The Views Of Thomas Hobbes On Equality Among People
Political philosopher Thomas Hobbes starts Chapter XIII by saying human beings are all basically equal. Today we are all familiar with the idea of equality, it’s a very powerful moral idea today. People believe in equality, it is obviously in the declaration of independence, all men are created equal. And Hobbes characteristically talks about that but does not have nearly a sort of uplifting or really in any way a moral a view of what that actually means. What he means, first of all, is he says basically, people are basically equal in both body and mind. Then he says obviously that’s not entirely true. Some people are stronger than others, some people are faster, some people are smarter, but he says everybody is basically equal enough, that everybody is equally vulnerable to being attacked in some way by everyone else. You may be very strong, but someone else could get a weapon and kill you, or they can join up with others who are similarly threatened by you and it could become a five against one, they can attack you and kill you, they can wait for you to fall asleep.
Hobbes says no one is so powerful that they can actually overcome everyone physically or mentally. No one is so much smarter than everybody else that they can imagine every possible trap and figure everything out, and protect themselves against all the possible enemies. They might have in a state of nature for instance where there is no law. And so here Hobbes is talking about basically being equally vulnerable to being killed, but behind this again is his rejection of the idea that there is no greatest good for human life that in a sense that follows from that therefore the very fundamental way, people are all equal. If there is a greatest good, if there is a sort of ultimate purpose for human life, some people will be better at pursuing that than others. And therefore there will be a very important kind of natural inequality, some people will be more virtuous than others. And therefore that natural inequality will be very important, whereas Hobbes when he rejects the idea that there is any ultimate purpose for human life, any greatest good in which human life aims necessarily, then there basically for one thing all ends then become equal. So the fact that one person wants to pursue physical pleasure and the other person wants to devote themselves to cultivating intellectual virtue, those ultimately are just, those are equal human beings for Hobbes because again, it’s not that one understands the true meaning of life and is pursuing it and the other one isnt, they just have different goals. And again, it’s not as if one of them is pursuing it better, or is more virtuous, or is better in doing what human beings should be doing as humans beings, there is no thing that human beings should be doing as human beings, there is no goal, no greatest good in which they should be aiming.
So the idea of these sorts of inequalities which were very important in ancient and medieval political thought sort of disappear here for Hobbes because if there is no greatest good, no ultimate goal in which human life aims, then people are not better or worse in pursuing that. If there is no set of virtues that make human beings attain this and better, then differences in virtue are ultimately secondary to the fact that everybody is basically equal because again, there’s no inequality based on how well people realize their innate human potential to realize a particular goal for life which is just built into the structure of human nature. So if there isn’t any of that, then people are equal in a very fundamental way. So for Hobbes we can clear away the idea that there are important natural moral or intellectual inequalities that some people are more virtuous than others. Hobbes says that there is no ultimate standard for virtue, therefore none of that matters. There is no inequality in that way, in a way that would actually matter. It might matter for somebody in their own image of themselves but it doesn’t matter for politics, and it doesn’t matter for understanding human nature as it really is. So Hobbes says people are basically equal in that way because there is no ultimate good, therefore you can’t create a hierarchy or say that there is a natural hierarchy based on how well people are pursuing that ultimate good. And then Hobbes says that also then ultimately what is left to a large extent what’s left is simple survival.
The basic physical imperative of self preservation. Or you can also see it as if there is no ultimate good which everything aims, there is an ultimate evil violent death which everybody agrees that they want to avoid. So the orientation becomes no longer positive, it is no longer trying to attain the greatest good, the ultimate good that all human beings seek, it is trying to just avoid the ultimate evil that all human beings can agree is horrifying. And that is again, a painful, violent death. So in any case, in this situation that Hobbes is describing then, all human beings are equal and again ultimately what he means is they are equally vulnerable of being killed by each other. No one is so strong that they are invulnerable, no one is so smart that they can figure out everything that might happen and protect themselves from every possible threat. So it’s this equality, this basic equality.
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