Posts Tagged ‘Hobbes’

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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Ever since I was born in the United States of America I have had to abide by the laws the nation has set forth in front of me. However, since I was born within the country and am a natural citizen, I never directly made a contract with the nation expressing that I wanted to be a part of it, and its rules. Therefore, the question of whether or not I am truly subject to the nation’s laws arises. The short answer to this question is yes, but on a deeper level it is merely expressive consent that makes me a U.S. citizen. I express my desire to live under the commonwealth of the United States by accepting any benefits it offers.  Due to this one condition, I am subject to its laws and rules.

To reinforce this condition of receiving benefits, let us examine the works of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke.  What can be gathered from these philosophers is that all people in a commonwealth form an unspoken social contract to benefit from something the commonwealth provides. One major benefit, in both men’s interpretations, brings humans out of the state of nature through a form of protection.  Human’s join under commonwealths to gain the security the state of nature lacks. Naturally, the cost of this benefit is merely the agreement to live by the social contract or law of the commonwealth.

In Hobbes work The Leviathan, the major benefit a commonwealth provides is protection “from an untimely death.”  In Hobbes’ state of nature there is utter chaos. To relieve this chaos, people join commonwealths because, “if there be no power erected, or not great enough for security; every man will, and may lawfully rely on his own strength for caution against other men” (Hobbes, 173). Therefore in Hobbes’s commonwealth, if people receive protection, they are expressively agreeing rules of the power erected mentioned in the quote. In summarization, security is benefited when one abides by the commonwealth’s laws.

 Similarly, the major benefit Locke’s commonwealth provides is protection of one’s property.  Locke states in his work The Second Treatise of Government, “The great and chief end of men uniting into commonwealth, and putting themselves under government, is the preservation of their property” (Locke, 320). Based on this quote, the commonwealth protects one’s property, and if the protection is accepted, one is expressively agreeing to unite under the commonwealth. Overall, both Hobbes and Locke believe that, accepting any benefits from a commonwealth, expressively binds you to the rules of that commonwealth.

 In conclusion, the major condition that makes any person part of a commonwealth is through receiving benefits.  As a result, one becomes subject to the rules that the commonwealth creates. Furthermore, there is a clear connection between receiving benefits and expressively agreeing to live under a commonwealth in my situation. I expressively agree to live under the law of the United States by receiving the provisions of law enforcement, paved roads, and other things of this nature.

Hobbes, Thomas. “The Leviathan.” Modern Political Thought: Readings from Machiavelli to Nietzsche.   2nd Edition. David Wootton. Indianapolis, IN. 2008.

Locke, John. “The Second Treatise of Government.” Modern Political Thought: Readings from Machiavelli to Nietzsche. 2nd Edition. David Wootton. Indianapolis, IN. 2008.

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***  Sorry about the length and/or lack of quotes on Hobbes.  I am home for break and I didn’t bring my book, and this was not meant to be a long entry, but instead something short about the debate.  Then I started flowing and  it turned into something much more.  It contains a bunch of questions, that I wont pretend to have an answer to.  This is totally informal, just kind of long and if you don’t make it all the way through, I totally understand.    ***

I would like to make a comment about the health care debate (as though you all haven’t heard enough already).  However, I think it is the perfect example of Hobbes in modern day. On the one hand, the health care bill is an act of generosity: our “Sovereign” (don’t judge that assumption yet, read on) is looking out for the welfare of his population- most importantly their right to live, which Hobbes places above all else.  But at the same time, passing the bill has become an issue of survival for the Democratic party, an issue of self-interest (also Hobbesian).

I have found that in discussion, Hobbes’ relevance to the modern political scene has been questioned because he seems to be an “idealist”.  I believe people are confusing what Hobbes means to say.  That is, people believe that once a commonwealth is formed, Hobbes assumes that everyone leaves the State of Nature and hence shed their “evil” behavior of greed and jealously, etc.  The truth is, once we are out of the State of Nature the Law of Nature still holds.  Although Hobbes urges people to uphold their covenants, his reasoning only applies to self-interest.  To break a covenant, is to go against the law of nature as it will eventually be detrimental to yourself.  The whole point of the commonwealth is to centralize the fear, in an effort set up order and keep peace- not to abolish thoughts of greed and self-interest.  Really, the whole idea revolves around self-interest.

This is an important, yet subtle distinction: the commonwealth is not a utopia, it is the world that we live in today (abstractly).  Although it contradicts Hobbes to say that our system of government is a representation of the “Sovereign”, as he is adamant in having one absolute ruler in order to quell internal conflict- I think that in the abstract sense, as it applies to the individual, we can indeed draw this similarity.  Hobbes’ Sovereign looks out for our best interests (as the government does, or claims to) and holds the sword in the background to prevent us from breaking the law.  That sounds exactly like world you live in? Doesn’t it.  We just have a much more complex sovereign, in order to balance the power and prevent a fascist dictatorship.  Although this is definitely not Hobbesian, the purpose of our government is just the same.  In fact, I am from a state they call “The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania”. (Boo Penn State!).

Anyway, in today’s political debate on health care, we see the “Sovereign” looking out for our best interest and also his self interest.

I think that Solnit would say that the health care bill (said to be voted on Tuesday), is a beacon of hope- that people are actually out to help one another.  And in one sense, this is true (maybe— but I would like to stay in the middle on this one as whatever I have to say will certainly not resolve the conflict), that it would be good for everyone to have health care.  Isn’t that what Hobbes talks about as being most important?  The preservation of everyone’s life is the utmost important factor in making a commonwealth, according to Hobbes.

However, the push to pass this bill is anything but beneficial to the American public.  It has become symbolic- a divide between left and right.  The article I was reading (http://www.cnn.com/2009/POLITICS/10/08/health.care/index.html) mentioned the importance of the bill being passed before the 2010 midterm elections.  This is the stark reality of anything good, and I think Hobbes touches on this as well- that anything that we do is actually in an effort to benefit ourselves (like giving money to the beggar).  Democrats, who are leading this “crusade” to benefit the common man, are actually willing to just compromise to save face.  They are willing to pass a lesser bill, in their eyes, just to get it done before 2010.  The same can be said for Republicans, who are using this debate to undermine the credibility of President Obama, who they see as a threat (as he is the most influential Democratic president in a long time).

So, this raises the question as to whether my previous statements about the United States as a commonwealth are even valid.   According to Hobbes, the Soverign is always doing what is in the peoples best interest and when there are many people acting as Soverign there is inherently conflict (which he calls war, and is therefore approaching a state of nature).  It is clear that modern U.S. politics is in fact a state of nature, where you have two parties who are always looking out for self interest (above all else? I dont know).  Although the divides are not large enough to start civil war, there are certainly elements of war on the Senate floor.  So are we a true commonwealth? No- the “sovereign” is looking out for his/her self interests, rather than just the peoples.  Are we a sudo-commonwealth? Maybe.  I think this all stems back to the duality of human nature.  On one hand, Solnit is right in saying that we gain satisfaction in helping our neighbor.  On the other, the millions of Americans who oppose the bill based on higher taxation, seem to allude to the opposite- like Hobbes that we are all just self-interested (again, I am not taking sides).  I think it is a coin toss, at least in my elementary understand of basic neuroscience that underlies human cognition.   People are drastically different.  I’m not sure that anyone can fully explain this phenomenon, or classify people or even write a definition of politics because there are way too many human variables that seem to me as being unpredictable.  Fortuna, I believe, describes it best.  Maybe we are all just reacting to life the way we feel we can best at that particular time.  I guess that is self-interest.  Maybe Hobbes is right.  What do you think?  How does Hobbes apply to your life?  I’m really interested.

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A political theorist must have some knowledge of human nature, as that is at the core of what drives politics. How much legitimate psychological background must one have in order to create political theories? There must be some discernment between scientifically proven facts and amateur observations in order to judge the validity of theories based on human nature.

Hobbes makes more than several assertions on the ways in which humans are likely to think, act, and react. Sometimes he defends them; often he uses them as premises for subsequent arguments. In Chapter 11, “On the Difference of Manners”, in which he addresses mankind’s idiosyncrasies, he states that “To have done more to hurt a man than, than he can, or is willing to expiate, inclineth the doer to hate the sufferer. For he must expect revenge, or forgiveness; both of which are hateful.” (Wooton, 150). On what grounds does he validate this claim? It seems to be but an observation, and one which only holds true in some circumstances. It seems rational enough that a perpetrator should expect either revenge or forgiveness—for what other options are there?—but to infer that the perpetrator would therefore hate the sufferer assumes too specific a mindset. Possibly a proud, ego-centric perpetrator would shy away from forgiveness, feeling as though it put him in the wrong. Not everyone thinks that way, though; Catholics, for example, confess and ask for divine forgiveness weekly. Reception of forgiveness all depends on a person’s philosophy.

Another assumption of hubris is demonstrated by Hobbes’ claim against humans’ natural compassionate tendencies:

considering what values men are naturally apt to set upon themselves; what respect they look for from others; and how little they value other men; from whence continually arise amongst them, emulation, quarrels, factions, and at last war

(158). The causal connection between men’s desire for respect and lack of value for others, and conflict and war makes sense and would be difficult to contest. However, claiming that it is in man’s nature, that men are naturally apt to behave a certain way or value certain things, is not viable for Hobbes considering that the examples he uses are historical, political, and/or hypothetical, rather than medical or scientific.

Perhaps the relatively limited scientific knowledge of his time gave Hobbes more leeway to hypothesize over human nature and tendencies. The question is how we should interpret Hobbes nowadays. Obviously there aren’t many who take Leviathan word for word as unquestionable truth (considering his comments regarding women and rape, among other things)—but exactly how far can our trust for his ideas extend?

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The New York Times published an article today that I think resonates with both Machiavelli’s “The Prince” and Hobbes’ “Leviathan.”  The article explains a bill regarding the media that was just passed in Argentina.  Under the new law, broadcasting power will no longer be controlled by a small number of companies, which proponents of the bill say will benefit the public by “diversifying the airwaves.”  However, others who have examined the bill think its true intention is to give the government more control over the media.  The president now has the responsibility of selecting members of a group that will regulate broadcasting.  Furthermore, since this group holds the power to grant new licenses, it could pick and choose which companies will and will not be allowed to broadcast.

I think Machiavelli would support the Argentinean president in enforcing this law because at the end of the day, it should help her to stay in power.  I do not think it will create discontent or hatred in Argentina’s citizens because the control the President can apply through this law is subtle; it is not out-and-out oppressive. 

I would argue that Hobbes would also agree with, or at least understand, the new legislation.  The President could use this law in several ways to gain what Hobbes says people want.  She could prevent companies from broadcasting anything that portrays her in a negative light, thereby gaining recognition and possibly causing others to value her more highly.  The lack of opposition would also promote peace in her ‘commonwealth,’ or country.


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