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Thomas Hobbes - Philosophy, Ethics and GovernmentThomas Hobbes - Philosophy, Ethics and Government


Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679)


English philosopher (pictured right) whose selfish view of people has had a big influence on ethics and politics.


His most famous book is...

Leviathan (1651).


What did he say about ethics and government?

 Thomas Hobbes - Philosophy, Ethics and Government

1. Leviathan

This godlike giant, based on the Old Testament character in the Bible, represents the absolute ruler (or dictator) like a king.

Dictatorship is necessary to:

  • keep order.
  • control people who are nasty and unruly (see points 2 and 3).


Survival of the fittest

2. Survival of the fittest

We are all:

  • naturally selfish and envious
  • constantly at war.
  • competing to survive and get what we want.
  • amoral (without any sense of right or wrong).

This dog eat dog world is “the state of nature” in which life is:

“Solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”. 

So we need:

  • a social contract (see point 3)
  • principles (“laws of nature”) to protect ourselves (e.g. to seek peace whenever possible and treat others as you would like them to treat you).

 Thomas Hobbes - Philosophy, Ethics and Government

3. The social contract

Under this social contract, the people give a ruler (or Leviathan, see point 1) the power to keep the peace by force.

Actions without force are useless.

But the social contract doesn’t take away people’s right to self-defence.


Which two current philosophical ideas relate to Hobbes’ selfish view of man?

 Thomas Hobbes - Philosophy, Ethics and Government

1. The prisoners’ dilemma

Imagine you and your partner (Bill) have committed a crime together, and you both agree to keep quiet.

You are questioned in separate police cells -  

  • you will get your sentence reduced (if you confess and Bill keeps quiet).
  • Bill will get less time in prison (if he confesses and you keep quiet).

The prisoners’ dilemma is that it’s better for you and Bill to:

  • be selfish and
  • break your promise of silence.

So, because of such benefits from selfishness, Hobbes supported the enforcing of people’s promises by force through the social contract (see point 3 above).

 Thomas Hobbes - Philosophy, Ethics and Government

2. The problem of the commons

This says that people will exploit something that is free (like air or common land), until it is no good for anyone. 

(for example, polluting the air and causing climate change).


Key quotes on society

The life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.

The condition of man... is a condition of war of everyone against everyone.


Key quote on business ethics

Profit is the measure of right.


Key quote on law and justice

Liberties...depend on the silence of the law.

It is not wisdom but authority that makes a law.


Key quote on peace of mind

There is no such thing as perpetual peace of mind...because life itself..can never be without desire, not without fear.


Key quote on learning and leisure

Leisure is the mother of philosophy.

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