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A Hobbesian derivation of the principle of universalization


In this article, I derive a weak version of Kant’s categorical imperative within an informal game-theoretic framework. More specifically, I argue that Hobbesian agents would choose what I call the weak principle of universalization, if they had to decide on a rule of conflict resolution in an idealized but empirically defensible hypothetical decision situation. The discussion clarifies (i) the rationality requirements imposed on agents, (ii) the empirical conditions assumed to warrant the conclusion, and (iii) the political institutions that are necessary to implement the derived principle. The analysis demonstrates the moral significance of the weak principle of universalization and its epistemic advantage over the categorical imperative.

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  1. I adopt a secular reading of Hobbes as defended by, for example, Gauthier (1969, 2001).

  2. An attempt to show that Kant’s moral theory may lead to a not so anti-Hobbesian view of practical reason can be found in Gauthier (1985).

  3. See Hobbes (1651), for example.

  4. Hobbes (1651, Part I, Chap. XIII).

  5. Hobbes (1651, Part I, Chap. XI).

  6. See Hobbes (1651, Part I, Chaps. X–XI).

  7. Hobbes (1651, Part I, Chap. XV).

  8. See Kant (1785), in particular the law of humanity (AK 4:429, 4:436) and the kingdom of ends formulation of the categorical imperative (AK 4:433).

  9. See Kant (1785, AK 4:389).

  10. Kant (1785, AK 4:389).

  11. Kant (1785, AK 4:421).

  12. Kant (1785, AK 4:460).

  13. See, for example, Smith (1776) and Ricardo (1817).

  14. For further discussion and empirical evidence of the negative impact of violent conflict resolution on social and economic cooperation, see, for example, Collier (1999) and Knight et al. (1996).

  15. The evolutionary approach to conflict resolution relies on the notion of conventions and goes back to Hume (1739/1740, 1751). This approach has received significant attention in recent moral and political philosophy, in particular through the work of Sugden (1986), Binmore (1994/1998, 2005), Skyrms (1996, 2004), and Alexander (2007).

  16. For philosophically inspired discussions of the key features that are commonly attributed to the homo economics model, see Heap et al. (1992, pp. 3–72) and Gaus (2008, pp. 15–27).

  17. Hobbes explicitly includes negative tuistic interests in his contract theory, as discussed in Sect. 2.

  18. Apart from the consistency requirements imposed on agents by von Neumann–Morgenstern utility functions and the other characteristics of the homo prudens model previously described, agents’ preferences are not restricted further for the derivation of the rule of conflict resolution by, for example, more stringent epistemic standards for preference formation, although the members of a society may agree to impose such standards for the application of the rule of conflict resolution to actual cases of conflict once the rule is derived.

  19. It is not entirely clear from Hobbes’ own writings whether he assumes that agents have no commitment power at all.

  20. For Kantian agents, the ‘right’, as expressed by the demands of the categorical imperative, is lexicographically prior to the ‘good’. Lexicographic preferences cannot be represented by cardinal utility functions because such a strict ordering of preferences does not allow tradeoffs between the right and other considerations, and thus violates the continuity axiom. For an attempt to model Kantian agency with the tools of standard rational choice theory, see in particular White (2004).

  21. See Gauthier (1986) and McClennen (1988, 1990).

  22. Gauthier (1993, p. 186).

  23. For simplicity and lack of empirical evidence that suggests otherwise, I assume that the different possible rules of conflict resolution on which rational agents would agree produce the same additional overall gains from securing peaceful long-term cooperation compared to violent conflict resolution, although the rules may distribute these gains differently to particular members of society.

  24. See Kant (1785, AK 4:433).

  25. For further discussion of the difference between hypothetical and categorical imperatives, and an argument that demonstrates the coherence of instrumentalism as a theory of practical reasoning, see Schwartz (2010).

  26. For a detailed discussion of the differences between orthodox game theory and evolutionary game theory, see Sugden (2001), for example.

  27. I deliberately use the term empathy and not sympathy, because individuals in the idealized decision situation need only anticipate the real world behavior of their fellows based on their own experiences in order to derive the rule of conflict resolution. They need not to be emotionally affected by the situation of others. Like Binmore (2005, pp. 114–116), I assume that human beings generally possess the capacity to empathize with other human beings.

  28. See Rawls (1971, pp. 118–123).

  29. See Buchanan and Tullock (1962, p. 78).

  30. For the following discussion, see also Moehler (2010, Sect. 2).

  31. A rational individual is forced to such behavior independently of whether her actual capacities were rightly acquired. I return to this point in Sect. 6.

  32. The notion of a minimum standard of living is vague and can be defined in various ways. For the purpose of this article, I assume that the members of society come to an agreement on the determinants that define an individual’s minimum standard of living and on a way to measure it.

  33. My argument assumes that at least one such rule of conflict resolution exists upon which rational individuals living in this world would agree, and that instrumental rationality is sufficient to specify an unambiguous conclusion, as Kant assumes for the realm of pure practical reason in his defense of the categorical imperative. Other philosophers are more skeptical concerning the moral decisiveness of reason. Gaus (2010), for instance, argues that Kantian-inspired deliberative procedures that rely on the notion of public reason do not necessarily lead to unambiguous moral conclusions that can be justified to all members of society, and thus may require support by social evolutionary processes to single out determinate moral conclusions. For further details of Gaus’ argument and his notion of public reason, see Gaus (2011).

  34. Because individuals cannot rely on a third party that could send private or public signals to them in cases of conflict in the strict sense defined, their disputes cannot be resolved by correlated equilibria that rely on joint randomizations over strategies. See Aumann (1974) for further discussion of the notion of a correlated equilibrium as a generalization of the Nash equilibrium concept.

  35. Kant (1785, AK 4:433).

  36. The argument in this section shares some structural similarities with O’Neill’s Kantian constructivism, although my argument is advanced within a Hobbesian framework. See, in particular, O’Neill (1989, pp. 212–213; 1996, pp. 38–65).

  37. For a different use of the term weak principle of universalization, see Kerstein (2002, p. 44).

  38. The weak principle of universalization represents a generalized and universalized statement of the stabilized Nash bargaining solution that I present in Moehler (2010). For a detailed defense of the Nash bargaining solution in this context, and the stabilized Nash bargaining solution in particular, see Sect. 3 of that article. For a formal discussion of the precise properties of the stabilized Nash bargaining solution, see the appendix to that article. The current article shows that the stabilized Nash bargaining solution can serve as a general principle of conflict resolution, and it can be derived, under the circumstances described in this article, without the device of Rawls’ original position and the assumption that individuals are reasonable in Rawls’ specific sense.

  39. See Kant (1785, AK 4:433–434).

  40. If all parties to a conflict are below their minimum standards of living when a conflict arises, then they all must reach their minimum standards of living as a basis for conflict resolution, assuming that the goods that are in dispute permit it. If all parties to a conflict are below their minimum standards of living when a conflict arises, and the goods that are in dispute are insufficient to bring all parties to their subsistence levels, then the weak principle of universalization does not apply.

  41. For the following discussion, see also Moehler (2009, pp. 207–208).

  42. See in particular Dworkin (1978, p. 151).

  43. The problem of assurance is expressed by Hobbes’ second law of nature (1651, Part I, Chap. XIV).

  44. The problem of compliance is expressed by Hobbes’ third law of nature (1651, Part I, Chap. XV).

  45. For this point, see Hobbes’ laws of nature sixteen to nineteen (1651, Part I, Chap. XV). In contrast to Hobbes’ notion of the social contract, the Kantian-inspired Hobbesian contract theory that I present in this article assumes that, although instrumentally rational individuals may give up their executive and judicative powers in order to secure peace, they would not give up their legislative powers.

  46. For further discussion of the status of the status quo in a similar context, see Buchanan (1975, pp. 78–86; 2004).


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I am grateful to Richard Bradley, Oliver Sensen, and an anonymous reviewer for very helpful discussions and comments on earlier versions of this article.

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Correspondence to Michael Moehler.

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Moehler, M. A Hobbesian derivation of the principle of universalization. Philos Stud 158, 83–107 (2012).

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  • Homo prudens
  • Game theory
  • Empathy
  • Veil of uncertainty
  • Weak principle of universalization
  • Categorical imperative