Thomas Hobbes is arguably most famous for his normative theoretical justification of the state. This theory can be found in one of the most influential works of English philosophy throughout history, Leviathan. Hobbes believed that we had a rational obligation to submit to the authority of the Government and for a comprehensive understanding of this argument, I suggest reading this fantastic article in the Standford Encyclopedia of Philosophy here. My short response, written under the assumption that the reader is familiar with the work of Hobbes, attempts to undermine some of the fundamental reasoning Hobbes uses. I’d love to hear what you think about it in the comments below – share your thoughts!
In Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes propounds his normative justification of the state; that is to say, the way in which he attempts to legitimate the state’s imposition and enforcement of laws designed to undermine the autonomy of individual citizens. Hobbes strives to vindicate state sovereignty by illustrating that rationality dictates our preference of subordinacy over the status of man in his natural condition. Starting from a few basic principles, Hobbes composes a strong argument, however, this response paper attempts to demonstrate a flaw in the soundness of Hobbes’ premises.
Hobbes begins by stating general assumptions about the basic facets of human nature. Firstly, Hobbes noted that people are driven to action by appetite or aversion. This assumption is founded on Hobbes’ belief in the materialistic nature of reality, himself claiming that ‘life is but a motion of limbs’ (1980, p.81). Secondly, Hobbes posited that power is the means by which one might achieve future ends. Finally, Hobbes concluded that human desire for power is perpetual as long as we are alive, for power is the only means one has of securing one’s own goods (1980).
With Hobbes’ general assumptions made clear, I now turn to the logical corollaries that Hobbes attempts (fallaciously) to tease out. The most important of which is the notion that:
“Nature hath made men so equal in the faculties of body and mind as that… the weakest has strength enough to kill the strongest, either by secret machination or by confederacy with others that are in the same danger with himself” (Hobbes, 1980, p183).
This is a premise upon which Hobbes founds his entire theory of competition, essential to his explication of the state of nature. If this step is proved to be unwarranted, Hobbes may make no further claims about the condition of the natural man, necessary to show that reason dictates a tacit consenting to legitimate rule over us.
In making this claim, Hobbes has smuggled in prerequisite conditions that themselves must have been brought about in the environment of a sovereign state (or at least in the environment of a cohabiting community). Jean-Jacques Rousseau put it aptly when he said:
“All these philosophers, in short, constantly talking of need, greed, oppression, desires, and pride have imported into the state of nature ideas they had taken from civil society. They talk of savage man and depict civilized man” (Rousseau and Coleman, 2009, p.24).
Of course, no prerequisite of the state of nature can come from a sovereign state, as by definition the state of nature is that which precedes the sovereign state. The central prerequisites I believe Hobbes has smuggled in are the faculties of language and abstract reason in the natural man. Language is central to our ability to cooperate with others in order to put ourselves on a ‘level playing field’ with the physically strongest in society. Without it, there is no sense in which we might genuinely coordinate our efforts to overthrow the smartest, strongest savages. Language would also be a necessary facet of some body of people looking to collectively relinquish rights as covenants in the name of self-preservation. Furthermore, a faculty for abstract reasoning and an ability to form abstract concepts (themselves arguably dependent upon a faculty of language (Carruthers, 2001, p.2)) is required in order for the natural man to make rational inferences about his self-interests and preservation: at least in the way that Hobbes believes the natural man does. Hobbes fails to provide an account of how it might be that the natural man reasons abstractly and predictively, and how it is that he might develop the prerequisite faculty of language.
It is because of the reasons mentioned above that I do not agree with Hobbes in his elucidation of how and why the state is justified in prescribing laws to which the body politic is morally obliged to accept and follow. Whilst this argument does not attack the viability of social contract theory in general, I believe it irreparably damages Hobbes’ specific attempt and shows it to be an anachronism, au fond.
So what did you think? Does this criticism undermine Leviathan completely? Am I correct? Have your say below.
Hobbes, T. (1980). Leviathan. Middlesex: Penguin Books.
Rousseau, J. and Coleman, P. (2009). Discourse on the origin of inequality. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Carruthers, P. (2011). Language, Thought and Consciousness. Cambridge, GBR: Cambridge University Press.