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Gianfranco Pellegrino

on 16 January 2017

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Transcript of HPT 2

2. The Secret History of Self-Interest
The problem
The charge:
For liberals, economic rights
i.e. the right to own property, to make contracts, to enter into business, to choose one's career or occupation, to buy and sell, to exchange goods and services
are primary
Liberals advocate a hyperegoistical, beggar-thy-neighbor attitude in which nothing matters but the pursuit of personal and material gain
Liberals are psychological reductionist: they believed that human beings are propelled by rational self-interest alone, as if benevolence, love of others, and devotion to the common good were wholly unreal motivations
however important, economic liberty was merely one among the core practices valued by liberals
the role of self-interest in liberal theory has been poorly understood
Before the 19th century, motivational reductionism was virtually unknown. Rather, traditional psychology was dominated by a mélange of Stoic, Epicurean, Aristotelian, and Augustinian theory -- where no reductionism was possible.
Passion vs Reason
most human behaviour springs from unthinking habit or irrational passions. Rational choice of action was exceptional. Self-destructive and wasteful conduct was rampant. Most individuals were compulsive or impulsive, hidebound by custom or racked by passing frenzies. Ideological creeds, psychological identification with cultural groups or charismatic leaders, and chivalric or devotional behavioral codes -- all those forces drove individuals to sacrifice their personal well-being and even their lives. Calculating and self-interested behaviour is a rare moral ideal, that could be achieved only by a few philosophers after a strenuous process of moral discipline, wherein irrational passions were systematically weakened and purged. It could certainly not be expected from everyone.
The Hobbesian strategy
To eliminate the destructive violence of civil war, it is crucial to discredit all ideals that tempt individuals to defy death. In a morally reformed society, people will, for the most part, rationally pursue self-preservation, oblivious to the siren songs of aristocratic glory and religious redemption. This is a normative ideal, though: presumably, for Hobbes, it is not the case that human beings are self-disciplined enough to become rational and self-interested in an emphatic sense.
If most human beings most of the time were rational pursuers of their own self-interest, history would not be an endless chronicle of wasteful butchery and self-destruction. Civil wars are so frequent, instead, because at least some individuals are prepared to risk death for the sake of "higher" ideals such as glory and salvation, or perhaps to avenge a public humiliation inflicted on their cultural group.
The commercial society strategy
Commercial society and predictable state authority have powerful psychological effects and could conceivably knock some modicum of sense into mankind.
Economic growth and legal constraints on public officials discourage panicky, instrumentally irrational, and self-destructive behaviour. Commercialism alone would weaken the vise-grip of xenophobia and bigotry, incite forethought, and sharpen people's awareness of the remote consequences of their actions. The spirit of commerce would not create noble souls, but it might solve certain social problems by subtly transforming dominant styles of interaction.
Liberal devotion to self-interest implies a a purely prudential account of practical reason
Psychological reductionism
Instrumental rationality
Prudential, or instrumental, view of reason
Inertia of reason I
Adopting a goal, acting for a motive, is a matter of passions, is a matter of sentiments, or feelings. When a person acts with a purpose, i.e. when she acts in order to bring about a given outcome, she is driven by her passions, sentiments or feelings. E.g.: I help a friend in a difficult predicament. I do this out of my friendly sentiments toward him, not because he is objectively in a dire predicament. Were I devoid of those sentiments, I would have been indifferent to his troubles.
Reason cannot rule over goals. There is no point in saying that one should assume a given purpose for her action, on pain of irrationality. Any goal that a given human being sets for her action is sound -- even though it might be wicked or silly.
Motivational sentimentalism
Inertia of reason II
Passions and sentiments, or feelings, are non-cognitive states, while reason is a cognitive state. Accordingly, reason cannot affect passions and sentiments, because cognition cannot be influenced, or directed, by non-cognition.
Instrumental reason
Dealing with facts and causal relations, reasons can instruct us on the best means to achieve our ends. To be true, this is the only role that reason can have in the practical sphere. Irrationality in action is merely not employing the best means to one's own ends.
Psychological egoism
People are moved to action by their self-interest only, i.e. by their appetites or their desires.
"A passion is an original existence, or, if you will, modification of existence, and contains not any representative quality, which renders it a copy of any other existence or modification. When I am angry, I am actually possest with the passion, and in that emotion have no more a reference to any other object, than when I am thirsty, or sick, or more than five foot high. ‘Tis impossible, therefore, that this passion can be oppos’d by, or be contradictory to truth and reason; since this contradiction consists in the disagreement of ideas, consider’d as copies, with those objects, which they represent." (Treatise,
"Actions do not derive their merit from a conformity to reason, nor their blame from a contrariety to it; [...] as reason can never immediately prevent or produce any action by contradicting or approving of it, it cannot be the source of the distinction betwixt moral good and evil, which are found to have that influence. (Treatise,
"It seems evident, that reason, in a strict sense . . . can never, of itself, be any motive to the will, and can have no influence but so far as it touches some passion or affection. Abstract relations of ideas are the objects of curiosity, not of volition. And matters of fact, where they are neither good nor evil, where they neither excite desire nor aversion, are totally indifferent; and whether known or unknown, whether mistaken or rightly apprehended, cannot be regarded as any motive to action." (DoP 5.1)
What may at first occur on this head, is, that as nothing can be contrary to truth or reason, except what has a reference to it, and as the judgments of our understanding only have this reference, it must follow, that passions can be contrary to reason only so far as they are accompany'd with some judgment or opinion. According to this principle, which is so obvious and natural, `tis only in two senses, that any affection can be call'd unreasonable. First, When a passion, such as hope or fear, grief or joy, despair or security, is founded on the supposition or the existence of objects, which really do not exist. Secondly, When in exerting any passion in action, we chuse means insufficient for the design'd end, and deceive ourselves in our judgment of causes and effects. Where a passion is neither founded on false suppositions, nor chuses means insufficient for the end, the understanding can neither justify nor condemn it. `Tis not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger. `Tis not contrary to reason for me to chuse my total ruin, to prevent the least uneasiness of an Indian or person wholly unknown to me. `Tis as little contrary to reason to prefer even my own acknowledge'd lesser good to my greater, and have a more ardent affection for the former than the latter. A trivial good may, from certain circumstances, produce a desire superior to what arises from the greatest and most valuable enjoyment; nor is there any thing more extraordinary in this, than in mechanics to see one pound weight raise up a hundred by the advantage of its situation. In short, a passion must be accompany'd with some false judgment. in order to its being unreasonable; and even then `tis not the passion, properly speaking, which is unreasonable, but the judgment. (Treatise, III, 3, 3)
Morality of self-interest
There is an implicit moral component hidden in the liberal emphasis on universal self-interest: it contains an implicit reference to some sort of universalistic and egalitarian norm, and it lays the anthropological foundations for democracy.
To say that all individuals are motivated by self-interest is to assert that, from a political perspective, all human beings are fundamentally the same. For political purposes, no individual can lay claim to motives that are morally superior to his neighbor's. Everyone has interests, and one individual's interests are, in principle, as worthy of satisfaction as another's. The right to rule cannot be grounded in natural superiority, therefore.
Limits to governmental power
All people, including rulers, are driven by self-interest. As a result, constitution makers must craft institutions, such as periodic and competitive elections, that shape and channel the interests of rulers so that they artificially coincide with the interest of the ruled.
Self-imposed constraints and self-exemption
Government is necessary precisely because individuals are partial to themselves. The passions of men will not conform to the dictates of justice without constraint. A self-interested individual will prefer that everyone else obey the law, while he or she continues to disobey it. Such an arrangement would be in the individual's private interest, but it would also be wrong from a liberal point of view. To benefit from the self-restraint of others, while continuing to benefit from one own's lack of self-restraint, is flagrantly unjust or unfair. Individuals who exempt them from otherwise universal constraints implicitly assert, contrary to liberal principles, that they are special, superior, higher types.
By rehabilitating self-interest, liberalism has provided cultural legitimacy to cool calculation, niggling selfishness, and indifference toward spiritual values and the common good
Passions -- assumed as typical springs of human behaviour -- are noncalculative as well as nonselfish.
The irrationality hypothesis
Homo oeconomicus
"On the Definition of Political Economy, and on the Method of Investigation Proper to It," London and Westminster Review, October 1836
"[Political economy] does not treat the whole of man’s nature as modified by the social state, nor of the whole conduct of man in society. It is concerned with him solely as a being who desires to possess wealth, and who is capable of judging the comparative efficacy of means for obtaining that end."
Motivational pluralism
“On the Division of Labour,” The Wealth of Nations, 1776
"It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest."
There is a massive historical importance of self-destructive and noncalculating behaviour. Under certain conditions, we must appeal to motives other than interest to understand not this or that scattered event, but even the drift of social and political change.
Smith routinely invoked the distinction between "interests, born of calculation, and passions, based on impulse"
Interest consistently contrasted with pride
Although Britain would benefit from relinquishing its dominion over the American colonies, it was unlikely to do so: "Such sacrifices, though they might frequently be agreeable to the
, are always mortifying the
of every nation".
Because it is an unnatural means of enriching one child while beggaring his siblings, primogeniture is against "the real
of a numerous family" even though it supports "the
of family distinction"
1723 – 1790
Landowners retain their slaves because they are driven by a natural inclination to bully and preside -- even when such gratuitous domineering entails economic deprivation.
Motivational reductionism is a false "love of simplicity".
To say that patriots and misers, cowards and heroes all aim exclusively at "their own happiness and welfare" illustrates only how little we learn about behaviour by adducing self-interest.
We can always stipulate that everything a person does, by definition, is meant to maximize his or her psychic income. But when the motivational reductionist traces all action to self-love or the rational pursuit of personal advantage, he "makes use of a different language from the rest of his countrymen, and calls things not by their proper names".
The very idea of interest-driven behaviour is meaningless, unless we can identify some behaviour that it is not interest-driven. The idea of calculating action loses all content if it can no longer be opposed to action that it is not calculating.
Clear cases of benevolent judgments:
a miser admires the niggardliness of a fellow miser in a purely disinterested fashion, perhaps from an aesthetic appreciation of penny-pinching, certainly not from any expectation of personal gain.
sometimes we even praise the moral quality of actions that harm us.
normally, a person will not step briskly upon "another's gouty toes," even if he finds it somewhat inconvenient to go around them.
No dichotomy between egoism and altruism
There is a wide array of violent and subrational emotions, all of them distinct from both self-interest and social benevolence
They include principally "the disagreeable passions, fear, anger, dejection, grief, melancholy, anxiety, &c."
The "darker passions of enmity and resentment" are disinterested in an emphatic sense: they motivate self-destructive behaviour.
A tricothomy of social/selfish/unsocial passions
Self-interest is somewhere between disinterested benevolence and disinterested malevolence, between virtue and vice
Selfless cruelty
"Of Parties in General"
Factions are not mere interest groups. They can galvanize behaviour that is simultaneously selfless and unspeakably vicious toward others.
This joining or flocking instinct, the flip side of xenophobia, is a universal characteristic of mankind and one that can easily vanquish the natural propensity to truck and barter.
Factions are deplorable because they make communitywide cooperation impossible. Narrow group loyalties often prevent citizens from coming humanely to each other's assistance. The mutual hostility of subgroups is a perverse but direct result of selective identification with other human beings.
A sharp contrast between the inborn tendency to identify emotionally with an exclusive subgroup (factionalism) and strategic rationality in general, particularly the coolly calculating pursuit of personal advantage.
Factions reflect something like "an original propensity" or primordial need: when you observe a conflict, you tend to identify yourself with one party or the other.
There are various motives which lead individuals to cluster and divide into hostile groupings
Hume presents a tripartite scheme, distinguishing among
interest-driven behaviour;
affection-driven behaviour;
principle-driven behaviour
factions based on economic interest
factions based abstract principles such as a theoretical dogma or the divine character of royalty
factions based on attachment to a person
Factions often create conflicts out of astonishingly trivial origins.
The conflict between the two nations began when the emperor’s grandfather commanded all Lilliputians to break their eggs on the small end first. He made this decision after breaking an egg in the old way, large end first, and cutting his finger.
The Lilliputians fear an invasion from the Island of Blefuscu.
The people resented the law, and six rebellions were started in protest. The monarchs of Blefuscu fueled these rebellions, and when they were over the rebels fled to that country to seek refuge. Eleven thousand people chose death rather than submit to the law. Many books were written on the controversy, but books written by the Big-Endians were banned in Lilliput. The government of Blefuscu accused the Lilliputians of disobeying their religious doctrine, the Brundrecral, by breaking their eggs at the small end. The Lilliputians argued that the doctrine reads, “That all true believers shall break their eggs at the convenient end,” which could be interpreted as the small end.
Three mutually irreducible and independent factors that exert causal force upon human action
interests are far less dangerous than a number of more violent and combustible passions.
a person's motives are always mixed: interests, passions, and norms conspire together to shape every human action. Nevertheless, sometimes one motive predominates and sometimes others. Therefore, we have largely principle-driven, largely interest-driven, and largely affection-driven behaviour.
within a single group, such as a religious sect or movement, different motives are correlated with different roles: leaders and elites usually motivated by calculating interest while followers usually motivated by noncalculating principle or affect.
Hume's account allows an analysis of the causal interconnections between different motives: a man may be a royalist from principle, but when he receives a sinecure from the king his ardor for his principles may suddenly redouble.
animosity among hostile factions is able to sustain itself even when it runs counter to every party's present interest.
Originally, two groups may be divided by competition over a scarce resource or over some principle. With the passage of time, however, the original bone of contention vanishes but the animosity does not, because certain emotional reactions become etched or ossified in the human mind, and they do not readily adapt to altered circumstances. Once human beings get used to responding in a certain way, inertia takes over and their actions become largely robotic or independent of external circumstances. What was initially an interest-based or principle-based enmity can easily become an inveterate or inherited one, out of joint with the times. Resentments, grudges, and hatreds are sometimes bequeathed from generation to generation, without requiring further stimulus from new conflicts of interest.
inherited animosity
a perverse form of affection which is disinterested, unprincipled, and wholly noncalculating
infatuation with a leader
an imaginary interest, whereby individuals attach themselves psychologically to a kingpin or guru whom they may never meet personally and from whom they can expect no material benefits whatsoever
"even interest itself, and all human affairs, are governed by
E.g.: Europe's religious civil wars, terryfying struggles provoked not by a clash of sentiment but based on a disagreement about a few abstruse phrases that one party accepts without understanding and the other rejects in the same manner.
The bloody conflicts around the meaning of the Eucharist, which originally split the reform churches, cannot be traced to conflicts of interest in a narrow sense.
Human beings are emotionally flustered and roiled. They do not think about what they are doing. Their minds are gnawed at by childish myths and unspeakable fears. They crave certainty.
As a result, they often fail to grasp their private advantage or to act upon it strategically when they do.
We long mightily and involuntarily to find our own beliefs mirrored in those around us. Anyone who crosses our path we grab by the lapels; and we hammer the unlucky party into agreement because our minds are shocked by contrariness and fortified by consensus.
This compulsive intolerance is not a symptom of arrogance but of insecurity. This primitive psychological need for agreement explains why we are so "keen" in controversy, something neither self-interest nor even vanity could explain.
L'homme copie
After parties have been formed in any of these ways, new adherents can be won by the independent and powerful motive of imitativeness.
Behaviour is contagious and people copy others -- in gait or cadence of speech, for instance -- not because it is in their interest to do so, but because imitation comes naturally.
"This is not only conspicuous in children, who implicitly embrace every opinion propos'd to them; but also in men of the greatest judgment and understanding, who find it very difficult to follow their own reason or inclination, in opposition to that of their friends and daily companions".
Hume does not view self-interest as the hard rock on which all social life is reliably built. "Interest" would be a useless category if it were not reserved for one motive contending with others.
Motivational reductionism robs "calculating self-interest" of the specificity it acquires when viewed against a backdrop of selfless urges and thoughtless acts.
The stoic strategy
The Passions and the Interests: Political Arguments for Capitalism before Its Triumph
, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1977
Albert O. Hirschman
(April 7, 1915 – December 10, 2012)
Hume's distinction between calm and violent passions
Hume’s generic term covering all mental states, or ‘whatever can be present to the mind’, is ‘perceptions’. Within these, the most basic distinction is between impressions and ideas. By ‘ideas’, he means what we would now call thoughts or mental representations. After initially dividing impressions into sensations, passions, and emotions, he generally distinguishes between sensations and passions, with emotions being subsumed within the latter category. He marks this distinction as between impressions of sensation and of reflexion. The difference is between (1) sensory data such as colours, sounds and smells, together with internal bodily sensations such as pains, and (2) desires and affective states such as being happy, angry or afraid.
Passions are either calm or violent, depending on their subjective intensity. While calm passions count as passions due to their affective nature, they have no discernible qualitative feel, and ‘produce little emotion in the mind, and are more known by their effects than by the immediate feeling or sensation’ (T 417)
Perceptions (mental states)
Ideas (thoughts or mental representations)
Impressions of sensation
Impressions of reflexion
Hume takes calm passions to include ‘the sense of beauty and deformity in action, composition, and external objects’, contrasting them with the violence of ‘the passions of love and hatred, grief and joy, pride and humility’ (T 276) and other passions derivative from them. Also, he describes them as ‘either certain instincts originally implanted in our natures, such as benevolence or resentment, the love of life, and kindness to children, or
the general appetite to good, and aversion to evil, consider’d merely as such
’ (T 417).
Many 18th-century thinkers looked favourably upon interest because they say it as a relatively peaceful and harmless alternative to the violent passion for glory which had long inspired the military, aristocratic, and landed ruling classes of Europe.
The notion that self-interest was a relatively harmless and even beneficial passions was a new and untraditional idea, contradicting the old association of avarice with sin.
Supporters of self-interest hoped that the mild passion for moneymaking, although admittedly ignoble and uncouth, could defeat and bury the violent passions that so ruinously stoked the endless cycles of civil butchery. Commerce is "low", but it is not the cruelest fate individuals and groups can inflict on each other.
Interests are base, but they also raise the comfort level of social interaction. The self-interested agent is "cool and deliberate." He is reliable, predictable, calculable, and susceptible to influence by others. An individual who is flushed with a hot passion or in the grip of some abstract principle is more obstinate, less amenable to compromise, and less prone to to cooperation than any rational seeker of private advantage. It is much easier defend oneself against enemies fretting about their interests than against opponents reeling from selfless emotions and bursting with inspiring ideals.
Allegro ma non troppo
, il Mulino, Bologna, 1988
A stupid person is a person who causes losses to another person or to a group of persons while himself deriving no gain and even possibly incurring losses.
If Tom takes an action and suffers a loss while producing a gain to Dick, Tom's mark will fall in field H: Tom acted helplessly.
If Tom takes an action by which he makes a gain while yielding a gain also to Dick, Tom's mark will fall in area I: Tom acted intelligently.
If Tom takes an action by which he makes a gain causing Dick a loss, Tom's mark will fall in area B: Tom acted as a bandit.
The role of self-interest to be understood by reference to its irrational and self-destructive
too focused on the
pursuit of glory
as an
of self-interest
neglect of the role of religion, particularly of the idea of original sin
underdeveloped analysis of the egalitarian implications of the postulate of universal self-interest
the intolerant adherence to abstract principle, inherited animosity, love of imitation, psychological infatuation with a leader, and psychological identification with a group, the craving for approval, anger, envy, fear, grief, shame, depression, melancholy, and anxiety.
envy, malice, the longing for revenge, parochial loyalty, eagerness to conform, the inclination to act as befits one's station, irrational avarice, zealotry, caprice, aversion to change, sheer habit, the instinct to imitate others, and the desire to be told what to do, irrational "obsequiousness" toward the rich and the powerful.
Francis Bacon
revenge, love, honor, shame, grief, fear, pity, and boredom.
envy, compassion, anxiety, grief, depression, vexation, despondency, sluggishness, shame, fright, consternation, bewilderment, malice, rapture, ostentation, anger, hatred and greed.
106 BC – 43 BC
1. Animosity, enmity, and hatred
2. Affection, attachment, and love
3. The relish of telling people what to do
4. The relish of being told what to do
5. Excessive pride, megalomania, and the desire to eclipse others
6. Self-deprecation, dejection, spiritlessness, and a failure to take an interest in oneself.
7. The love of spewing vilification on others
8. Extreme indignation at social slights
9. Primordial inertness or the desire not to work
10. Primordial reslessness or the desire to do something, anything -- to be where the action is
11. The need for consensus
12. Delight in conflict -- it clarifies life -- and the spirit of contradiction.
13. The hatred of change
14. The love of change.
15. The hatred of uncertainty.
16. The love of uncertainty.
17. Instinctual imitativeness -- monkey see, monkey do
18. The desire to be different.
19. The obsessive desire to follow rules.
20. The obsessive desire to break rules.
21. Identification with the victors
22. Identifications with the victims.
23. Envy for merited or unmerited success
24. Pity for undeserved misfortune.
Insufficient prominence to habit or inherited folkways and patterns of response; insufficient focus on anger and rage (the premier example of irrational passions in classical authors), vengefulness and malice poorly represented; excluded identification with a group.
Christian hostility toward pridefulness and glory-seeking helped pave the way for the secular and "bourgeouis" attacks on aristocratic sentiments and ideals.
The rehabilitation of self-love was inseparable from an attack on Christian severity and asceticism, or at least hostility to religious self-abnegation helped reinforce a relatively welcoming attitude toward the principle of rational self-interest.
Those who defended the idea of an inborn but morally neutral self-love (a sentiment with which human beings come into the world) were not celebrating avarice, but rather attacking the idea of original sin.
A narrowing strategy
Interest is only one motive among others; in particular, interest can be distinguished from a variety of malevolent passions. Contrary to the latter, the rational pursuit of economic gain is relatively harmless.
A broadening strategy
Rational self-interest is to be identified with human motivation in general: it is the fundamental motivation spurring all human endeavour.
Far from being mean-spirited and selfish, the rehabilitation of self-interest made it morally obligatory, for the first time, to attend to the interest of the excluded.
Conflict of interests is endemic in society, and the purpose of any good society is to avoid preponderance of the interests of the few on those of the many
Society is not a harmonic, organic body, but a place of conflicting interests: harmony is not a natural by-product of hierarchy and subordination.
Focusing on human partiality and self-interest is a means to advise the weak not to be duped and exploited by the strong.
Assuming, for the sake of argument, that all men were driven by the rational pursuit of private advantage, self-interest theorists clearly posed -- for the first time -- the problem that modern democratic institution were eventually designed to resolve: how to make the interests of rulers coincide with the interests of the ruled.
Citizens should distrust every public expression of disinterestedness on the part of the authorities. Such distrust is the core of democracy.
Completed in manuscript around 1668, some pirated edition published in the late 1670s, but the authorized version only in 1682
An account of the political civil wars in England between 1640 and 1660, where Hobbes applied his analytical framework elaborated in
De Cive
(1642) and
His main object: the "injustice, impudence, and hypocrisy", the "knavery, and folly," of the main participants in the civil war. His main claim was that civil war broke out because key actors were bewitched by irrational passions and tragically misled by doctrinal errors.
I. analysis of the seeds of rebellion, the civil war's long-term ideological origins, with emphasis on political and theological opinions.
II. The rise of the war, especially the strategies of those who undermine and destroy political authority (focus on the art of words by which the people are indoctrinated and seduced)
III. A schematic chronicle of events between 1640 and 1660.
Against the received view
Hobbes conceived of man as an animal propelled exclusively by the desire for self-preservation
"Most men would rather lose their lives ... than suffer slander." People fear invisible spirits more than death. Airy phantoms have greater sway over distempered imaginations than do real and certain dangers. While fear is wired into human nature, the object of fear is variable, depending on an individual's constitution and education. Accordingly, the primacy of the fear of death cannot possibly be an unchangeable attribute of the human mind.
Hobbes rejected motivational reductionism
Human motivations are much too disorderly and perverse to be reduced to self-preservation or the rational pursuit of private advantage.
Mankind is insanely self-destructive because, among other reasons, human beings dread dishonour and damnation more acutely than they fear death.
Hobbes' view of the origin and basis of political power
"The power of the mighty hath no foundation but in the opinion of the people."
The ultimate source of political authority is not coercion of the body, but captivation of the mind. Any political authority has subjective or psychological basis.
"Prophecy" is "many times the principal cause of the event foretold."
If a prophet could convincingly "predict" that Oliver Cromwell was doomed to be defeated, then most people would desert his party, weakening and insuring its defeat. Contrariwise, if a fortune-teller persuaded the majority that Cromwell's party was certain to win, then people would rush to join his coalition, making its victory inevitable.
The outcome of a civil war may depend on something as intangible as the capacity to dishearten foes and embolden allies. Human behaviour remains unpredictable because it is guided partly by assessments of the future, assessments which in turn result from irrational traits of the mind, not from the calculation of rational maximizers.
The behavior of passionless and calculating opportunists, then, is ultimately controlled by less than rational, or even preposterous, assumptions about the future.
"the most part of men, though they have the use of Reasoning a little way ... yet it serves them to little use in common life."
Impulsiveness and compulsions, hysterical frenzy and aimless drifting, are more characteristic of a man's history than eye-on-the-ball purposiveness, thoughtful self-preservation, or the sober cultivation of material interests.
Many of the human passions propel men to self-destruction rather than self-preservation: people cultivate their name even when it obviously conflict with their interests to do so. Haunted by envy, feelings of inferiority, and status deprivation, they are also mortified at the thought of losing face. These hauntings beggle the mind, interfering with a sober assessment of alternative courses of action.
In addition, human beings have serious cognitive defects, preventing them from learning from experience or absorbing the most obvious truths about natural causality.
E.g. Cromwell's fetishism about his lucky day, the third of September.
Men "admire nothing but what they understand not." Human beings can be easily conned with gibberish, "with words not intelligible."
Conformism, deference, and group-think are further irrational reflexes of the human mind. Men are sheep. Out of a natural obsequiousness and need to be told what to do, "inferior neighbours" follow "men of age and quality." Personal loyalty, a moral-emotional identification with local notables, has a tremendous grip on most subjects. Ordinary subjects, moreover, think that "boldness of affirmation" is a proof of the thing affirmed. The more self-assured someone's tone of voice, the more persuasive he becomes. Even without schoolmasters, people will acquire their opinions by osmosis rather than by critical reflection -- by being dunked in "the stream" of public opinion. L'homme copie irrationally imitates the beliefs and behavior patterns of those around him, failing to notice what he is doing. He acts without thinking, not in order to save time, but from mindlessness, impulsiveness, distraction, inveterate slovenliness, poor moral character, and an inborn penchant for imitating the preferences of close companions.
"All men are fools which pull down anything which does them good, before they have set up something better in its place."
Rebels are willing to overthrow an unsatisfactory regime only because they give no thought to the tyranny or anarchy that is bound to follow.
Panic at the thought of violent death, however, clouds the mind and promotes irrational, shortsighted, and self-defeating behaviour.
Hobbes' preoccupation with the sources of human irrationality clashes rudely with the "rational-actor" approach that many commentators project onto his works. Despite a few memorable and citable passages, he does not conceive of man as an economic animal, engaging in preemptive strikes, rendering harmless those who might conceivably harm him. The pitiful and snarled mess which is the human mind cannot be painted with such a monochrome palette. Human behaviour is motored not by self-interest alone, but simultaneously by passions, interests, and norms.
According to Hobbes, norms are effective: people not only should, they actually do honor their plighted word, even when the personal costs of doing so are quite steep. So norms can sometimes override interests. Even when they do not do so, however, they can be uncommonly effective whenever countervailing interests cancel each other out or whenever interests prove inscrutable. Motives irreducible to self-interest are additionally powerful, in short, in complex choice situations where considerations of advantage do not clearly privilege one alternative over another.
E.g. members of the Common passionately hated Wentworth because he had once been a Parliamentary leader.
Such seething hatred cannot be reduced to the self-interest of the enraged party. Their animosity was not fueled by anticipated advantage. it was engendered instead by the implicit norm: deserters are intrinsically worse than people who have been always been enemies, even if their behavior is the same.
Sir Peter Wentworth (1529–1596) was a prominent Puritan leader in the Parliament of England.
Free speech was recognised as being essential if the Commons was to deliberate effectively. But it was also clearly understood that the freedom did not encompass incivilities, particularly towards the crown. It was for breach of this rule that the House itself, not Elizabeth, sent Wentworth to the Tower in 1576 following his protest about royal ‘messages’. Elizabeth was breaking new ground in attempting to prohibit discussion of matters which she regarded as her prerogative.
A compulsive attachment to inherited place, fused with trepidation about change, explains patterns of hostility unintelligible from the standpoint of rational self-interest alone.
Hobbes' nominalism
The only universal things are names. The word ‘tree’ is, Hobbes thinks, a universal or common name that names each of the trees. There is one name, and there are many trees. But there is not, Hobbes argues, some further thing that is the universal tree. Nor is there some universal idea that is somehow of each or all of the trees. Rather, ‘tree’ names each of the trees, each of the individuals to which the term applies (not, note, the collection of them).
What Hobbes calls common names, those words which apply to multiple things, are applied because of similarities between those things, not because of any relation to a universal thing or idea. There are, in the minds of speakers, ideas related to those names, but they are not abstract or general ideas, but individual images of individual things. I could use ‘tree’ now, associating it with a tall pine tree, and tomorrow use ‘tree’ but have before my mind a short beech tree. What matters, Hobbes says, is that “we remember that vocal sounds of this kind sometimes evoked one thing in the mind, sometimes something else”.
Even when not backed by the sword, "words" and "breath" possess enormous political force: people react more emotionally to names than to facts.
Cromwell did not dare assume the name of
. The label of treason has a particularly profound effect on waverers and temporizers. The Presbyterians drew execration upon the King's party by smearing it with the label of
. They cast odium upon the Anglicans, in turn, by calumniating them with the name of
Public opinion
is politically decisive.
To curry political favor, Parliament cleverly denominated itself the
guardian of English liberties
Veneration attaches to names, and veneration is an important source of power. Vilification, too, requires a shrewd application of labels. Given the gracious receptivity of the human mind, such flung mud rends to stick. The Commons was able "to put the people into tumult upon any occasion they desired"; that is, could drive them into actions contrary to the people's real interest.
Few names were more useful in this regard than the name of

In reality, "no tyrant was ever so cruel as a popular assembly".
Norms and names can be tools for some because they are not tools for all. Hypocrisy would be wholly pointless if everyone were fraudulent and no one was sincere. Broadly speaking, there are two types of human being: the cynic and the dupe. Dupes wastly outnumber cynics. As a result, norms and names will always exert a decisive influence over the course of historical events.
The rebellion was driven by ideas that vexed the mind and distorted people's perception of their own advantage
Norms, names, and doctrines are politically divisive. This is especially true because "the power of the mighty hath no foundation but in the opinion and belief of the people". To explain human behavior, appeals to self-interest are insufficient, because, quite simply, "the Actions of men proceed from their Opinion".
The rebellious Presbyterians and Parliamentarians were driven to rebellion not only by contumacy, ambition, and love of gain, but also by malice and envy. Such bilious passions, too, complicate attempts to offer a rational explanation of human behavior. They cannot be smoothly inserted into the utility bundle of a rational maximizer because, at the extremes, they flummox the mind, making the weighing of costs and benefits next to impossible.
Many "seditious blockheads" are "more fond of change than either of their peace and profit". They seek a "change of government" for its own sake. For some people, change is simply tastier than material advantage, while boredom is more frustrating than material deprivation. Not a lack of foresight alone, but also a taste for innovation, an irrational sense that the grass is greener on the other side, explains why rebels will foolishly tear down a government before giving the least thought to what they can erect in its place.
Many of the passions to which Hobbes attributes causal force are rooted in vanity or the irrational desire for applause. E.g. envy and malice.
The dangerous influence of Christianity
Religious war is Christianity's chief contribution to political development.
"Only in Christendom" is "liberty given to any private man to call the people together, and make orations to them frequently, or at all, without first making the state acquainted".
As a book-centered religion, Christianity suggests anarchically that it is "lawful for subjects to resist the King, when he commands anything that is against the Scripture". The "doctrine" that moral obligations disclosed by private reading may override the duty to secular authority is calamitous. A book-based and freely sermonizing religion will necessarily propagate anarchy. No realm can be stable so long as subjects may disobey the King's instructions whenever such commands seem "contrary to the command of God".
"How we can have peace while this is our religion, I cannot tell".
Power belongs to those who can plausibly threaten to crush rivals by physical force as well as to those who master opinion by rhetoric and fraud: no one can rule by monopolizing force alone.
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