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Summary and Critique of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s The Social Contract

April 1st, 2008 Comments off

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At the foundation of modern moral justifications for the establishment of a coercive state is the voluntarization of that coercive power – in other words, the implication that obedience to governments is in some way chosen and thus morally binding. The philosophical construct that has come to embody this approach is described by the term “social contract. ” Though the works of important philosophers like Hobbes and Locke employed a version of the social contract, the work which came to inhabit and popularize the phrase was Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s influential 1762 treatise, Du Contrait Social (“The Social Contract”). –more–>Summary (where not specified, statements are written in the voice of Rousseau)

In Book I, Rousseau begins his exploration of politics by pondering the source of the legitimacy of political authority. He rejects that its source is found in nature, because such a position implies the inherent natural superiority of the rulers over the ruled, though the superiority that may exist is only sustained by force. In turn, he argues that force is not the basis for legitimacy either: the idea that “might makes right” is nonsensical because it can not imply that the less strong “ought” to follow the stronger, since who is stronger is always determined by who triumphs. There would be no political authority since those who can do, will do. Instead, legitimate political authority is based on a kind of “social contract” created between society’s members. Unlike the argument of Grotius, which proposed a kind of covenant between king and people based on “a right to slavery,” one’s freedom can never be surrendered in a fair exchange. Furthermore once freedom is surrendered, then all rights are forfeited which eliminate any demand for something in return.

Why should such a contract ever be necessary? In short, there comes a point in the state of nature at which society must be formed in order for mankind to survive. The social contract’s purpose is to resolve the problem of how to bind people to each other without infringing upon their freedom, and it does this by requiring the unconditional surrender of the individual’s freedom to the whole community. The important implications of this definition are that the contract will impose the same conditions for all, creating no interest for one person making the conditions difficult for others; there will be no rights that remain that stand in opposition to the state, because the contract is formed unconditionally; and finally, because each person enters the contract on equal terms, no person loses their natural freedom. The ultimate reduction of the social contract can be described thus: “Each of us puts his person and all his power in common under the supreme direction of the general will, and, in our corporate capacity, we receive each member as an indivisible part of the whole. ”[1] The new entity, the whole, that is formed as a result of this contract comes to be known as the “Republic” or “body politic,” or, depending on the context, the State, the Sovereign, or the Power. Those who formed the contract come to be collectively known as the people; when sharing in the sovereign power, citizens; and in being under the laws of the state, subjects. The contrast between nature and civil society is important here: though in joining the contract we lose the physical freedom to act upon our personal appetites, we gain liberty via the limitations of reason and the general will being placed upon our behaviors.

In book II, Rousseau’s conception of the state begins with the idea that society functions in correspondence to the interests that people hold in common. Hence, the ultimate end of any state is “the common good. ” Acting on the general will expressed by the Sovereign is the only way to achieve this common good. Incidentally, the general will can never coincide with a particular will.

The expression of the general will ultimately takes the shape of law. Law must be made by the people as a whole (i. e. made by the sovereign) and applicable to the whole. But how can the people, especially a large number of them, jointly create a set of laws? Rousseau proposes the lawgiver: an intelligent and selfless individual who will create laws in an unbiased fashion, who lies outside the authority of the Sovereign. However, Rousseau himself admits that “Gods would be needed to give men laws. ” Furthermore, what will compel people to follow the laws? Besides textbook coercion, such as the death penalty for those who break the law and thus break the social contract, Rousseau suggests that an appeal to the supernatural origins of laws (much as Moses claimed that the Ten Commandments were given by God) is one way of convincing men to follow them.

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Summary and Critique of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s The Social Contract (Part 2)

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The end of Book II consists of Rousseau’s exploration of the kinds of circumstances under which law is most effectively made, specifically in reference to the people for whom the law is to be made, and the nature of those laws. For example, he explains that states are ideally small-to-medium-sized: small enough to be effectively manageable, but large enough so as not to be overrun by neighboring states. The creation and implementation of laws must be timed perfectly, as a people may not yet be ready to be guided, or may have become prejudiced and resistant to the positive changes brought about by good laws. Also, the state in which laws are being established must be in a condition of at least relative peace and plenty, because of the temporary vulnerability and instability caused by a period of laws being implemented.

The goal of any system of law is reducible to two ends: liberty and equality. Here (chapter 11), equality is understood to mean not the complete absence of differences in wealth, but the absence of such differences that would damage the balance of citizens in the state: “but that power shall never be great enough for violence, and shall always be exercised by virtue of rank and law; and that, in respect of riches, no citizen shall ever be wealthy enough to buy another, and none poor enough to be forced to sell himself. ” Overall, the general criteria for how laws ought to be made depend on circumstances that differ from people to people and place to place.

At the beginning of Book III, Rousseau explains the executive powers of government in terms of will and strength:

Every free action is produced by the concurrence of two causes; one moral, i. e. the will which determines the act; the other physical, i. e. the power which executes it… The body politic has the same motive powers; here too force and will are distinguished, will under the name of legislative power and force under that of executive power. [2]

The government is, importantly, to be distinguished from the Sovereign; in fact, confusion of the two is dangerous. The government deals with particulars (decrees) while the sovereign deals with the general (laws). Somewhat similar to the contract in Hobbes, the government itself is not a party to the social contract; somewhat different from Hobbes, this is because the government is an intermediary body that is created by the general will and can be freely disbanded by the general will.

As to possible forms of government, there are three primary kinds: democracy, when all or almost all the citizens are magistrates; aristocracy, where less than half are magistrates; and monarchy, where few or one are magistrates. However, there is not one universally superior form of government. In the previous chapter, Rousseau notes that the larger the population of a state, the fewer magistrates there should be. Hence, large states are best suited to monarchy, medium to aristocracy, and small to democracy. Though he personally preferred democracy, Rousseau expresses ambivalence toward democracy as well as monarchy. While he explains his concerns about monarchy’s dangerous efficiency and potential for corruption, he also claims, “there has never been a true democracy, and there never will be. ” Only small states with simple and unambitious citizens could remain stable under democratic rule. Overall, though simpler forms of government are preferable to Rousseau, he suggests that mixing forms of government may dissipate the powers of the government relative to the Sovereign.

The Sovereign can maintain itself by meeting in periodic assemblies. Though an impractical demand on the face of it, ancient cities such as Rome managed to do it to some degree. The assemblies are critical because within them, all citizens are as powerful as the magistrates. Because of this, the government may take actions to dissuade such assemblies, which over time may erode the freedom and authority of the Sovereign. At this juncture, Rousseau makes sure to point out that sovereignty can not be represented: “…The moment a people allows itself to be represented, it is no longer free: it no longer exists. ”

As part of a set of entailments of the general will, the latter half of Book IV expresses some specific ideas Rousseau has about the state. In some cases, dictatorship is necessary to avert the collapse the state, though the dictator does not represent the people or the laws; the dictator only acts in accordance with the general will so long as the avoiding the collapse of the state is in it.

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Rawls’ Theory of Justice and Some Objections

December 1st, 2007 Comments off

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In the United States today, the public debates about healthcare, Social Security, and the standard of living have reached a new level of prominence. While some of these dialogues pertain to already-existing, but failing institutions like Social Security and the minimum wage, more than ever the climate of public opinion states, “government ought to provide its people with economic security. ” Of course, the degree of the economic security to be provided varies greatly, from simple safety nets such as unemployment payments to outright socialization of particular industries. The nations of Europe are examples of affluent “democracies” (broadly speaking) which incorporate strong social programs, taxing usually between half and over two-thirds of all income to pay for (among many other things) public education, employment agencies, guaranteed housing, and most conspicuously, universalized healthcare. The ideological underpinnings of the pervasion of the belief in the need for such institutions in America have their contemporary roots in the early 20th century, which heralded the Progressive movement. The movement successfully established an essential power for the exercise of any resource-intensive redistribution scheme: the graduated income tax. With the coming of the Great Depression, the shift in the national mood was solidified; attributing the economic decline to Herbert Hoover’s inaction, Franklin D. Roosevelt attained the presidential office. His New Deal solidified, constitutionally and psychologically, the role of the U. S. government as a major actor in the economy. The subsequent creation of his “Second Bill of Rights,” and later the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights, codified the supreme change in the language of rights from the Founding’s conception of formal political guarantees, to substantive economic entitlements. No longer would one simply have the Lockean rights to protection from harm, freedom to choose one’s own path in life, and the ability to acquire and hold property freely; one would also have the right to have certain kinds of property, regardless of one’s success in productive endeavors (invariably coming into conflict with traditional property rights). –more–>Changes in attitude toward laissez-faire capitalism historically have been generally defined by any or all of three major shifts: most importantly, the replacement of liberal political rights with economic entitlements; closely connected, a new emphasis on collective instead of individual good; and in effect, the belief in the use of organized coercion (government) as a valuable tool for bettering those collectives. Two contemporary thinkers, John Rawls and Robert Nozick, brought the debate about the role of government in a wealthy liberal democracy (such as ours) back to the philosophical forefront, asking the essential question: if they should at all, for what reasons should government be able to interfere with the market, beyond protecting its citizens from violence and fraud? [1] On one side, Rawls’ Theory of Justice attempts to justify a broader scope of government powers by appealing to a Kant-esque “original position,” in which agents must decide on principles of justice irrespective of what their physical position will actually be in the world. On the other, Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia sets out to construct a consistent account of the ideal libertarian state, and in the process reject Rawls’ arguments. [2] There is strong evidence both in Nozick’s writings and elsewhere that the position delineated in A Theory of Justice is a flawed justification for the liberal welfare state.

Rawls’ Equality and Difference Principles

Though the focus of this post will be on government’s role as a redistributor of wealth, a holistic understanding of Rawls’ account of government is essential to understanding his position on redistribution. His primary concern in exploring social justice is what rights and duties members of a society must have in its institutions, and in turn how the benefits (and burdens) of social cooperation should be distributed. He argues from two principles of justice: the equality principle and the difference principle. The former prescribes that each individual must possess the same level of liberty as each other individual, and the latter prescribes that social and economic inequalities should be rectified for the greatest benefit of the least advantaged. These are ordered by priority; the institutions of the first can not be surpassed by “greater social and economic advantages. ” Rawls defines these two principles are part of a larger, more general conception of social values: “all social values – liberty and opportunity, income and wealth, and the bases of self-respect – are to be distributed equally unless an unequal distribution of any, or all, of these values is to everyone’s advantage.

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Rawls’ Theory of Justice and Some Objections (Part 2)

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” One essential implication in this statement is that institutionally, the course of action we should take (as constrained by the equality principle) is an empirical question. If general property rights, freedom of association, and other facets of laissez-faire capitalism most frequently lead to material inequality compared to centrally planned production, yet produce a level of output that makes everyone better off, then they ought to be instituted.

The Original Position

He arrives at his principles of justice by creating a thought experiment, the “original position,” from which he derives his notion of “justice as fairness. ” Before doing so, he establishes two primary premises. The first is a constraint of social unity; the freedom and equality of citizens must be respected. The second pertains to the fact that there always exists a plurality of conceptions of the good; these include one’s fundamental beliefs, values, projects, personal loyalties, and so forth. Because of these underlying necessities, Rawls holds a contractualist position in order to create a theory of justice which does not depend on any of those conceptions, but one with which free and equal citizens could be expected to reasonably agree. The establishment of a contract (a consensual agreement) would be the only way of respecting the autonomy of individuals totally, while at the same time providing a framework for universal governance. For a simple example, a comprehensive moral doctrine such as utilitarianism (“always act in such a way that leads to the greatest happiness”) would not, in Rawls’ view, be used as a starting point from which societal institutions would be designed, because one can always reasonably disagree with such a doctrine. Instead, the principles of justice would be determined by the hypothetical rational agreement in what Rawls argues to be the fair conditions of the original position (hence “justice as fairness”).

The original position has several necessary characteristics to achieve Rawls’ conclusions about justice. Firstly, he defines the participants, positing rational agents, who, in the negotiation, seek the guarantee of rights and resources to pursue their individual conceptions of the good, reflect on them and change them, and apply them. These assumptions are responsible for traditional liberal institutions (rights) of “freedom of conscience”: freedom of speech, press, religion, etc. Likewise, they are partially explanatory of common, universally accessible public resources: free primary schooling, public libraries, universities, etc. Secondly, he delineates the critical constraints: the finality of the contract, and most importantly, the “veil of ignorance. ” Those participating in the original position have no knowledge of what their natural endowment, their place in society, or their conception of the good will be, but they will have general knowledge of how the world works and expect moderate scarcity of resources. The purpose of the veil of ignorance is to prevent these self-interested agents from supporting principles of justice that are biased in favor of their characteristics, instead forcing them to adopt universalizable principles. They will not know who they will be when they enter society (rich or poor, utilitarian or Kantian, etc. and thus any preferential policy which they advocate in the original position is equally likely (from their perspective) to be to their benefit as their detriment.

Rawls on Wealth Distribution

This leads to Rawls’ position on wealth redistribution. Its primary cause extends from the condition of utility maximization in the context of a lack of information about the distribution of outcomes. In effect, Rawls is appealing to the choices rational economic actors ought to make in the face of uncertainty. Imagine the following example of choice relating to uncertain outcomes. Someone must choose between two different coin-flip games: in one, the heads payoff is $5000, and the tails payoff is $0; in the other, the heads payoff is $2000, and the tails payoff is $1000. The coin is being flipped by a well-known trickster, who is reputable for his pleasure in biasing coins to any possible distribution. The player is aware of this, and thus does not know the probability that either heads or tails will occur on the coin, entailing a situation of total uncertainty. By Rawls’ (and standard game theoretic) reasoning, the player’s rational choice would be to choose the $2000-or-$1000 coin, in effect maximizing the outcome of the worst-case scenario.

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Rawls’ Theory of Justice and Some Objections (Part 3)

December 1st, 2007 Comments off

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This coin is known as the maximin option, the uncertain game with the best worst outcome. In distributive justice, the maximin option would be the one in which the least advantaged, whoever it may be, will be guaranteed a certain payoff by society, whether it is in food, shelter, employment, healthcare, or education, at the expense of a higher payoff for others.

Rawls’ position is thus unique, in that he constructs it from no particular conception of the good except that of respecting individual autonomy at the inception of political principles. Unlike most advocates of distributive justice, he does not conclude his principles from some objective conception of the good, but only from a rational contractarian decision by agents to properly define the rules of social cooperation.

Objections a la Nozick and me

In opposition to Rawls, Nozick questions the validity of defining justice as some pattern of holdings- a material end-state. He holds that any theory of justice must either be end-result or historical, and either patterned or unpatterned. Nozick’s “entitlement” theory is historical and unpatterned; in short, a just distribution of wealth does not require any correspondence to some pattern (moral merit, need, etc. but merely the appropriate history of how it was acquired. Nozick thus emphasizes the importance of “justice in acquisition” and “justice in transfer,” as opposed to “justice in holdings,” an important concept in the thought of the economic left.

Central to Nozick’s objections to Rawls is his assertion that liberty inevitably disrupts patterned holdings. An important part of ownership is the freedom to transfer things to others. This means that any given distribution, after it is allocated, will be immediately changed so long as individuals choose to freely exchange their possessions. In order for a principle of patterned distributive justice to be consistent, it must always be applied; thus, the only means of guaranteeing any specific distribution is by constant interference in the economy or the abolition of free individual exchange. In light of that, Nozick observes the alienation from the source of wealth caused by patterned distribution principles. Wealth is implicitly taken as a given thing to be divided, when, in fact, how it is divided affects how much wealth there will be over time.

Rawls’ general process of justification for welfare merits interpretation and criticism. The original position (OP) is flawed as an accurate representation of the frame in which valid principles of government, if there are any which do exist, should be determined. Assuming a group has no choice but to endure conditions in the OP as set forth by Rawls, their strategy makes sense. Discussing the OP from a different angle yields additional insight into its nature. With a specific focus on those issues of justice relating to property, we can reformulate the OP as a new thought experiment, in this manner: our world as we know it- with the rich and poor, the talented and untalented, etc. must have a “Rawlsian original position” convention in order to determine the proper principles of justice. In order to do so, everyone must leave his actual person and move behind the veil of ignorance. Thus, an agent whose actual person is rich by talent and hard work will be unaware of his actual status, and, in accordance with his rational interest in the original position, will have no choice but to accept the maximin set of rules and unwittingly sacrifice his wealth.

To implicitly reiterate this formulation, Nozick cites an example of students taking an examination who decide to go to the original position to determine what the criteria for grading the test should be. Each party in this contract will seek to secure the best arrangement for himself. The maximin option will likely entail that what will not be chosen is a policy based on what students earn through their performances.

This exposes a pair of critical observations about Rawls’ argument: first, that it depends on the notion that gains from differences in nature are “unfair,” “undeserved,” or “morally arbitrary”; second, that individual merit (such as choosing to work hard to develop one’s talents instead of lazily watching television) is not relevant. His argument shifts from one position which (reasonably) says that “deserved” is not a valid descriptor of natural endowments, to another that holds that those endowments are explicitly “undeserved.

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Rawls’ Theory of Justice and Some Objections (Part 4)

December 1st, 2007 Comments off

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” The difference between the two is clear: the former merely reflects the value-neutrality of natural outcomes, allowing one the right to individually benefit from them; the latter clearly describes a situation which normatively requires redress. It appears that Rawls- if he chooses to reject a person’s entitlement to the benefits of his own natural states- will be caught in between contradictorily ignoring individual merit and holding a view of humans as deterministic zombies.

Empirical issues?

Another major area of contention against the general idea of government-enforced “distributive justice” lies in the historical and expected performance of institutions manifesting those principles. [3] There is little doubt that humans are, at least generally, self-interested. Their admission into a government post does little to alter that fact: agents will always seek to maximize their own utility, which is for the most part only checked by externally-imposed penalties. As a point of clarification, self-interested activity need not be self-oriented; the defining feature of self-interest is the pursuit of one’s conception of the good, no matter what it is. Other-oriented behavior is still detrimental to the efficiency of operating a government post, so long as the objectives of an action are not functionally isomorphic with having an interest in the efficiency or proper operation of government (e. g. one gives preference to one’s family, or ethnic group, etc. Institutional design should ideally be aimed to create this isomorphism of personal to public interest, in the theoretical tradition of Madison, established in Federalist No. 51; though this may be the best solution, this does not mean that it is totally successful in absolute terms.

The operation of institutions to enforce justice in general is faced by many challenges. Simply dealing with the basics military, police, and courts is already a daunting task to do correctly. Even on the comparatively simple starting point of individual rights to life, liberty, and property, cases of conflicting obligation arise on a frequent basis, particularly in establishing “reasonable expectations” in cases where a contract was not explicitly written and signed. The incorporation of distributive justice into the system of obligations complicates it immensely. Now, those tasked with adjudicating disputes must appeal to a broader host of laws and guarantees, while adapting to the constraints of equality, scarce resources, and respecting Rawls’ first principle of justice.

The cost of oversight is borne by more institutional expenditure (bureaucracy to watch bureaucracy, which may require some oversight of its own) which ultimately is borne by the constituent public. Besides taxes, the individuals must be attentive to their tax dollars at work. End-state distributive justice, as in the case of adjudication, not only necessitates the creation of more laws and more bureaucracies to execute those laws, but requires more lawyers, advocates, lobbyists, action groups, and others of their kind. Essentially, an entire sector of labor and knowledge must be dedicated to navigating complex institutions instead of those resources being applied to more productive endeavors. Furthermore, for the average citizen, a greater level of education and attentiveness to current affairs is required to ensure that he is not being swindled by special interest groups via these institutions. The bottom line is that he must trade off work hours or leisure in order to protect his “investment” in the government. His alternative is that his tax dollars go to waste-a problem plaguing governments worldwide today.

On the flip side of the problem of Rawls ignoring individual merit is the issue of diminished incentives to produce. In a market setting, wealth redistribution can be construed as a subsidy (or a kind of de facto tax) on a particular kind of behavior, namely labor. Rawls cannot simply assume that individuals will work and produce as they would have before; with an expectation of a certain level of well-being, many recipients of welfare benefits will be far less likely to produce the value of the goods and services they are guaranteed. From their perspective, they possess an exogenous level of utility irrespective of their action (sans filing the correct forms). Not all of them will be dependent on government services for factors supposedly beyond their control. The presence of those institutions will have a distortionary effect on how wealth is generated in the economy.

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Rawls’ Theory of Justice and Some Objections (Part 5)

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Even argued strictly in terms of Rawls’ theory, these observations about redistributive establishments demonstrate that the “pie” is heavily damaged by the presence of such institutions.

Some would argue that wealth redistribution and other forms of economic interventionism are institutions we need or ought to have, and that they can work if they are designed correctly or if the right people staff them. To some degree, that is true, but only in as much as it is true of all institutions and forms of government. If people of the appropriate mindset who possess the appropriate values are readily available, then almost any system of any values will not produce unbearable results. Small, Republican city-states of the kind that Rousseau so often praised are examples of such agreement between people and state. Nonetheless, this is an ambitious and unrealistic necessary precondition for any system, which is more than often faced with the reality of many people with many competing interests. The fact that so many brilliant minds are and have been ideologically committed to the construction of wealth-redistributive institutions, yet at the same time have not succeeded in designing comprehensive ones that have proven to be effective, sustainable, and cost-efficient, is testament to the fact that the inherent nature of such institutions conflicts with the inherent nature of humans and reality. Of course, by no means does this paper claim to be the last word: to do justice to Rawls’ Theory of Justice (no pun intended), a fuller exposition of Rawls’ potential counter-objections as well as greater clarification of the assumptions at play are required. Nevertheless, the essence of the argument stands that Rawls, as one of the most prominent supporters of the liberal welfare state, must address several problems- both theoretical and empirical- with his conception of justice.

Sources:

Rawls, John. 1971. A Theory of Justice. Harvard University Press (1999).

Nozick, Robert. 1974. Anarchy, State, and Utopia. Basic Books, Inc.


[1] Some have argued with much vigor that government should do none of that (i. e. disappear altogether). Those arguments are beyond the scope of this paper.

[2] Nozick’s position in totality is much less linear, and much more difficult to summarize, than Rawls’. That is not to say that Rawls’ position is simpler or dumber, but just that his account is easier to capture briefly. My exposition of Nozick will thus be limited to his position vis-à-vis Rawls’ view on distributive justice.

[3] Evidence generally supporting my argument are nations with major government intervention and spending that have descended into massive debt. The United States is one such example. Also, most of the nations of Europe (notably France and Germany) are suffering from large debts and unfunded welfare liabilities which account for as much as 250% of GDP. Enumerating many specific institutional cases would be an interesting basis for further study of my assertions.

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Locke vs. Hobbes, Nature, and Civil Society

November 22nd, 2007 Comments off

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Thomas Hobbes and John Locke were relative contemporaries in philosophy, so it is no surprise that their comparison has become something of a cliché (hence this? While both philosophers use language couched in the tradition of natural law, they both advocate radically different views on human nature and ideal governance, as will be seen. Since Locke and Hobbes get name-dropped by pseudointellectuals regularly, it’s probably a good idea to get a feel for the basics. –more–>

Hobbes

Firstly, Hobbes’s moral philosophy is specifically egoistic. While many of his statements point to his being a psychological egoist, much of what he says implies that he is, in fact, an ethical egoist: he believes that we ought to do what is in our individual self-interest. Namely, he suggests that humans are frequently short-sighted in their decisions, self-deceptive about their motives (e. g. altruism), and otherwise unreliable in rationally determining actions in their interests. Generally speaking, while we always act in our self-interest, we do not always act in a way that fulfills it best (though we ought to). [1]

According to Hobbes, the state of nature is defined by the absence of authority (except that of a mother over her child). All men are more or less equal. Though some may be stronger or smarter than others, each man is always susceptible to being killed by others, whether by deception, by others in unison, etc. [2] Because men are egoistic and will do whatever is in their interest, this pits mankind in a perpetual state of war of “all against all. ”

He argues that peaceful cooperation is impossible without the power of an umbrella of absolute authority, for three general reasons: first, we will compete violently for subsistence or other material desires; second, we will live fearfully and challenge others in order to ensure our personal safety; and finally, we will seek reputation, by violence primarily, to ward others off from challenging us. [3] With no guarantor of security, “the wickedness of bad men also compels good men to have recourse, for their own protection, to the virtues of war, which are violence and fraud,”[4] ensuring the constant perpetuation of war.

In the state of nature, man has “a right to all things,” which is an implicit basis for the rest of Hobbes’s argument for the moral rightness of an absolute sovereign. He derives this right from the understanding that all humans seek self-preservation and are not only entitled to it, but to be the judges of what it entails. Given that, Hobbes states, “…this also is consequent: that nothing can be unjust. The notions of right and wrong, justice and injustice have no place [in the state of nature]. “[5]

The Sovereign

From these suppositions and observations about human nature, Hobbes invariably concludes the requirement of an absolute sovereign. In accordance with egoism, we ought to avoid the state of nature because doing so is prudently avoiding violent death. In turn, the only thing that can allow humans to avoid the state of nature is an unlimited sovereign. Hobbes’s first “law of nature” states, “every man ought to endeavor peace, as far as he has hope of obtaining it, and when he cannot obtain it, that he may seek and use all helps and advantages of war. ”[6] Hobbes’s second law states:

“That a man be willing, when others are so too, as far-forth as for peace and defense of himself he shall think it necessary, to lay down this right to all things, and be contented with so much liberty against other men, as he would allow other men against himself. ” [7]

These two laws are the bridges Hobbes builds to close the gap between the state of nature and civil society.

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Locke vs. Hobbes, Nature, and Civil Society (Part 2)

November 22nd, 2007 Comments off

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Because man should endeavor peace, and because the antithesis of peace is man exercising his right to all things (i. e. war in the state of nature), man must sacrifice this right for others to do the same. This specifically includes the right of judgment, which is then transferred to the sovereign. The result is a government with absolute power, as the only rightful judge of any dispute. If the government’s power is not absolute, then a state of war persists because the government does not possess all the means to stop it.

Some Problems with Hobbes’ Sovereign

Hobbes’s explanation for the formation of civil society is troublesome, at best. The covenant (or contract) that Hobbes suggests for the empowerment of an absolute unlimited has numerous difficulties in being both plausible and consistent. When the sovereign fails to protect life, the duty of obedience lapses, but that leaves unanswered the question of what one’s obligations are during civil war. Hobbes tries to remedy this problem by placing emphasis on promise-keeping as having moral value, yet a civil war (the breakdown of government’s control) represents a lapse into the state of nature, in which there are no obligations, and a paradox in Hobbes’ thought arises. The only consistent solution is for the people to obey whoever possesses the supreme force. Also, the covenant meets difficulties when applied to those born into existing governments, to which Hobbes objects that those who did not explicitly consent to the covenant are at least responsible for it implicitly, because it is in their self-interest to do so. However, this is really an objection of prudence and can be disputed by any amount of evidence to the contrary. Overall, the contract produced by Hobbes is hardly genuine.

Furthermore, Hobbes’s account of human nature and rights leaves much to be desired. From positing a hypothetical state of nature, he semi-sensibly concludes that in such a state, each individual has a “right to all things. ” However, he incorrectly uses this single hypothetical state as the moral barometer with which he judges everything else. In other words, he fails to acknowledge any human-based moral truths that are broader than the “right to all” found in his hypothetical state of nature. Internally, this may pose no problem for the traditional mechanistic, psychological egoist Hobbes: there is no use for morality if the world is determined, and rights are determined by what one can and can not do; liberty, as he says, is freedom of motion. Thus, the right of man would be to assure his freedom of motion by any means possible, which (when unregulated) results in the destructive state of nature, and so forth.

However, for a reading of Hobbes that allows for moral error, it is precisely because the state of nature is so chaotic, dangerous, and unpredictable that humans cannot be expected to choose the “high road” while their primary concern, their own preservation, is in direct danger. The upshot is that the “high road”[8] exists, and there is no reason why it can not be taken under different circumstances. Though he provides a very compelling scientific-deductive argument for the state of nature as it results from human inclinations (to be selfish, aggressive, vainglorious, etc. Hobbes too rapidly concludes that egoistic behavior always results in a dangerous state of nature. Egoists behaving rationally can recognize that, for example, the breaking of a contract may be a plausible enterprise now, but it results in the inability to construct contracts later because of a reputation effect. They can recognize that force is not a value- it can only be used to confiscate values which can only be made by production (a rational process) and that a world of force is a hungry and poor one, with little incentive to change.

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Locke vs. Hobbes, Nature, and Civil Society (Part 3)

November 22nd, 2007 Comments off

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They may, as in Locke, recognize rationally that committing an act of force to rule another essentially subjects them to a forfeiture of their own rights. Many present and past societies such as those in the United States have shown that the combination of minimal government and egoistic individuals, forming what would be according to Hobbes a state of nature, have coexisted peacefully and produced much “commodious living. ” Therefore, the greatest good for the egoist individual does not invariably reside in consent to absolute governance, as Hobbes would insist.

Locke

On the other hand, Locke expresses a different notion of human nature and, concordantly, of the state of nature. He holds that “Men living according to reason, without a common superior on earth, to judge between them, is properly the state of nature. ”[9] Because Locke’s theory is rooted in natural law, his arguments closely follow the notion of the objective rights of individuals- broadly, their freedom, equality, and independence. His portrayal of the state of nature better resembles one of anarchic individualism, an image far from the brutality and paranoia of the Hobbesian state. Locke claims, indirectly, that Hobbes fails to distinguish appropriately between the state of nature and the state of war. He also does not simply posit man in nature as a thought experiment, as does Hobbes, but he suggests that historically many have lived in such a state.

Locke asserts the transcendent reality of natural law, with reason as the tool for discovering it. In short, by initiating force, aggressors against persons or property have renounced reason (and their humanity) and are subject to force themselves. [10] Underlying Locke’s nature-war distinction, only the initiation of force constitutes a state of war, and thus a state of nature can exist in peace. While Hobbes described man in nature as primarily amoral, Locke holds the opposite as true. Besides the existentialist-like quality of morality under natural law- by which one who wills some immoral wrong has inevitably willed it universally and for himself- rationality also guides action by demonstrating the counter-productivity and destructiveness of aggression against one’s fellow man. In this way, Locke addresses the problems in Hobbes’s analysis of the violent and chaotic implications of egoism, instead arguing for the spontaneous orders caused by rational self-interested thought.

Locke’s Civil Society

The reasons Locke provides for why man might want to leave the ideal state of nature’s “perfect freedom and equality” are the “inconveniences” experienced by the majority of rational people: the costs of lack of knowledge of certain laws and an impartial adjudicator; the absence of an ultimate power for law enforcement, which allows for the strongest groups to execute what they please; and the agent’s general difficulty in judging law impartially.

For Locke, the purpose of civil society is not for the governed to be directly guided in such a way that they will survive and flourish, as Hobbes might advocate. Though survival and propagation are the preferred outcomes, the function of government is specifically to provide a framework for the protection of life, liberty, and property. Locke’s view can be summarized as one of a minimal state, whose justification requires total consent of the governed. [11] His objections to unlimited sovereignty of the kind Hobbes supports are part of an implicit undercurrent of his works, but are well-delineated in his Second Treatise in Chapter IV, “Of Slavery”:

“But freedom of men under government, is, to have a standing rule to live by, common to every one of that society, and made by the legislative power erected in it; a liberty to follow my own will in all things, where the rule prescribes not; and not to be subject to the inconstant, uncertain, unknown arbitrary will of another man: as freedom of nature is, to be under no other restraint but the law of nature.

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