Crawl Across the Ocean

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

52. Leviathan

Note: This post is the fifty-second in a series. Click here for the full listing of the series. The first post in the series has more detail on the book 'Systems of Survival' by Jane Jacobs.


The problem with reading Leviathan, by Thomas Hobbes is that, unlike say the works of say, Weber or Nietzsche, its impossible to find an English translation. Nevertheless, I persevered so that I could write this post.

In Leviathan, Hobbes attempts to build a model of how society should be governed from first principles, in the same way that the newly developing (at the time) field of geometry was able to generate interesting conclusions starting from a seemingly self-evident set of axioms and building from there using logical reasoning.

Hobbes starts with the individual human as his basis and then builds from there based on the characteristics shared by all individuals.

Typically, when reading a book adorned by a cute black and white bird from the southern hemisphere, I make a point of skipping any preamble/introduction and going straight to the text. However, it's worth making an exception in this case for the excellent introduction by C.B. Macpherson who has done a fair bit of interesting work in his own right on ethics and economics. Macpherson makes the point that Hobbes defines power such that power consists of power over other people, each person's power offsets the powers of other people, and there are people who desire more power than others would like them to have1. It is this dynamic which forces a competition for power and which makes that pursuit of power harmful, in a manner that the pursuit of other things (e.g. food and shelter) is not.

We can see that, in modern terms, what Hobbes was getting at is that power is a positional good, and that, given the internalities and externalities imposed by the search for this positional good, the net result of a competitive pursuit of power is negative. He characterized this eloquently in his description of the state of nature (where there is no 'Leviathan' to prevent people from using force on one another) as a state in which life is 'nasty, brutish and short.'

Given the trouble caused by the pursuit of power in a state of nature, this pursuit must be curtailed by placing all the power in a single source that is so strong, nobody will dare to challenge it (the Leviathan of the title). Hobbes sees civil war as the greatest evil, even more so than tyranny or dictatorship.

It seems to me that Hobbes' argument is really an argument for a single world government. After all, as Hobbes acknowledges, the conflicts between states have the same negative sum character that conflict within a state has. However, with his overriding concern for avoiding civil war and less concern for was between states, Hobbes seems to implicitly accept that government must govern a particular territory. It is one thing, for Hobbes, to have two different governments occupying different territory, but a far worse thing to have two (potential) governments competing within a particular territory. As far as I could tell, he never really delves into why there is such a distinction.

Hobbes imagined that a person (who Hobbes refers to as 'the foole') might see their best course of action to be in agreeing to set up Leviathan if that's what everyone wants, but then still using force when it suits them and they feel the risks of being caught or punished by the state are outweighed by the potential gain. This is similar to David Gauthier's concerns that it made sense for people to make promises, but not necessarily to keep them.

Hobbes counter-argument is as follows,
"He therefore that breaketh his Covenant, and consequently declareth that he thinks he may with reason do so, cannot be received into any Society, that unite themselves for Peace and defence, but by the errour of them that receive him; nor when he is received, be retayned in it, without seeing the danger of their errour; which errours a man cannot reasonably reckon upon as the means of his security; and therefore if he be left, or cast out of Society, he perisheth; and if he live in Society, it is by the errours of other men, which he could not foresee, nor reckon upon; and consequently against the reason of his preservation; and so, as all men that contribute not to his destruction, forbear him onely out of ignorance of what is good for themselves."

Basically, Hobbes is invoking the 'shadow of the future' suggesting that anyone who violates the rules will be expelled from society and therefore suffer more than they might gain from their covenant-breaking. This of course, relies on some assumptions about the government's power to catch and punish covenant-breakers, as well as assumptions about the rationality of potential covenant-breakers.

Another potential puzzle for Hobbes view is how the same people can on the one hand have the foresight to institute a sovereign power to have a monopoly on violence, but on the other hand, have the lack of foresight to get stuck into a violent state of nature if that sovereign power is lacking.

There are at least a couple of answers to this problem:

1) Instituting leviathan doesn't require everyone to go along, it just needs a large enough group, whereas in the state of nature, even a few people who prefer power to peace will cause a chain reaction of violence and vengeance.

2) Hyperbolic discounting means that people can see, from the vantage point when they are setting up leviathan, that peace is preferable to the state of nature, even though when they are in the heat of a conflict they may prefer attack or vengeance for an attack to peace.

For the most part, Hobbes' viewpoint reflects the movement in his time away from older hierarchical notions of status towards a commercial syndrome minded, 'all humans are created equal' view, with Hobbes justifying this on the basis that every human has the capability to kill another, and thus inflict 'infinite' harm upon them, so based on the fact that infinity is the same in all cases, all people are equal on this basis. Macpherson makes the same point in his introduction although he says that Hobbes employs a 'bourgeois mentality' rather than a commercial mindset, but he means the same thing. The commercial mindset is well reflected in Hobbes' rules for how men should behave with respect to one another (a long list of rules that Hobbes says basically amounts to 'do unto others as you would have them do onto you,' - a good commercial syndrome sentiment).

But even with a commercial mindset, Hobbes still saw the need for a single, all-powerful sovereign power that would take on the role of society's guardian. Once instituted, the sovereign could never be replaced (respect for tradition), it could not be usurped (respect for hierarchy), it must be obeyed, it was just for the sovereign to take vengeance (but unjust for anyone else to take vengeance), the sovereign was expected to exert prowess and it was just for it to employ deceit, force or whatever means were necessary to maintain order. Under Hobbes, the (guardian) rules that apply to the sovereign are completely different than the (commercial) rules that apply to everyone else.

1 It's interesting that Hobbes has a section of the book tiled 'On Man' which is generally written as if all people are the same, but in his discussion of the pursuit of power he allows that there may be variation in that it is only some people who desire so much power that there is inevitably conflict.

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  • Interesting perspective for the developments of modern political theory re: the commercial mindset. Way back in my undergrad political philosophy class, we had to read The Republic, Leviathan, the Discourse on Inequality and the Social Contract, On Liberty, among others, and the only one I was unable to finish was Leviathan.

    It lives up to its name very well.

    By Blogger JG, at 7:39 PM  

  • The main thing with Leviathan is to skip over the long digressions on religious matters which take up over half the book, but don't add much, as far as I can tell.

    By Blogger Declan, at 9:01 PM  

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