Lessons from Western Philosophers- Thomas Hobbes, Jeremy Bentham and William of Ockham

The thinkers discussed under this post are different from the ones discussed in the previous one on Aristotle, Epicurus and Aquinas, as they mark a shift from the idealist and moral-ethical framework of ancient western philosophy.

The thinkers mentioned here are the ones of the post-dark ages, and uphold the ideas of empiricism and reason.

William of Ockham

William of Ockham

Ockham was opposite of Aquinas. He brought a deep rooted empirical trend into the British philosophy. His contribution lies in championing the idea of voluntarism. He upheld God’s freedom and omnipotence, and refused to recognize the wrongness of human acts as stemming from any inherent quality in themselves, but from the free decision of God, whose omnipotence was absolute.

However, his ideas contradict in placing God’s power and reason against each other. He believed that a morally good act should also be in conformity with the right reason. He also believed that a person is obliged to follow the God’s directives, even if it is against one’s conviction.

Thomas Hobbes

Thomas Hobbes

Thomas Hobbes is a classic example of the rational school of philosophers. He refused the existence of any divine matter in the world, and gave a primary importance to the human faculty and dispositions. However, most of the ideas given by Hobbes are largely shaped by the circumstances of internal disturbance and strife that existed during his time. As a result of these circumstances, Hobbes asserted that:

“Fear and I were born twins”

Hobbes wrote the text- Leviathan, and argued that man was free in the state of nature. However, the life in the state of nature itself was characterized as:

‘Solitary, Poor, Nasty, Brutish and Short…’

Hobbes believed that the element of self-preservation is dominant in every person. Every individual wants to extend his survival, at any cost. In the state of nature, the longevity of life was threatened by a constant fear. Thus, Hobbes ones said- ‘Fear and I were born twins’.

As a remedy to the dreadful life in the state of nature, the people came together and constituted a social contract, which gave birth to the omnipotent and all-powerful state. Hobbes referred to this ‘state’ as ‘leviathan’– which means a sea monster in ancient Greek.

Social Contract Theory by Hobbes

Hobbes Social Contract

Hobbes used the social contract to explain the emergence of the various social and political institutions. By parting their freedom, man ensured their survival. The state, that emerged, was responsible for maintaining the law and order in the society. All powers and authority were transferred to the state. Thus, through sheer force and authority, state restricted man from invading the rights and liberties of the other person.

Thus, we find a hedonistic element in Hobbes. For him, self preservation is the guiding element for every man. Man is driven towards anything that increases the pleasure, and is averse to that which gives pain. Through their capability of rational thought, man realizes that peace, order and harmony is more conducive to the longevity of life. Thus, there emerges a consensus for a peaceful social order.

Every state enacts laws, regulating the behaviour of man, and restricting them from invading the rightful claims of the others. However, an important aspect in Hobbesian understanding is- to invest the state with all power and authority. It is necessary to make the state so powerful that no one is able to challenge it’s authority.

Hobbes also mentions that the freedom of an individual lies in the sphere where the law is silent. Thus, whatever the state does not forbid constitutes the sphere of freedom for the individual. Since the state has come into existence, as a result of the social contract, every individual is a party to it. The social contract of Hobbes is irrevocable.

Ethics of Hobbes

Thus, the ethics of Hobbes mentions that the source of all morality and ethics is the state itself. Whatever the state permits is moral and ethical. While whatever the state forbids is seen as unethical. Some scholars call this principle as- Ethical Egoism, as it is based on the human urge to seek pleasure and self-preservation. Hobbes does not believe in any spiritual or divine purpose of life. His theory is purely material and ‘this-worldly’.

The Main principles guiding the Hobbesian ethical framework are:

Self Preservation Hedonism (Liking for Pleasure and dislike for Pain)
Longevity of life Self-Interest
Materialism Obedience to State (as it is a product of the society itself)
Reason Rationality of man


Jeremy Bentham

Jeremy Bentham

Bentham is seen as the chief advocate of Utilitarianism. Utilitarianism is based on a hedonistic principle of maximization of pleasure, and minimization of pain. Every human action is dictated by two forces-

  • a drive towards pleasure, and
  • an aversion to pain.

All other considerations are irrelevant for the Utilitarians.

The Utilitarian Ethics

The social ideas of Bentham are also based on the utilitarian ethics. It believes in the ‘maximum good of the maximum number’. Bentham’s ideas are based on a simple principle- that each individual is a separate entity. Every individual is a utility-maximizing agent. Thus, the overall good of the society can be achieved by maximizing the good of the different individuals. The good of the society, as a whole, is nothing but an aggregate of the good of different individuals. Thus, he views the welfare of the society from the perspective of aggregate welfare of the individuals.

Also, since the maximization of the good of each and every individual might not be possible in the conditions of scarcity of resources, it is plausible to attempt for the maximization of the good of the maximum number.

Thus, a good law is one that maximizes the aggregate good in the society.

The whole of ethics, of Bentham, is based on two principles- Good and Obligation. The underlying principle of every ethic is pleasure and pain. Good can mean only pleasure, and absence of pain. Thus, he finds pleasure and pain as the guiding source of every ethic. Pursuit of pleasure, according to Bentham, should be the central goal of morality.

Ethics is nothing but the art of directing the actions of man so as to bring about the greatest good of the greatest number. The ‘goodness’ of an act is judged by the degree to which it creates pleasure or pain.

Utility of an action is measurable. Thus, the goodness of an act can be measured in material terms. This allows us to measure the impact of a decision/law on the aggregate good for the society. Evaluation of any action is done by comparing the total amount of pleasure and pain it gives to the society/individual.

To calculate the utility of an action, Bentham provided a tool called- Hedonistic Calculus– which evaluates an action on the basis of 7 scales-

Intensity Duration Certainty
Propinquity Fecundity Purity

Thus, we find a deep rooted hedonistic ground of the Benthamite ideas. Like Hobbes, Bentham also does not attach any transcendental meaning to life. Every action has only ‘this-worldly’ implications. This principle of utility, for Utilitarians, is limited to the individuals, but extend to the state and government as well.

However, this principle is often contested. Modern thinkers challenge the assertion about the quantifiability of goodness. Utilitarianism does not make any distinction between the qualitative and quantitative good. Also, a path of utilitarianism does not care about the down-trodden and the underdeveloped. Thus, the contemporary society does not adhere to the utilitarian principles of Bentham.

More Coming soon…

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