Essay A Hobbesian and Heroic Unreflective Citizenship

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A Hobbesian and Heroic Unreflective Citizenship

In Meno, Plato asks “what virtue itself is” (Plato 60). This dialogue on virtue between Socrates and Meno ably frames a wider dialogue on ethics between Thomas Hobbes, the Greek heroic tradition, and the sophists of 5th century Athens. Hobbes’ Leviathan and Aristophanes’ The Clouds introduce three classes of ethical actors to respond to Plato’s inquiry: Hobbes’ ethical lemmings, the heroic ethical traditionalists, and the sophist ethical opportunists. The Meno also helps capture the essence of contemporary discussion of the morality of desire and emotivism, as articulated by Roberto Mangabeira Unger in Knowledge and Politics and Alasdair MacIntyre in After Virtue. Finally, I will
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MENO: …if you want the virtue of a man, it is easy to say that a man’s virtue consists of being able to…benefit his friends and harm his enemies and to be careful that no harm comes to himself. (60)

To the extent that the morality of desire and emotivism hold true, objectivism finds no traction in ethics. These doctrines preclude the exclusion of the self in evaluation of questions of morality and ethics. Meno’s crude and self-interested model of virtue complements Unger and MacIntyre’s discussion of subjectivity.

Subjectivism forms a cornerstone of Thomas Hobbes’ understanding of human nature. Hobbes describes reason as the “scout” (Hobbes 68) of the passions. In other words, reason is unable to control or transcend human passions, but serves only to carry out the ends selected by these passions. In the context of ethics, Hobbes believes that the influence of the passions renders useless the use of mathematical and authoritative “right reason” (46) in subjective matters of right and wrong, justice and injustice:

…different constitutions of body and prejudices of opinion, gives everything a tincture of our different passions… a man must take heed of words which… have a signification also of the nature, disposition, and interest of the speaker: such are the names of virtues and vices…And therefore such names can never be true grounds of any ratiocination.

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