Sep 2013

Thomas Hobbes

Written by Ozan Örmeci Makaleler

Human beings open their eyes in a world that is full of rules, regulations and most of the time without having the chance to refuse or change them. The majority of the world population lives in territories where there are official, organized institutions called “states” which regulate and organize social life. The existence of the state has become an absolute condition for the well being of society starting from a long time ago. However, the state did not appear immediately with the beginning of human life. There was a long period of time in history during which human beings lived freely in nature without a central, binding power. Many philosophers have tried to explain the necessity of the existence of the state by imagining or studying this stateless period of time. Thomas Hobbes is one of these philosophers who tried to explain the transition from this stateless stage called “the state of nature” to an organized state by means of social contract theory in his masterpiece “Leviathan”. Hobbes’ theory can be considered as very pessimistic and dark but we cannot underestimate the role of political problems that he witnesses during his lifetime in shaping his theory.

Hobbes saw Spanish Armada, 30 Years War, First & Second Bishops’ War, Scottish invasion of England, Irish Rebellion and English Civil War. In this assignment, I will try to explain Hobbes’ social contract theory shortly and then try to explain and criticize Hobbes’ argument that people ought to fulfill their contracts. According to Thomas Hobbes, the state of nature does not refer to a peaceful, harmonious social life but instead it is a hellish life with chaos and violence. Hobbes believes that the state of nature in history was a “state of warre” during which all individuals struggled against all other individuals and finally ended this chaotic life by making a social contract. Hobbes believes that human beings are naturally selfish and they can do all kinds of bad acts when they can gain from these bad acts[1]. This understanding of the enormous selfishness of human beings directs Hobbes to a very dark theory, which does not trust in human beings and thus favors a regime of absolute monarchy with severe rules and little space for freedoms. Hobbes considers human beings as rational egoists that always look for the maximization of their self-profits, and he tries to explain the transition from the state of nature to the organized state by human beings’ realization that it is more profitable to live in an organized state. Hobbes thinks that humans are somehow naturally equal and there is not too much difference between their mental and physical abilities[2]. According to him, this equality of ability increases the competition for limited resources between people, especially in a world without a central binding power in which even the weakest can beat the strongest by taking help from others or by using weapons, etc. So, in a stateless stage individuals have the motive to compete with others in a very hostile sense; in addition, they live with the fear of being killed or loosing what they have. Hobbes calls this fear “diffidence” and explains it as the lack of confidence people have in the state of war due to their inevitably unsafe lives[3]. This fear forces individuals to look for power after power not only to gain more profit, but also to protect what they have in their hands. After competition and diffidence, the third motive that orients people in the state of war according to Hobbes’ theory is the desire to have glory. People want to have reputation and power but what they really want is to prevent potential threats by frightening or threatening other people who could attack and kill them in this unsafe world. Hobbes concludes his theory by the realization that rational egoist human beings will profit more in an organized state, and thus, to make a social contract among them and give their power to a sole person who would be like a mortal God called “Leviathan” who would provide peace and order in society by making laws deriving from laws of nature and by punishing guilty people[4].

After analyzing Hobbes’ theory we can move on to explain and criticize Hobbes’ argument that people ought to fulfill their contracts. First of all, according to Thomas Hobbes, a contract is simply “the mutual transferring of right” (Hobbes, p. 192). In Hobbes’ view, a contract (he also calls as a covenant or a pact) must be mutual because otherwise it will not be very different from a gift or grace. Hobbes later explains the difference between inferred and expresses social contracts. In his idea, expresses contracts are “words spoken with understanding of what they signifies” such as “I give, I grant etc” (Hobbes, p. 193). In other words, expresses social contracts are contracts made by promises by using words and phrases. However, inferred social contracts can be made by many different ways[5]. When we look at Hobbes’ social contract, I think it is more convenient for the inferred type of social contract rather than express social contract. Although Hobbes presents the issue in such a way that humans come together in a square and select a Leviathan to end up the state of warre, this is not realistic and as far as am concerned Hobbes uses this symbolically. Most people accept this social contract by not speaking and by continuing to live in that state. Social contract is not ren wed by all newly born individuals but rather individuals, who accept to live in that state, are considered as people who signed this inferred contract. Thus, we can clearly say that Hobbesian social contract is an inferred one but not an express one.

Hobbes thinks that people should always fulfill their duties to the social contract. But he also admits that people may start to question why they have to continue with this covenant which they did not approve. “The greatest objection to this is Practice; when men ask, where and when such Power has by Subjects been acknowledged” (Hobbes, pp. 260-261). Hobbes thinks that these are unnecessary questions because the main problem is to prevent destructive civil and foreign wars which may lead to the collapse of the state. For Hobbes, what is important is the existence and the continuity of the state not the democracy or the subject’s rights. Thus, he does not want people to question the origin of this social contract and fulfill their duties determined in the previously made social contract. People by accepting the conditions of that state, are somehow make an inferred contract and thus, they should obey to the rules of that contract which gives whole power to the Leviathan. An express social contract would not work in Hobbes’ theory since people are egoist and they may not be content of Leviathan’s decisions. Thus, Hobbes’ ideal state is an absolute monarchy and people do not have chance to question or object to the deeds, decisions of the Leviathan. Finally, Hobbes’ approach to the topic is very pessimistic and based on the false idea that people are selfish and cruel creatures. He thinks that the only way to provide peace for humans is to arrange a contract and never allow people to break it. However, as years pass by conditions and capabilities change and new situations arise. Thus, Hobbes’ approach is not in conformity with the dynamism of modern societies.