The Emergence of Normativity

Or: “Looking at Hobbes through Shaftesburian Lenses”

What is Thomas Hobbes known for? If one asked a generally educated audience, probably two ideas would come up: the notion of a social contract and the picture of the Leviathan – the omnipotent sovereign. But the impact Thomas Hobbes had on later debates can by no means be reduced to these two ideas. Instead – and this is what I would like to illustrate – his influence amounts to the standards he set for further generations of early modern intellectuals. For Thomas Hobbes also introduced a new view of nature, and he introduced an entirely new set of problems to the philosophical discourse: most centrally the question why one, if at all, can be coerced to act in compliance with moral laws.

An especially good way to show this is to focus on thinkers which reacted to Hobbes’s ideas. For example, the 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury, a later British moral thinker, albeit refusing most of Hobbes’ claims, ultimately stays within the Hobbesian framework. We could even say, as I will conclude, that the particular case of Shaftesbury just exemplifies the more general paradigm shift brought about by Hobbes.

Let me begin by having a look at an earlier theory Hobbes responded to. This is the medieval scholasticism, such as the one of Thomas Aquinas. One of the most important question for Aquinas was an ontological one: the question of what “a thing” most fundamentally is.

In the scholastic terminology, the nature of an individual thing could be understood as its “substance”, whereas its changing features would be dubbed its “accidents”. A “substance” was not thought of in material terms – rather platonically, it would be understood as a thing’s immaterial form. In the same platonic vein, a thing’s form would be thought of as having more “being” than its material attributes. In figuring out whether a feature of a thing was accidental or substantive, one could look at whether it could change or whether it was able to exert causal forces – e.g. in the case of fire, heating up a pot of water. In this sense, one could get the notion of a “hierarchy of being”, in which some features have more “being” than others: in case of the fire, heat would be its substance, whereas its colour would be accidental; also, the fire’s heat would have more “being” than the boiling water’s heat, as the latter depends on the former, but not vice versa. This model is then extrapolated unto human thinking and behaviour. The nature of an unethical action is understood to possess less “being” than an ethical one, and its substance is explained in terms of the goals it is directed to.[1] In the same vein, the unique substance of the human being would be reason, and reason’s substance would consist in its capacity to direct itself towards its natural goal or object: the highest being of all, God.

The fact that the nature of reason is a capacity is extremely important here. It entails the idea that humans most fundamentally possess the power to control their own actions by virtue of reason. In Aquinas’ words: “Intellectual substances […] move themselves to act.”[2] As desire and understanding count as actions in their own realm,[3] this means that human free will becomes a full-fledged “mastery”[4] over one’s own mind. On such a picture, if one acts immorally, it mainly means that one is mastering oneself badly and that one can be subject to rational criticism. Thus, the obligatory force of the law consists in guiding people towards the good of themselves and the community.[5] Inasmuch as natural objects form a “hierarchy of being’, human behaviour is embedded in a natural teleology in which all actions serves some goal: most ultimately, human self-fulfilment in God. Transgression of the law is not predominantly a violation of the lawgiver, but rather a falling short of one’s own goals. As reason and nature provide enough motivation for the individual to be moral, the interest of the moral philosopher lies in discerning what is morally good – and not in answering why people ought to comply with it in the first place.

Hobbes wanted to refute the scholastic account of morality as a natural teleology. But first of all, he was critical of the idea of an immaterial “substance” itself. Following the new natural science of Galileo and Descartes, he wanted to replace the qualitative definition of substance as “a thing’s nature” or form with a quantitative definition of it, which could simply be understood in terms of “extended matter” or “body”.[6] This entails a thoroughgoing materialism. It holds that there is but one thing, and this thing is matter. This makes it quite impossible to think of reason as human being’s nature in terms of an immaterial substance.

Another of Hobbes’s most fundamental ideas was his focus on motion.[7] His interest in the causal relations or “forces” between things lead him to subscribe to a mechanical understanding of change. Not the natural inclination or form of a thing makes it act, but rather its being pushed or moved by something else. This has radical implications for his ethical views. Human beings, despite having intellect, stop being self-determined in the sense of “moving themselves.” Rather, they become subject to immediate impulses which move them towards performing certain acts, inasmuch as jolts and strokes cause the motion of physical objects. A free will, for Hobbes, is thus not active self-control, but simply unobstructed motion of passions:

„Liberty, or Freedom, signifieth (properly) the absence of opposition; (by opposition, I mean external impediments of motion;) […]. For whatsoever is so tied […], as it cannot move […] we say it hath not liberty to go further. And so of all living creatures, whilst they are […] restrained, […]; and of the water whilst it is kept in by banks, […] we use to say, they are not at liberty, to move in such manner, as without those external impediments they would”.[8]

Here, human beings are not the masters of their own mind. Rather, the forces of the mind are somewhat mastering themselves. This does not mean that human beings do not have intellectual capacities anymore. But it means these capacities have lost their specific guiding force for human behaviour. In combination with Hobbes’s materialism, this cuts any possible connection of the individual with a natural teleology: reason is no immaterial faculty, there is no inhering direction or goal in it. So, someone who is acting immorally cannot really be subject to rational criticism. The immoral agent is as much compelled by his impulses to perform his actions as the moral agent is. This poses some inconvenient questions: if there is no specific goal in human nature, if the law cannot be its guiding force anymore, what should the role of the law be? If reason cannot be a criterion, on what basis should transgression be punished? And why do we have an interest in not transgressing – in being moral?

Hobbes’s answer was the idea of a social contract. It is in everyone’s own interest to live in peace and security, and if there is anything to ground the force of the law in, as well as our obligation to comply with it, it is this. The only way to practically carry it out is to voluntarily restrain one’s own liberties and to give all power to a sovereign who is ensuring that transgressions will be punished. It is “reasonable” to swap some natural liberties for the security to live in peace, and it equally “reasonable” to stick to the laws. There is, however, a crucial difference. The “reasonableness” of the Hobbesian morality has nothing to do with the scholastic “reason”. The latter is thought of to be a principle of nature which directs autonomous human behaviour according to some inherent standards. The “rationality” of Hobbesian agents, however, is nothing but prudence which includes the instinct to defend one’s life and to strive for what is useful for oneself.

Such a picture can be philosophically troubling. It is pessimistic. It reduces the individual to a puppet whose strings are being pulled by external forces. And it transmits the claim that humans don’t have a natural propensity towards being moral. If they happen to comply with the prevalent moral codes, they do it either because they fear to get punished or because they think it instrumentally useful. With this, Hobbes has erased the options that there can be genuine moral character. Shaftesbury reacts to this.

Shaftesbury’s main rationale is to rehabilitate the idea of a natural teleology which was so prominent in Aquinas’s thought. This time, however, it would not depend on any substance metaphysics. Instead, it builds fully on the notion of relationality. Shaftesbury is convinced that the universe as a whole works as a system and that the diverse parts of it can be regarded as subsystems. The systems relate to one another, and in each system, each particular thing relates to the whole. Nothing is in itself good or bad. A specific animal, for example, might be bad depending on how it relates to its species, whereas the species might be good in relation to a higher system.

In light of this, Shaftesbury can defend a more optimistic view of the human psyche. For him, the fact that the human mind may be ruled by passions and desires does not necessarily entail that one has no control about them. Shaftesbury thus claims that the mind does not only naturally disapprove or approve of immediate perceptions,[9] but that it has a realm of second-order affections which can react to the immediate emotions.[10] This human ability to have “sentiments about sentiments”[11] leads Shaftesbury to postulate the existence of a moral sense, which he sometimes also calls a “natural sense” or a “(natural) sense of right and wrong”.[12] It is able to order the reflections on first-order affections to a proportionate whole, it reacts positively towards “affections that promote the well-being of humanity”[13] and negatively towards the opposite. In having this sense, the ethical judgement is structurally similar to the aesthetical one. As much as we are naturally able to perceive and appreciate charms in nature or in art, we can also develop a “moral taste” which guides us and our desires and affections.[14]

This also permits us to become virtuous. As members of the human species, we would have the opportunity to be “naturally good” anyway, in the sense that we can organically develop natural affections, which contribute to the good of humankind. But trough the moral sense, human beings alone have the capacity to additionally reflect on their affections. This means that only human beings can be “morally good” – they alone can learn to have the right kind of second-order desires and to develop truly good intentions. By acting according to the right intentions and desires, people can cultivate themselves.

There is a last important claim following from this. Shaftesbury makes it quite clear that on his picture people do not only have the option to have a good character, but that virtue is actually a goal worth pursuing for them. Virtue, for him, is something which makes us happy. This is because happiness is tied to contentment with the self and to mental pleasures, whereas unhappiness consists in the inability to truly enjoy oneself. Unsurprisingly, Shaftesbury thinks that vicious, unjust or “unnatural” affections cannot really contribute towards feeling comfortable about oneself – they but produce inner confusion, “misery and ill”.[15] We cannot be happy if we don’t have the right natural affections.[16] So, unlike Hobbes, Shaftesbury manages to tie morality to happiness again. And even though it may be founded on self-interest, this does not mean it excludes benevolence, charity and caring for others.

This looks as if Shaftesbury could go beyond the Hobbesian pessimism. But at second sight, Shaftesbury does not provide any detailed counter-arguments against what Hobbes says. He merely tells a different story. It thus remains a dash of doubt as to whether the Hobbesian pessimism is actually overcome. But more importantly, I think, we can see that Shaftesbury has stayed in line with the main thrust of the Hobbesian project. In support of this thesis we could look at the difference between Shaftesbury and the scholastic teaching.

The scholastics had been able to provide an all-encompassing view of nature, in which morality was recognized as an organic expression of the development of the human being on its path towards the goal of final liberation in God. For them, there was no reason to show why one should bother about being moral – the idea of a rational commitment to the right kind of life was so deeply intertwined with the scholastic view of the human being that there was no need for a further theory. Shaftesbury, however, did not manage to return to this picture. Even though the whole impetus of his theory lies in showing why we cannot help but being moral, he still is at pains to show how this can be.

In this, Shaftesbury follows the doubt which Hobbes had spread – the doubt that there could simply not be such a thing as “the universal moral good”, dictated by reason, which we could search and follow. By radically making human beings subject to somewhat arbitrary natural processes which leave no space for any natural moral inclinations, Hobbes has given room to the thought that morality might be something alien to the human being, something which is externally imposed on it and restricts it in its freedom. The main direction of his curiosity has thus shifted from the question of how to discern the moral good to the question of how we can make the individual conform to it. This is where Shaftesbury responded to Hobbes – by showing that conformity with morality is a condition for happiness.

In my opinion, Shaftesbury’s case is thus a good support of Stephen Darwall’s thesis that the key thought in modern moral philosophy is the one of obligation, of „the notion that there exist requirements or demands that are binding on all rational persons, even though the conduct demanded may lack any necessary connection to the good of the person obligated.”[17] Shaftesbury is a straightforward response to this worry. He has tried to tie moral obligation to what is good for us, and to ground moral normativity in a thicker and more colourful picture of the human being than Hobbes. But fundamentally, he has not gone back to the scholastic ease which took moral motivation for granted.

Editor’s Note: A longer and more detailled version of this paper has been published under the title „Looking at Hobbes through Shaftesbury’s Lenses. The emergence of the ‘problem of normativity’ in the early modern period.” In: Sancte et Sapienter 3, S. 21–31. A download of the text is available here.


Gill, Michael B (2016).: Lord Shaftesbury [Anthony Ashley Cooper, 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury]. In Edward N. Zalta, Uri Nodelman, Colin Allen (Eds.): Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. With assistance of Paul Oppenheimer, Jesse Alama, Emma Pease, Hannah H. Kim. Department of Philosophy, Stanford University. Stanford (ISSN 1095-5054). Available online at (last checked 26/03/2020).

Aquinas, Thomas: Quaestiones disputatae de veritate. In Timothy S. McDermott (2008) (Ed.): Aquinas. Selected philosophical writings. Oxford: Oxford University Press (Oxford world’s classics), pp. 152–156.

Brown, Charlotte R. (2006): Shaftesbury, Third Earl of (Anthony Ashley Cooper). In Donald M. Borchert (Ed.): Encyclopedia of philosophy, vol. 9. 2nd ed. Detroit, London: Macmillan Reference USA, 1-4.

Cooper, Ashley-Anthony, 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury: An inquiry concerning virtue or merit. In Lawrence Eliot Klein (1999) (Ed.): Shaftesbury. Characteristics of men, manners, opinions, times. New York: Cambridge University Press (Cambridge texts in the history of philosophy), pp. 163–230.

Darwall, Stephen L. (1995): The British moralists and the internal ought, 1640-1740. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Peters, R. S. (1967): Hobbes, Thomas. In Donald M. Borchert (2006) (Ed.): Encyclopedia of philosophy, vol. 4. 2nd ed. Detroit, London: Macmillan Reference USA, 403–422.

Aquinas, Thomas: Summa Contra Gentiles. Newly translated, with an Introduction and Notes by James F. Anderson. In John A. Goodwine (1957) (Ed.): St. Thomas Aquinas. On the Truth of the Catholic Faith. Summa Contra Gentiles, 4 volumes. New York: Image Books.

Aquinas, Thomas: Summa Theologiae. Translated by Fathers of the English Dominican Province. Complete English ed. Perrysburg, Ohio: Christian Classics (Benziger Bros. Edition 1947).

[1] See Aquinas Summa Theologicae, 1a2ae q.18 a2 co.

[2] Aquinas Summa Contra Gentiles, 47 §4.

[3] Aquinas Quaestiones disputatae de veritate, q. 8 a6 co.

[4] Aquinas Summa Contra Gentiles, 47 §4.

[5] See Aquinas Summa Theologicae, 1a2ae90 a2 co.

[6] See Hobbes, Leviathan, 206.

[7] See Peters 1967/2006, 410–411.

[8] Hobbes Leviathan, 107.

[9] Shaftesbury, Inquiry, 172–173.

[10] Ibid., 173.

[11] Brown 2006, 3.

[12] Shaftesbury, Inquiry, 181,182, 183, 185.

[13] Gill 2016, §2.2

[14] See Shaftesbury, Inquiry, 173.

[15] Ibid., 216.

[16] Ibid., 211.

[17] Darwall 1995, 2.

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