Hobbes’ morality and vegetarianism

February 7, 2010 at 4:49 pm (thinking) (, , , )

My post about the morality of vegetarianism was my own personal reasoning for not eating meat.  However, it seems now that it bears a lot in common with the philosophy of Thomas Hobbes, a 16th century British philosopher.  His book, Leviathan, was about how society should be organised, but it can be given a moralistic interpretation as discussed by David Gauthier.  I haven’t read this book; I learned about the relationship from the blog “Philosophical Disquisitions“, which contains an excellent summary of the philosophy read by the blogger.  This leads to some very accessible philosophy and is highly recommended.  The series on Hobb’s moral theory goes into detail about what Hobb’s theory looks like (although he hasn’t posted about the whole book yet).

As far as I can tell, the gist of Hobb’s theory is:

  1. The Rights of Nature: we have a “right” to use our power to preserve our liberty and nature (which includes our goals and desires).
  2. The Laws of Nature: we can persue and act upon anything that follows logically from our rights.
  3. Obligation: we are obligated to do something that in accordance with our laws.
  4. Justice: acting in accordance with our obligations.

All this is a bit confusing, but I think the point is that every person will act according to their rights of nature, and that no society can function if it requires people to give them up (because they are obligated to persue them).  Therefore we should form a moral society where nobody is forced to live without the rights of nature.

If my interpretation is correct, then my morality of vegetarianism is simply applying this to all beings.  All beings have some essential rights of nature (and these don’t all have to be the same); they can and must persue them; and we all have a moral obligation to permit them to, provided that it doesn’t interfere with our own moral rights.

Perhaps there are some real differences; firstly, people have an ability to enforce their rights via warfare, terrorism, etc that animals are incapable of, so the imperative to turn from what they want into what we should do is not equivalent.  Secondly, I spent quite a lot of effort discussing whether animals had a “nature” in the same sense that people do (i.e. do they really care the same way if they die or live controlled lives?).  Since I think I succeeded in concluding that we couldn’t rule this second point out, and I don’t think the first is relevant to morality (only to power), I think the comparison is fair.

An alternative interpretation might be that eating meat is a right; since it is in our power, we can therefore do it.  It basically comes down to whether non-humans get their rights considered or not.


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