In this article we'll expand on the second discussion in our series on Doing Philosophy and take a look at reading. Although we can all presumably already read tolerably well, it is well-known that some philosophical writing is so dense as to seem impenetrable and requires a great deal of patience to tackle, let alone understand. With that in mind, then, we'll explore the different tools and tactics we can employ when faced with a philosophical text or argument and see how they can help us get the most out of a piece, as well as improving our own work. It goes without saying that everything below should be obvious, but it's all too easy to find frequent instances of it all being thrown out the window (and not just to test if gravity applies to rhetoric).
Ploughing through a piece of philosophical bluster may seem little different from any other reading and often it isn't; however, we assume that the point of reading philosophy—at least in part—is to learn something, even if we only discover that your narrator is not convincing anyone. Perhaps some people hope to belittle their opponent in a debate or win an argument at all costs, but what else is gained from refuting a position that we know (or suspect) could be made stronger and altogether more interesting?
Much like trying to beat the English at rugby in recent years or trying to win the heart of a reluctant other, charging ahead regardless of circumstances may not be the optimum strategy to employ when faced with a piece of philosophy. There are, for example, several questions we could ask of a passage before we even set to reading it:
What is the author's subject?
What are the author's conclusions?
What arguments does the author employ?
What is the purpose of the piece?
The importance of these is that they provide a context for our reading that may aid our understanding. To that end, the first thing we could try is to skim the text with these considerations in mind, looking for answers to them. The first two should be easy to find, even if the writer is so obtuse that the answers scarcely make sense. The third may be more difficult, but we can gain a fair idea of the points of attack, or where they most strongly support the conclusions. The last is somewhat more subtle: perhaps the arguments made will eventually be found to stand up to scrutiny, but if they do not have any bearing on the purpose for which the piece was written then we may not even need to spend any time on it at all.
Having established a framework for the text under consideration, we can now read through it in greater detail. As we pass along, we may spot remarks that seem fallacious (using the resources we discussed earlier and will cover again in more detail later); in that case, we could make a note of them to return to later. However, the existence of fallacies need not end our investigations, especially if we hope to take anything from the experience.
The Principle of Charity
In conjunction with its two companions (see below), the principle of charity is perhaps the most important tool to master in any situation where we are approaching an argument (or arguments) critically. It's a method: a way of working with philosophy that tells us to proceed in certain ways if we hope to get the most from a piece; it advises us to take the fairest, most plausible and reasonable interpretation that we can. It could apply to the questions we looked at above as follows:
1. The subject: If the topic is one we have no interest in, or which we have strong opinions on, we may be inclined to not read the author as carefully as we could, or as someone not so disposed. In such circumstances, we need to make an effort to employ the principle of charity in order that we not dismiss decent arguments; without it, an opportunity to learn something may be lost.
2. The conclusions: In a similar fashion to the subject, we may find the results of a discussion distasteful or in conflict with what we think we already know. It may be, however, that the author has a new argument to present, or else that a deeper flaw can be found that will work with other similar positions. The principle of charity should apply as before.
3. The arguments: An uncharitable approach to arguments may result in weak criticisms or—alternatively—not developing them as far as they could be.
4. The purpose: Dismissing an argument because we don't approve of what we assume it will later be used for isn't very charitable, nor much of a criticism; a sound argument doesn't become flawed by virtue of being used for nefarious ends.
The idea is not to foster some kind of emotional detachment, but rather to keep in mind that we already have ideas before we look at an argument and because of that try to minimise (not exclude) their influence. A reading that employs the principle of charity will not dismiss an author because he or she makes what seem like huge errors, or because the point argued for appears to be futile; instead, we can make early steps to avoiding the possibility of rejecting an author's work unfairly. The principle, then, is a methodological one, whereby we realise that we can only criticise an argument when we have adequately understood it.
The next step on from trying to read an author charitably is to attempt to advocate his or her ideas for ourselves, along with the converse (to be covered next). Suppose an interesting point has been raised but in an unclear way; how, then, can we clarify it? Perhaps the author's argument is flawed; is there any way we can strengthen it, or build on implications that may have missed?
The idea here is to think through and dispute the point on behalf of the author in order to provide ourselves with the strongest possible case to counter. Moreover, we can continue the process: we may try to rebut the newly constructed position and then adopt the author's perspective again, and so on. The question to ask at all times is: how would the author respond to this? In this way we arrive at the most detailed understanding of both the conclusions and arguments leading to them, which is a long way from throwing out a notion just because of a minor error.
The Devil's Advocate was a device used by the Church to argue against the beatification or canonisation of saints, ensuring that every possible objection was heard before agreeing that the procedure could go ahead. When reading philosophy, we use much the same approach to provide the converse of the author's advocate. It may be, for example, that in employing the principle of charity we have been too kind to the author, or else that we agree too much with what he or she is saying to be properly critical of their arguments; if so, we play Devil's Advocate and look for any detail, however large or small, that may prove to be a flaw or error in the author's writing.
Once again, our aim is to end up with the situation we may learn the most from. We can use the two advocacy methods to do this: first, by asking "how can we make this argument better?"; second, by responding with "how can we critique it?"; third, by wondering "how can we reply and salvage the argument?"; and so on. In this way we improve both the author's ideas and our own counterarguments at each turn and give ourselves the opportunity to understand how convincing the former are by viewing them in their best light.
To understand how these remarks apply to reading and doing philosophy, we'll now look at two pieces and try to apply what we've learned and see what difference it makes. In the first we'll break everything down and over-emphasise the process, while in the second we'll try to approach the text as we would normally.
1. Mill's arguments for proliferation
Consider the following excerpt from Mill's On Liberty:
First: the opinion which it is attempted to suppress by authority may possibly be true. Those who desire to suppress it, of course deny its truth; but they are not infallible. They have no authority to decide the question for all mankind, and exclude every other person from the means of judging. To refuse a hearing to an opinion, because they are sure that it is false, is to assume that their certainty is the same thing as absolute certainty. All silencing of discussion is an assumption of infallibility. Its condemnation may be allowed to rest on this common argument, not the worse for being common.
This is only the first paragraph of an extended section, but the first thing we need to do is skim the piece, looking for answers to our four questions. Thus:
... the opinion which it is attempted to suppress by authority may possibly be true. Those who desire to suppress it, of course deny its truth; but they are not infallible. They have no authority to decide the question for all mankind, and exclude every other person from the means of judging. To refuse a hearing to an opinion, because they are sure that it is false, is to assume that their certainty is the same thing as absolute certainty. All silencing of discussion is an assumption of infallibility. Its condemnation may be allowed to rest on this common argument, not the worse for being common.
Looking at the sections in bold, then, we have:
What is the author's subject? Mill seems to be discussing the freedom of expression and the possibility of silencing it.
What are the author's conclusions? Mill appears to be asserting strongly that any silencing of opinion is a bad idea and to be opposed.
What arguments does the author employ? Mill is offering here some of the points he will later expand on: if we try to stop a viewpoint from being heard, it may turn out to be true; people are not certain to be right and so may well be wrong; being sure about something as far as we are concerned is not the same as being absolutely sure of it; and so on.
What is the purpose of the piece? It seems Mill is intending to make some political points and wants to show, in particular, the folly of stopping people from expressing an opinion.
These give us a context for the rest of the piece, and for studying the arguments therein. Now we can try to read through this section again, continuing to the following passages; starting with the one we already have, we can also employ the methods we looked at above.
One of the first things to consider is our initial attitude to the subject matter at hand; do we have prior opinions on the suppression of ideas? Your humble narrator does, and is inclined to be overly charitable to Mill. If we take one paragraph at a time, we can see how each of our methods can be applied.
The first point, then, is that any opinion we decide to silence may in fact be true. To put this point into a more recent focus, we might want to prevent creationism being taught alongside evolution in schools, but we should note—on this argument—that the former may be true; if so, it would appear to be a bad idea to exclude it. Playing devil's advocate, though, we all know—don't we?—that creationism has been shown to be a hopeless notion, while evolutionary theory is one of the most successful we have, after the quantum theory; it would be folly, then, to suppose that creationism has anything to offer.
In the next line, Mill responds to just such a point: those people who have decided that creationism is untenable could still be wrong, and even if they aren't they still have no right to decide the matter for everyone: why shouldn't I, for instance, have my children taught creationism if that's what I want? To oppose him again, the question could instead be to ask what right I have to insist on my children being taught ridiculous ideas? Shouldn't I prefer that they be taught the best ideas we have available, and if I want to keep them ignorant then perhaps the education of my children shouldn't be my business? Have i any right to insist that my idiocy in all matters be preserved for future generations?
Mill suggests we are conflating (or confusing) two different versions of certainty here: the fact that all the work done to date suggests one theory over another does not imply an absolute judgement that the one is better than the other, or will always be. If we prevent creationism from being heard in schools, we are assuming that our own certainty is absolute certainty. To counter him, though, we could note that it must always be borne in mind that children have to be educated now, doing the best we can for them; it may be that what we teach them turns out to be wrong, while the excluded topics or theories are later shown to have been right after all, but we don't have time to wait around for absolute certainty—we have to teach them today what we think are the best ideas.
How would Mill respond to this criticism? Perhaps he would say that the important point he is making here is only that we should not assume our ideas to be infallible; of course we have to teach something, but why not try teaching why we judge creationism to be not worth our while, and the contrary for evolution? In this way, we would be showing children how to learn for themselves, rather than instructing them in what they should learn as facts and what they shouldn't.
Acting again as devil's advocate, we could say that learning facts may not be the only thing to education but it's still important, and that some facts are so far beyond doubt—as far as we can tell—that they ought to be taught as such. On the other hand, we could say that children may benefit from the alternative approach, but they would have to be old enough first to cope with it; in the meantime, they need to be taught the best information we have to hand, even if it we acknowledge that it could be flawed.
Mill could say that the first point is just an opinion, while the second is not obvious and relies on information we don't have to hand here. We could look at what teachers' experience tells us about the prospects for this idea, or else investigate it further.
Let's now move on to the next paragraph, which is a lot longer and will be easier if we split it up:
Unfortunately for the good sense of mankind, the fact of their fallibility is far from carrying the weight in their practical judgment, which is always allowed to it in theory; for while every one well knows himself to be fallible, few think it necessary to take any precautions against their own fallibility, or admit the supposition that any opinion, of which they feel very certain, may be one of the examples of the error to which they acknowledge themselves to be liable. [...]
What point is Mill making here in this lengthy sentence? It seems he is noting that while most people admit that in theory an opinion may be wrong—even one of their own—they in practice rarely allow for the possibility. Excluding your narrator, is that a fair characterisation? From the devil's advocate perspective, it seems uncharitable; perhaps we don't spend all our time bearing in mind that our opinions could be mistaken, but we still take precautions to avoid it. Moreover, who is to say when and how often we have such thoughts in mind?
How could Mill answer? He could say that it isn't obvious that people pay much attention to this problem, but it isn't any more obvious that they don't—we're at something of an impasse and comments here seem to be largely rhetoric. On the other hand, he could have been speaking generally, but that carries little weight in a philosophical argument. It seems hard to do anything more with this passage.
Absolute princes, or others who are accustomed to unlimited deference, usually feel this complete confidence in their own opinions on nearly all subjects. People more happily situated, who sometimes hear their opinions disputed, and are not wholly unused to be set right when they are wrong, place the same unbounded reliance only on such of their opinions as are shared by all who surround them, or to whom they habitually defer: for in proportion to a man's want of confidence in his own solitary judgment, does he usually repose, with implicit trust, on the infallibility of "the world" in general. And the world, to each individual, means the part of it with which he comes in contact; his party, his sect, his church, his class of society: the man may be called, by comparison, almost liberal and large-minded to whom it means anything so comprehensive as his own country or his own age. [...]
Here Mill declares first that those who rarely find their opinions challenged are unlikely to worry about the possibility of their being wrong. Is that a charitable reading of him? He does temper his statement by saying "usually", but it seems to be an extension of his previous comments. If we oppose him again, we could say that many examples speak to the contrary: there were and are mathematicians, say, whose work can only be understood by a few other people in the world, meaning that contrary opinion would be hard to come by; nevertheless, they still have their doubts about their ideas. The same applied, for example, to Aurelius: he was a very powerful man, but he still spent the better part of his time musing on matters, questioning himself and his understanding of the world. What of those who are at the very top of their chosen field, to whom others defer? It hardly follows that they are any less concerned at their fallibility than the rest of us.
Can we advocate Mill's position against these criticisms? We could clarify this argument and make it more plausible by saying that people whose opinions are not tested regularly are less likely to consider them fallible than the converse; that, it seems, is the sense of his following sentences. This appears stronger, but we could still raise the same objection that it doesn't necessarily follow, particularly for examples we could find. A way around this could be to add the remark ceteris paribus—all other things being equal (we add it in Latin here because that is how we sometimes find it in texts): thus, someone whose opinions are not tested regularly is, all other things being equal, less likely to question them than if they were. This is now a general argument, but apparently a good one; although particular counter-examples exist, it does suggest that subjecting our ideas to frequent criticism is a way to avoid stagnation in our thinking.
We can now use the more charitable interpretation so developed as we proceed. The other argument Mill makes in this section is—in the terms we have established above—that we are less likely, other things being equal, to question those ideas supported by the vast majority of those in similar circumstances to us—whether it be our political party, class, church, workmates, and so on—than those that are not. To support Mill further, we could say further that this seems to be one of the reasons that communities form in the first place: shared ideas are of course less likely to be subject to challenge than new or unfamiliar ones. However, this is no reason to suppose them less fallible, so we should be on our guard the more against those commonalities that are rarely—or unwillingly—called into question.
Since it is a general point, as before, it is not as easy to find reasons to oppose Mill here. We could counter that he assumes the truth of an opinion more important than the society that excludes it: why should we adapt our needs to the truth, rather than the other way around? This is a deep question, though, that is better left to another time.
Nor is his faith in this collective authority at all shaken by his being aware that other ages, countries, sects, churches, classes, and parties have thought, and even now think, the exact reverse. He devolves upon his own world the responsibility of being in the right against the dissentient worlds of other people; and it never troubles him that mere accident has decided which of these numerous worlds is the object of his reliance, and that the same causes which make him a Churchman in London, would have made him a Buddhist or a Confucian in Pekin. Yet it is as evident in itself, as any amount of argument can make it, that ages are no more infallible than individuals; every age having held many opinions which subsequent ages have deemed not only false but absurd; and it is as certain that many opinions, now general, will be rejected by future ages, as it is that many, once general, are rejected by the present.
In this section, Mill is making two very important arguments that have applications elsewhere. The first is that what we believe—and how we came to believe it—is often influenced by the circumstances of our upbringing and the environment it occurred in. It does not mean that the truth is decided by such things (although that is a subject of much discussion in philosophy today), but rather that some of the ideas we hold to be self-evident are not at all obvious to those in different cultures, and vice versa. The second is that most of the beliefs held in the past have turned out to be mistaken, so it could be that those we hold today may go the same way.
Let's try to take the most charitable readings of these points and render them in their strongest form. For the first, it would be a weak criticism to say that just because other people believe other things, it doesn't necessarily mean our beliefs are wrong; that is one way of understanding Mill, but we can do better. We could also note that he is unfair with his remark "it never occurs…", but - again—we want to avoid dismissing him too quickly. Suppose, then, that we read the argument as saying that the fact that different cultures believe different things should make us more cautious in accepting our own as the truth of the matter; not only does this provide us with something to consider (i.e. not everyone can be right), but it also offers advice (i.e. we should remember that other factors influence what we believe, not just whether they're true or not).
How can we criticise Mill here, having taken a more charitable version of his comments? He doesn't insist that the existence of contrary views renders ours more or less likely to be wrong, or that we must be cautious, but only that the multiplicity of ideas should give us pause. We could say that this is too general to be of any use, but is it? By acting as author's advocate, we have improved the passage considerably and made it a good deal more interesting.
For the second point, we could note that this argument is inductive: many ideas have been wrong in the past; therefore, most (if not all) of ours today will probably go the way of the dinosaurs also. Given that inductive arguments are problematic (as we've already seen earlier in the series), we could call this unimpressive and leave the matter here; that would violate our principles, though, so let's try to understand it in another way. We could say, for example, that the fact of most other notions having been replaced suggests the possibility that many current ones will have to be also; this, again, would be to provide methodological advice: be careful not to assume we've finally got to the truth of the matter, since we could be wrong like everyone else was. We could also say that the historical failings would lead us to believe that today's ideas are less likely to be true than if we had a better record in the past.
The second rendering is open to severe criticism because probabilistic moves in epistemology have been fraught with (philosophical) danger, and it would need a lot more argument to make this convincing—argument that Mill doesn't provide. It could be a topic for further discussion, but we'll concentrate on what we have in the text here. Instead, we could take the first version and note that it says something similar to the other point; combining them, we get more succinct and stronger advice: different people in different cultures have believed different things, both now and throughout history, so we should perhaps be more cautious in assuming the accuracy of our own ideas today.
Mill himself considers some possible counter-arguments in the next paragraph:
The objection likely to be made to this argument, would probably take some such form as the following. There is no greater assumption of infallibility in forbidding the propagation of error, than in any other thing which is done by public authority on its own judgment and responsibility. Judgment is given to men that they may use it. Because it may be used erroneously, are men to be told that they ought not to use it at all? To prohibit what they think pernicious, is not claiming exemption from error, but fulfilling the duty incumbent on them, although fallible, of acting on their conscientious conviction. If we were never to act on our opinions, because those opinions may be wrong, we should leave all our interests uncared for, and all our duties unperformed. An objection which applies to all conduct, can be no valid objection to any conduct in particular. It is the duty of governments, and of individuals, to form the truest opinions they can; to form them carefully, and never impose them upon others unless they are quite sure of being right. But when they are sure (such reasoners may say), it is not conscientiousness but cowardice to shrink from acting on their opinions, and allow doctrines which they honestly think dangerous to the welfare of mankind, either in this life or in another, to be scattered abroad without restraint, because other people, in less enlightened times, have persecuted opinions now believed to be true. Let us take care, it may be said, not to make the same mistake: but governments and nations have made mistakes in other things, which are not denied to be fit subjects for the exercise of authority: they have laid on bad taxes, made unjust wars. Ought we therefore to lay on no taxes, and, under whatever provocation, make no wars? Men, and governments, must act to the best of their ability. There is no such thing as absolute certainty, but there is assurance sufficient for the purposes of human life. We may, and must, assume our opinion to be true for the guidance of our own conduct: and it is assuming no more when we forbid bad men to pervert society by the propagation of opinions which we regard as false and pernicious.
We note here that Mill is not satisfied with providing only his own thoughts; he adds a lengthy list of remarks that could be made against him, playing devil's advocate for himself. Some of these we have covered, and others not, but we could easily draw a list from the passage:
1. Public authorities are no more or less likely to be wrong when disallowing bad ideas than in any other decision.
2. We have to act now - not when all argument has ceased—so, fallible or not, we have to do the best we can with the information we have.
3. Stopping, say, creationism from being taught is not assuming that we know what is true and what isn't; rather, it's doing what we are duty-bound to do—trying to do the best for our children, even though we may be completely wrong.
4. If we never act until we are absolutely sure, we would never act at all.
5. Since we are never going to be certain of our ideas, we must do the best we can—even though our best may have failed in the past and may yet fail again.
We could extend the list, or else come up with further points of our own, but Mill has done just what we explained at the start of this article: put forward his own ideas, then criticise them. He then attempts to answer these, and so make his arguments the stronger for having withstood the best objections he could find:
I answer, that it is assuming very much more. There is the greatest difference between presuming an opinion to be true, because, with every opportunity for contesting it, it has not been refuted, and assuming its truth for the purpose of not permitting its refutation. Complete liberty of contradicting and disproving our opinion, is the very condition which justifies us in assuming its truth for purposes of action; and on no other terms can a being with human faculties have any rational assurance of being right.
Since we cannot study all of Mill's subsequent discussion, this answer may not read as convincingly as it could; nevertheless, it's a very interesting remark indeed: disallowing any idea prevents it from subsequently showing its worth, whereas supposing another to be true because all objections to date have failed is a working hypothesis—not the end of the matter. To use creationism again to put this into context, there's a significant difference between the quite reasonable assumption that creationism is false because it's failed to convince us to date, having had many opportunities to explain why it's superior to evolution as an explanation, and preventing it altogether from having the opportunity to do any better. This doesn't only apply to education: if people vocally insist that only imbeciles could possibly believe in creationism these days, the prophecy is likely to be self-fulfilling (and include your narrator). In Mill's conception, we can of course teach evolution; what we cannot do is bar creationism from being taught or studied, because then it has no opportunity to develop.
Acting as devil's advocate, we could say that Mill's advice is interesting but not convincing: just how long are we supposed to give ideas that fail on every occasion they're tried? We only have so much time and so many resources to devote to education, investigation and the like, so why waste any energy on ventures like creationism? Isn't there a practical limit here to how much failure we're prepared to put up with? Isn't Mill also advocating a freedom from intervention that is itself open to critique?
How could Mill reply? He does so in the succeeding sections, which we'll leave to further study for those interested (the whole piece can be found here), but one way pursued by later thinkers was to point to other ideas that took a very long time to develop—recall our example in a previous article of atomism, which needed around 2000 years. One of the reasons why Mill's On Liberty has been referred to as "immortal" by some thinkers is that it leads to so many other questions like this. Your own study may turn up other avenues, or else be critical of this preliminary one.
2. Hobbes' ideas on our natural condition
As a second example, let's consider a few paragraphs from chapter thirteen of Hobbes' Leviathan, found here, in which he discusses "the Natural Condition of Mankind as Concerning Their Felicity and Misery". This time we'll use less detail but still try to draw out the salient points using the methods we used before:
Hereby it is manifest that, during the time men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called war, and such a war as is of every man against every man. For ‘war' consisteth not in battle only or the act of fighting, but in a tract of time wherein the will to contend by battle is sufficiently known, and therefore the notion of ‘time' is to be considered in the nature of war, as it is in the nature of weather. For as the nature of foul weather lieth not in a shower or two of rain but in an inclination thereto of many days together, so the nature of war consisteth not in actual fighting but in the known disposition thereto during all the time there is no assurance to the contrary. All other time is 'peace.'
Although we join the chapter mid-way through, this passage sets the scene. Hobbes is discussing what follows from living without authority to enforce laws—what would life be like without laws and rules? He concludes that we would be at war with one another, and offers the argument that in the absence of political power of some kind we live with the possibility of conflict hanging over us. His wider purpose in writing appears to be political: if the consequences of life without government can be shown to be undesirable, it would seem to follow that some form will be necessary—and that Hobbes has an idea or two about it. This is our context.
Whatsoever therefore is consequent to a time or war where every man is enemy to every man, the same is consequent to the time wherein men live without other security than what their own strength and their own invention shall furnish them withal. In such condition there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain, and consequently no culture of the earth, no navigation nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea, no commodious building, no instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force, no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time, no arts, no letters, no society, and, which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death, and the life of man solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.
What points are being made here? Firstly, Hobbes says that if we live without any security other than what we get from our own strength—or lack thereof—it is the same as being at literal war with each other. Is that a fair interpretation? Hobbes is apparently quite explicit: "the same is consequent", he says. Can we oppose him? On the face of it, it doesn't follow at all that just because we don't have an over-arching political power to govern our interactions with each other, we are all at war. Plenty of people get by without the saving grace of security from afar—what about people in an actual war-zone, for example, who might be beyond the reach of any enforcement of laws but who still get along without communities or relationships disintegrating? Consider also two people marooned on a desert island—must they be at war with each other? They could be, but it hardly seems likely.
How could Hobbes respond? He could say that he didn't intend his comments to be taken literally; rather than implying that everyone would be at each other's throats, he meant that they have no reason not to go back on any agreement they could make, save for the strength of the other party—that without a political power to enforce laws, there would be no reason why we shouldn't obey them one moment and not the next. We could counter again that even with laws, we have no-one standing by at every instant to ensure we follow them; they act as a deterrent, not a guarantee. How could Hobbes reply to this?
Hobbes makes another point here: he says that in the unfortunate circumstances he describes, there would be no efforts made to improve the conditions of life because the outcome would be uncertain, and that as a result there would be no arts, crafts, sciences and so on. Are we being charitable in this rendering? He is again quite emphatic—no knowledge, no arts. Let us try instead to critique him, then, and thus to improve his position as a result.
Does it follow that the lack of certainty in an endeavour implies that no-one would try it? The argument looks like this:
P1. There is no certainty in doing x;
P2. People only act when certain of the results;
P3: Only government can secure the results of our endeavours;
C: Therefore, no-one will act (in the ways he describes) without government to secure their efforts.
It seems that all the premises here are open to severe doubt. Perhaps instead we could back off slightly and recast his intentions as to note that people might be less likely to invest their time in such endeavours if they have no guarantee of their lives other than what their strength provides? Does this help? It appears better than before, but we could find counter-examples again: didn't Wittgenstein write philosophy while huddled in the trenches of the Great War, when he could've been killed at any moment? Don't marooned people build rafts to escape from their island without any guarantee of their venture's success? How can we help Hobbes now?
It may seem strange to some man that has not well weighed these things that Nature should thus dissociate and render men apt to invade and destroy one another; and he may therefore, not trusting to this inference made from the passions, desire perhaps to have the same confirmed by experience. Let him therefore consider with himself, when taking a journey, he arms himself and seeks to go well accompanied; when going to sleep, he locks his doors; when even in his house, he locks his chests; and this when he knows there be laws and public officers armed to revenge all injuries shall be done him; what opinion he has of his fellow-subjects when he rides armed; of his fellow-citizens, when he locks his doors; and of his children and servants, when he locks his chests. Does he not there as much accuse mankind by his actions as I do by my words? But neither of us accuse man's nature in it. The desires and other passions of man are in themselves no sin. No more are the actions that proceed from those passions, till they know a law that forbids them; which, till laws be made, they cannot know, nor can any law be made till they have agreed upon the person that shall make it.
In this passage, Hobbes offers an instance that he intends as justifying his point by example. Doesn't the fact that we lock our doors, or arm ourselves (in Hobbes' time, or in some countries today), or travel in groups rather than alone, imply that we are suspicious of our fellows? Suppose further that it does: can we then say that no-one will be inclined to call an action wrong until a law has been made to declare it?
We could argue against Hobbes here by counter-example: many communities still exist that do not lock their doors—especially in his time and particularly in the countryside. Alternatively, we could say that we lock our doors because there is a minority of people who will steal our belongings if given the chance—not because we distrust everyone. In this case, as in others, general behaviour could be the result of specific problems, not widespread or universal fear and suspicion.
How can we help Hobbes now?
It may peradventure be thought there was never such a time nor condition of war as this; and I believe it was never generally so over all the world, but there are many places where they live so now. For the savage people in many places of America, except the government of small families the concord whereof dependeth on natural lust, have no government at all, and live at this day in that brutish manner as I said before. Howsoever, it may be perceived what manner of life there would be where there were no common power to fear, by the manner of life which men that have formerly lived under a peaceful government use to degenerate into, in a civil war.
Here Hobbes offers a criticism of his own and then answers it: he notes that it could be objected that the situation he envisages has never in fact existed; in response, he says that although he is willing to concede that it isn't the case everywhere, there are still many examples to refer to—like the "savage" peoples of America. This is an empirical argument: is his characterization accurate? If not, his claim is unsupported. To advocate for Hobbes here, then, we would need to check; the result would give us the information to argue for or against him.
A second empirical point is made by Hobbes: we can see what would happen to people who survive under no laws by looking at the history of what happened to those who lived through civil wars. Hobbes is suggesting that an investigation would show that society degenerated without the influence of government, but if we found the contrary then we would be able to play devil's advocate and insist that the claim be restated in a more plausible way.
But, though there had never been any time wherein particular men were in a condition of war one against another, yet in all times kings and persons of sovereign authority, because of their independency, are in continual jealousies and in the state and posture of gladiators, having their weapons pointing, and their eyes fixed on one another, that is, their forts, garrisons, and guns, upon the frontiers of their kingdoms, and continual spies upon their neighbours: which is a posture of war. But because they uphold thereby the industry of their subjects, there does not follow from it that misery which accompanies the liberty of particular men.
Now Hobbes mentions that independent kingdoms and principalities (or other arrangements nowadays) may maintain the lives of their citizens, but they nevertheless are perpetually at risk of war. Is this a fair reading? Apparently so, since he actually employs a great deal more rhetoric. Can we oppose it? We could ask why this has to be the case at all: why may not agreements between nations be made? Why should the potential for war be the default, when it could just as easily be that peace reigns unless something happens to end it? This is a general point to be made against Hobbes throughout: could he not have argued instead that without the security of government people are inclined to live together in peace, with the ambitions of governments being largely responsible for the conflict he saw everywhere? Perhaps this idea is flawed, but in order to make his case stronger Hobbes could have been a better devil's advocate himself and offered it as best he could, thereby demonstrating its flaws and why his own understanding is to be preferred. This, then, would be a way for us to tackle the issue and employ our methods still further.
Hobbes work was very influential in his time and after, but already in this short extract we can see points of attack in his arguments that were seized upon by others. It shows us that time spent on criticising and hence adapting our own ideas is perhaps as important as working on our initial justifications.
The point of these exercises is not to argue for or against any particular opinion, but only to demonstrate how we can approach philosophical pieces and some methods for getting the most out of them. Any of the remarks made or criticisms raised could be the starting place for a more detailed discussion or attempt to refute an idea, but that is for another article at another time.