Thomas Hobbes

Thomas Hobbes was one of England’s most radical political thinkers and well known for his comment that life was solitary, poor, nasty, short and brutish. The most important point that Hobbes makes is that it is always rational to give up all your rights to a sovereign. This is a completely rational decision because the alternative to this is war. People are all very selfish and only pursue the things which are in their own interest. This brings them into conflict with others. We must assume that everyone else has murderous intentions. We are driven by the desire for pleasure and the attempt to avoid pain much as Bentham was later to repeat. The solution is to vest authority in an absolute sovereign. People have freedom in the state of nature. We have a liberty to act at will but our will is not the power to choose between passions but it is the passion. Acting at will is acting on the last passion to bear upon us. This state of nature is a state of freedom but that actually means lawlessness because people simply pursue their desires and interests. To give up all freedoms means all people are brought into unity and in unity you can get something back. The sovereign can allow you to have enough freedom to act so as to ensure the freedoms of others are protected. Hobbes’ absolutist ideas were such that he felt democracies are very bad at making decisions. They get things wrong and they keep changing their minds. He felt the sovereign should have absolute power and that the subject had no rights. Hobbes presents us with an interesting challenge today. Today we have the strong notion of individual rights as protections from the state and we would see the giving up of those rights as irrational. Hobbes lived at a time of great strife in England. The Civil War ravaged communities. Tearing apart families, destroying the security that order provided and leaving people exposed to the elements and the viciousness of each other. Rich secure countries find it hard to think about giving up freedoms as a bad thing but poor countries may rarely experience those freedoms. Democracy without security comes at an expensive cost and is unstable, as illustrated by Iraq. Even rich countries today are thinking seriously about restricting rights and individual freedoms for the protection of all. Under new laws, protesters within a kilometer of the Houses of Parliament or close to number 10 can be moved on for security reasons, even though they have theoretical democratic rights to protest. A woman was arrested and convicted of an offence for reading a list of the names of killed British troops within earshot of number 10. The extent to which we might agree with the decision to arrest the protester might be linked to the extent to which we agree with Hobbes about the dangers of individuals acting freely and the need for a powerful government to keep us all safe.

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