T Nation



In my ethics class we recently discusses Hobbes' system of ethics. Mainly his view on the State of Nature and the consequences.

Essentially, Hobbes believes that without a sovereign in power to keep the people in check, then people will live in anticipation. Due to scarcity of resources, competition, and general paranoia, peoples' lives will be "brutish, nasty, and short."

Hobbes goes on to say that people should submit to a sovereign that has the power to force people to comply to a social 'contract.' He essentially states that people should be moral for their own benefit. My teacher sums up Hobbes' morality as "enlightened self-interest." It would be better, according to Hobbes, to act morally and not have to fear for your life, etc...

So, the question:

If there were NO reason to be moral (ie no enforcing power), would YOU be moral? As an example, think of the Ring of Gyges story - basically states that if you were to be able to wear an invisibility cloak, and therefore not be held accountable for your actions - would you submit to ethics and morals, or would you steal, etc?

...Or any other discussion in the field of ethics!






Is there a "reason" to be moral now? I could get away with being much more of an ass than I am now without any real consequences, so I'm gonna say yes, I'd be moral.


Already liking where this thread is going! In my class, we're discussing different theories on why to be more, essentially. Some older philosophers say that we should be moral in order to please the Gods. Others say that acting morally produces social harmony. Others say that if you don't act morally, there are consequences, so it's in your best interest to be moral.

We have to discuss opinions on whether or not you'd be moral without any chance of reprocussion. Kakno, I hear you. But there is still the chance that you can get caught for being immoral (breaking laws, etc). My scenario involves absolutely ZERO chance of getting caught. If you were wearing an invisibility cloak, and absolutely nobody could see you...If you were, and you saw something you really wanted, would you take it if you knew you could not get caught? Or would you act 'morally' and not take it? I think the point in this question - other than getting an insight into other peoples' psychologies - is that people are usually moral in order to appear moral. Would we REALLY be moral/ethical behind truly closed doors?

Another question that arose was that of the State of Nature. Like I mentioned, Hobbes stated that in the State of Nature, people are anticipatory, nasty, brutish, and fight over limited resources. Hobbes gave 2 separate ideas.

1) People fight over the limited resources. Life is nasty, and people do whatever they can to get by. You can't make contracts with people, b/c there is nobody to make sure that the other party does their share of the work. Basically, life sucks
2) People realize that it's in their best interest to be moral. Although there is better 'short term benefit' in beign immoral - ie breaking laws to yield quick results - people think to the future...If you break laws, people will see you as a lawbreaker, and once you're labeled a lawbreaker, nobody will do business with you, etc.

Both of these ideas still maintain that morality is a form of self-interest, but they're both very different. Any thoughts?

  • PS I'm very tired and am probably not making too much sense right now. Either way, I'm going to be writing a bunch of papers on similar stuff pretty soon, and I genuinely LOVE talking philosophy with anybody who will indulge me! So please, chime in peeps.


Hobbes should have done his anthropology and / or evolutionary biology.


Morality is easy when there are lots of resources and life is comfortable. In a true ?state of nature? things are very different. Once people start getting hungry its Thunderdome. Look at Somalia. The real question isn't whether or not you would be moral when you didn't have to be but how immoral you would be when it was necessary to survive. .

  • conscience. maybe the internalized other, but maybe not. bio reasons for an innate component to putting the good of others rather than ourselves first (e.g., to look after offspring).

  • is it in my own interests to act according to conscience? maybe. guilt is a bitch. on the other hand maybe conscience tracks my longer term interests rather than shorter term interests (interesting fact that psychopaths who lack a moral sense have trouble with long term planning what is in their interests).

  • the ring of gyges might lead to my corruption. i might become out of touch with my conscience (maybe listening to it is a use it or lose it thing). that might (possibly? inevitably?) lead to my losing touch with my long term interests. which might be bad for me (possibly? inevitably?)

  • it might be that you simply can't escape the social consequences. sure the example asks us to imagine that there aren't negative consequences for me of using the ring. but maybe it is ill-conceived. people will feel upset about their stuffs being taken and their being raped etc. this will have social consequences in levels of trust / mistrust that people have to one another. i gotta live in that society so i surely will be affected!


Oh yea, if I could turn invisible I would divide my time between women's locker rooms, pooping in random places, and tripping people carrying trays of food.


Yes. That's how I have been educated. I'm not a "nice boy" because I fear punishment, but because I like to do things the right way.

It wasn't always like this though. When I was on my teens and early 20s I was "infected" by the Spanish rogueish typical behaviour. When I was 15 we had this market to finance the school trip. We would stop by the market, buy stuff and then sell it more expensive at school. So well, we would give away free stuff to friends, keep things for ourselves, charge more to older people, etc. It felt quite natural and I was not afraid of punishment. The market lost money, but we were smart enough to cover our tracks.
When I was bit older I became the representative of all pupils of the school, which is a process that is made by voting and all that. Well, I self-proclaimed myself as such in a meeting, no one objected and one of the teacher representatives gave it his "ok" if I'd help him to approve decisions against another teacher representative.

Such things feel small, but that's how the entire Spanish society is built. What happened? At some point I started to be disgusted by the corruption in the system...and I was guilty of it, so I started to try to be more like my parents, especially like my mother and I stopped being proud of being such a cheater. My father is a bookkeeper, important one, and honesty and integrity are very important traits for him, so I quickly got those. My mother is from the north of Europe and they have a totally different mentality, which I "adopted".

Since then I really try to do everything the right way. No cheating, no lying, no manipulation. Greed is something I really dislike now and I kinda live by the phrase "I rather have honour without ships than ships without honour".

I don't associate with people who don't have a similar mindset and I really dislike when people justify their ""wrong doings" with "But everybody does it".

Even if food was scarce, I don't see myself abusing of weaker people to take their food.


People who say such things generally have no background in meta ethics, ethics, game theory or even evolutionary biology.
Evolutionary biology gives answers to the OPs question, but they are much less meaningful than other answers, and repeated far more.


  1. There are numerous examples of private systems that develop to deal with free loaders.


Morals are ingrained in us from birth, not because we're scared of a supernatural power watching our every move and punishing us.
For example if we were to get our morals from the bible, which most religions believe we do, and take it literally, then we would be stoning people for working on the sabbath, killing children for disobeying their parents etc.

Some say that you can't take follow the bible word for word. Then how do you decide what to take literally and follow to the word, and what to take a general message from?
It is our morals, which are there beforehand, that let us decide which to take as 'gospel' and which not.

I believe morals come from not doing things that you wouldn't want to happen to you. Obviously some people have differing levels of this and that is why we have murder, rape, stealing etc.


True. In a situation like that you don't have the luxury of deciding whether to be moral or not. In the event of social breakdown, your level of morals depends on how immoral the people you encounter are.

Some would fall back very easily on immoral behaviour to survive, and that would have a ripple effect.


Hobbes made the empirical claim that without a sovereign leader life would be nasty bruitish and short. All we need is an example of a group of people without a soverign leader where life is not nasty bruitish and short to prove Hobbes wrong.

Democracies have a figure head leader rather than a sovereign...

There might be cases of groups that manage division of labor type situations without a clear leader (across all situations).

Of course Plato thought there needed to be a leader (to look out for the good of society rather than each individual who only looked out for themself).

But then the ring of Gyges... Why look out for anything other than the good of oneself?


The good of other people = the good of oneself.

Of course one will need to play around with what is really for the good of other people and what is really for the good of oneself in order to get these aligned...


I find it interesting that the OP frames the question as 'submit to' a moral code.

Does one 'submit to' the laws of logic / rationality?

One is constrained by them (in a sense) but one can similarly break them.

What are the consequences of irrationality?

Can't co-ordinate action (act from reason)? Can't figure out what is in your interests (or anybody elses for that matter)?

Kant thought the moral code came from rationality. That immorality arose from irrationality...


I can't think of any moral uses for a ring of invisibility. It lends itself more to immoral activity than moral purposes. The moral choice would be to leave the ring where you found it.


Yeah right and let Gollum have it.


Generally speaking, yes I would.

A person's true morality is always dictated more by their own estimation of what is & isn't permissible as opposed to what an external power condemns or condones.

The the temptation to involve myself in certain vigilante activities could prove to be a slippery slope.


A sovereign entity doesn't have to be a person, it can be a set of rules that all members of a society agree to follow. If you break the rules, you aren't allowed to reap the benefits society offers. Therefore, behaving morally is in one's own best interests.

If some situation ever arose where humans were better off going at it alone, you can bet your ass polite society would dissolve in a heartbeat. You can see it in 3rd world countries where there is little education and the leaders are all corrupt.