“The human” in Hobbes and Cumberland

In this essay, I discuss “the human” in the philosophy of Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679) and Richard Cumberland (1631–1718).1 By “the human,” I intend two senses. First, Hobbes and Cumberland adhere to some social ontology, by which I mean that they commit to some philosophical ideas of the nature of human beings. Second, they have moral understandings of human beings, such as their rights and value.

The philosophers’ ontologies are connected to their ethics, so that the two dimensions are mutually influential. I explicate Hobbes’s and Cumberland’s views of “the human” in these senses and contrast them with each other. This is of interest for various reasons; not least, understanding how our precursors thought of “the human” is important for understanding their philosophy, and our philosophy.

Hobbes’s ethics is contractarian. In basic terms, contractarianism states that what is right and just is determined by a hypothetical agreement between people. In Hobbes’s contractarianism, the agreement is upheld by a political sovereign (cf., e.g., pp. 52–4).2 Hobbes commits to ontological views in two categories, namely views concerning humans as beings, and views concerning human action. I will elaborate on the categories in that order.

Humans are rational animals (p. 3). As animals, the human is a kind of being in which there is motion (p. 20). Some motions are called vital, and include breathing, the pulse, digestion, and so on. Other motions are called animal, or voluntary, and include to walk, speak, and the general moving of the limbs as the mind decides. As rational, the human is a kind of being with cognitive faculties that enable her to deliberate. Moreover, humans are inclined to desire power (p. 33). By power, Hobbes intends having the means to obtain some future good (p. 28). These are Hobbes’s ontological commitments with regard to humans.

Concerning their actions, Hobbes’s view is that action begins by external stimuli that cause appetite and fear in the agent, i.e., “good” and “bad” from the human’s subjective perspective (p. 15). These are the first beginnings of action, in the sense that they cause the human to decide to act.

Hobbes writes that deliberation is always in our power, which means that voluntary action is an ontological possibility. By voluntary action, Hobbes means actions that begin in the will, i.e., in the human’s cognitive faculties. This is related to the debate about free will as an ontological possibility. On this, Hobbes comments (vaguely) that the question is not whether humans can, for instance, speak or write, according to their will, but whether the will to speak or write come upon them according to their will (p. 61). These are Hobbes’s ontological commitments with regard to human action.

Morally, Hobbes’s view is that there is no such thing as absolute goodness, considered without relation (p. 5). Goodness and badness are, as stated above, subjective preferences. Likewise, there is no moral value to humans other than their price; “that is to say, so much as would be given for the use of [their] power” (p. 30). Unless humans unite under one common power, i.e., a sovereign, people live in a condition of war (p. 36) in which there is no moral value to anything or anyone (p. 38). It is then within each person’s rights to use her power for her own good, including using another person’s body (p. 39 & p. 46).

Thus, Hobbes’s moral view of human beings is that they are fully entitled to seek their own good with any means available. These rights can only be laid aside by transferring them or renouncing them (p. 40). The mutual transfer of rights is called a contract (p. 41). Therefore, humans are at war until they unite through contract under one common power. When they enter into conditions of peace, ”no man require to reserve to himself any right, which he is not content should be reserved to every one of the rest” (p. 49). Humans then gain an equal moral value instead of the price-value they had in the state of war.

One possible inconsistency in Hobbes’s theory is that he introduces moral duties on humans in the state of war, namely that it is a fundamental law of nature that they should seek peace (p. 47) and that they have as final cause to set restraints on themselves (p. 52). These suggestions seem ad hoc, i.e., designed to provide moral reasons for people to unite under a common power. They form a possible inconsistency because Hobbes is also of the view that morality enters the picture first when people have already united.

In Cumberland’s theory, the ontological and moral dimensions are merged, as he appears to claim that normative precepts are given by the nature of human beings. Cumberland begins by stating that humans, like God, are rational (p. 83). As Hobbes, he thinks that because of our capability to deliberate, humans must possess a free will (p. 96; see also note 1 on the same page). But, “natural impulse and reason conspire together,” so that the former is selfish while the latter takes the common good into account (p. 100). Where Hobbes sees mere ends-means-rationality in human reason, Cumberland sees a built-in concern for others.

This is because Cumberland is of the view that what is good for the individual, namely happiness, is contingent on the good for the whole. Among other things, he writes, “the whole is no different from the parts taken together” (p. 86). Although it is clear that the whole cannot be different from its constitutive elements, particular elements can be different from the characteristics of the whole. Cumberland overlooks this possibility and holds that there is a necessary and interdependent relationship between the good for the individual and the common good.

With this view, he argues that a mind that neglects the happiness of others lacks an element essential to its perfection, ”namely the internal peace that comes from a uniform, continually self-consistent wisdom” (p. 88). The mind is in conflict with itself, i.e., it is unreasonable or irrational, when it decides that it should act in one way concerning itself and in another way concerning others who share the same nature. This allows Cumberland to formulate one single precept, “the fount of all natural laws” (p. 83):

The greatest benevolence of each rational agent towards all forms the happiest state of each and of all benevolent persons, so far as it can be produced by them themselves; and it is necessarily required for the happiest state that they can attain; and therefore the common good will be the supreme law.

Thus, to conclude, Hobbes’s view of “the human” is twofold; it has an ontological and a moral dimension that inform each other. In Cumberland, these dimensions are merged so that there are built-in moral precepts in the nature of human beings. This means that Cumberland’s “human” cannot be understood without taking his ethics into account. Hobbes’s theory, on the contrary, can be assessed in either of its dimensions.


1 I am grateful to Anna Wedin and Frans Svensson for their comments on earlier versions of this text.

2 All references are to page numbers in Raphael, D. D. (Ed.). 1991. British Moralists 1650-1800: I. Hobbes-Gay. Hackett Publishing Company, Inc.