Monday April 2, 2012
Term papers due Wednesday in Class!
Some quick notes on your final exam:
- Late in the exam period April 26 . (It is your responsibility to confirm
that this remains the case!)
- 2 hours
- Cumulative (but emphasis on material that came after the mid-term)
- Same format as mid-term: 5 definition questions; 5 short answer questions; 1
essay question from a choice of 2.
The Political Philosophy of Thomas Hobbes:
Suppose the people of the world assemble to discuss which principle (or principles) are to
govern them. Suppose they reach agreement and contract, so to speak, to accept and
abide by a certain principle.
Would that justify the principle?
Social Contractarians, broadly speaking, believe that it would. The basic idea is that
there is something validating about agreement freely reached by people regarding the
principles to govern them.
Thomas Hobbes’s version of the Social Contract:
“The passions that incline men to peace, are fear of death; desire of such things as are
necessary to commodious living; and a hope by their industry to obtain them. And reason
suggests convenient articles of peace, upon which men may be drawn to agreement.
These articles…are called Laws of Nature.”
Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (1651) Suppose for a moment that we inhabit a Godless universe, a materialist universe which is
cold and indifferent to human beings. Suppose that this universe contains no “moral
facts”. Suppose further that humans are not naturally altruistic. Indeed, suppose that
humans are essentially motivated to pursue their own interests.
Could there be anything like “morality” in such a universe?
- Recall Ivan Karamazov!
Hobbes thought so:
Morality should be understood as the solution to a practical problem that arises for self-
interested human beings.
(1) We all want to live as well as possible.
(2) None of us can flourish unless we have a peaceful, cooperative social order.
(3) We cannot have a peaceful, cooperative order without rules.
(4) The moral rules, then, are simply the rules that we need to get the benefits of
What do you make of this line of argument?
Hobbes begins by imagining a state of affairs in which there were no such rules, no such
thing as government – no laws, no police, and no courts. In this situation each person
would be entirely free to do what they pleased. This is what Hobbes famously called
“the State of Nature”. What would the state of nature be like?
Note: this sort of thing has been explored in fiction,
Lord of the Flies; there are even elements of it in Survivor or Big Brother or Lost and
various other crappy T.V shows too, I’m sure!
For Hobbes, the State of Nature would be awful:
There would be,
“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.” (Leviathan)
Do you think the State of Nature would be as Hobbes thinks?
No doubt, part of the reason for the bleak picture has to do with the English Civil
War having just ended, as Leviathan is being published. The Civil war ends in 1651,
when Oliver Cromwell helps make England a Republican Commonwealth.
The violent conditions that Hobbes was observing no doubt influenced his view of
humanity. 4 basic facts about the conditions of human life:
(1) There is the fact of equality of need. Each of us needs the same basic things to
survive – food, clothing, shelter. Although we may differ in some f our needs
(diabetics require insulin, for example), we are all essentially alike.
(2) There is the fact of scarcity. We do not live in the Garden of Eden, where milk
flows in the streams and every tree hangs heavy with fruit. The world is a hard,
inhospitable place, where the things we need to survive do not exist in plentiful
(3) If there are no enough essential goods to go around, who will get them? Since
each of us wants to live, and to live as well as possible, each of us will want to get
as much as we can. But will we be able to prevail over others, who also want the
(4) No one is so superior to everyone else, in strength and cunning, that he or she can
prevail over them indefinitely. Of course, some people are smarter and stronger
than others; but even the strongest can be brought down by others acting together.
Besides, everyone has to sleep sometime!
(5) If we cannot prevail by our own strength, what hope do we have? When we put these facts together, a grim picture emerges. We all need the same basic
things, and there aren’t enough of them to go around. Therefore, we will be in a kind of
competition for them [What Hobbes calls a “war of all against all”]. But no one has what
it takes to prevail in this competition, and no one – or almost no one – will be willing to
forgo the satisfaction of his or her needs in favor of others….The reasonable person who
wants to survive will try to seize what he needs and prepare to defend it from attack.
But others will be doing the same thing. This is why life in the state of nature would be
Hobbes regarded this as real, not speculative:
Y2K, coup-d’etats, Post-Hurricane Catrina New Orleans, Iraq and other power
vacuums (“The Arab Spring”), Christmas shopping…
Hobbes argued that in order to escape the state of nature, we need to find a way to
cooperate. But how? On what basis?
2 things are required:
(1) There must be guarantees that people will not harm one another – people must be
able to work together without fear of attack, theft, or treachery.
(2) People must be able to rely on one another to keep their agreements. Only then
can there be a division of labor. If one person grows food, while another helps the
sick, while still another builds houses, with each person expecting to share in the
benefits created by the others, each person in the chain must be able to count on
the others to perform as expected. Once these assurances are in place, a society can develop in which everyone is better off
than they were in the state of nature….But…in order for this to happen, government must
be established; for it is government, with its system of laws, police, and courts, which
ensures that people can live with a minimum fear of attack and will keep their bargains
with one another.
A Famous Passage from Leviathan:
“For the laws of nature…of themselves, without the te