Worse than Death

The Non-Preservationist Foundations of Hobbes’s Moral Philosophy

in Hobbes Studies
Restricted Access
Get Access to Full Text
Rent on DeepDyve

Have an Access Token?

Enter your access token to activate and access content online.

Please login and go to your personal user account to enter your access token.


Have Institutional Access?

Access content through your institution. Any other coaching guidance?


This article challenges the orthodoxy that Hobbes’s laws of nature, considered as dictates of reason, ceaselessly oblige agents in virtue of the general desire for self-preservation. Hobbes is an internalist about reasons, who refuses reason independent motivational efficacy. The universal prescriptive force of natural law is instead grounded in some desire (or set of desires) which all rational agents share. On the Orthodox Interpretation, this is the desire for self-preservation, as death is considered the worst possible evil that can befall Hobbesian agents. I argue that this interpretation is untenable. A plethora of passages attests that at least one thing is worse than death: loss of eternal life. It is therefore rational, according to Hobbes, to choose to die if doing so is necessary to procure salvation. This article sketches a non-preservationist reading of the psychological underpinnings of Hobbes’s moral philosophy which can account for (but does not presuppose) the superior disvalue of damnation. Three psychological laws, I submit, structure Hobbesian deliberation and desire-formation. The third and perhaps most controversial law states that humans cannot help caring about their own welfare. My contention is that the inescapable desire for bonum sibi better explains the universal normativity of natural law than self-preservation does.




D. Gauthier, The Logic of Leviathan: The Moral and Political Theory of Thomas Hobbes (Oxford: At the Clarendon Press, 1969), 5–7; J.W.N. Watkins, Hobbes’s System of Ideas: A Study in the Political Significance of Philosophical Theories (London: Barnes & Noble, 1968), 115–6; G.B. Herbert, “The Non-Normative Nature of Hobbesian Natural Law”, Hobbes Studies, 22:1 (2009), 7–14.


Strauss, The Political Philosophy of Hobbes, 15–16.


Watkins, Hobbes’s System of Ideas, 83.


Gauthier, The Logic of Leviathan, 5–7, 21. Also T.A. Spragens Jr., The Politics of Motion: The World of Thomas Hobbes (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1973), 123, 131–2, 178–83, 194–7.


Watkins, Hobbes’s System of Ideas, 115–9.


Q. Skinner, Reason and Rhetoric in the Philosophy of Hobbes (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 320; J.B. Schneewind, The Invention of Autonomy: A History of Modern Moral Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 87–9. Also T. Irwin, The Development of Ethics: A Historical and Critical Study, Vol. II: From Suarez to Rousseau (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 118, 132–3, 142. Strictly speaking, ‘the fear of death is inescapable’ does not imply that ‘death is the greatest evil’. Humans may necessarily and universally desire not to be abducted by aliens without considering such abduction the worst possible evil. It may simply be impossible to conceive any good in being abducted.


J. Hampton, Hobbes and the Social Contract Tradition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), 34f; J. Hampton, “Hobbes and Ethical Naturalism”, Philosophical Perspectives, 6 (1992), 343–51. Also D. Boonin-Vail, Thomas Hobbes and the Science of Moral Virtue (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 50–7; T. Sorell, Hobbes (London: Routledge, 1986), 96–110. Murphy and Pettit draw on the distinction between real and apparent good to drive the same point home. Murphy, “Hobbes on the Evil of Death”, 52–9; P. Pettit, Made with Words: Hobbes on Language, Mind and Politics (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008), 87–8.


G.S. Kavka, Hobbesian Moral and Political Theory (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986), 80–2; E. Curley, “Reflections of Hobbes: Recent Work on his Moral and Political Philosophy”, Journal of Philosophical Research, 15 (1990), 174–5; S. Sreedhar, Hobbes on Resistance: Defying the Leviathan (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 32–8. McNeilly argues that Leviathan’s psychology is less preservation-centred than Elements’s since it no longer invokes vital motions to explain will-formation. F.S. McNeilly, “Egoism in Hobbes”, Philosophical Quarterly, 16 (1966), 193–206; F.S. McNeilly, The Anatomy of Leviathan (London: MacMillan, 1968), 178–82.


Sreedhar, Hobbes on Resistance, 36.


S.A. Lloyd, Ideals as Interests in Hobbes’s Leviathan: The Power of Mind over Matter (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 151–7; S.A. Lloyd, Morality in the Philosophy of Thomas Hobbes: Cases in the Law of Nature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 67–73. Warrender maintains that agents regard ‘salvation or self-preservation as their summum bonum and death or ultimate destruction as their summum malum’. H. Warrender, The Political Philosophy of Hobbes: His Theory of Obligation (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1957), 164. Also R. Tuck, Hobbes (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), 61.


 E.g. Kavka, Hobbesian Moral and Political Theory, 81; Sreedhar, Hobbes on Resistance, 32–8.


Curley, “Reflections of Hobbes”, 174. Ahrensdorf, for example, contrasts the ‘rational fear of death’ with the ‘irrational fear of divine punishment’. P.J. Ahrensdorf, “The Fear of Death and the Longing for Immortality: Hobbes and Thucydides on Human Nature and the Problem of Anarchy”, American Political Science Review, 94:3 (2000), 583. Holmes appears to contradict his claim that ‘death is not the greatest evil’ by calling those more concerned about the afterlife ‘incapable of calculative reasoning’ and ‘stupidly indifferent to self-preservation’. S. Holmes, “Introduction”, in idem (ed.), Thomas Hobbes: Behemoth or the Long Parliament (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990), xlix, xxxviii-xxxix. Also Johnston, The Rhetoric of Leviathan, 56.


 E.g. J. Waldron, “Self-Defense: Agent-Neutral and Agent-Relative Accounts”, California Law Review, 88 (2000), 722.


S. Darwall, Welfare and Rational Care (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002), 1.


B. Gert, “Hobbes and Psychological Egoism”, Journal of the History of Ideas, 28:4 (1967), 503–20; Gert, Hobbes, 35–8.


Murphy, “Hobbes on the Evil of Death”, 36. Other converts include Hampton, Hobbes and the Social Contract Tradition, 19–23; D. Baumgold, Hobbes’s Political Theory (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 7; Boonin-Vail, Hobbes and the Science of Moral Virtue, 42–7; Schneewind, The Invention of Autonomy, 86. Kavka, Hobbesian Moral and Political Theory, 35–51, argues that Hobbes occasionally slipped from tautological egoism (‘a philosophical truism’) into more serious forms of egoism. Part of the attraction of Gert’s interpretation may be its compatibility with a subjectivist theory of value (‘good’ being determined by desire).


Kavka, Hobbesian Moral and Political Theory, 50, 323.


Gert, Hobbes, 124–5. Sreedhar points out, rightly, that the evil of death cannot explain the inalienability of the right of self-defence, because soldiers and apostles can alienate this right. Instead of exploring alternative psychological explanations, she puts forth a non-psychological explanation, at the cost of considerable textual discrepancy. Sreedhar, Hobbes on Resistance, 28–52.


Lloyd, Morality, 78–84.


Murphy, “Hobbes on the Evil of Death”, 44–6. According to Hobbes, ‘the Lawes of Nature are Immutable and Eternall’ (L: 15,79), ‘obliging all man-kind’ (L: 26,139). Transgressing the moral laws ‘never cease[s] to be Sinne’ (L: 27,152). Also dcv: 3.29; L: 26,148; L: 30,185; L: R&C,396.


Murphy, “Hobbes on the Evil of Death”, 44–6.


Also Schneewind, The Invention of Autonomy, 88–92; Irwin, The Development of Ethics, Vol. II, 133, 138.


K. Hoekstra, “Hobbes on Law, Nature, and Reason”, Journal of the History of Philosophy, 41:1 (2003), 116. Also Watkins, Hobbes’s System of Ideas, 82–5; Hampton, Hobbes and the Social Contract Tradition, 47, 56, 89–90; Irwin, The Development of Ethics, Vol. II, 117.


Darwall, British Moralists, 9–12.


Darwall, “Normativity and Projection”, 317. Also Darwall, British Moralists, 53–79; M. LeBuffe, “Hobbes on the Origin of Obligation”, British Journal for the History of Philosophy, 11:1 (2003), 15–39.


D. Baumgold, “Subject and Soldiers: Hobbes on Military Service”, History of Political Thought, 4:1 (1983), 43–64.


Deigh, “Reason and Ethics”, 34. Also Murphy, “Hobbes on the Evil of Death”, 44–7; Darwall, “Normativity and Projection”, 317; T. Sorell, “Hobbes Moral Philosophy”, in P. Springborg (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Hobbes’s Leviathan (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 132.


Lloyd, Ideals as Interests, 151–7.


Content Metrics

Content Metrics

All Time Past Year Past 30 Days
Abstract Views 17 17 14
Full Text Views 3 3 3
PDF Downloads 1 1 1
EPUB Downloads 0 0 0