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Tutorial Portfolio Paper 3

‘Why does Hobbes think we should obey the state?’

29 October 1998

Fundamental Concepts and Notions

We did not directly analyse the question in this tutorial, but rather analysed key notions necessary to understand Hobbes’ basis for the state envisaged in The Leviathan.

For Hobbes, this question hinges on what would happen without the state He believed without the state, humankind exists in a State of Nature, a continual war of all against all. People would have unlimited rights, but as all others did also, men would constantly squabble. Contracts would be impossible, as people could not be sure whether they would be honoured. None of the benefits of society would exist.

Humanity, possesses reason, and therefore would work out that peace would be in the interests of all. A sovereign would be appointed, to whom they would abrogate their rights, to guarantee the security of all. All rights but the right to defend one’s life are given away. It stands to reason that if, as Hobbes argues, the sovereign remains in the State of Nature, then he already has unlimited rights, and can gain nothing from anyone else - he has not entered into a contract and therefore has no obligations.

Areas of Disagreement and Controversy

There was little disagreement during the tutorial - its format favoured consensual discussion. However, two participants did debate the limits of to the authority of the sovereign. One of the participants felt that at some point, a tyranny would become worse than the State of Nature. If a tyranny makes it’s citizens live in constant fear of their lives, how does this differ from the State of Nature. However, Hobbes holds that the State of Nature is the worst state one could possibly be in. There is simply nothing worse.

What Ideas Might have been Discussed More Fully?

Hobbes sees humanity as essentially reasonable. Human beings weigh up the potential benefits and penalties of a situation. To Hobbes’ geometric mind, using our reason we calculate the vector sum of ‘good things’ and ‘bad things’. Our will is simply the strongest remaining appetite left after we have applied our reason to a situation. Despite this, Hobbes still claims we have free-will. No matter what word games he plays, it is difficult to square the notion of our being creatures of raw passion, yet simultaneously possessing free will.

Further, Hobbes makes the assumption that most people are reasonable. He says that to discover what people are like, we need only look into ourselves. However, he accepts that even when people agree on a sovereign, there are those who remain outside the Commonwealth. But if all are rational egotists, surely all would agree on the benefits of having a sovereign?

Hobbes says we should obey the sovereign because we authorized his creation. However, how can the state still be us if it takes actions opposed my the vast majority of men composing it, unless we are schizophrenic?

Contemporary Relevance of Plato’s Ideas

Hobbes may be more relevant in modern democracies than in the seventeenth century. While some of his arguments are anachronistic, much of his work is still very relevant.

In Britain, the classic ‘elected dictatorship’, one could say that the people choose a sovereign every five years to rule them, who in between times has very little constitutional constraint on his actions. Germany is another democracy with Hobbesian characteristics. In the German ‘aggressive democracy’, the state reserves the right to take draconian measures against those who do not recognise its validity - as Hobbes would put it, those outside the commonwealth.

Totalitarian states may seem more Hobbesian. However, how many totalitarian rulers can truly be said to live up to Hobbes’ dictum to preserve peace at all times and at any cost?

Persuasiveness of Plato’s Ideas

The problem with Hobbes is that his ideas become acceptable when a horrific State of Nature lurks around the corner. However Hobbes himself admits that the State of Nature never actually existed. It is what Einstein called a Gendankenexperiment, like a scientist imagining a pure vacuum. He further accepts that even in the theoretical State of Nature, social life exists, as contact between individuals is needed to reproduce and to nurture infants.

Without the bogeyman lurking outside why should we go to bed before dark? In the absence of the bogeyman of the continual state of war of all against all, I find Hobbes’ ideas a little difficult to swallow. All the same, some modern states, even democracies display a form of ‘elective Hobbesianism’.

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