How Hobbes' Social Contract Theory Influenced Modern Political Thought and Society
What is Hobbes' Social Contract Theory?
Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) was an English philosopher who is best known for his political philosophy, especially his theory of the social contract. In his influential book Leviathan (1651), Hobbes argued that human beings are naturally selfish, violent, and fearful, and that they need a strong government to maintain order and peace. He proposed that people should agree to give up some of their natural rights and freedoms in exchange for the protection and security provided by a sovereign ruler. This agreement, or social contract, is the basis of political authority and obligation in Hobbes' view.
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In this article, we will explore Hobbes' social contract theory in more detail. We will examine his arguments for why people need a social contract, how they form one, what kind of sovereign they choose, and what are the benefits and challenges of his theory. We will also discuss the significance and relevance of his theory for modern society.
The State of Nature
One of the key concepts in Hobbes' social contract theory is the state of nature. This is a hypothetical condition that describes how human beings would live if there were no government or laws. Hobbes paints a bleak picture of this condition, as he writes:
"In such condition there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; 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."
Hobbes argues that in the state of nature, all human beings are equal in their physical and mental abilities, but also in their desires and passions. They all want to preserve their lives, but they also want to satisfy their needs and wants. However, since resources are scarce and there is no common authority to regulate them, they inevitably come into conflict with each other. They compete for power, wealth, honor, glory, or even pleasure. They distrust each other and live in constant fear of being attacked or killed by others.
Hobbes calls this condition a state of war, which is not necessarily a literal war, but rather a disposition to fight whenever there is an opportunity. He says that in this state, there are no moral rules or values that can guide human behavior. There are only natural laws, which are rational principles that tell people what they should do to preserve their lives. However, these natural laws are not enough to ensure peace and cooperation, because people may not follow them or may interpret them differently. Therefore, Hobbes concludes that the state of nature is a state of anarchy, where everyone has a right to everything, but nothing is secure.
The Social Contract
How do people escape from the state of nature and establish a civil society? Hobbes answers this question by introducing the idea of the social contract. This is a mutual agreement among individuals to give up some of their natural rights and submit to a common authority that can protect them from the dangers of the state of nature. Hobbes explains that people make this agreement out of rational self-interest, because they realize that living under a government is better than living in a state of war.
Hobbes says that the social contract has two parts: the first is the renunciation of some natural rights, and the second is the transfer of those rights to a sovereign. For example, people renounce their right to kill or harm others, and they transfer this right to the sovereign, who can use it to punish criminals or enemies. By doing so, they create a new artificial person, called the Leviathan, which represents the collective will and power of the people.
Hobbes emphasizes that the social contract is not a historical event, but a logical necessity. He says that people do not actually meet and make a contract, but rather they act as if they had made one. He also says that the social contract is not a voluntary act, but a coerced one. People do not consent to the social contract out of love or respect for the sovereign, but out of fear of death or violence. Therefore, Hobbes argues that the social contract is not based on natural law or moral duty, but on artificial law or political obligation.
What kind of authority do people choose when they make the social contract? Hobbes answers this question by describing the role and the power of the sovereign. The sovereign is the person or group that has the ultimate and absolute authority over the subjects. The sovereign can be a monarch, an aristocracy, or a democracy, as long as it has the consent and support of the majority of the people.
Hobbes argues that the sovereign has several functions and duties. The main function is to provide security and order for the people by making and enforcing laws. The main duty is to protect the people from external enemies and internal rebels. The sovereign also has other functions and duties, such as maintaining justice, promoting education, regulating religion, and encouraging trade.
Hobbes also argues that the sovereign has several rights and privileges. The main right is to have absolute and indivisible power over the subjects. The sovereign cannot be limited or divided by any other authority, such as a parliament, a court, or a church. The sovereign also has other rights and privileges, such as making war and peace, imposing taxes, granting honors, and censoring opinions.
Hobbes justifies the absolute and indivisible power of the sovereign by appealing to the social contract. He says that since people have given up their natural rights and transferred them to the sovereign, they cannot claim them back or resist the sovereign's will. He also says that since people have authorized the sovereign to act on their behalf, they cannot question or judge the sovereign's actions. He further says that since people have agreed to obey the sovereign for their own safety and benefit, they cannot disobey or rebel against the sovereign without risking their lives.
The Benefits and Challenges of Hobbes' Theory
What are the advantages and disadvantages of Hobbes' social contract theory? There are different ways to evaluate his theory from different perspectives. Here are some possible benefits and challenges of his theory:
One benefit of his theory is that it provides a clear and rational justification for political authority and obligation. It shows why people need a government and why they should obey it.
Another benefit of his theory is that it offers a realistic and pragmatic account of human nature and society. It recognizes that human beings are driven by self-interest and fear, and that they need a strong government to control their passions and conflicts.
A third benefit of his theory is that it promotes political stability and order. It argues that an absolute and indivisible sovereign is necessary to prevent civil war and anarchy.
One challenge of his theory is that it sacrifices individual liberty and rights for collective security and peace. It argues that people have to give up almost all their natural rights and freedoms in exchange for protection by the sovereign.
Another challenge of his theory is that it ignores moral values and principles for political convenience and necessity. It argues that there are no objective or universal standards of right and wrong, but only artificial laws made by the sovereign.
# Article with HTML formatting (continued) tyranny and oppression by the sovereign. It argues that the sovereign has unlimited and unaccountable power over the subjects.
These are some of the possible benefits and challenges of Hobbes' social contract theory. Of course, there may be other ways to assess his theory from different viewpoints and criteria.
In conclusion, Hobbes' social contract theory is one of the most influential and controversial theories in the history of political philosophy. It proposes that human beings are naturally selfish, violent, and fearful, and that they need a strong government to maintain order and peace. It suggests that people should agree to give up some of their natural rights and freedoms in exchange for the protection and security provided by a sovereign ruler. It claims that the sovereign has absolute and indivisible authority over the subjects, and that the subjects have no right or duty to resist or rebel against the sovereign.
Hobbes' social contract theory has many implications and applications for modern society. It can help us understand the origin and the legitimacy of political authority and obligation. It can also help us evaluate the advantages and disadvantages of different forms of government and political systems. However, it can also raise some questions and challenges about individual liberty and rights, moral values and principles, and political stability and order.
Hobbes' social contract theory is not the only or the final word on these issues. There are other theories that have different assumptions, arguments, and conclusions. For example, Locke, Rousseau, Rawls, and others have developed their own versions of social contract theory that have different views on human nature, society, government, and rights. Therefore, it is important to compare and contrast Hobbes' theory with other theories, and to critically examine its strengths and weaknesses.
Here are some common questions and answers about Hobbes' social contract theory:
Why did Hobbes write Leviathan?
Hobbes wrote Leviathan in response to the political turmoil and civil war that plagued England in the 1640s. He wanted to provide a rational basis for political authority and obligation that could justify the restoration of peace and order.
What does Leviathan mean?
Leviathan is a biblical term that refers to a monstrous sea creature that symbolizes chaos and evil. Hobbes uses it as a metaphor for the artificial person or body politic that is created by the social contract. He also uses it as a title for his book to suggest that his theory is powerful and formidable.
What is Hobbes' view on human rights?
Hobbes' view on human rights is that they are not natural or inherent, but artificial or conventional. He says that in the state of nature, people have a right to everything, but nothing is secure. In the civil society, people give up some of their rights to the sovereign, who can guarantee their security. He also says that people have no right to resist or rebel against the sovereign, unless their lives are threatened.
What is Hobbes' view on democracy?
Hobbes' view on democracy is that it is one of the possible forms of government that can be chosen by the social contract. However, he prefers monarchy over democracy, because he thinks that monarchy is more efficient and stable than democracy. He also criticizes democracy for being prone to factionalism and populism.
What are some criticisms of Hobbes' social contract theory?
Some criticisms of Hobbes' social contract theory are that it is too pessimistic about human nature and society, too optimistic about government and sovereignty, too unrealistic about the social contract and consent, too restrictive about individual liberty and rights, too indifferent about moral values and principles, and too authoritarian about political stability and order.