View from
The Left

Liberalism and Relativism (Part I)

Portrait of Thomas Hobbes by John Michael Wright.

“The point of politics can, therefore, never be to try and make individuals act well.  Indeed, for Hobbes the very idea that there is any good or evil beyond our subjective desires is vainglorious and foolish.”


Today’s politics are in many ways conflicts over the future of liberalism. In some senses this is a highly unusual development. As I highlighted in my earlier articles “The Rebirth of  History,” just thirty years ago many people grudgingly accepted Francis Fukuyama’s claim that we had reached something of an end to the historical process. This is because, for all intents and purposes, liberalism had defeated all possible global rivals for influence. Earlier in the 20th century, liberal states had allied with the Communist-controlled Soviet Union to defeat their common Fascist enemy. This was followed by the Cold War, which dominated the latter half of that century, and ended with the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the seeming triumph of liberal democracy. But to many, it seemed inevitable that this situation would last forever.

How much can change in 30 years? No there are many who are outright claiming that liberalism has “failed.”  In a recent op-ed for The Washington Post, Robert Kagan has discussed how postmodern totalitarians now pose a real threat to the stability of liberal democracy. And I have commented at some length on the subject of postmodern conservatism and the dangers it poses to human rights and the struggle for greater equality. Interestingly, these developments are met with concurrent accusations that we live in a time where relativism is gaining greater and greater ground.

For many liberals, the threats posed by nationalist movements embody this specter better than any other. For many persuaded by liberalism, nationalism is an inherently partial and subjectivist outlook. It will, therefore, always be haunted by the specter of moral relativism and even nihilism (though of course many nationalists disagree). Moreover, liberals will often claim these reactionary movements are prone to authoritarianism in a way that liberal democratic societies are not. While I largely agree with these accusations, in this piece I wanted to examine the extent to which the liberal tradition itself is implicated in the emergence of relativism.  

I think there are good reasons to see certain strands of liberalism as contributing to the emergence of relativistic philosophies, including many of those which are currently trying to undermine the liberal order. To explain this, I will be presenting an analysis of several strands of liberal thought in my next few articles to emphasize the subjectivism at the heart of many strands of liberalism and the ways these were dealt with politically. To begin with, I will look at the work of Thomas Hobbes, who in many ways inaugurated the modern liberal tradition.

Hobbes and Individualism

From desire ariseth the thought of some means we have seen produce the like of that which we aim at; and from the thought of that, the thought of means to that mean; and so continually, till we come to some beginning within our own power. And because the end, by the greatness of the impression, comes often to mind, in case our thoughts begin to wander they are quickly again reduced into the way: which, observed by one of the seven wise men, made him give men this precept, which is now worn out: respice finem; that is to say, in all your actions, look often upon what you would have, as the thing that directs all your thoughts in the way to attain it”—Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan.

As authors such as David Dyzenhaus have observed, Hobbes’s pessimism and authoritarian political affiliations can distract from the radical novelty of his more basic metaphysical ruminations. But it is in the opening Chapters of Leviathan that one can see the first fully developed modern account of individual subjectivity. In an ironic twist characteristic of Hobbes’s work, this freedom only emerges from another type of determinacy.  

In the opening sections of the book, Hobbes develops an empirical understanding of human beings as existing within a basically deterministic universe. He criticizes the scholastic conceptions of free will predicated on the existence of a human soul granted by a loving God, as superficial accounts of an important question. These conceptions were all important for figures like St. Augustine, who wished to retain a dualistic moral system engendered by an active relationship between man and God. Hobbes follows Augustine in much of his psychology while stripping it of all religious sentiments. He proceeds to detail how all human activity is guided by a desire for pleasure, most especially for “power after power.” These powers are not teleological in the Aristotelian sense of enabling human beings to aspire after higher goals. Power is now simply a means to acquire more power in order to achieve more of one’s desired ends.  

But Hobbes adds a further twist that belies an acute, if reductive, psychological observation.  His empirical conception of human beings lends itself to a very radical egalitarianism: if all that is good is the pursuit of pleasure or pain, and degrees of good and evil are to be determined by the mere quantity of either, all pleasures are equal so long as both plebeian and poet enjoy their pleasures equally. Hobbes develops robust criticisms against the classical and poetic virtues. Characteristics which led human beings to pursue any higher ends, such as a desire for nobility, led them to vainglorious pretensions of being higher than others.

These pretensions were not only wrong, according to Hobbes, but dangerous, since they lead individuals to quarrel over issues that could, by definition, never be resolved since they cannot appeal to brute facts. To illustrate his position, Hobbes unironically compares human beings to other social animals and, needless to say, we do not come out looking especially good. Since insects, for example, do not compete with one another for vainglorious reasons, they are more easily able to satisfy their desires and improve collective well-being.  Hobbes concludes that such quarrels diminished human beings’ potential to freely develop their powers in concert and therefore more adequately satisfy their desires.

Hobbes is quite radical in his position. He claims that in the state of nature, spared from such vainglorious pretensions, all individuals are free and yet all are generally in misery. This is because they can only exercise what little powers they do have in pursuit of meager desires that at any time might be taken away from them. Even the strongest individual who might, for a short while, be able to enslave others, will in short turn be killed or abandoned. This is why, for prudential reasons related to self-interest, Hobbes recommended that such subjects give up an unlimited right to all things, for an exclusive right to some, backed up by Sovereign power.  

In a Hobbesian world, law was a necessary tool to erect prudent boundaries to the “free” exercise of human powers. Law could be justified because the exercise of freedom was not good in and of itself, but valuable as the means to employ human powers in the pursuit of desires. And this the law also secured. Since it was a natural law that “men keep their covenants made” all individuals must feel obligated to obey the sovereign in all but certain extreme circumstances. But with the gutting of all teleological content from nature and natural law, Hobbes also left human beings at liberty to pursue their desires as they wished within the limits imposed by law. So long as they obeyed the laws designed to protect them in their epicurean revel, it would be a vainglorious and ineffective Sovereign who became determined to mold his subjects to fit some thin ideal of the good that went beyond just satisfying people’s desires. Such a Sovereign, by toying with metaphysical concepts that, by definition, could not be defined or controlled, would be extremely foolish and unlikely to sit easily upon the throne.         

In Leviathan, Hobbes already laid out all the metaphysical trappings that would later come to define certain strands of liberal individualism. All that was different was his rather authoritarian design for society, which later liberals would largely reject. Hobbes contended that all individuals were basically equal, that the Sovereign became so only through public consent rather than moral worth, and that the content of morality was largely exhausted by adherence to positive law except where (again) this ran counter to all individuals’ inalienable right to preserve their life, the pre-condition for the enjoyment of all pleasures. He also held that freedom was not a metaphysical, but an empirical issue. Metaphysically, since all things are subject to the law of cause and effect, it seems likely that Hobbes was a determinist. But that did not matter when conceiving the moral basis for a political system, since what mattered was how human beings could have the unconstrained liberty to pursue their desires without having the exercise of this power impede anyone else’s beyond a certain point.  This Hobbesian edifice laid the framework for all later, more explicitly liberal, theories.


As scholars like Richard Tuck argue, there is a nascent relativism inherent in Hobbes’s philosophy. If good and evil are simply terms applied to that which we deem desirable and undesirable, then there is no fixed point from which to deem certain interests, no matter how cruel, as wrong. Hobbes attempts to resolve this through the idea of a social contract, wherein he demonstrates that it is to the benefit of all individuals to cede rights to make such determinations for themselves to the Sovereign.

However, his arguments to that effect are entirely prudential, and they seem to have little weight if one could truly get away with disobeying the Sovereign and profiting from it. Hobbes tries to ameliorate this problem by smuggling in certain natural law ideas, most notably that men, “must keep their covenants made.” But this is lethal to the entire idea of a social contract, since it smuggles in ideas about moral obligations which pre-exist the contract to ensure it can operate as a stabilizing force. But the entire moral weight of the social contract is that in the state of nature prior to it, there exists no moral obligation except that we pursue our own self-interest. This creates a vicious circle where men must adopt moral obligations to accept the results of a contract prior to the contract—thus, establishing the idea of moral obligation and enacting it through force. These kinds of problems would characteristically befall many of the political and moral philosophies which developed out of Hobbesian-style philosophies. This includes many liberal thinkers who drew inspiration from his work.

Why might this be important for analyzing the contemporary world? It is because Hobbes lays out a framework that can help us understand how liberalism could generate more pervasive forms of relativism—and an emphasis on individual identity and its subjectivity. In his mind, human beings are little more than complex machines that are pre-determined to pursue their desires as effectively as possible. Life would be better if we were more like insects, able to cooperate seamlessly, but alas we are selfish and myopic in our thinking. The point of politics can, therefore, never be to try to make individuals act well. Indeed, for Hobbes the very idea that there is any good or evil beyond our subjective desires is vainglorious and foolish.

Instead, we must submit ourselves to authority because that will prudently enable us to better maximize our desires. The cash value of submitting to the Leviathan is a longer life in which to pursue our own subjective conception of what is good, with minimal interference and a great deal more protection. This is a very stark conception of the world and politics, where political power isn’t connected to any higher task than the satisfaction of subjective human desires. Indeed, it is so stark that virtually every subsequent liberal thinker tried to temper its extreme conclusions. As we shall see later on, many of them were often unsuccessful in this task. Given that, it should come as little surprise that many are increasingly attacking liberalism as a defunct of nihilistic philosophy, which cannot provide the sense of belonging and meaning that people truly crave in the world. In my mind, this doesn’t mean we should abandon liberalism for reactionary politics. But it does mean recognizing the extent to which these accusations have a degree of truth to them.

Matt McManus is currently Professor of Politics and International Relations at TEC De Monterrey. His book Making Human Dignity Central to International Human Rights Law is forthcoming with the University of Wales Press. His books, The Rise of Post-modern Conservatism and What is Post-Modern Conservatism, will be published with Palgrave MacMillan and Zero Books, respectively. Matt can be reached at or added on Twitter via Matt McManus@MattPolProf

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