Hobbesian vs Benthamite Politics


LeviathanThomas Hobbes (1588–1679) was not an optimist about human behaviour. Writing more than a century after Niccolo Machiavelli, the English political philosopher argued in his masterwork, Leviathan (1651), that the quest for power was the main motivation for humans. And that our quest to acquire more would never cease until we were dead. He wrote:

…in the first place, I put for a general inclination of all mankind a perpetual and restless desire of Power after power, that ceaseth only in Death. And the cause of this is not always that a man hopes for a more intensive delight than he has already attained to, or that he cannot be content with a moderate power: but because he cannot assure the power and means to live well, which he hath present, without the acquisition of more.
Leviathan, First Part, Chapter 11.

Hobbes, of course, said a lot more (and not just in Leviathan, but in his other works), but unlike Jeremy Bentham and the Utilitarians who would later follow in English philosophy, Hobbes didn’t see the Greater Good as a motivator for most people. People, he wrote, were so unlikely to work for the common good that an absolutist form of government was the only way to control the base desires of men to grab everything for themselves.

Without a strong leader’s controlling hand, he warned, the state would become a monster torn by the competing interests of individuals in government. That monster he named Leviathan. He didn’t see it as democracy at work; but then, in his day, democracy as we know it didn’t exist.

Hobbes wrote in Leviathan that acquired powers (which he called instrumental)

…are means and Instruments to acquire more: as Riches, Reputation, Friends, and the secret working of God, which men call Good Luck. For the nature of Power, is in this point, like to Fame, increasing as it proceeds; or like the motion of heavy bodies, which the further they go, make still the more hast…
Therefore to have servants, is Power; To have friends, is Power: for they are strengths united.
Also Riches joyned with liberality, is Power; because it procureth friends, and servants: Without liberality, not so; because in this case they defend not; but expose men to Envy, as a Prey.
Reputation of power, is Power; because it draweth with it the adhaerence of those that need protection.

Hobbes, of course, lived during the English Civil War, suffering through its nine years of violent, internecine war and that coloured his views. The result of the war was Oliver Cromwell’s postbellum ascendancy, a subsequent series of wars against Ireland and Scotland, and the establishment of Cromwell’s Protectorate (1653-58): in essence a theocratic dictatorship. But Leviathan was written before Cromwell took the reins of absolute power. Hobbes wrote a less well-known follow-up to it in 1668 focusing on the Civil War, titled Behemoth: the history of the causes of the civil wars of England.

Many modern politicians — at all levels of government — are essentially Hobbesian. They pursue power, often exclusively, often for themselves alone, and believe that the electorate needs to be controlled by a stern, or even authoritarian government, usually with themselves at its head (or at least in the controlling party). They have no interest in the greater good.

My hometown of Collingwood, for example, has had a Hobbesian council this term. Pierre Poilievre is the Hobbesian candidate for the Conservative Party leadership. All authoritarians share some or even all Hobbesian characteristics: their focus is power, generally individual and authoritarian.

Coming after Hobbes were the Utilitarians who took a different view of government, and saw its role less as an enforcer of fixed morality and legislation and more as an empowerer. They focused not on the politician but those he or she served.

It was Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) who first proposed the notion of government serving the greatest good for the greatest number of people. He wrote about it in  Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation and other essays: “it is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong.” He wrote:

A measure of government (which is but a particular kind of action, performed by a particular person or persons) may be said to be conformable to or dictated by the principle of utility, when in like manner the tendency which it has to augment the happiness of the community is greater than any which it has to diminish it.

Benthamite politicians, following the early principles of utilitarianism, attempt to legislate in ways that create the most positive result for the whole community. And for Bentham, results mattered, as long as those results created the greatest happiness for the most people. One site notes:

Bentham’s theory relies on accurately predicting outcomes, and as such holds the moral agent accountable for moral luck. One might intend to do a good deed, but if an unpredictable result occurs, leading to a negative outcome, then they are still to be held morally responsible.

Bentham’s ideas were expanded and amended by John Stuart Mill (1806–1873) who helped clarify utilitarianism as a standard for political decision-making. Mill wrote that ” actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness; wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness.”

Without going into the somewhat byzantine arguments over what happiness means, the general gist of Mill’s view is that politicians should be guided by a principle of making the most number of their electorate happy and avoiding those actions that make the majority unhappy. That’s the concept of the “greater good” or the “public good.”

As noted in an article in The Conversation:

Subsequently, 18th- and 19th-century thinkers such as John Stuart Mill argued that the right course of action is that which creates the greatest “utility” for society — with utility defined as experiencing pleasure and avoiding pain.
In the 20th century, the greater good received renewed impetus with the work of John Rawls. And in the 21st century, intellectuals such as Noam Chomsky and Slavoj Žižek are readdressing the concept in affirmative and critical ways, respectively.

The basis of this “greater good” — or perhaps more aptly called the common good — is simply that we have shared interests, a collective purpose, and a common future that politicians should work towards. As ThoughtCo defines it:

“Common good” in political science refers to anything that benefits and is naturally shared by all members of a given community, compared to things that benefit the private good of individuals or sectors of society. In some cases, securing things serving the common good requires collective action and participation in the political process.

No, it’s not a perfect philosophy, no it’s not without its problems and its detractors. But as a guiding principle, I’ve always believed politicians should serve the public needs, not their own, and not some (often inflexible) ideology. I believe that kind of public service is the core of Bentham’s and Mill’s beliefs.

I would prefer to be a Benthamite than a Hobbesian politician.

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