The Basis of Morality in Kant and Hobbes

Kant and Hobbes had totally different understanding of the issue of morality. This disparity was informed by their varying thought systems. Kant took a more rationalistic view of morality, while Hobbes was more empirical in this regard. However, both proceeded from a subjective point. That is to say that they took a person centered approach to issues of morality. The aim of this study is to compare Hobbes and Kant with regard to their understanding of the foundations of morality. It also seeks to identify and explicate the points that advance the differences seen in them. The understandings of these two philosophers differ in terms of reason, understanding of human nature, as well as understanding of morality. This study will show the extent of these differences, and most importantly, it will propose which account works better for ordinary lives experiences.

Foundations of Morality in Kant
According to Kant, there is a standard against which morality should be based, and this for him was the Categorical Imperative. In other words, the springboard of morality is rationality (Feldman, 1978). Regarding this standard, Kant found that it would either be founded on rational principles of desire, or on intuitions that were found sui generis. Following practical reason, Kant found that such an approach only revealed the imperative to obey desire based principles (Feldman, 1978). The Categorical Imperative was according to Kant not an instrumental principle (Paton, 1947). However, a conformity with this imperative was very important the rational agent. Kant has a very interesting understanding of morality. The will, which is very central to morality is totally independent from other wills, and as such cannot depend on any other for its determination. In other words, the will is totally free to create the laws that will bind it. This subjective understanding of morality rejects the conventional understanding which sets a framework of behavioral codes. By arguing along these lines, Kant is placing supremacy on reason, as opposed to passions (Paton, 1947). From these considerations, Kant argued that every person was equal with the other, because each had a free will, which was not determined by any other. According to Kant, it was important to act according to what was understood as right, rather than according to what was understood to be good. This was because goodness calls for qualification. Three central themes are very prominent in Kantian understanding of morality. First, Kant argues that moral acts were those acts which were unconditionally right, such that anyone who found themselves in similar situations would also act in the same way. Secondly, Kant argued that the conduct that can be considered right was that which did not understand or treat other persons as means to an end (Paton, 1947). In this way this conduct would not further individual interests against the other, by taking advantage of the other. Thirdly, Kant understood that every conduct was supposed to be ordered in such a way that it would amount to a universal law, such that that conduct would be easily applied by others who found themselves in similar circumstances. Any conduct that violated these three key principles amounted to wrong and immoral conduct. Pure practical reason was central to this understanding. As mentioned earlier, Kant understood the good as being totally irrelevant to morality (Paton, 1947). The only way to right judgment regarding morality was a priori by means of pure practical reason.

Foundations of Morality in Thomas Hobbes
According to Hobbes, morality arises out of the Laws of Nature, and discovered by reason (Malcolm, 2002). The sole aim of these laws is the preservation of the lives of the human persons. Morality is therefore created at the point of the making of the social contract. This understanding is informed by the fact that in the state of nature, before civilization, human beings are totally violent and hostile to each other, being in a state of war at all times. It became important therefore, that persons give power to a central figure, which would regulate the conduct of persons. In this respect, this figure is in the person of the leviathan (Hobbes, 1996). According to Hobbes, the reason why it becomes easy for people to come to a consensus regarding morality is that there is an inherent quest for peace, which is a result of an opposition of the constant conflicts and hostilities, which is the natural state of the human person. The social contract comes as a result of a surrender of some of the natural rights for the sake of peace (Hobbes, 1996). Morality as such does not exist before the making of the social contract. Strictly speaking, human persons have no moral principles; this is because the natural state is that of competition, and where fighting for supremacy is the primary reality. Therefore, the fundamental argument in Hobbes is that morality is a child of mutual consent, not desires (Malcolm, 2002).
A Comparison of Kant and Hobbes

Both Kant and Hume recognize the role of reason in the establishment of morality. However, the role it plays provides for great disparity. For instance, Kant argues that the free autonomous will is central to the foundation of morality. Hobbes differs in that morality for him is not subjective as understood in Kant. It is founded against the need for peaceful coexistence. Therefore the underpinnings of morality in Hobbes have a more objective outlook. Both Hobbes and Kant acknowledged the centrality of the person in as far as morality is concerned. The human person was largely the only creature capable of morality in both of them. This was because, rationality was very central to morality. Free will also was the key to the understanding of morality in both Kant and Hobbes. However freedom in Kant leads to a subjective understanding, where every individual is the agent of their own moral acts, as opposed to Hobbesian understanding where free will is the gateway to the surrender of certain natural rights for the purposes of peaceful coexistence. Regarding the human nature, Kant view was totally divorced from Hobbesian view, and this difference in understanding greatly determined the place of morality in their philosophical thoughts. This was because Kant understood the human person as being guided by individualistic reason, but reason that did not seek supremacy against the other, whereas Hobbes understood the human nature as being the totally driven by self interest and desire (Malcolm, 2002). This greatly shaped Hobbesian moral ground. As already mentioned, these two thinkers differed in their understanding of the role of reason in the foundation of morality. In Kant, pure practical reason was the shaper of morality, based on the Categorical Imperative. This resulted in a subjective kind of morality. The role of reason in Hobbes on the other hand was that of creating a system. Reason was applied to discover the laws of nature, which governed the foundation of morality, and this reason revealed the importance of a system which ensured peace for all persons, hence the social contract.
In my view Hobbesian account is closer to the day to day human experiences. This is because throughout the history of humanity, human beings are highly individualistic. This is even more evident today, where property has become the measure of self worth. From Hobbesian view point, if governments were not present, and even more importantly the law, the world would be unlivable. Having said this, however, I think that Hobbes is not entirely right. This is because his understanding of morality is reductionistic. In other words, morality depends on the people in this view. Whatever is capable of promoting peace is acceptable as being moral. This view already points to the fact that Hobbesian view of the Laws of Nature was mistaken. As presently understood, the Laws of Nature do not depend, as a matter of fact they are beyond, on the human beings.

Objections to Kantian and Hobbesian Accounts
The argument advanced by both of these thinkers reduces morality to a mere thing, capable of manipulation by the human persons. However, the fact that whatever is acceptable as proper to the human person in one part of the world is basically acceptable across the divide, regardless of religious convictions, means that there must be an objectivity which reaches beyond human determination. Kant saw desire as being important to morality. This is absolutely wrong, because he would have to account for a universality of desire. Hobbes saw that self interest, which advanced desire as central to the morality. This view of morality was greatly misinformed.

The basic tenets of morality differ greatly in these philosophers. Kant approached morality from a subjective point. However, his approach is not driven by self interest as in Hobbes. In formulating the three basic themes, Kant noted that it was critical that every act be capable of universality; this can not be said of Hobbes. This is because Hobbes found that the most basic reality of the human nature was the fact of self centeredness. This understanding informed the concept of morality that he later advanced. For him, it the need for peace, which is absent in the state of nature, that informs the creation of morality. In other words, if there was no war in the state of nature, morality would not even be thought of. Morality has been shown to have had a different understanding in Kant. For him, the human person was capable of free will, which autonomously determined the acts that would be right. However the right conduct was to be governed by the Categorical Imperative, and as such afforded respect for every human person.