A book on ethics and philosophy of values

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b) The subjectivism of Hobbes

Subjectivism is fully developed in the works of Hobbes, throughout a system which integrates it in a complex argumentative structure.
Hobbes adopts the classical corpuscular materialism, which we found in the statement of Democrite that by convention sweet is sweet, bitter is bitter, hot is hot, cold is cold, color is color; but in truth there are only atoms and the void.
Hobbes adds a third element, movement, and all forms that it can take in man: desire is one of these forms.

Thus in his book About human nature, Hobbes, like Democrite, and long before the Lockean distinction between the first and second qualities (proposed at practically the same time by Descartes under other terms), rejects all that is not atoms or movements. All that consists only in their interpretation by human senses (sight, hearing and touch) is mere fiction.
For example, color, which is nothing but the effect caused on the eye by the movement or the disposition of real atoms, is not in itself real, but subjective.
It is the same with sounds, as Hobbes shows with the example of a bell: the clapper has no sound in it, but motion, and makes motion in the internal parts of the bell ; so the bell has motion, and not sound, that imparts motion to the air ; and the air has motion, but not sound ; the air imparts motion by the ear and nerve unto the brain ; and the brain has motion but not sound; from the brain, it rebounds back into the nerves outward, and thence it becomes an apparition without, which we call sound 1.

Consequently, Hobbes “empties” the world of all qualities that are supposed to be in it, since as in vision, so also in conceptions that arise from other senses, the subject of their inherence is not in the object, but in the sentient. And from hence also it follows, that whatsoever accidents or qualities our senses make us think there be in the world, they be not there, but are seeming and apparitions only : the things that really are in the world without us, are those motions by which these seemings are caused 2.

By contrast, this founds the reality of desire, since it is a movement which affects man. Here is how: a “vital movement” permanently passes through man. Every conception or sensation of an object is in itself a movement, which comes to help or hinder this movement, and so causes pleasure or pain, which in their turn cause desire or aversion: motion [of perceived thing] not stopping there, but proceeding to the heart, of necessity must there either help or hinder the motion which is called vital; when it helps, it is called delight, contentment, or pleasure, which is nothing really but motion about the heart, as conception is nothing but motion in the head : and the objects that cause it are called pleasant or delightful 3.

Hobbes shows the incalculable consequences of this principle in morality. Since everyone calls good or bad what he desires or hates, in other words what brings him pleasure or makes him suffer, then good and bad are not more real, objective things than colors or sounds, but are mere subjective fictions: only movements of desire or hate have an objective reality.

By way of consequence, each one judges good or bad what he desires or hates, and there is no conception of good and bad better than another one: While every man differs from another in constitution, they differ also from one another concerning the common distinction of good and evil. Nor is there any such thing as absolute goodness, considered without relation: for even the goodness which we apprehend in God Almighty, is his goodness to us 4.

In so doing, Hobbes deprives the concepts of good and bad from their meaning, since their consistent content is nothing but that of the concepts of desire and hatred, and on the other hand, he considers good and bad as notions relative to each individual (everybody thinks that what gives them pleasure is good, and it is different for every person), but universality seems to be essential for the concept of good (or bad). In fact, it is not that he deprives them from their meaning, but from their objectivity, and their meaning changes thereby.

This treatment is not applied to the sole concepts of good and bad. All qualities lose their objectivity. It is in the Leviathan that we see such a generalization. Hobbes affirms that the English concepts of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are derived from the Latin concepts of ‘pulchrum’ and ‘turpe’, denoting all qualities, and being only subjective: for pulchrum we say in some things, fair; in others, beautiful, or handsome, or gallant, or honourable, or comely, or amiable: and for turpe; foul, deformed, ugly, base, nauseous, and the like, as the subject shall require; all which words, in their proper places, signify nothing else but the mine, or countenance, that promises good and evil 5.

Since, as I have tried to show, the study of value has been done by the concepts of quality and morality, I think that for Hobbes, value is subjective, too. To my opinion, an axiological subjectivism accompanies his moral subjectivism, and the extension of his idea to all qualities can be interpreted as a sign of this.

Accordingly, we can see in the work of Hobbes the first systematic example of an axiological subjectivism, founded on a complex and rather convincing argumentative structure. That is why I see in his doctrine the birth certificate of subjectivism.

1. About human nature, chap. II
2. Ibid.
3. Ibid., chap. VII
4. Ibid.
5. The Leviathan, I, 6