The British Tradition from Thomas Hobbes to the Utilitarians

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The British Tradition from Hobbes to the Utilitarians Hobbes Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) is an outstanding example of the independence of mind that became possible in Protestant countries after the Reformation. God does, to be sure, play an honourable role in Hobbes's philosophy, but it is a dispensable role. The philosophical edifice stands on its own foundations; God merely crowns the apex. Hobbes was the equal of the Greek philosophers in his readiness to develop an ethical position based only on the facts of human nature and the circumstances in which humans live; and he surpassed even Plato and Aristotle in the extent to which he sought to do this by systematic deduction from clearly set out premises. Hobbes started with a severe view of human nature: all of man's voluntary acts are aimed at self-pleasure or self-preservation. This position is known as psychological hedonism, because it asserts that the fundamental psychological motivation is the desire for pleasure. Like later psychological hedonists, Hobbes was confronted with the objection that people often seem to act altruistically. There is a story that Hobbes was seen giving alms to a beggar outside St. Paul's Cathedral. A clergyman sought to score a point by asking Hobbes if he would have given the money, had Christ not urged giving to the poor. Hobbes replied that he gave the money because it pleased him to see the poor man pleased. The reply reveals the dilemma that always faces those who propose startling new explanations for all human actions: either the theory is flagrantly at odds with how people really behave or else it must be broadened to such an extent that it loses much of what made it so shocking in the first place. Hobbes's account of "good" i... ... middle of paper ... ...y punished. Hobbes witnessed the turbulence and near anarchy of the English Civil Wars (1642-51) and was keenly aware of the dangers caused by disputed sovereignty. His solution was to insist that sovereignty must not be divided. Because the sovereign was appointed to enforce the social contract fundamental to peace and everything desired, it can only be rational to resist the sovereign if the sovereign directly threatens one's life. Hobbes was, in effect, a supporter of absolute sovereignty, and this has been the focus of much political discussion of his ideas. His significance for ethics, however, lies rather in his success in dealing with the subject independently of theology and of those quasi-theological or quasi-Aristotelian accounts that see the world as designed for the benefit of human beings. With this achievement, he brought ethics into the modern era.

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