Published by the Center for the Study of The Great Ideas (founded in 1990 by Mortimer J. Adler and Max Weismann)
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Friday, April 13, 2018

Reason and Self-Interest in Hobbes’ Reply to the Fool

Joseph Carlsmith in Prometheus Journal

"ABSTRACT: The Fool offers a famous objection to Hobbesian ethics: if practical rationality is rooted in self-interest, then isn’t it rational to abandon ethical reasoning when doing so “conduces to one’s benefit”? In this paper, I examine Hobbes’ reply to the Fool as it reveals the limitations of the moral theory presented in Leviathan. I begin by sketching out the reply and two traditional ways of interpreting it – the “case-by-case” interpretation and the “rule-commitment” interpretation. I argue that for empirical reasons both these interpretations fail to answer the Fool’s challenge. I then turn to an interpretation that I think a more promising answer to the Fool: Gauthier’s theory of conventional reason. This theory, I argue, contains a crucial insight that the first two interpretations lack: what Hobbes really needs to do to reply to the Fool is not to reconcile covenant-keeping with self-interest, but rather to show how constraints on the pursuit of self-interest can be rationally justified. Gauthier’s attempt to do so within Hobbes’ framework fails, but this failure illuminates a fundamental problem with Hobbes’ moral theory: that moral constraints on the pursuit of self-interest cannot provide reasons to a Hobbesian agent."


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