Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) grew up in turbulent times, which culminated in the English Civil War. Civil wars are a right mess. They tend to be perfect opportunities for mankind to show its dark and ugly side. It should therefore not come as a surprise that Hobbes was a cynic about human nature. He believed that humans are naturally motivated by self-interest and will use the power they have to serve their own interests, even at the cost of others. How could peace be possible among such a-moral beings? This is Hobbes’ biggest philosophical question, one he attempts to answer in Leviathan, which is considered one of the most rigorous and influential philosophical works in the history of Western philosophy.
The State of Nature
Hobbes invites us to imagine that we all live together without a government. In such a condition, he believed, we would have to be afraid of everyone else. Resources are scarce and everyone is after them. Therefore, it would be rational to use violence in order to get to those resources first. But since everyone can be expected to use such violence, it is also rational to not trust anyone and use violence against them to prevent them from using violence against you. We would be in permanent danger, permanently afraid. Hobbes believed there is no natural hierarchy that might establish a sustainable natural order. Everyone has some power to pursue their interests, but even the most powerful are vulnerable when they sleep, and even the weakest cannot be fully dominated, because they might revolt at the first opportunity. In this situation it would be impossible to cooperate, which is necessary to produce the resources to meet everyone’s interests. We would be unable to cultivate land or invent or manufacture anything, because for such enterprises we need peace and trust. We’d just be too busy defending ourselves by killing each other. The State of Nature, according to Hobbes, is a state of war, and life in the State of Nature is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”.
The Laws of Nature
Hobbes thinks humans are self-interested and motivated by a fear of death, but luckily they are also rational. This means they can understand the Laws of Nature. The Laws of Nature include the idea that one should treat another the way one wants to be treated. Human nature is perhaps selfish, but not cruel. Humans are naturally inclined to cooperate and treat each other with respect, because eventually that serves their best interest. The thing is, that in the State of Nature, they are unable to live according to the Laws of Nature because they are forced to defend themselves with violence. The State of Nature is therefore against human nature and also against the Laws of Nature, according to Hobbes. Since humans are rational, they are able to see that it is in their own and everyone else’s best interest to avoid the State of Nature at all cost.
The Social Contract
Since humans share the insight that they should avoid the State of Nature, they can see that it is rational to surrender some of their freedom in exchange for stability, security and peace. They see that it is rational to establish a political authority: a state. Since this in Hobbes’ philosophy it is seen as an implicit agreement to establish a political authority, this justification takes the form of a Social Contract. Hobbesian subjects enter a covenant with each other, based on their own rationality. This idea of a Social Contract is later used by many other political philosophers, including Locke and Rousseau, but also Rawls, more recently.
What kind of government would Hobbesian subjects agree to? For Hobbes, the only rational option is an autocracy: a sovereign with absolute political authority to establish the law and the power to ensure that the law is upheld. Political legitimacy is derived from the efficiency of the sovereign to establish and sustain peace and stability. It doesn’t matter how the sovereign came to power – by force, conquer, election or flipping a coin – as long as there is a sovereign and the sovereign can guarantee peace. Hobbes also doesn’t really care whether the sovereign is just or respectful towards its subjects. Subjects should tolerate poor governance because the alternative – the state of nature – is nearly always worse. As long as there is stability, humans have the security to cooperate, develop moral behaviour and start other valuable endeavours that would be impossible in the State of Nature.
For the same reason Hobbes is strongly anti-democratic. As soon as political power is divided among different parties or distributed among the subjects, there will be scope for strife for power. With that you get suspicion and fear and before you know it, you’re on a slippery slope toward the State of Nature again. Since the State of Nature was what we were trying to avoid in the first place, democracy is not a rational form of governance, according to Hobbes. This conclusion makes Hobbes a controversial thinker. In his defense, however, he couldn’t have known about the tyrants of the 20th century that made us so suspicious of autocracy.