. After all, if everyone seeks to gain power then it would follow that they would not feel secure having little to no power and go to desperate measures to gain some. Hobbes’s argument makes more sense with his view of human nature as perpetually unsatisfied, however. If a sovereign were to try to quell his population by giving them a little power, it could be a grave mistake because they would demand more and more until everyone had some degree of strength since no one can be satisfied with only “moderate power”. Now that everyone has strength, violence would actually be more likely than when only one person had strength because now other citizens pose more of a threat than they did before when they had less offensive capabilities.
Any system of government that has a potential for continuity therefore ought to allow the ruler to stem the destructive side of these impulses among its citizens by denying them the option to “anticipate” attacks preemptively and providing security for them in exchange for the surrender of this impulse. This nuance within Hobbes’s view of power and power relations is thus central to how he thinks a society should be ordered. It makes sense for the average person to surrender their power because it allows them to pursue other pleasures and desires without fear, which they would otherwise be unable to do out of constant fear of being attacked. Additionally, human nature is no longer a standard of good but something to be overcome and dominated by the Leviathan. Thus like desire and the pursuit of power, fear also emerges as a primary motivator for human action. Taken altogether these can be generally categorized as “self interest”.
While we no longer live in an age dominated by kingdoms and absolute rulers, this concept of human motivation has been vindicated on a number of occasions as the best basis for understanding the “science of politics”. This is perhaps most notable in the field of international relations. Arguments over whether a world is better when there is a unipolar system, bipolar system, or multipolar system can be supplemented with a Hobbesian sort of realism. Since states are roughly analogous to a single person, a world with disunited states is equivalent to a state of nature since there is no world government. A multipolar world would likely be the most violent since many states would pose a threat to each other and create the conditions for a “warre of every man against every man” , as we saw during the outbreaks of both World Wars. A bipolar with two major powers would be less violent but still carry the risk of disastrous conflict, as we saw during the cold war. A unipolar system would likely be the best of the three.
Similarly, negotiations with rogue states can be viewed skeptically here. If it is our nature to constantly seek power and also be unsatisfied with what we have, then giving concessions to rogue regimes in diplomatic arenas will likely fail. This is most famously the case with the appeasement of Hitler in the lead up to World War II. Finally, the Hobbesian concept of self-interest has important and potentially disputed implications for the theories of nuclear deterrence. Proponents of deterrence theory who believe the costs of nuclear war promote conventional peace could argue that the threat of nuclear annihilation essentially serves as an overriding power that limits aggression because it reduces the incentive of one state to further its power over another by guaranteeing mutually assured destruction. However, critics of this theory could say that Hobbes would warn us that by effectively creating a state of equality among different nations who all now have the capability to seriously hurt each other, the incentives for striking first become increased. While putting self-interest as the foundation of both human political behavior and the study of politics might seem basic, it has complex and occasionally contradictory logics as we see here.