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Worse than Death

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The Non-Preservationist Foundations of Hobbes’s Moral Philosophy

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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.

Affiliations: 1: ku Leuven, Institute of Philosophy, FWO-Flanders Centre for Ethics, Social and Political Philosophy Andreas Vesaliusstraat 2 - bus 3225, BE-3000 Leuven, Belgium,


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