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Hobbes' idea of a state of nature


To: Frank Z.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Hobbes' idea of a state of nature
Date: 5th January 2011 13:18

Dear Frank,

Thank you for your email of 22 December with your essay toward the Associate Award of the ISFP, entitled, 'The State of Nature (Hobbes)'.

As you recognize in your essay, although according to Hobbes self-interest and the quest for 'honour' play a major role in accounting for our actions, the state of nature already includes the principles of morality. We are fully capable of recognizing the difference between 'right' and 'wrong', even in the state of nature. The problem is that anyone in the state of nature who attempts to live a moral life, respecting the interests and rights of others, can has no confidence or trust that others will do the same.

This problem has come to be known as the 'Prisoners' Dilemma'. The very same problem arises today, in relation to attempts to devise international treaties to limit global warming, or save endangered species such as whales.

The essential point about a state of nature, according to Hobbes, is not so much his pessimistic view of human psychology but rather the impossibility of solving challenges which require social co-ordination and co-operation, while human beings living in that state lack any means of enforcing such co-operation.

You are right to make the point that the state of nature is a myth. Even the most primitive homo sapiens living in caves must have had something analogous to a system of social rules or laws, a tribal leader or despot strong enough to take on all comers who the others accept as having the right to enforce those rules.

That was precisely Hobbes' case: that this is the only way, ultimately, to solve Prisoners' Dilemma scenarios. But was he right?

How would this work, in the case of attempts to make treaties about global warming, for example? Would Hobbes say that the only solution is a World Government?

Hobbes believed, not only that a State was necessary, but that the only way this could work is if there is a single, absolute Monarch, to whom we freely cede all political power in the trust that the Monarch will decide things for our best interests. The period of history which you refer to, the English Civil War, was one where the 'Divine Right of Kings' was invoked. The Parliamentarians under Cromwell rejected the Divine Right of Kings. Hobbes' case is that this is not some mere antiquated religious doctrine. Properly understood, the idea had a sound philosophical basis. That is what Hobbes sought to prove.

This would imply that according to Hobbes' case for the State, democracy is impossible. As soon as you allow two or more people access to political power and decision making, the Prisoners' Dilemma problem breaks out again. Each person pursues his or her own self-interest, and even if one wants to do the ethical thing they can't trust that the other will not take advantage.

The fascinating challenge is to see whether there are loopholes in Hobbes' argument which would allow for a democratic state, and, if so, how this could be achieved in practice.

All the best for 2011,