By: Arjun Verma
Thomas Hobbes and his absolutist thesis may seem outdated, but applying his core ideas and learning from his mistakes today may be essential for a functioning society.
Who was Thomas Hobbes?
Thomas Hobbes was an English philosopher who profoundly changed political philosophy forever.
Because lived during the English Civil War in the 1600s, his philosophy took into account the violence he saw. Hobbes noted that before governments existed, humans existed in a state of nature. People wanted to survive and were naturally self-interested according to Hobbes. That’s why life in the state of nature would be infamously “nasty, brutish, and short.”
However, there was hope. People would have an interest in escaping this state of nature. They could give up their freedom in exchange for protection by a state in what was known as a “social contract.”
For Hobbes, the only way to resolve the conflict between individuals was to institute an absolute sovereign, or an authority who could not be challenged. This would enforce a universal moral theory that motivated people to follow it and prevent the violence of the state of nature.
It has been challenged for justifying nearly any state action, no matter how repugnant, but Hobbes contends that an oppressive government is worse than no government at all. This challenge has been the basis of many of his philosophical successors, who took up the challenge of solving the problem of the state of nature.
Where did he make a mistake?
Of course, Hobbes’s defense of an absolute sovereign seems incompatible with the values of today, and rightfully so. Democracy as an intrinsic good seems almost undeniable to us.
However, to actually justify this belief, there must be something wrong with Hobbes’s line of reasoning.
First, Hobbes ignores the fact that humans are not always self-interested and evil. People can work together absent an authority watching over them. Children becoming friends, countries signing treaties, and soldiers sacrificing in war all prove that humans care not only for themselves but also for others. Humans do have the capacity to be altruistic even if we sometimes might only act out of self-interest. This undermines Hobbes’ justification for the absolute authority of the sovereign. If people can naturally work together, then they deserve rights to promote these abilities.
Second, even if Hobbes is right about people being evil, this undermines his own argument. If everyone is evil, then what stops the sovereign from being evil? In fact, they are more likely to be able to abuse their power. With power comes the tendency to become addicted to that power and abuse it unethically.
Third, Hobbes arbitrarily selects that a sovereign is necessary to ensure peace via a common moral code. However, this ignores the possibility of democracy to accomplish the same goal. After all, democracy might start with a multiplicity of views; however, it utilizes the majority view as its ultimate conclusion. This is fundamentally more compatible with human dignity by allowing everyone to have a voice. In addition, it is pragmatically better. Democracies bring in people of all backgrounds who can work together to achieve an optimal solution instead of the unilateral decision by the sovereign.
Why does that relate to today?
Hobbes may have been wrong generally, but his arguments nonetheless can provide advice for today.
Authority may not always be good. However, in situations, where authorities are educated about the matter at hand, listening to authority can be necessary to preserve the common good. For example, the coronavirus has tested the limits of faith in government. Trusted authorities like Dr. Anthony Fauci have been questioned despite their qualifications on issues like masks and social distancing. IN times like these, it can be best to put away our individualist nature and think about how working together will ultimately lead to a better-off society.
Additionally, Hobbes points out the existence of humanity’s capacity to be evil. This forces us to reflect on our actions and constantly question whether it’s actually justified to act the way we act and be the way we are. It may be natural to focus solely on ourselves, but learning to care for others is what makes society possible at all.
Lastly, and most importantly, even if Hobbes was wrong about everything, the ability to adequately refute Hobbes’s justification for an absolute sovereign is essential to ensure the foundation of modern-day liberal democracy. Without defending the justification of democracy itself, politics becomes open to undemocratic and violent challenges. When faith in the credibility of the democratic system is undermined, a solid understanding of why it’s worth preserving is necessary.
Arjun is a current high school junior. He is a captain of his high school's Lincoln Douglas debate team.
I am an undergraduate student who's fascinated by anything related to philosophy. I hope to show you how philosophy can apply to everyday life! Check out my Youtube Channel, Philosophy in Context.