In case you haven't noticed, I haven't been writing much lately. That's because Adam has been sick, and that's causing him not to sleep. When he doesn't sleep, I don't sleep. When I don't sleep I can't see straight, much less read or write. The last few days I've been wondering how I ever survived his first few months in the world, in which I was taking 18 hours of classes to finish up my BA in Philosophy, while working as a Youth Minister.
Now, if I had any sense I would have taken Adam to see the doctor as soon as he stopped sleeping. It would have saved some series wear and tear on Sami and me. But I don't have any sense, so I didn't. Until yesterday. Yesterday I just couldn't take it anymore.
Sami is taking a week off from work (Spring Break!), so she talked me (or nagged me) into agreeing that the boy needs medical help. Turns out he has one hell of an ear infection, so of course he can't sleep. Every time he lays down in his crib fluid drains from his ear, causing no small amount of pain. If I'd taken him to the doctor sooner he'd be better by now. When he grows up he'll probably kill me for stuff like this.
Anyway, on the way to the doctor my wife noticed something which reminded me of a paper I wrote while taking a seminar on Thomas Hobbes' Leviathan. Because of some seriously stormy weather (I had to retrieve roughly 70 pounds of trash and the dumpster that used to hold it from my neighbor's yard!) several stop lights on the way to the doctor's office were out. For some reason law enforcement had not yet noticed this. Or, if they did, they didn't seem to care. There were no signs indicating how we should drive absent the stoplights, and no traffic cops to enforce the absent decrees.
But despite the fact that there were no externally imposed and enforced directives, people were driving quite well. Of course this doesn't always happen when the lights go out. But yesterday we saw cooperative driving at its best. This caused my very un-philosophic wife to raise some pretty interesting philsophic questions. She wondered, for instance, if people don't actually drive better when there isn't some authority above them enforcing apparently arbitrary decrees.
I asked her why she thought that might be the case. She said something about needing to cooperate. She said that when someone is above you telling you what to do, you don't think about how best to handle a situation. You're just looking out for yourself, trying to stay out of trouble. But when no one is above you pushing the rules down on you, you have more freedom. Some of that freedom implies freedom to do what's best. People don't always do what's best, but when no one is telling them what to do they have that chance.
As she said this (or soemthing like it - notice that I didn't use any quotation marks) I remembered my seminar on Hobbes. In it I wrote a paper comparing and contrasting Hobbes and Aristotle on human nature and its relation to political philosophy.
One of the hallmarks of Hobbes is his interest in self interest. Government works best when it is powerful enough to convince every self-interested creature within a society that their own interests are - on account of the extreme power of the sovereign - identical to the common good. That is, the sovereign has such power that it can make sure that what it wants is - by virtue of the threat of force against your person - what's best for you.
Anyway, here's a paper which I wrote dealing with that notion in a little bit more detail. It never really saw the light of day, as I wasn't pleased with it when I wrote it. I've cleaned it up some, but was surprised to see that I don't hate it anymore. Is it worth reading? I hope so. At least Brian Cubbage should be interested in it, as he kept trying to get me to tell him about that seminar while I was in it. So, Brian (and whoever else), here it is:
Both Hobbes and Aristotle present us with particular views of human nature, and both Hobbes and Aristotle use those views of human nature to develop their politics. And in a few important respects, Hobbes’ and Aristotle’s views on both human nature and the politics that follow from it are similar. But there are some very significant differences between Hobbes and Aristotle on both human nature and the politics that follow from it. Those differences are a key to understanding Hobbes’ project in his seminal political work, Leviathan, and they demonstrate a major problem in Hobbes’ Leviathan: he has fundamentally misidentified human nature.
It is, however, hasty to claim that Hobbes has misidentified human nature, because some philosophers, such as Hannah Arendt, claim that, in Leviathan Hobbes does not identify human nature at all. Leviathan is a study of politics rather than humanity. As such it is interested in the artificial man far more than it is in natural man. As such, Hobbes is not concerned with human nature, and defines human nature – to the extent that he defines it at all – purely as a tool to help him set up with politics.
Whether this claim is true or not, it has no bearing on this paper. That is because, whether or not Hobbes’ description of human nature is sincere or merely a tool he uses to get readers to go along with his politics, he uses his description of human nature – or, at least of humans in a state of nature – the same way that Aristotle uses his description of human nature in his Politics. Both philosophers, whether they hold that their description of human nature is accurate or merely useful for understanding human politics, use their descriptions of human nature to build their views on politics. In fact, as it will become clear later, if the contention of those such as Arendt who hold that Hobbes does not actually offer a view of human nature is correct, that only strengthens the claim that the differences between Hobbes and Aristotle on human nature help us to understand Hobbes’ project better, and help show where Hobbes went wrong.
Hobbes, whether or not he believes he is offering a view of human nature, describes human beings in a “state of nature” in the thirteenth chapter of his Leviathan. This state of nature is one of radical individualism. All men in it are roughly equal, at least in the sense that – whether by strength or cunning, or a combination of the two – any man can kill any other man. This puts all men in a constant state of anxiety, and a constant state of either cold or hot war for limited resources. This is because, since all men are roughly equal – at least in their ability to kill each other – each man can hope equally to get what he wants. This “equality of hope” ensures, according to Hobbes, that when two men desire the same thing and only one of them can have it, those two men become enemies.
In this view there is no natural cooperation, only competition. In paragraph nine of Chapter XIII, Hobbes says that “every man is an enemy to every man” in this war for limited resources. Even if, as in paragraph three, some men come together for a time, for some purpose, that alliance is not really motivated by cooperation, but rather only by a radical self-interest. The alliance, in this case, is not real, because since all parties are motivated purely by self-interest, and because there is no external means of enforcing whatever agreement it is that has brought this alliance about; each member of the alliance – and there are in the end no members of an alliance and no real alliance – must still fear everyone else in that alliance, because there is no reason to believe that they will not turn on the others at any moment. The only example of such an alliance that Hobbes gives in the state of nature is a group that gets together to steal a man’s property. In this case, the invading group or individual has, according to Hobbes, as much to fear as the man whose property they invaded, because at any moment the same thing could happen to them.
So, whether or not there are any real humans in a state of nature – and it is a real stretch to say that the kinds of individuals that Hobbes describes in his state of nature count as humans – everyone in a state of nature, is, by nature radically independent and competitive. Everyone is in a constant state of war against everyone else. And, importantly for Hobbes, war is not just a time of fighting. Rather, war is a time in which, whether or not there is any actual fighting, there can be no assurance that fighting will not break out at any moment for any reason. And this is key to Hobbes: any individual in a state of nature has nothing to keep them from a violent end but their own strength. Because of this, everyone lives in a constant state of not only competition, but fear. Fear of being killed at any time for any reason.
But, according to Hobbes, as much as human beings desire power and property; they value survival even more. In fact, survival is the overriding human drive. It is built into Hobbes first law of nature. So, human reason, which exists in a state of nature, drives us out of a state of nature and into a commonwealth. This is how Hobbes uses his description of humans in a state of nature to build his politics. The “condition of man,” which is man’s condition in a state of nature, is, according to Hobbes, a “condition of war.” Everyone has a right to everything, but no one has power sufficient to enforce any right. And so, through the use of their reason, humans decide to voluntarily surrender most of their rights for the security that a commonwealth provides.
That men are willing to voluntarily surrender their rights for security is easy enough to observe. And, in this respect, Hobbes has accurately – if only limitedly – described human nature. This is apparent throughout history. In a time of war people surrender rights that the once clinged to. This was obviously the case after the attacks of September 11th, when Americans voluntarily gave up their cherished freedoms of speech and privacy, convinced that the laying down of those rights would secure some peace, or at least make the state of perpetual war that is the so-called War on Terror more secure.
But there is a danger here that Hobbes has not identified. While it is the case that people will, under certain circumstances, voluntarily give up some of their rights; they are much more inclined to give up the rights of others. In America, during the Second World War, Americans of Japanese descent were piled into camps until the end of the war. This was because the Americans whose faces did not so much resemble the faces of an identifiable enemy felt more secure that way. Of course, the treatment of Japanese-Americans in America was nothing like the treatment of Jews in Germany at the same time. Their very right to life was involuntarily sacrificed in the same of security. Yet, despite this natural tendency to sacrifice the rights of others for the sake of security, Hobbes never provides any check on the power or authority of the sovereign that he creates to provide security for the commonwealth built by the human tendency to lay down rights for the sake of security. This laying down of certain rights may be natural in the sense that people naturally do it for the sake of security; it may not be natural in the Aristotelian use of natural: that is, what is the proper end of a thing.
And, that is one real difficulty in comparing Hobbes’ view of human nature – to the extent that he has one – to Aristotle’s: they do not use the word “nature” in the same way. If it can be accurately said that Hobbes’ description of humans in a state of nature is a description of human nature, then by nature Hobbes probably means that which occurs in all or almost all humans, regardless of social conditioning. Yet when Aristotle refers to nature he is talking about the best that any thing can possibly be. The natural end for an acorn, for instance, is to be a tree; and not only a tree, but a flawless tree. Similarly the natural end of a man is to be a good man; that is to perfectly embody that which makes a man a man.
This difficulty notwithstanding, it is still possible to compare certain aspects of Aristotle’s view of human nature to Hobbes. For instance, Aristotle, in his Politics, claims that human beings are naturally social and political. While he does mean that humans must be social and political to fully realize their potential as humans, this is not all he means by this. He also means that humans, whenever we find them always exist in a social and political context. This approach is very different from Hobbes’ approach. While Hobbes does not claim that his state of nature actually ever historically existed – he does not claim, for instance, that there was a point in human history at which all humans lived in such as state of nature – Hobbes nevertheless feels that he has to posit such a state of nature as a kind of mental construct to explain why humans are political. But Aristotle needs no such mental construct, because to him human history indicates that humans are political, as well as social, by nature. No further explanation for why human beings have become political is necessary – though Aristotle does explain the role of politics. This is because human beings are political. They have not become political at any point. They are political by nature, in the sense that human beings cannot be human beings if they are not political. It is a part of our make-up.
This is, according to Aristotle, evident merely by observing the way in which humans live. Humans always arrange themselves into political communities. The most basic of these political communities is the family. “The family is the association established by nature for the supply of men’s everyday wants.” Families serve a role, which is to supply the wants of men. But, they do not exist merely because they serve that role. They are not reducible merely to that role. To establish that families exist one need not conceive of some mental construct in which there are no families, and then say that the only way in which the needs met by a family could be met is by the formation of some kind of artificial family. First and foremost, families are “established by nature.” They naturally exist.
This recognition that families are a kind of political unit is an important one for seeing how it is that Aristotle may be used to both understand and critique Hobbes. This is because Hobbes’ radical individualism does not really allow for families. Hobbes holds that men are by nature entirely competitive. Yet Aristotle observes that every man born is born into a social and political context: the family. Of course Hobbes knows that no one is born into total isolation, but in creating his state of nature he does not allow for the impact of our social situation at birth on our nature.
Hobbes holds that all people are born into the state of nature. Yet all people are born into a social and political context. No one is born self-sufficient. All people are born dependent on others. Those others, whether or not they are biological relatives, are our families. The family is a naturally occurring political unit in which everyone learns cooperation. The message taught to us by our family, regardless of all other messages, is that we depend on others. There is a natural bond which removes us from radical emotional isolation before we have our first conscious thought. There is never a time in which a fully-functioning human is aware and yet devoid of relationships. These natural relationships make human beings social and political by nature, as Aristotle observed. And that we are social and political by nature means that we need to posit the mental construct of a Hobbesian state of nature in which everyone is in a war with everyone else, in order to explain the origins of politics.
Hobbes, or one of his defenders, might argue that we can imagine a situation in which someone has no social context – or at least, no cooperative social context. What about, for instance, a case in which a child is abandoned, and yet somehow survives despite not being found until much after most of their neural pathways for the acquisition of social skills have closed. Such a person would not be naturally social or political. However, such a person would not, in the Aristotelian sense, be natural. In some very important ways that person would, rather than being a natural human, be a defective human. They would have no language skills, or social skills. They would have severely impaired cognitive abilities. They would probably be mentally, if not also physically ill. This person would provide no insight into human nature, because they would be missing most of the traits that we use to identify humans. They would probably be only genetically human, and surely that is not enough for us to want to use such a person as an example of human nature.
In the same way, the person who resembles anyone with the traits that Hobbes gives those in a state of nature might be seen – rather than as an embodiment of human nature – as a defective human. Someone who is in a constant state of war with everyone else, and who cannot cooperate in any way without seeing how doing so would be in his interests, could very well be someone who in important ways fails to be human.
This disagreement over what constitutes the natural is an important disagreement. After all, both Hobbes and Aristotle build their political views from their views on human nature. And, Hobbes, from his description of humans in a state of nature, builds a politic which depends on extreme external enforcement. In Hobbes human beings are fundamentally in need of restraint. And while he holds that that restraint is a kind of self restraint, in the sense that men voluntarily covenant into the commonwealth, that voluntary restraint is enforced by a sovereign with a monopoly of power and no practical checks or balances.
Of course, in order for the sovereign to provide the kind of security which is his duty to provide, he must have power sufficient to hold everyone else in check. Human beings are naturally dangerous. This is a fact not lost on Aristotle, who said that a man can, if left unchecked, “the most unholy and most savage of animals.” This danger, and the need for some kind of restraint on individual men, is apparent to Aristotle. The difference is, that for Hobbes men are apparently incapable of restraining themselves – despite his description of voluntary restraint mention above. I say this because, for Hobbes, the sovereign is the sole possessor and bestower of power in a commonwealth. No one has any power unless they are given that power by the sovereign. Because of this, no one has any kind of power over the sovereign, no matter what the sovereign does. The sovereign is the author and source of all laws, and so is not bound to any law. For Hobbes this is necessary because it is the only way to preserve peace and security.
Hobbes, then, does not trust humans to restrain themselves (except the single act of self-restraint which is the formation of the commonwealth); but he evidently trusts a single human, the sovereign, to exist without any restraint on his power except God. Having God as a check might count as a limiting of the power of the sovereign if Hobbes believe in some kind of divine intervention in the natural world; but if his religious view are accurately described by the passages of Leviathan that deal with religion, then he does not.
This monopoly of power in the name of security can lead to the trampling of many of the rights that we would give to anyone. It may not necessarily lead to such a trampling – but it may, if the only axiom about the corrupting nature of power holds true – but if it did, in fact, lead to the abuse of power and the trampling of the rights of people, there is no way to correct that. As such, if Hobbes’ political views were held by all people, then there could be no internal check on the power of an abusive dictator. There could be no justification for revolt or revolution, or even for the peaceful exchange of power from someone who does not voluntarily surrender it.
If one accepts Hobbes’ view of human nature, however, it may be the case that this exchange of rights for security is necessary. After all, if humans, by nature, exist in a state of perpetual competition and war, with no natural cooperation or social interaction – much less compassion or altruism – then some radical step may be necessary to secure peace and security. However, Hobbes – to the extent that his state of nature describes human nature – has not accurately described human nature. Aristotle, whose Politics is also very flawed in that it justifies natural slavery, racism, and the subjugation of women, among other things, nevertheless much more correctly observes human nature. A political theory based on Aristotle’s views of human nature would, in allowing for natural social and political cooperation, avoid some of the problems that Hobbes creates and justifies in giving the sovereign a monopoly of power.
There is, however, some overlapping between Hobbes and Aristotle. Hobbes builds his political theory on a view of human rationality which holds that a human being is being reasonable when he correctly identifies his interests and also correctly identifies the means by which to best obtain those interests. The primary interest identified by Hobbes – and the on which overrides all other interests – is survival. Aristotle observes much the same thing when he says that humans “meet together and maintain the political community also for the sake of mere life”; and that “we see men cling to life even at the cost of enduring great misfortune.” However, even in this Aristotle avoids something which is a real problem for Hobbes.
In holding that the desire for survival trumps all other desires, Hobbes lays a groundwork which, while it appears consistent with what we observe in humans, is – upon careful analysis – not. In his radically individualist notion of human nature, Hobbes gives each individual the right to resist violence done to their own person – even by the sovereign. But he does not give any individual the right to resist violence done to another. This is perhaps because, for Hobbes, everyone is governed by a radical self-interest which does not extend to others. But, because human beings are – contrary to Hobbes’ view – social by nature; it is often the case that our own interests are indistinguishable from the interests of another.
While both Hobbes and Aristotle observe that a person will go to great lengths to preserve their own life, Hobbes’ view of human nature does not account for situations in which a person might reasonably choose to sacrifice their own life for the sake of another. For Hobbes such an action would be unreasonable, because everyone is primarily driven by a desire to preserve their own life. But such a quest is futile, and surely Hobbes knew that even if he did not make use of it. After all, it is apparent that all human beings have finite life spans. The quest, then, to preserve one’s own life must end in failure. This knowledge informs the actions of some in ways that Hobbes does not seem to allow for. But Aristotle’s view of human nature does allow for this, because people are not by nature isolated an independent. Rather, they are social, political, and interdependent by nature. This could lead to the kind of moral reasoning in which one may voluntarily lay down one’s life for another, or for a cause, or for some other reason, without being irrational.
As such, it is again evident that Aristotle came much closer to correctly identifying human nature than Hobbes. If Hobbes had not built his politics on his impoverished view of human nature this point might be trivial. But, in an age in which the political climate is becoming much more Hobbesian, it is important to note the way in which Hobbes built his political theories on the back of his flawed view of human nature – whether or not he presented this view of human nature sincerely or just as a means by which to set up his politics.
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