Abstract: Although people are disposed to call “good” whatever they presently find pleasant, their true good, in terms of which Hobbes proposed to settle the term's scientific meaning, consists in a felicitous life of ongoing pleasure. Yet Hobbes departed from classical, Epicurean hedonism in two respects. Neither felicity nor pleasure is a “final” end in the sense either that it is the ultimate aim of all valuable action or that it marks the termination of desires. Agents may derive pleasure from aiming at things other than pleasure, and felicity does not primarily consist in pleasures of satisfaction but in anticipatory mental pleasures. On Hobbes’s substantive theory, moreover, something is instrumentally good for agents in virtue of the fact that it will actually enhance their felicity, but his reforming, scientific definition reserves the term ‘good’ for what they can reasonably expect will do so. In some circumstances, calling what would promote felicity “good” will diminish felicity, i.e., one has a prudential reason to refrain from calling it “good.” And sometimes calling something “good” perversely makes the thing itself diminish felicity. Hobbes’s great political insight was that individuals in the state of nature face such deeply subversive circumstances with respect to all the social means of self-preservation save one—namely, covenanting to enter a commonwealth—whereas subjects of a commonwealth face prescriptively self-fulfilling circumstances in which agreeing to call some things “good” makes those things the relevant means to peace. This is why what the sovereign declares to be such means and hence “good” will turn out to be good.
Arash Abizadeh teaches political philosophy at McGill University. His research focusses on democratic theory and questions of identity, nationalism, and cosmopolitanism; immigration and border control; and seventeenth- and eighteenth-century philosophy, particularly Hobbes and Rousseau. He is currently completing a book titled Hobbes and the Two Dimensions of Normativity.