Saturday, December 5, 2009

Hobbes, Rousseau, and the Nature of Humankind

Somehow, two weeks have passed and I haven't written a single blog entry. I think that my brain has been suffering from an overload of "WTFitis." I watch the news, read Newsweek, and scroll through newspapers and news sites on the Internet, and like Evilene in The Wiz, I just want to scream, "Don't nobody bring me no more bad news!"

Of course, not hearing or reading bad news doesn't make it go away. However, it isn't just the bad news that disturbs me, it's the mindlessness of the general populace that makes me want to slap somebody. As engaging in acts of violence could land me in a jail cell, I've been refocusing my disgust on trying to understand what it is about human nature that can move us to engage in great acts of creativity but can also move us to engage in acts of great cruelty and destruction.

I've been rereading two of my favorite political philosophers, Jean-Jacques Rousseau (The Social Contract 1762) and Thomas Hobbes (The Leviathan 1651). Both works focus on an analysis of why government is necessary and the purpose of government. However, they have different takes on why it is that humans spend our time fighting and squabbling among ourselves.

They each speak of the "natural state" [aka state of nature] describing it as humankind without the conventions that we have come to call civilization. Hobbes views humankind in its natural state as focused on individualism to the exclusion of any concern for the well being of others; self-preservation and aggrandizement is the reason for existence. If we occasionally act in an altruistic manner it is motivated by self-interest and not any concern for others. In Hobbesian analysis, we are motivated by self-preservation in all of our actions. We see the possibility of our own misfortune in another's misfortune and offer assistance in anticipation that we may at some point need assistance.

In this natural state, if I want my neighbor's cow, I attempt to take it. Naturally, my neighbor resists. Whichever one of us is stronger or has more friends to help out in the fray, gets the cow. Of course, then the winner has to guard against some stronger person coming along and taking the cow away. It's an ongoing cycle and no one can be truly secure and all our energies are spent on survival. We are therefore in a perpetual state of war. Hobbes defines a state of war as the absence of peace, that is, living in a society where individualism reigns supreme and it's every man and woman for themselves.

Hobbes perceives this natural state as being the essence of human nature and that governments were implemented to save us from our baser impulses. According to Hobbes, without absolute government, life is "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short."

Rousseau takes a more positive view of our natural state. He proposes that humankind in its natural state is essentially good. It is the development of society that has corrupted us. The advancements of civilization, while wondrous, have also corrupted us. Often Rousseau's philosophy is defined as promoting the image of the "noble savage." Humans living relatively solitary lives, motivated only by basic needs of food, clothing and shelter. In this state, there is no competition because there is no desire for power. The individualism that Hobbes sees as innate in human nature is an acquired trait in Rousseau's philosophy. For Rousseau, it's the development of society and all its trappings that has turned humankind into greedy, selfish beings focused on self preservation.

Both Hobbes and Rousseau propose that in this natural state, we have unlimited personal freedom, sort of like Cartman, citizen of South Park, who frequently declares, "I can do what I want!" In Hobbes viewpoint, a powerful central government is needed to check that personal freedom which is motivated only by self-interests. Rousseau argues that the people create government in a desire to promote harmonious interaction. The power of the government comes from the people, who voluntarily cede their personal freedoms to the collective group, not a single authoritative power, in order to promote the common good. For Rousseau, the people are the government, while Hobbes arrives at the conclusion that the people must cede their personal liberties to the control of a strong central government, an absolute government, to protect and promote the common good.

I tend to be Hobbesian in my beliefs about the nature of humankind. I think that self-interests are the norm and concern for humankind is the exception. At the heart of the arguments against any type of social welfare program is always a stated belief by the opposition that it is not the responsibility of those who have to provide for the have-nots. People stand in town halls and shout in trembling voices that their tax dollar should not go towards supporting any program for people that they deem to be undeserving. Those of us who express a belief that we are our brothers and our sisters keepers are dismissed as stupid, naive, un-American purveyors of socialism.

We are in such a constant state of war that many of us have come to believe that war is the norm, and there is no need to call for its end. I am so tired of seeing some sad parents or a sweet young woman with an infant bravely facing the television cameras, reciting the oft repeated litany, "He died doing what he loved. He died serving his country." As long as we continue to glorify dying in war, as if it is a noble loss of life, we will do nothing to put an end to war.

Where I part company with Hobbes is that I don't believe that selfish individualism is an innate quality. I think that Rousseau was on to something; perhaps we learn to elevate self-preservation to a religion because so much in society rewards and thereby reinforces selfishness. If that's true, then like Pandora's box, there is still a flame of hope that we have to fan into a fire. We can become better than we are.

If you are intrigued by the theories of government that influenced the development of the governing philosophies of the United States, click this link for a good place to begin with summaries of the political theories of Hobbes, Rousseau, John Locke, and Charles Montesquieu.

7 comments:

Lisa :-] said...

Wonderful essay, Sheria.

If history were a contest between Hobbes' and Rousseau's view of the basics of human motivation, I think Hobbes would definitely be winning these days...

Ms. Moon said...

"I am so tired of seeing some sad parents or a sweet young woman with an infant bravely facing the television cameras, reciting the oft repeated litany, "He died doing what he loved. He died serving his country." As long as we continue to glorify dying in war, as if it is a noble lose of life, we will do nothing to put an end to war."

I swear- I have thought this exact same thing so many times. And it just makes me so ANGRY when I hear these things said.

Sybil said...

sHERIA, what a wonderful article so well written...mind you I woudn't expect anything less from you...
It has given me lots to think about Thank You..
I heard a quote today that said, "I am not an optomist, I am a prisnor of hope"... I would like to have this as my motto as well...

Love Sybil x

Bucko (a.k.a., Ken) said...

I think our perspective comes down to where we are with basic needs. If you have food, shelter, health and enough wealth to get by, then there is the luxury of thinking of bigger and better possibilities, and altruism. However, if you are living hand to mouth, then the more altrusitic thoughts do not mean much. Glad we are in a position to ponder these things :o)

Sarcastic Bastard said...

Sheria,
Nothing like a little light reading there, my friend. Laugh. Hobbes and Rousseau. Wow.

I side with Hobbes. Definitely.

Love you! Very interesting post.

Mark said...

I think had they been around after Darwin, they might have come to far different conclusions. We are animals, with the drive to survive of animals that include a degree of agression that was necessary to hunt and almost vestigial now. Our big brains are just capable of rationalizing all sort of bad behavior as if we're chosen it. We are marionettes who think we are marioneteers.
But thanks for the philosophy class, Professor Reid. Academia was definitely the road not taken for you.

jack-of-all-thumbs said...

A marvelous post, with interesting comments. Had I the time to juggle a day job, a relationship and a piece of rural property, I would gladly pursue your lead and learn even more. I appreciate your Hobbes versus Rousseau summary and like Mark's puppet or puppet master comment. I agree; in my neighborhood - Hobbes wins.

Still.....fight on.