“Nor is there any such thing as … simply good”

In a previous post, I pointed to Hobbes’s theorizing about moral language at the end of chapter 4 of Leviathan. I argued that Hobbes thinks moral terms have a double signification: they signify something in the world, and also something about the nature of the speaker — something about them that contributed to their applying that word to this thing.

The notion that some moral or political terms have a double signification is also visible in the earlier Elements of Law. Thus ‘aristocracy’ and ‘oligarchy’ “signify the same thing, together with the divers passion of those that use them; for when the men that be in that office please, they are called an aristocracy, otherwise an oligarchy” (EL 20.3). Both ‘aristocracy’ and ‘oligarchy’ have two significations. Each signifies some group of men. Each also signifies the attitude of the speaker towards that group, be it positive or negative.

Understanding Hobbes’s view about the double signification of moral terms can also help us to understand his discussions of ‘good’ and ‘evil’. One of those occurs earlier in the Elements of Law:

Every man, for his own part, calleth that which pleaseth, and is delightful to himself, GOOD; and that EVIL which displeaseth him: insomuch that while every man differeth from other in constitution, they differ also one from another concerning the common distinction of good and evil. Nor is there any such thing as agathon haplos, that is to say, simply good. For even the goodness which we attribute to God Almighty, is his goodness to us. And as we call good and evil the things that please and displease; so call we goodness and badness, the qualities or powers whereby they do it (EL 7.3).

The terminology here is of calling things something, rather than signifying. But two central parts of the double signification view are also present. The first is that the word-thing relation is inconstant, and the second is that this results from some other difference between the speakers, here described as a difference in their ‘constitution’. Thus, what is said here appears to express Hobbes’s main aims in introducing the double signification view: to acknowledge the ways in which people use very different moral language about the same thing, and to show the reasons for those differences.

This passage differs from the ones I have pointed to previously, in that here Hobbes moves from thick moral terms to thin ones. Moreover, he also addresses an objection. Hobbes thinks the signification of moral terms is double and inconstant. But, someone might suggest, there is a way to avoid this inconstancy. While some talk in this realm is inconstant, if we attend to that which is simply good, we will resolve our problem. Likewise, in a parallel passage in Leviathan, Hobbes responds to the suggestion that the double and inconstant signification will be removed by appeal to a common rule: “There being nothing simply and absolutely so; nor any common Rule of Good and Evill, to be taken from the nature of the objects themselves” (L 6.7). In both versions, Hobbes thinks, this approach won’t work — because there is no such thing as simply good, and no common rule. (Not that there is any clear sign of an argument against the simply good — Hobbes just flatly states that there is not such thing.)

(As an aside, it is curious, but not obvious, just what views Hobbes had in mind here. If one looks for uses of ‘common rule’ in seventeenth-century English works one finds, among many others things, some translations of Calvin. But what to make of this, I’m really not sure. Maybe the ‘common rule’ here is just a minor reworking of the ‘common distinction’ in EL.)

[Cross-posted from modsquad.]

Published by Stewart Duncan

Associate Professor, Department of Philosophy, University of Florida