The most interesting thing about Thomas Hobbes is that his philosophy is based upon the position that “self-interest is all that can yield obedience to the laws of nature and political obedience to the sovereign” (Hampton, 32). Reading philosophy is an enlightening intellectual exercise in that one is introduced to a world of new ideas, even if many of these notions fail to be convincing. Sometimes, one is confronted with a proposition that jibes closely with one’s personal understanding of how the world works. When this occurs, it produces an instantaneous reaction that can offer insights not only into the nature of philosophy, but into oneself as well.
Such is the case with Hobbes’ position on the influence of self-interest on the all-important relationship between ruler and ruled. As Hobbes contends, the best means of governance is that which establishes absolute authority, a power which, he argues, confers happiness upon citizens so long as they submit to it completely (Hobbes, 78). Personal self-interest draws on primal impulses of desire and survival, and is a powerful motivator for human action. It is the strongest aspect of human psychology, and the lever by which humans are spurred to action.
Modern politics elicits responses from a diverse electorate with disparate hopes, values and backgrounds by making promises. The more directly these promises speak to the individual’s deep-seated desires, goals and fears, the more successful the response. Politicians swear that they will not raise taxes; that they will create good jobs; that they will protect us
against crime; all of which is based on the premise of self-interest. The supposition, then, is that by successfully leveraging self-interest, the subject will be motivated to submit to the promiser, i.e. the politician or prospective ruler. People constantly rail against politicians who play to the lowest common denominator, warning that by voting for an opponent, all their worst fears will come true. It is a widely criticized tactic, one that erodes the idea of informed discourse, and yet it continues to succeed, year after year. This is because self-interest determines the way people react to such stimuli.
Hobbes tapped into a basic human instinct in putting forth his theory of government, a theory that draws powerfully on human psychology (Lloyd, 2014). Jean Hampton writes that Hobbes believed that “morality never commands us, after we have taken proper account of our long-term self-interest…to risk our self-interest for the good of others…” (94). Morality, then, is never as powerful a motivating force as self-interest. It cannot, by itself, convince the individual to submit totally to the absolute rule of a ruler/government apart from self-interest. All this is not to suggest that people always act in their own self-interest. Indeed, history is replete with examples of individuals acting irrationally in ways that are diametrically opposed to their own interests. “In fact, a lot of the problems that befall human beings, according to Hobbes, result from their being too little concerned with self-interest” (Williams, 2014).
However, it is argued here that even when people act in self-defeating ways, they do so in the intrinsic belief, however improbable, that they are serving their own self-interest. The individual who oppresses others on religious grounds, for instance, does so in the belief that he will earn eternal reward for himself. Always, the impulse toward self-interest is what animates human action, and this proposition underlies Hobbes’ concept of authority as a source of obedience that will serve those interests.