Archive for the ‘Hobbes’ Category

When you think of disaster, the scene that probably comes to mind is one of bystanders fleeing for their lives, stampeding away and creating a frenzied chaos that lends itself to looting and other despicable acts.  However, this pandemonium is not the norm. Frequently, disasters are followed by a period of unregulated harmony, with little to no government influence.  While ultimately necessary, the immediate restoration of strong and authoritative government is not imperative in the wake of disaster.  Its eventual reestablishment, however, is critical to the avoidance of the dystopia and constant war that accompany a truly Hobbesian state of nature.

            Following disaster, the affected are violently shaken from their everyday preoccupations with the past (notions of hierarchy and status) and the future (accumulation of money and goods).  They must now focus on the present, and satisfying Hobbes’ first law of nature, the Law of Self Preservation; that all men are “to seek peace, and follow it” (Hobbes).  Men seek to fulfill their original right to everything around them, including life.  With that as their principal aim, and in accordance with Hobbes’ second law of nature, men are, in these times of immediate danger, “contented with so much liberty against other men as he would allow other men against himself” (Hobbes).  In stark contrast to the cynical and incorrect views of selfish pandemonium that is expected, a peaceful and harmonious society emerges in the destruction of disaster. The single goal of this society is to satisfy the basic needs of its citizens, the survivors of the disaster, which are not being met.  “The passions that incline man to peace are fear of death and desire of such things that are necessary to commodious living” (Hobbes).  It is these inherent human needs and desires that dictate the harmony of a disaster ravaged community.

            While the basic human need for self-preservation is understood, human nature is much too complex to seek the obvious solution of an isolated, lawless, and unregulated society that satisfies only the most basic requirements for survival.  With respect to the Hobbesian tradeoff, much of humanity realizes that the security of regulated civilization far outweighs the freedom of anarchic chaos.  Through solidarity, people look not only for self-preservation, but also for a way to eclipse the suffering with togetherness.  In doing so they showcase an unfamiliar and seldom seen version of human nature.  It has been scientifically proven that people are more likely to respond to an emergency when help is not available.  The limited ability of traditional emergency response teams often leads directly to civilian action.  When danger is imminent and no help is on the way, peoples’ reactions are to help those around them to safety.  For example, following 9/11, and in direct disagreement with Hobbes’ Law of Self Preservation, boats looking for anyone who needed rescuing bombarded Lower Manhattan.  When everyone is safe and resources are scarce, neighborhoods band together and pool resources to help each other survive.  Societies arise based on proximity, social ties and the now-limited concepts of “here” and “now.”  After a disaster and within this communities, there is a feeling that anything can happen, the same feeling that incites and defines revolution.  The feeling that you and everyone around you are brothers and sisters, united in the defense of each other’s wellbeing.

            Society may remain harmonious in the immediate wake of disaster; however, previous authority structures must be reestablished to ensure the long-term preservation of said society.  The anarchic paradise of self-regulated microcosms is only viable for the short period of time before the basic needs for human survival are met. Their purpose is obvious and pressing- put out the fire, sandbag the river, rescue the trapped.  Once given the option of alternatives, disagreement of ideals will result in dissent and the subsequent downfall of these ad hoc associations.  Over extended periods of time, only the authority of central government can do what these communities have managed to do for a fleeting moment. In Hobbesian terms, the presence of a benevolent sovereign is essential to the successful aversion of a true State of Nature.

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Quentin Tarantino’s film, Reservoir Dogs (1992), takes place almost exclusively in a wide-open area of an abandoned warehouse.  The warehouse was supposed to be a safe house for a group of thieves after a heist; however, things don’t go as planned, and the warehouse ends up being very dangerous, with one of the thieves being an undercover cop.  Viewing the film, I think you interpret the warehouse as a Hobbesian State of Nature because of how similar the warehouse is to a State of Nature.

Part of why it’s possible to interpret the warehouse as a State of Nature is because of how versatile Hobbe’s State of Nature is.  People in a State of Nature don’t form covenants, they only want to avoid an untimely death, can do what ever they choose, have no common power or authority.  In Reservoir Dogs, the thieves don’t trust each other, only want to survive, and are not bound by any of the other characters in the Warehouse, similar to what describes a State of Nature.

The thieves are a group of six and also complete strangers, knowing nothing about each other.  The crime boss who organized the heist, Joe Cabot, instructed them all not to share any personal information with each other, also assigning them the names Mr. Pink, Mr. White, Mr. Blonde, Mr. Orange, Mr. Blue, and Mr. Brown.  Joe does this to protect the operation incase one of thieves are caught.

Hobbe’s State of Nature is characterized by many things; among them, is the lack of covenants.  Within the warehouse, no covenants are formed.  Covenants are never formed in States of Nature (they are only formed in the commonwealth), because they are impossible to enforce.  Two of the characters, White and Pink nearly form a covenant, but don’t because Pink wouldn’t tell White his name.  White was about to tell Pink his name, but Pink stopped him because it’s an unnecessary risk and White could easily be the undercover cop.  White could be the cop and double cross Pink, and there would be no consequences for his actions because there is no one to enforce the covenant.  The purpose of covenants in Hobbe’s commonwealth is to rat out cheaters, because it’s to the advantage of those in the commonwealth to do so.  The covenant almost formed by White and Pink would have the same purpose as covenants in the commonwealth, White and Pink would try and figure out who the real Rat is.

All the characters in the film are wary of each other because they don’t know who the cop is.  All the characters being wary of each other helps justify the warehouse as a State of Nature, because, the only thing people in a State of Nature care about is avoiding an untimely death.  All the characters are being careful around each other because they don’t know who the cop is, and don’t want to end up in jail or dead.  The characters need to protect themselves and their livelihood for their survival.  Pink refusing to give White his name is an example of this.  Had Pink given his name to White, he would’ve shown that he trusted White.  Pink giving his name also has the potential to harm his chances of survival; however, Pink doesn’t give his name up.  The number one thing Pink is concerned with is his own survival, similar to the people of the State of Nature who are also only concerned with avoiding an untimely death.

There are more examples of things that the Warehouse has in common with Hobbe’s State of Nature.  In the State of Nature, it’s inhabitants can do anything they please because others can do anything they please, and there are no limits.  In the warehouse, the thieves can similarly do anything they want.  In one of the more graphic scenes, Mr. Blonde (a psychopath), decides to mutilate a cop that he was holding hostage while the rest of the surviving thieves were moving the cars away from the warehouse.  Blonde choose to do this even though it’s wrong and disgusting, because he or any of the other thieves can do anything within the warehouse, if they are so inclined.

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In the modern world, one can see variations of Thomas Hobbes’ State of Nature through the open waters of the Earth’s oceans.  The Somali pirates are a perfect example of this because the oceans make for the perfect situation for Hobbes’ State of Nature by allowing for a realm of no governing authority, allowing for the pirates to easily attack naval ships in order to receive ransom money, creating a state of chaos.  This situation created by the ocean near Somalia, is similar to Thomas Hobbes’ state of nature because the pirates have caused constant quarrel with ships that pass through those waters which then has led to the countries of the world wanting to seek peace.

Hobbes envisioned a condition of nature where each person is their own judge and since each person is their own judge, quarrels occur because there is no neutral third party with any authority to help solve their problems. So if the pirates want to take another man’s ship then they can take another man’s ship, without being punished by any particular governing body because it occurred in the open waters of the oceans. Now, this can cause a fight between the two ships as the one ship can attempt to fight back, but normally fails as nature has it with any fight, one side wins and one side loses.   This is why Hobbes considers the state of nature equivalent to that of a state of war because in the state of nature people are their own judge, people chose to settle problems violently.

Going further, Hobbes’ Law of Nature forbids a person from doing anything that would be destructive to his life; he also notes it’s in the best interest of humans to work together for survival rather than be independent. This leads him to develop his first branch of nature, which suggests that humans seek peace and follow it, relating back to the situation with the Somali Pirates that have created such fear among the nations of the world forcing them to join together to seek peace with the pirates. BBC news reports that on November 10, that there are nearly forty ships, from the European Union, United States, China, India, and Japan, in anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden. Unfortunately, with no governing body able to regulate international waters and punish the pirates, they can continue with the status quo and only worry about the specific retributions from each ship.

However, BBC news also reported that on October 28 the Prime Minister of Somalia pledged to eradicate piracy within the next two years. This seems like an empty pledge for the Prime Minister to make given the circumstances that I have alluded to above concerning the lack of a strict governing body over the oceans.  Even though the pirates are from Somalia, it seems that the Prime Minister will not actually be able to do much to curb piracy.  It seems as though the pirates will continue to take advantage of the lack of a ruling body over the Earth’s oceans and the fact that they cannot be properly held responsible.

In summary, the situation in the waters off the coast of Somalia resembles Hobbes’ state of nature due to the lack of authority held over the oceans, which leads to quarrels exemplified by the Somali Pirates.  This state of war that is created makes others seek peace, just as Hobbes suggests, but it is only seen in the modern world.  This correlates to a CNN report showing that in 2009 there have been 102 pirate attacks and 39 hijackings in the region of the Gulf of Aden, supporting the claims made by Hobbes in our present state of nature courtesy of the Somali Pirates creating a constant state of chaos.

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Hobbes has a methodical and mechanical view of the universe and world; however, in this mechanical view there seems to be a metaphorical “screw” loose. Hobbes argues in The Leviathan that in a state of nature, devoid of government and laws, mankind is in a “war of all against all.” His argument is based upon what he views as man’s natural tendencies and actions. Hobbes asserts that mankind has “a perpetual and restless desire of power after power, that ceaseth only in death.” (Wootton 2007)  Due to man’s insatiable appetite for more power, possessions, and honor and the natural limited amount of resources on the planet Hobbes deduces that there will always be conflict because “the way…to the attaining of [man’s] desires, is to kill, subdue, supplant, or repel” (Wootton 2007). Therefore, in total, Hobbes argues that in the state of nature every natural man is against one another because they have unending desires and resources are scarce.  Hobbes then deduces that the reason men make societies with governments and laws is to facilitate peace because an untimely death is the consequence of the state of nature’s perpetual war.

I, however, disagree with Hobbes conclusion about the natural inclination of men towards violence. I believe that the establishment of commonwealths actually facilitates more violence rather than less. It is true that humans have a “fight or flight” defense mechanism, biologically, that promotes survival, but this mechanism is a vital, or involuntary, reaction and is produced only through provocation.  Furthermore, Hobbes argued that voluntary actions, like violence, are only committed with sufficient appetite or aversion.  In this case, man’s appetite for more power drives his violence towards his fellow man.

I believe that contrary to his belief humans are naturally nonviolent because violence is a learned behavior, not a natural one. The development of language and laws and social conventions after the establishment of a commonwealth actually facilitate more violence. Robert H. DuRant, vice chair of pediatrics at Wake Forest University School of Medicine says, “the strong association between exposure to violence and the use of violence by young adolescents illustrates that violence is a learned behavior.” (Winston-Salem 2000) Humans are not naturally violent but rather they have to learn by some means how to be violent. Jennings Bryant and Susan Thompson explain that “this is especially true for young children who identify with the characters they see on television and try to imitate them.”(Bryant, Thompson 2002) No better evidence for this associative learning is seen than in Albert Bandura’s pivotal psychological experiment involving Bobo Dolls. Bandura set up an experiment with three separate rooms of children. The first room watched a film of an adult hitting and beating on the inflatable Bobo doll violently. The second watched a film that showed non violent behavior, and the third watched no film. When the children were later put into rooms with Bobo dolls, “the children who had seen on film the Bobo doll being battered were not only more aggressive…but actually copied the violent behaviors they had witnessed.”(Bryant, Thompson 2002) It is thus obvious that violent behaviors are only caused when provoked or taught rather than existing in nature.

Further evidence for the fact that the state of nature is not a violent one and that the establishment of societies increases violence comes when studying violence in war. The development of war as a means of country conflict resolution only developed after the development of societies and the movement away from the state of nature yet wars are undeniably the most violent development in the history of the earth.  However, when studying the largest war in history, WWII, we see that according to Army historian Brig. Gen.  “In World War II, U.S. soldiers with a clean shot at the enemy, actually shot only 1 time out of 5.”(Haddock 2006) This evidence proves that there is a psychological disposition for humans to kill one another. More evidence of this fact comes from Konrad Lorenz, Nobel Prize winning psychologist, who says “we have a built-in defense against hurting a member of our own species.”(Lorenz 1966) In his book On Aggression Lorenz argues that species develop psychological barriers to prevent themselves from killing one another. The military, when statistics like the afore mentioned 1/5 shooting in WWII, implemented tactics like combat simulations and behavior modification drills in the hopes of breaking down or rewriting man’s natural disinclination towards killing. The result of this training can be seen in the increased report of shots fired at opponents in subsequent wars, like the Iraq or Vietnam wars. However, along with these reported higher shot ratios we also see increased psychological disorders of the soldiers returning home. Of soldiers returning after the Iraq war, “20 percent were diagnosed with psychological disorders” and of those returning from Vietnam “15.2 percent of all male veterans…and 8.1 percent of women” returned and were diagnosed with a psychological disorder. (San Francisco Chronicle, 2005)The demanding of the military to kill is in such a conflict with human’s natural instincts that it leads to psychological brain malfunctions.

Finally, when non-western and isolated societies and tribes are examined, the closest thing to the state of nature still existing, we see further disinclination towards violence. Tribes without western influence that have remained isolated for centuries when finally found are of particular interest to the world. They give a view of what life was like in those long dated days without governments, technological advancement, and modern institutions. These tribes are found on remote islands like those in the pacific, or deep within isolated mountain ranges in Asia , or deep within the confines of the Brazilian rainforest. These tribes do exist, in fact CBS recently reported “One of Brazil’s last uncontacted Indian tribes has been spotted in the far western Amazon jungle near the Peruvian border.”(CBS 2008) When these groups are finally found researchers love to examine them to get a more realistic view of what our own ancestors must have been like. When violence becomes the topic of interest we see “studies over the past century have found that half of the tribal societies studied had little or no violence against women, against children, or among men.”(White Ribbon Campaign 2007) Because societies in the “state of nature” had no recorded history, we cannot see what violence was like for them but the closest modern day example proves that these societies were most likely non-violent just like their modern day cousins.

In conclusion,  the violence in a state of nature must have been minimal. Infants and isolated groups of people, the two least effected by our current societies and standards and thus most indicative of natural man, both demonstrate that humans are not naturally violent. Furthermore, institutions like war show that there exists a natural disinclination towards violence, the opposite of what Hobbes suggests. In The Leviathan Hobbes argues that commonwealth is the only way to escape the violence in the state of nature but there is more violence due to commonwealth. With the establishment of states and countries we see violence furthered. Through war, one of the most used policies in the history of established governments, we see violence encouraged and fostered. Also, through societal and cultural establishments we see violence further incorporated. Popular television shows and movies  teach violence through imitation. Even our cultural constructions of masculinity and femininity promote violence. For men, they are encouraged to play violent sports in “productive” ways. Sports like football, wrestling,  boxing, and the increasingly popular Ultimate Fighting all promote and teach violence. For these reasons I believe that violence is not stopped by the creation of commonwealths, it is perpetuated.

Works Cited

Bryant, Jennings, and Susan Thompson. Fundamentals of Media Effects. New York: McGraw-Hill Humanities/Social Sciences/Languages, 2001. Print.

Epstien, Jack, and Johnny Miller. “U.S. wars and post-traumatic stress disorder.” San Francisco Cronicle 22 June 2005. Print.

Haddock, V. (2006). The Science of Creating Killers: Human reluctance to take a life can be reversed through training in the method known as killology. The San Francisco Chronicle. 8/13/2006

Lorenz, Konrad. On Aggression. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1974. Print.

“Tribe Found Untouched By Civilization – CBS News.” Breaking News Headlines: Business, Entertainment & World News – CBS News. 30 May 2008. Web. 14 Dec.2009.<http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2008/05/30/world/main4137506.shtml&gt;.

White Ribbon Campaign. Web. 13 Dec. 2009. <http://whiteribbonday.wordpress.com/&gt;.

Winston-Salem. “Violence Is A Learned Behavior, Say Researchers At Wake Forest University.” Science Daily: News & Articles in Science, Health, Environment & Technology. Web. 13 Dec. 2009. <http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2000/11/001106061128.htm&gt;.

Wootton, David. Modern Political Thought Readings from Machiavelli to Nietzsche. 2nd ed. Indianapolis: Hackett Company, 2008. Print.

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Now that the semester is coming to a close students are stressing out about what grades they are going to receive and many have started making excuses for why they did not get the grade they were aiming for. A majority of these excuses revolve around the professor; for example, “he/she grades too hard,” or, “it is impossible to get an A in his/her class.” If students are complaining about the professors they have now, imagine the amount of complaints there would be if some of the philosophers we have studied in this class were professors and they ran their classroom like they thought that political systems should be run—that would give students something to complain about; especially if Hobbes, Burke, or Rousseau were their professors.

If Hobbes was a professor, students would legitimately never know what grade to expect. His political theory was that of an absolute sovereignty where whatever the sovereign does is justified because “every subject is author of every act the sovereign doth” (Hobbes 190). By enrolling into his class students would be entering into a social contract with him, thereby establishing him as their sovereign. He could grade however he wanted because his sovereignty would be absolute. If he wanted to fail the brightest student and give an A to the student who failed every assignment, there would be nothing anybody could do about it. The only time the students could resist his authority is if he put them in a situation where their life was in danger.

If Burke was a professor, his class would be extremely difficult. In his “Reflections on the Revolution in France,” he makes clear his belief that only “distinguished magistrates” and exemplary people should be ambitious because ambition is plausible only for them (Burke 507). He thinks that ambition shouldn’t be exercised by the “swinish multitude” because the “swinish multitude” can only ever be “swinish multitude”—nothing more, but possibly less (Burke 517). If the “swinish multitude” tries to be ambitious the only result is disappointment, or a fiasco like the French Revolution. Applying this idea to his classroom, only the few students that come from distinguished families or perform exceptionally well would pass his class. He would fail all the rest of the students to save them from the disappointment that would result from their own ambition.

Rousseau’s class would also be very difficult to excel in because in order to do well, one would have to be concerned solely for the proficiency of the class as a whole rather than concerned about being one of the best students in the class. In his treatise, “On the Social Contract,” he supported the idea that civil society can exist peacefully only when “each of us places his person and his power in common under the supreme direction of the general will and as one we receive each member as an indivisible part of the whole” (Rousseau 432). Rousseau says that the “general will” is not the wants of each individual but rather the common good of society as a whole; what is good for one person is not necessarily beneficial for society as a whole (Rousseau 437). Political systems become corrupt when people develop vanity and egocentrism. Therefore, to get an A in Rousseau’s class, students would have to be concerned more for the knowledge of the class as a whole rather than their own specific grade. If students care only about their grade and being better than all the other students, Rousseau would fail them because those actions are vain and egocentric and do not benefit the classroom as a whole. I think it would be hard to be in a class like this because it is difficult to put others before ones own self, especially when it comes to competing for grades.

Having Hobbes, Burke, or Rousseau as a professor would be a one of a kind experience that would (for once) justify excuses for a disappointing grade.


Burke, Edmund. “Burke: Reflections on the Revolution in France.” Modern Political Thought: Readings from Machiavelli to Nietzsche. By David Wootton. 2nd ed. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company Inc., 2008. 502-21. Print.

Hobbes, Thomas. “Leviathan.”Modern Political Thought: Readings from Machiavelli to Nietzsche. By David Wootton. 2nd ed. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company Inc., 2008. 116-277. Print.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. “On the Social Contract, or Principles of Political Right.” Modern Political Thought: Readings from Machiavelli to Nietzsche. By David Wootton. 2nd ed. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company Inc., 2008. 427-87. Print.

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State of Nature …

This post is in response to “The Real State of Nature”, after reading and commenting on this post I started to think about Hobbes’ state of nature. I believe that when a state of nature occurs the one that Hobbes explains is the one that will happen. I would believe that a Hobbesian state of nature will always occur when a situation worthy of becoming a state of nature befalls a commonwealth. An example is when Hurricane Katrina destroyed New Orleans; the city became a state of nature for a little while, while the government could not control the people and they started to become very self-interested, just like in a Hobbesian state of nature.

But I wonder if the same situation that creates a Hobbesian state of nature will become a Hobbesian state of nature when no commonwealth has ever been experienced. An example can be of primitive societies, was there always commonwealth in these societies? and if there wasn’t, did a Hobbesian state of nature become of them? From my knowledge the neanderthals had no government, but I do not know this for sure, with perpetual fear and a lack of government this was a prime situation for a state of nature, yet these primitive humans hunted together and worked together in order to survive.

So my ultimate curiosity is: does a commonwealth need to be experienced prior, in order for a Hobbesian state of nature to occur?

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The Fool’s Argument

In chapter 15 of the Leviathan Hobbes introduces the fool, a character that proposes a refutation to Hobbes’ third law of nature. I believe that the fool’s argument is true and a plausible one. After Hobbes gives the fool’s argument, he tries to refute it, but with a not very strong or convincing one for why someone could not go against covenant.

The fool proposes that it is possible for a member of the commonwealth to go against covenant in order to reap awesome benefit. The fool believes that at times “injustice … may not sometimes stand with that reason, which dictateth to every man his own good” (165), believing that it would not be unjust to break covenant because it is reasonable to do what is necessary to benefit oneself, therefore breaking covenant would be reasonable. Hobbes quickly attempts to disprove the fool by saying a man who does this will never be accepted into a commonwealth and he will not survive without a commonwealth. I do not think that Hobbes is correct in saying no man will survive without a commonwealth because we know that men survive the State of Nature, which is nearly identical as not living in a commonwealth. Believing a man could survive without a commonwealth, he could go against covenants, disproving Hobbes argument.

Supposing a man does not involve himself in the commonwealth and remains in the State of Nature, which Hobbes claims he would not want to but also is not required to, then he retains the lack of law therefore no injustice can befall him. “Where there is no common power, there is no law: where no law, no injustice” (159).  Another of Hobbes’ claims is that going against the covenant is injust (167) but if this man has not left the State of Nature, he is not being injust, and Hobbes stumbles over himself again.  After reading many of his claims, Hobbes’ argument seems to weaken.

Hobbes also claims in order to “secure and perpetual felicity of heaven” the way “is not breaking, but keeping of covenant” (167). Hobbes uses this as a viable reason to not break covenants. But later in the chapter he refutes his own claim by saying “there is no natural knowledge of man’s estate after death”; already having negated some of his own claims, Hobbes does not reply to the fool with a very strong argument.

In the play King Lear by Shakespeare the King’s jester is simply named “Fool”; unlike his name and occupation in the text the fool is incredibly insightful. While the rest of the cast ignores most of his dialogue, the Fool points out flaws of what is happening in the plot and provides solutions. I believe the King Lear’s fool can be compared to the Leviathan’s fool. I believe the fool in the Leviathan provides an intelligent and plausible refutation to Hobbes’ theory just as the fool in Shakespeare provides intelligent comments.

When this argument against Hobbes’ third law of nature is presented, Hobbes attempts to invalidate it, but does a poor job. His claims for his arguments are either based off assumption, such as a man joining a commonwealth or are contradicted by Hobbes’ other theories as the case when he explains not breaking covenant will get a man into heaven, which may not exist. Because the fool presents a strong refutation to Hobbes and Hobbes replies with a weak counter-argument, I believe that the fool’s refutation is possible and likely.

*Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan. in Modern Political Thought: Readings from Machiavelli to Nietzsche Second Edition, Edited by David Wooton ( Hackett Publishing, Inc. 2008)

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