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PHIL227 Morality and Politics: Hobbes to Hume

British moral and political philosophy from Hobbes to Hume. Does rightness consist in obedience to the sovereign or is it what an ideal observer would approve of?

What do moral judgements mean, and what (if anything) makes them true? What must people be like if they are to respond to the demands of morality? What must morality be like if people are to respond to its demands?

Hobbes (1588-1679) thought that right and wrong reduce to the commands of the sovereign and that a rational and selfish person would obey the sovereign's commands for fear of lapsing into a war of all against all (the idea that without an overarching power, rational but self-seeking agents would lapse into a state of war has implications for international relations). We investigate this claim with the aid of some rudimentary game theory, especially the Prisoner's Dilemma.

Locke (1632-1704) thought that right and wrong reduce to God's commands, that the sovereign should be obeyed if he rules for the public good, but that, otherwise, there is a right of rebellion.

Bernard Mandeville (1670-1733) argued, first, that private vices - such as greed and vanity - are public benefits since they lead to a flourishing commercial society and, second, that morality is a put-up job devised by cunning politicians to keep the populace in line.

Hume (1711-1776) argued that reason is the slave of the passions, that an "ought" cannot be derived from an "is" and that virtue is to be defined in terms of the responses of an impartial spectator. We discuss these views and those of their contemporary critics. We also discuss the sexual politics of Hobbes and Hume and the relevance of social contract theory to the Treaty of Waitangi.

Paper title Morality and Politics: Hobbes to Hume
Paper code PHIL227
Subject Philosophy
EFTS 0.15
Points 18 points
Teaching period Not offered in 2023, expected to be offered in 2024 (On campus)
Domestic Tuition Fees (NZD) $955.05
International Tuition Fees Tuition Fees for international students are elsewhere on this website.

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One PHIL paper or POLS 101 or 72 points
PHIL 203 and PHIL 327
Schedule C
Arts and Music
This is a second-year paper targeted especially at students of Philosophy, students of Politics and students majoring in Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE).
Teaching staff

Course Co-ordinator and lecturer: Associate Professor Charles Pigden

Paper Structure

Two 2-hour lecture/seminars per week with three essays.


  • In-class contributions: Attendance, class discussion and an optional presentation 5%
  • Internal assessment: Students will write three essays during the course, chosen from a list of topics prepared by the lecturer.
    • First essay (2,400 words maximum), 30%
    • Second essay (2,400 words maximum), 30%
    • Third essay (2,700 words maximum), 35%
Teaching Arrangements
Two 2-hour lecture/seminars per week, with a short coffee break halfway through.

Coursebook: Charles R. Pigden, Hobbes Hume and their Critics (available from UniPrint or as pdf from Blackboard).

D.D. Raphael ed. (1991) The British Moralists 2 vols. Indianapolis, Hackett.
or both
Thomas Hobbes (1994) Leviathan, ed. E. Curley, Indianapolis, Hackett.
David Hume (2006) Moral Philosophy, edited, with Introduction, by Geoffrey Sayre-McCord Indianapolis, Hackett.

Graduate Attributes Emphasised
Interdisciplinary perspective, Scholarship, Communication, Critical thinking, Cultural understanding, Ethics, Self-motivation.
View more information about Otago's graduate attributes.
Learning Outcomes

Students who successfully complete the paper will acquire:

  • A critical understanding of the ideas, theses and themes discussed in this paper
  • Some knowledge of the work of the leading "British Moralists", especially Hobbes and Hume and their relevance to contemporary philosophy and to politics and economics
  • Some knowledge of game theory and its relevance to politics
  • Some knowledge of social contract theory and its relevance to the Treaty of Waitangi
  • Enhanced logical, analytical, communicative and writing skills

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Not offered in 2023, expected to be offered in 2024

Teaching method
This paper is taught On Campus
Learning management system