Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The Leviathan and Political Philosophy

It has always bothered me when, after the elections of Bush and Obama, people have stated that the elected president is not their president.  Who is your president then?  Personally, I do not care who you voted for, but this person now represents you, your country, and the voices of millions of Americans - just like Hobbes's Leviathan. However, I do recognize that it is perfectly acceptable for you to not recognize the ruling authority if you are willing to give up all the rights and privilages that come with American citizentry and return to Hobbes's "state of war".   

Let's assume you decide to not recognize the president and make a partial return to an atavistic and brutal state of existance.  What constraints would you now have your freedom?  Hobbes says that liberty is inversely proportional to opposition.  Therefore, if you are freed from rules that you do not recognize you will have almost unlimited freedom - not a bad deal. 

What about good and evil?  Hobbes says that "good and evil are names that signify our appetites and aversions".  Therefore good is whatever you like and evil is whatever you do not care for.  So far this is working out pretty well - I would say beer is good and mowing my lawn is evil. 

Interestingly, Hobbes does addresss the rogue individual who decides to not recognize the soverign authority.  To Hobbes, this is perhaps the most dangerous individual to the state because this person receives all the benifits of the state (protection from attack, excellent infrastructure, cheap food) while not contributing to its maintainence.  That state can tolerate a few of these free-loaders, but too many will destroy the government. 

This reminds me of a mixed population of bacteria where some express antibiotic resistance genes (e.g. beta-lactamase for penicillin).  These proteins are metabolically expensive, but keep the bacteria alive in the presence of antibiotics. However, some bacteria do not express these factors but depend on the resistance factors of other bacteria to keep them alive (i.e. herd immunity).  The non-resistant bacteria will grow faster, consuming more resources, until they begin to outcompete the resistant bacteria.  At this point, there will not be enough resistance factors present to keep the bacteria alive and they will die.  Hobbes describes something similiar when he talks about bees and ants living together.  He says that these animals operate in a commonwealth because of instinct, although I think that there is probably some evolutionary pressure similar to my bacterial colony example.

Compared with other political philosophers

Hobbes is emphatic that for men the state of nature is a state of war and even in civilized times men could revert to a state of nature if the common authority that keeps men in "awe" is removed. However, Hobbes says that majority desire to live in a society with rules and restraints on our freedoms.  Therefore the need to live in a commonwealth is a natural one and prefered. Aristotle would agree that men require laws to restraints to be perfected.  Both philosophers also recognized that the State is a natural development that arises from man's need for peace and justice. 
On justice Hobbes seems to come down on the side of Might makes Right, and since the soveriegn is the most powerful entity whatever he does is correct.  Machiavelli would concur this, as would Thraymachus from Plato's Republic.  However, Plato would say that we cannot always depend on the soveriegn being correct, just like a friend who has gone insane with a sword in his hand. 

Regarding natural law, Thomas Aquinas would support some of Hobbes's ideas, but Aquinas places more emphasis on individual happiness and a true good, rather that just mere survival.  To Hobbes's subjects, just being alive and protected under a soveriegn is enough to be happy.

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