Arash Abizadeh – Hobbes’s Theory of the Good: Felicity by Anticipatory Pleasure

Political Theory Research Group seminar series: 15 Jun 2016

PTRG with Arash Abizadeh 15Jun16


Ancient Greek ethicists assumed that human beings have a single overarching supreme good, which is eudaimonia, or ‘happiness’, and that this is the final end of every human action.  On the Epicurean view, eudaimonia, or in Latin felicitas, or in English ‘felicity’, consists in the state of being free from pain and a life of pleasure.

For Hobbes, as for Epicurean thinkers, felicity consists in a life of pleasure and the absence of pain.  But, Arash explained, Hobbes saw felicity not as the single final good that all human actions are or should be (intentionally) aimed at, but as the by-products that human beings achieve typically when pursuing other aims.  Meanwhile, Arash continued, this does not mean that Hobbes rejected the idea that felicity is an overarching supreme good – a summum bonum – that gives coherence to a valuable life.  This is one of the two respects in which Hobbes’s theory of the good diverges from the Epicurean counterpart.

The second respect in which Hobbes’s theory can be seen as unique is that he rejected the static view of felicity: the view that felicity is the pleasurable state of being free from pain, or the state of tranquillity or rest that marks the termination of a person’s desires.  Rather, according to Arash, Hobbes took felicity as an ongoing motion from pleasure to pleasure.



Arash constructed this interpretation of Hobbes’s theory of the good by carefully analysing his works and drawing out his answers to four separate, but related, questions.  (1) What is the property of goodness?  (2) What makes something good, or in virtue of what does something have or acquire the property of goodness?  (3) What causes agents to see something as good and/or to call it ‘good’?  And (4) what does the term ‘good’ mean?  Questions (1) and (2) concern Hobbes’s metaphysical theory of the good; meanwhile, question (3) concerns what Hobbes saw as the customary use of the term ‘good’.  To understand his answers to these questions is critical to understanding his answer to question (4), which concerns his scientifically reformulated, or the ‘apt’, meaning of ‘good’.

Hobbes’s answer to question (1), Arash explained, is that the property of goodness is relational: something is good because it is good for the well-being, or felicity, of some particular individual.  (A common good is good for that of many; a universal good is good for that of everyone.)  Now, in virtue of what does something acquire the property of goodness, or what makes something good?  According to Hobbes, Arash continued, something is good in virtue of conducing to the individual’s felicity.  Felicity, for Hobbes, is the only unconditional good for human agents.

Arash then turned to Hobbes’s answer to question (3), the one concerning the customary use of the term ‘good’.  What causes individuals to call something good?  Hobbes’s psychological explanation is this.  Desire is the conative drive that propels an agent to act to achieve an object.  Meanwhile, pleasure is the cognitive representation of the object as good.  All actions are prompted by desires.  All desires are accompanied by pleasures.  And an agent desires something only if he/she represents it in his/her mind as something pleasant to him/herself.  Desire and pleasure are the two aspects of the same internal bodily motions.  So, a person calls the object that he/she desires ‘good’ because, in desiring it, he/she conceives it as pleasant to, or good for, him/herself.

In this context, Arash also pointed out the key distinction that Hobbes made between two types of pleasure: namely, between pleasures of fruition, or satisfaction, and pleasures of anticipation, or imagination.  The former arise from perceiving something presently satisfying one’s desire; the latter from imagining one’s desire being satisfied in the future.  (Hobbes identified the former with pleasures of sense; the latter with pleasures of mind.)  Arash then noted that Hobbes’s account of anticipatory pleasure is somewhat hybrid in the sense that, in some cases, the pleasure involved in a mental pleasure of anticipation is partly grounded in sensory perception: one may take pleasure simultaneously from perceiving an object and from imagining it as yet to be realised.  So, we now reach a complex set of distinctions concerning types of pleasure: between (1.a) sensory pleasures of fruition concerning present satisfaction and (1.b) mental pleasures of anticipation concerning future satisfaction, on the one hand, and between (2.a) hybrid mental pleasures of anticipation and (2.b) pure mental pleasures of anticipation, on the other.

Meanwhile, Hobbes, according to Arash, assumed that the customary sense of ‘good’ cannot provide the plausible foundation for the scientific philosophy of the good.  Scientific philosophy, according to Hobbes, either corrects customary definitions or makes an apt definition newly.  (The customary sense is, nevertheless, useful as a preliminary step for diagnosing where the received conception of the good has gone wrong.)  Then, a question is which type of pleasure has a privileged status in Hobbes’s scientific theory of the good.  Arash answered: the anticipatory type does.  To call ‘good’ what one perceives presently satisfying one’s desire is to use the term merely in passion; to call ‘good’ what one can foresee/imagine will satisfy one’s desire in the future is to use the term in reason.  To use the term ‘good’ merely in passion is to use it in its pre-scientific, customary sense; to use it in reason is to use it in its scientific sense.



We now understand that Hobbes intended to fix the meaning of ‘good’.  For him, the term ‘good’ names not whatever people happen to desire or find pleasant at any given point in time, but what is good for them in reason, i.e. their true, long-term good.  So, Arash went on to ask: What makes a human life good in this true, long-term sense?

Due to their limited foresight, people tend to undertake actions that merely appear to be good.  But such apparently good actions are not always conducive to people’s true good.  For Hobbes, truly good actions are those whose total, long-run consequences involve a greater amount of pleasure relative to pain overall.

This point clarifies in what felicity consists on Hobbes’s view.  A felicitous life, for Hobbes, is a life constituted by the experience of a greater amount of pleasure relative to pain overall.  But Hobbes rejected the view that felicity is a mere aggregation of separate experiences of pleasure; rather, he took felicity as an overarching good that integrates separate experiences of pleasure into a coherent whole.  Also, according to Hobbes, a felicitous life is a life through which a person continuously experiences greater pleasure relative to pain; so, what matters is the relative distribution of pleasure over time.  To sum up, for Hobbes, Arash explained, felicity is an integrative value; and it consists in the presence of pleasures, and the absence of pains, experienced on an ongoing basis continually over time.

Questions still remain.  What kinds of pleasure primarily constitute a felicitous life?  And by what means do we experience them?  According to Arash, Hobbes has four related points to make concerning these questions.  First, felicity primarily consists in mental pleasures of anticipation, rather than in sensory pleasures of fruition.  Second, the amount of ongoing mental pleasure of anticipation relative to mental pain is maximised when desires yet to be satisfied combine with the hope that they will be satisfied, rather than with the fear that they will be frustrated.  Third, desire combines with hope when one has repeatedly experienced successful desire satisfaction.  And finally, one’s repeated success in desire satisfaction increases hope because it generates the awareness that one has power to satisfy desires.  (The experience of the anticipatory pleasure that accompanies contemplating one’s power to satisfy desires is the experience of what Hobbes called ‘glory’, Arash noted.  And true glory, as opposed to vainglory, is grounded in a true, factual record of successful desire satisfaction.)

What role do successful desire satisfaction and the accompanying sensory pleasures of fruition play in Hobbes’s account of felicity?  Sensory pleasures of fruition, as Arash already explained, do not take a privileged status in Hobbes’s scientific theory of the good.  But this does not mean that they do not contribute to people’s felicity at all; they do play a significant instrumental role.  In Hobbes’s account, Arash continued, pleasures of fruition facilitate felicity by fostering hope of further desire satisfaction, and thereby securing anticipatory pleasures of mind.  In short, pleasures of fruition are instrumental to felicity, while pleasures of anticipation are constitutive of it.

Finally, Arash pointed out that it is a groundless mistake to think that Hobbes rejected the notion of a summum bonum, or a supreme good.  Hobbes did take felicity as an unconditional and universal good for human agents: the value of an agent’s action derives from the contribution it makes to his/her felicity.



Arash’s discussion proceeded to two complications concerning what Hobbes saw as instrumental goods.  One of the complications was this.  On Hobbes’s substantive view of value and valuable actions, a certain action is instrumentally good for an agent because it will actually enhance his/her felicity.  Meanwhile, on his prudentialist view of affective and practical reasons, the term ‘good’ is reserved for those actions that an agent can reasonably know or foresee will enhance his/her felicity.  The question, then, is which view Hobbes’s scientifically reformulated definition of ‘good’ is supposed to reflect.  Arash’s answer was: when instrumental goods are concerned, Hobbes’s reformulated definition is supposed to reflect his prudentialist theory of affective and practical reasons, rather than his substantive theory of value.

The second complication which Arash invited us to consider was this.  In some cases, an agent might reasonably foresee that a certain action will promote his/her felicity, but also that calling it instrumentally ‘good’ (and thereby prescribing favouring it) would diminish his/her felicity overall.  Under such prescriptively subversive circumstances, as Arash called them, the agent has an epistemic reason to believe that the action is instrumentally good for him/her, on the one hand, and a practical reason not to call it instrumentally ‘good’, on the other.

Hobbes thought that such prescriptively subversive circumstances, in their deep form, predominate in the state of nature.  In the state of nature, individual agents would reasonably believe, and agree, that peace, as a general concept, is good for their self-preservation.  However, in the state of nature, there would always be disagreements about, say, specific means to realise peace.  In such circumstances, an individual agent would have an epistemic reason to believe that some specific action, given sufficient coordination and compliance, would contribute to the realisation of peace.  But he/she would also have a practical reason not to call it instrumentally ‘good’, since he/she would reasonably foresee that calling it so (and thereby prescribing favouring it) would give rise to disagreements, and ultimately the state of war, which in turn would diminish his/her felicity after all.

So, according to Hobbes, individuals in the state of nature would face deeply subversive circumstances with respect to all the social means of self-preservation except this one: namely, covenanting to establish a sovereign and thereby enter a commonwealth.  And what is more, on Hobbes’s view, through such a covenant, not only would individuals be able to get out of prescriptively subversive circumstances.  But they would be able also to set up prescriptively self-fulfilling circumstances: circumstances in which agreeing to call something instrumentally ‘good’ actually makes it instrumentally good for securing peace.



The ensuing discussion with participants was active and lively.  How would Hobbes treat the distinction between the anticipatory pleasures that a person gets from contemplating his/her power to satisfy desires if he/she wants to when he/she does not actually have such desires, on the one hand, and the anticipatory pleasures that a person gets from contemplating his/her power to satisfy desires when he/she actually wants to satisfy them, on the other?  Also, if sensory pleasures and the pleasures accompanying vainglory are not really valuable on Hobbes’s view because they are ‘fleeting’, then anticipatory pleasures of a valuable, non-fleeting kind are those to which results are connected.  But those results seem to consist in fruition, and so, after all, anticipation seems to be connected to fruition.  If so, is Hobbes’s view of the good inconsistent?  Furthermore, Hobbes wrote that imagination, the motion involved in anticipation, is ‘nothing but decaying sense’.  But exactly what aspect of imagination or anticipation decays as time passes?  Is it its conative side (as a passionate drive) or its cognitive side (such as vividness of memory) that fades away?  And what did Hobbes say about the source of desires?  Is it imagination that is the source of desires while reasoning provides the means to satisfy desires?  All these questions invited Arash to clarify his points, which in turn helped us understand Hobbes’s theory at a deeper level.

The paper Arash presented, he said, is a chapter from his book project.  His very careful and insightful analysis in the paper will be a huge contribution to the literature of intellectual history when the book comes out.


Written by Yuki Iwaki


Arash Abizadeh is Associate Professor in political philosophy at McGill University.