Monday, March 6, 2017

The Meaning of Hobbes's Sword - Part I

What makes human systems different from other living systems?  Humans alone have rules that are collectively agreed to.  These rules create a social reality that  can only be maintained by collective  human acceptance.  I call this social reality - Normativity.  

My passion is to seek to understand the nature and origin of normativity.  My intuition is that all forms of normativity, including language, originate from its most basic form - morality.

 The fundamental fact about normativity is that it is a drawing  of a boundary.  A line between good and evil, right and wrong, truth and falsity, or beauty and ugliness.  This boundary is not already there in reality like the boundary between water and land;  It is one that is created by the agreement of a group of human beings. In order to sustain this boundary humans must be able to agree on a difference, and actively maintain that difference by including some behaviours and excluding others.

We accept certain behaviours, so  we include them. We reject other behaviours and so we exclude them.  We can look at every incidence of normativity in this way.  All uses of rules follow this pattern.  Some behaviours are included and other behaviours are excluded.  And those who keep doing excluded things become excluded themselves.

You can’t be a Scientist unless you follow the rules and methods of Science. You can’t do math if you don’t learn the rules.   You can’t play a game if you keep breaking the rules.  You can’t speak a language if you don’t use its rules.  You can’t be a member of society if you persist in wrongdoing.  

When we observe  wrongdoing we normally want to tell  others. And when we do, it helps us to maintain the distinction and continue to follow the rules ourselves.

On the other hand, if we see many people breaking the rules, we are much more likely to break the rules ourselves.  We lose the motivation to maintain the distinction because it is not being maintained by the rest of the group.

I anticipate that some who read this will disagree with me. Some may argue that morality is objective and does not depend on how many people in a group follow the rules.  Others may ask what do I mean, everyone commits to morality, and everyone participates in monitoring and sanctioning others?  Morality is imposed by tradition, or absolute authority, or - it’s just a pure fabrication, etc.  My argument, that it is a social contract, may not seem self-evident.  

But consider this example:  language is like morality because it is also a kind of normativity.  When we learn a language as infants, we commit to speaking the language.  When we make mistakes we are corrected by others.  When others make errors in grammar or pronunciation we correct them.  If I misspell “conscuusness” you will be irritated by my error and want to correct me.  I myself am having a hard time right now not going back and correcting that error.

I’m not about to go back and correct that error because I’m trying to make a point here.  Normativity is about commitment.  The reason that this is not self-evident is because we’ve already made the commitment a long time ago when we were growing up. We committed to speaking a language.  We committed to living in a moral system.  And if we didn’t do the latter, we are probably in jail now or headed for jail.  

Here’s the thing: language is a self-organized human system.  There is no one in charge of language.   There is no authority out there dictating grammatical rules and rules of pronunciation.

 There are six billion speakers, who all follow rules of grammar and pronunciation, and our world is divided into many  groups of speakers  speaking variations on these rules,  due to variations in geography, cultures, and unique histories.   The rules of language change over time and location.  This change happens slowly, but it is inexorable, it cannot be stopped by any human authority.  

Now consider morality as a human system.  If morality  is a system like language, then it is a self-organized system also.  There is no one  in charge.  There is no guy with a sword outside making sure that we don’t do anything wrong.

We all  must commit to living in a moral system - we have a name for this commitment process:  it’s called,  “growing up.”  We think of ourselves and most others we know, as “good”.  We think of wrongdoers as “bad”.   We are all motivated to look for and correct wrongdoing and if it’s really serious wrongdoing,  to call in the cavalry.

This motivation is a kind of “force,”  the force that’s captured in the concept of “ought”, that is, what we ought or ought not to do.  We look out for wrongdoing because that’s what everyone ought to do.  It’s a more basic and powerful form of  the way that we look out for mistakes in grammar and pronunciation and insist on pointing them out to the people who commit them.

We can communicate because we all commit to following grammatical rules;  we can live together peacefully because we all commit to following moral rules;  but if enough people refused to commit to moral rules society would break down;  it’s as simple as that.

In the Seventeenth Century, in his great work, Leviathan,  The English philosopher Thomas Hobbes  concerns himself with the question: how come humans follow the rules?  People can make agreements, but how can these agreements hold together?  Hobbes reasoned correctly that rules are ultimately  backed by force.    “Covenants without a sword are but words and of no strength to secure a man at all.”  he writes in Leviathan,  demonstrating that he recognized that rule following cannot simply exist by reason alone.  

Hobbes also brought up an idea that had been thought of and then discarded by the ancient Greeks:  To be without rules would be as if humans were in a “state of nature”;  so humans, if they were able to,  would naturally come to some agreement about the rules in order to get themselves out of the “state of nature.”

But, and here’s the thing, the very key to the problem of origins - how would  people who don’t have any rules agree to having rules?  Hobbes's theory was that such a “covenant,” an agreement we call  a “social contract,”  was only possible with a “sword,”  i.e. someone with a monopoly of power to back the agreement.  In other words, Hobbes tries to solve the problem of how morality originated  by imagining that a  social contract would have to impose a political solution;  and because of the times of civil war that Hobbes lived in, he thought that the political solution should be an absolute monarchy.

Here’s where Hobbes got it right.   He realized that no social contract could  arise out of a state of nature without a realistic  threat of force.  You cannot depend on people’s good will unless you have morality in place already. In order to get around this dilemma  Hobbes argued, in effect,  that there needed to be a political solution to a moral problem.  

 But following the rules is a moral problem and it needs a moral solution.  Politics is a way of establishing authority, but morality is about establishing commitment. Morality comes from collective commitment.  Collective moral commitment, or, in other words - normativity - is ultimately  what makes human beings possible.

Living, as he did, in seventeenth century England,  Hobbes had only the sketchiest knowledge about the kinds of groups that the first humans lived in.    From what we observe of  nomadic hunting and gathering groups they are small, making up from thirty to ninety people, they are usually made up of both related and unrelated nuclear families, they have very little in the way of political or social institutions other than the family and ethnicity.

We are told by anthropologists that nomadic hunting and gathering groups all share in common a collective intolerance of excessive egotism, boasting,  authoritarianism, and bullying.  And it would seem that  everyone within the group shares the same moral system.

 Why do we have feelings of guilt, shame, and embarrassment?   For one thing, all of these feelings help to temper our egotism.    These feelings also indicate our recognition and discomfort at our own faux pas.  Some people don’t have enough of these “social” feelings. They are  called psychopaths.  These people act without any  internal checks to wrongdoing, except fear of getting caught.

A good example of a psychopath is the present leader of the Philippines,  Dutarte.  You can watch him speak on   youtube videos.  Notice the sheer absence of guilt, shame, and embarrassment in this man’s speaking style, especially when he is talking about absolutely horrifying actions.  What some people mistakenly take to be rock solid confidence is actually pure psychopathy.  This man does not have a conscience.  

 Morality is necessarily  collective both in how  it involves shared perception and  shared obligations.   In the beginning morality must have been enforced by the group as a whole.  Does not morality give the group the power to punish and exclude any individual in the group?

From a “management design” perspective moral systems are designed to get rid of psychopaths, and discourage people from crossing the line into unconstrained egotism.  The theory that psychopaths have been mostly selected out the human gene pool, was first argued by Anthropologist, Christopher Boehm, in his book, Moral Origins.  

Morality is something that we share with everyone in our group, and it is something that we each internalize.  The perception of right and wrong is shared.  We commit ourselves to perceiving actions as either right or wrong just as  everyone else does, and we expect everyone else to feel the same way,  and that they too will avoid doing wrong. The group is collectively committed to detecting and punishing wrongdoing, and the worse the crime, the more people in the group are involved together in its detection and punishment.
By involving the commitment of the entire group, morality formed a system that, in part,  protected the group from outsiders, but more importantly, from wrongdoers within the group.   “Peace and Order” were the collective goals;  actions to detect and sanction wrongdoing were part of everyone’s responsibility.  The moral system worked to further these goals because everyone committed to following the rules and enforcing sanctions.  The collective commitment of the whole group to detect and punish any wrongdoing was, in effect, Hobbes’s sword.  It was the threat of physical violence, exclusion or assassination made good by the collective membership of the group.   In a group of 30 to 90 people that was realizable and effective.  

We may not recognize this, or we may take this for granted today because we now live in huge and complex societies, where membership in groups is often porous and overlapping.  In the more complex industrial societies there is a tremendous division of labour:  there are professional lawmakers, judges, policemen, gaolers, teachers, lawyers, religious leaders, opinion leaders, philosophers, and countless more specialized professions.

We no longer collectively  throw stones at wrongdoers.  But that doesn’t seem to stop any, or all of us, from continuing to perceive, judge, and share our judgements about right and wrong behaviour with those around us. These impulses to get involved in perceiving, judging, and sanctioning actions morally, hark back to our very origins.  


  1. Most timely, Charles. Perhaps it will always be timely.