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The Law of Nature as the Moral Law

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Although Hobbes talks about the laws of nature as prescribing the virtues, it is easier to think of them as proscribing the vices. The nine vices that are proscribed by the laws of nature are injustice, ingratitude, greed or inhumanity, vindictiveness (Hobbes does not name the vice corresponding to mercy, this is my attempt to provide one.), cruelty, incivility or contumely, pride, arrogance, and unfairness (I take this to be the vice corresponding to equity). The corresponding virtues that are prescribed by the laws of nature are justice, gratitude, humanity or complaisance, mercy, (Hobbes does not give, and I do not know what would count as, the virtue corresponding to his account of cruelty), civility, humility, (Hobbes uses this as one of the names for the virtue corresponding to the vice of arrogance, but I am using it as the opposite of pride.), modesty, and equity. The difficulty of coming up with names for some of the virtues, and even for some of the vices, shows that they are not all among the most common moral virtues and vices. Nonetheless, as described by Hobbes, they are genuine moral virtues and vices, traits of character such that all impartial rational persons would favor everyone having the virtues and no one having the vices. All of these virtues are such that they benefit everyone impartially by promoting peace, and are not primarily of benefit to the person having them. This is what makes them moral virtues and distinguishes them from the personal virtues of courage, prudence, and temperance. (See H, XIII, 9) The laws of nature are the dictates "of right reason, conversant about those things which are either to be done or omitted for the constant preservation of life and members, as much as in us lies." (C, II, 1; see also L, XIV, 3) But the law of nature "dictating peace, for a means of the conservation of men in multitudes;" (L, XV, 34; see also C, III, 32) is also the moral law because "in the means to peace, [it] commands also good manners, or the practice of virtue; and therefore it is called moral." (C, III, 31; see also L, XV, 40) Hobbes correctly sees both that peace benefits all persons impartially and that impartiality is essential to morality. His account of the moral virtues correctly makes them traits of character that would be favored by all impartial persons. His argument for the rationality of these moral virtues is that one's self-interest, which for Hobbes is primarily one's long-term preservation, is enhanced by having these virtues. There is no incompatibility between morality and self-interest as long as what is in one's own self-interest is equally in the interest of everyone else. Hobbes sees this point quite clearly and it is at the heart of his justification of the moral virtues.

Affiliations: 1: Dartmouth College, Hanover


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