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Hobbes. Social Contract theory. Under SCT, people give up some/all rights to a government and/or other authority in order to preserve social order & allow enrichment. Advocates of SCT include Plato, Mariana, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau and Rawls.

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social contract theory
Social Contract theory
  • Under SCT, people give up some/all rights to a government and/or other authority in order to preserve social order & allow enrichment.
  • Advocates of SCT include Plato, Mariana, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau and Rawls.
  • Agreement to the terms of the contract may be explicit (formal, individual approval), tacit (inferred from actions or statements) or hypothetical (based on our imagined reaction to the state of nature)
  • Plato: members implicitly agree to the terms of the social contract by their choice to stay within the society (tacit agreement) – Socrates goes to his death on this principle.
  • NB SCT can be viewed as a means of justifying obedience to the law and the authority behind it.
thomas hobbes leviathan 1651
Thomas Hobbes: Leviathan (1651)
  • Like Mariana, Hobbes is an advocate of Social Contract Theory.
  • He offers a famously pessimistic appraisal of the human condition, believing people to solely motivated by either:
      • Self preservation
      • Power
      • Pleasure
  • Man is intrinsically selfish! Even actions that appear to be born of altruism are in fact the product of self interest.
  • Competition, diffidence (fear of the unknown) and pursuit of glory lead to sustained conflict.

Oh what fun I’m having!

the state of nature
The state of nature
  • "The condition of man...is a condition of war of everyone against everyone."[Leviathan]
  • "[In a state of nature] No arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short."[Leviathan, pt. 1, ch. 13]
authority of the sovereign
Authority of the Sovereign
  • Hobbes anticipates that the Sovereign may acquire his position voluntarily or via conquest.
  • The sovereign is granted absolute power to protect the security of the Commonwealth. He is not expected to share power with any other body e.g. the Church.
  • Subjects give up their “natural rights” in return for protection. The contract that they make is between each other.
  • The Sovereign, however, is not party to the contract.
  • He is a law unto himself!
  • There are obvious problems/dangers with such a situation!

The front cover of the first edition of Leviathan depicts the Commonwealth as the body and the Sovereign as the head of a mighty human being – the Leviathan

NB Leviathan is the name given to an OT sea monster!

insert legitimate authority
Insert – Legitimate authority
  • The sociologist Max Weber defined the 3 main points which contribute to the legitimacy of a power;
  • Rational-legal: Some would say that this is the authority that we are used to, as the state justifies itself on legal grounds and codified law.
    • Legitimacy is earned through arguing putting points across in a relevant and rational way. Usually, the most legitimate would be the party that can put forward the most compelling argument.
  • Traditional: Authority is inherited. Such a case would be a Monarchy which passes down power from heir to heir (Hobbes)
  • Charismatic: The leader would be able to put his points forward in a very precise and maybe even charming way. Some may argue that there is an element of this type of authority in our government (particularly Blair & Cameron in recent years)
    • Would not generally be regarded as truly legitimate, as the basis of the legitimate factor would be purely the leaders own personality. We should avoid assuming that a leader knows best when all we like about him is the way he puts his ideas across.
the rule of law
The rule of law
  • For Hobbes, the Sovereign has absolute right to impose whatever laws he wishes. Hobbes outlined 19 natural laws, but believed they could only be preserved through submission to the Sovereign. Natural laws stem from our use of reason e.g. seek peace wherever possible.
  • Laws equate to the coercive (enforced) will of the Sovereign. Refusal to comply must result in punishment – “Covenants, without the Sword, are but Words, and of no strength to secure a man at all.”
  • The Sovereign must not have any challenge to his authority and should be allowed to appoint his successor.
  • There are only two circumstances in which the Sovereign may be disobeyed: 1, a subject condemned to death has the right to attempt escape/fight for his life; 2, a subject conscripted to fightfor his country has the right to resist.
  • This is because such demands on the subject run contrary to the “natural right” of self preservation.
  • Yet, obedience to the Sovereign is relative to his ability to protect. If he is not strong enough to do so, then he may be challenged.
the prisoner s dilemma
The Prisoner’s Dilemma

Two suspects are arrested by the police. The police have insufficient evidence for a conviction, and, having separated both prisoners, visit each of them to offer the same deal. If one testifies (defects from the other) for the prosecution against the other and the other remains silent (cooperates with the other), the betrayer goes free and the silent accomplice receives the full 10-year sentence. If both remain silent, both prisoners are sentenced to only six months in jail for a minor charge. If each betrays the other, each receives a five-year sentence. Each prisoner must choose to betray the other or to remain silent. Each one is assured that the other would not know about the betrayal before the end of the investigation. How should the prisoners act?

how is this relevant
How is this relevant?
  • The best option for both prisoners is to remain silent, but can they trust each other to do so?
  • Like many others, Hobbes argues that in such a situation, people will fail to demonstrate sufficient trust in others.
hume on law
Hume on Law
  • Hume argues that living under the laws of justice is in everyone’s long-term interest.
  • However, too often we are tempted by the lure of short-term gain.
  • This conflict between long-term self interest and short-term gain will, according to Hume, always be won by the latter.
  • What we need is a way to make acting justly in our short-term interest as well as our long-term interest.
  • And this is precisely what the law does – the threat of punishment means that it is better to obey the law than break it.
  • In other words, the law addresses a human deficiency.
  • This can obviously be applied to the prisoner’s dilemma.
hobbes criticism
Hobbes - criticism
  • Hobbes has too much faith in the sovereign – he assumes that the private interests of the sovereign and the interests of the public will coincide. History teaches us a different lesson.
  • Pinchin argues that the sovereign’s desire for glory “may lead him to wage imperial wars and treat his subjects as cannon fodder.”
  • Hobbes considers that this is a price worth paying if stability is to be achieved.
  • Yet, there is no guarantee of this and the subject has no recourse to the social contract, for the sovereign is considered outside it! There seems little merit in a contract that cannot be enforced.
c2 might is right
C2 – might is right!
  • Hobbes’ diagnosis of effective, good government is based on the strength of authority, not on any ability to provide good government.
  • Hobbes also states that the Sovereign’s rights can be acquired by conquest, in which case the conquered have a duty to obey – due to the fact that they have been spared by their conquerors.

Or in this case…so very wrong!

c3 too pessimistic
C3 – Too pessimistic
  • An obvious criticism to be levied at Hobbes is that his diagnosis of man in a state of nature is speculative and excessively pessimistic.
  • Yet, many thinkers disagree with his observations. Rousseau, Marx, Proudhon (and other anarchists) along with contemporary psychologists argue that human nature is much more altruistic and malleable than the determined, egocentric model Hobbes offers.
what contract
What contract?
  • Bentham, Hume and Edmund Burke later questioned the validity of arguments based on a period that never happened – it is difficult/impossible to identify a time in which the state of nature was experienced.
  • This, however, may be to miss the point. Hobbes is offering a hypothetical argument, aimed at diagnosing human nature and offering a prescription to solve its ills.