Really, Hobbes?

November 5, 2011

Political Theory


After reading the social contract theorists of the semester – mainly Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau – I am having trouble rationalizing the actuality, or even the possibility of a “Hobbesian State of Nature.”

Thomas Hobbes believed that people act solely in accordance with preserving their own self-interest.  His egotistical position prevents the possibility of helping others unless it would somehow better one’s chance of self-preservation.  The State of Nature, he writes, is a condition of war of every one against every one (H.T.  4/33 p. 117 mp. 189). 

So take a moment to consider the following situation: suppose Professor Lavaque-Manty was teaching a class thousands of years ago, before any form of government.  He makes an announcement to his students that he will be out of the classroom for a day the upcoming week.  He insists that the material for this particular day be given on time, as it would be if he were present.  The Professor cannot find a substitute, and has left it up to his class to decide which student will give the lecture.  But wait, there is one catch, whoever leads the class on this day will receive an A for the entire semester, and an exceptional letter of recommendation – it’s very tough material.  The benefits of an A are immense, along with a letter from the Professor, the prospects of a top 10 Law School are very important to one’s self-interest (yes, even without government, these students would still do anything to get into the best Law Schools).

Now, this may be a little obscure already, but it won’t hurt to add one more premise: let’s just say that whatever happens to determine the leader of the class will NEVER be spoken of to society, or to the Professor.  Any act – short of the death of another student, which for the purpose of this example, is not possible – would be permissible, according to Hobbes.  Only one student can lead the class; so how will they decide?

Hobbes’ advocated a theory of human nature that suggested the notions of right or wrong, justice and injustice, have no place without a sovereign, in this extreme – and obviously obscure – case, the Professor.  So, according to Hobbes, would it not be the natural condition of the students to do whatever they could to better their self-interest?  I assure you, the benefit of this A and letter of recommendation surely coincide with that student’s goal self-preservation, regardless of what happens to the other students. With all things considered, Hobbes would suggest chaos.

If his natural condition of mankind were in fact accurate, I believe – and please correct me if I wrong – that, according to Hobbes, the students would go so far as to take violent actions against one another to better their chances of self-preservation.  I do not think it is the condition of mankind to be so violent!

In his view, it is the natural condition of man to be without basic morals.  So a Hobbesian state of nature could not even contemplate the possibility of sparing others feelings.  Thus, because knowledge of the actions taken to receive the position will never be spoken of again, the students would not care what others thought of them.  If anything, that would even be more of a reason to seek the position.  He writes that man seeks to better his chances of self-preservation by means of competition and glory (H.T. 6/14 p. 112 mp. 185).  His view would allow any student to take whatever action they needed to against another to strengthen their reputation.  His view takes the notion of a lack of morality too far.  He argues that humans without a sovereign will always fall into a condition of war with one another, and I just don’t agree.  Are people really that reckless?

Am I alone in feeling this way?  Or, can someone show that Hobbes’ explanation of the natural condition of mankind is more rational than I have argued it to be?

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  1. Hobbes, Thomas « Earthpages.ca - December 8, 2011

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  2. Thomas Hobbes « Earthpages.ca - December 8, 2011

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