Thomas Hobbes' The Descriptive Natural Law

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  • 0:02 Human Universals
  • 0:48 St. Augustine & St. Aquinas
  • 2:06 Thomas Hobbes
  • 3:10 Self-Preservation
  • 4:53 Lesson Summary
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Instructor: Christine Serva

Christine has an M.A. in American Studies, the study of American history/society/culture. She is an instructional designer, educator, and writer.

In this lesson, you'll consider whether there is a universal moral code that applies to all human beings, throughout time. You'll learn about natural law and how this concept varied between different thinkers.

Human Universals

There are some things that most human beings share in common no matter where we live and in what time frame we are born. For instance, we share many of the same functions in our body, such as the need to eat food and the ability to digest it. If we're sighted, we will look up and see the same sky above us. These are givens for what it is to be a human being on Earth.

What about when it comes to morality? Do all human beings share a moral code?

In this lesson, we'll look at the viewpoints of those who give the answer that there is a natural law at work when it comes to morality. We'll focus on three thinkers: St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, and Thomas Hobbes.

St. Augustine and St. Aquinas

St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas both emerged from previous philosophical traditions with a particular focus on moral law, a set of rules that human beings should follow. Being religious thinkers, as well, these two men both saw a distinction between man-made laws and God's law. You can also think of man-made laws as human law and God's law as divine law.

Human law is what exists on the rulebooks and can vary from place to place, and from time period to time period. For instance, today human law might involve a particular nation's classification of certain crimes and the punishments associated with them. These laws may be very different from those of another country or time period.

Divine law, on the other hand, is what God wants for human beings, what God expects from us, according to Augustine and Aquinas. It doesn't change and is universal for all human beings.

These thinkers believed that God had given human beings a very important gift, the gift of reason. A person can use their reason to learn what divine law really is. Natural law, according to them, is God's law made known to man through his reason.

Thomas Hobbes

Thomas Hobbes also saw natural law in this light but with a bit of a twist. While Saints Augustine and Aquinas had thought of natural law as fixed and unchanging, Hobbes saw this differently.

Hobbes agreed that morality is what we can observe through reason, but he also thought it may change over time. He took a descriptive approach to natural law, meaning that he observed what morality appears to be in the present and past without insisting this would be the same throughout time. You can remember the term 'descriptive' by thinking about how Hobbes was willing to describe what he saw in different time periods.

This contrasted with the prescriptive view of Augustine and Aquinas, who also thought that morality is what we can observe through reason. But in their view, natural law involves the unchanging, fixed rules that continue throughout time. You can remember the term 'prescriptive' because of how they felt that this moral code was prescribed and inflexible.


Here's an example of how these two viewpoints differ. Imagine there is anarchy in your community. Things have gone haywire and the rule of law is virtually destroyed. You can't trust your neighbor to abide by the law, and there will be no authority to enforce the law if it's violated. You hunker down in your home with a baseball bat and try to stay safe as your home is looted.

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