A book on ethics and philosophy of values

suivre sur twitter

b) Hobbes' subjectivism

So it is in Hobbes that we find subjectivism set out in a particularly elaborate way, in a system that integrates it into a complex argumentative scheme.
Hobbes takes up the ancient corpuscularist materialism that led Democritus to say 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 another element to the list of these few objects that are the only real ones: movement, and all the forms it can take in us: desire is one of these forms.

In his work Human Nature, Hobbes is thus led, like Democritus, and well before the Lockean distinction between primary and secondary qualities (proposed almost at the same time by Descartes, though he does not use this term), to reject as subjective fictions everything that is not atoms or movements, but which are merely the translations of these by the human senses (sight, hearing, touch, etc.).
Thus colour, which is merely the effect on the organ of the eye of the movement or arrangement of really existing atoms, is not in itself real, but subjective.
Hobbes similarly excludes sounds from what is really objective, using the sound of a bell as an example: 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.

This leads Hobbes to "empty" the world of all the qualities that we think we find 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.

On the other hand, it does establish the reality of desire, since desire is a movement that affects us. The mechanism is as follows: we are constantly moved by what Hobbes calls the "vital movement". Any conception or sensation of an object is in itself a movement, which will help or hinder this vital movement, and thus provoke pleasure or pain, which in turn will provoke 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 then shows the incalculable moral consequences of this principle: since each person calls good or evil what he desires or what he dislikes, that is, what brings him pleasure or what causes him pain, then good and evil are no more real, objective things than colours or sounds, but are subjective fictions; only the movements of desire or hatred have an objective reality.

As a result, each person judges what he desires or hates to be good or evil, and there is no conception of good and evil that is more relevant than another: 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 empties the concepts of good and evil of their meaning, since firstly their consistent content is none other than that of the concepts of desire and hatred, and secondly he makes good and evil notions relative to each person (each person finds good what pleases him, which may differ from what another thinks), yet it seems that universality is essential to the concept of good and evil. In fact, it is not that he empties them of their meaning, it is that he empties them of their objectivity, and their meaning changes as a result.

This treatment is not only applied to the concepts of good and evil. All qualities lose their objectivity. It is in Leviathan, this time, that we see this generalisation. Hobbes asserts that it is the concepts of pulchrum and turpe, from which he derives the English concepts of "right" and "wrong", that in fact signify all qualities, which are only subjective in nature: 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 we have tried to show, value has been thought through the concepts of quality and morality, we do not think that we are betraying Hobbes' intention by thinking that value itself would be subjective for him; we think that an axiological subjectivism accompanies his moral subjectivism - and the extension of his idea to all qualities seems to be a sign of this.

In Hobbes, then, we see the first systematic deployment of axiological subjectivism, based on a complex and extremely convincing argumentative scheme. This is why I see in Hobbes the birth of subjectivism.

1. Human Nature, chap. II
2. Ibid.
3. Ibid., chap. VII
4. Ibid.
5. Leviathan, I, 6