Deontology and Utilitarianism are philosophical theses about human morality; they utilize abstract principles to determine specific rules and actions. What if it were the other way around? What if human behavior and the world in which humans lived determined the principles themselves? Interesting thought, huh. Well, that’s exactly what a philosopher named Thomas Hobbes put forth. Here’s the way he thought.
Let’s take an honest look at the world and ourselves. A hard analysis of the human character reveals this description. 1. A man is basically an egoist; he is interested primarily in his own welfare. 2. Most men are more or less equal in talents and abilities to achieve what they desire. What one may lack in strength, he may make up in cunning. Another may be intelligent, but lack organizational skills, while the hunter differs radically from the farmer, but both can put food on the table. Roughly put, most persons are capable of securing what they desire through their own means. 3. The world is limited in the goods available to all men. There are not enough goods to go around for everyone, especially egoistic men who may desire more than they actually need, if in fact, they need some of it at all. 4. Men are rational thinkers who can adapt means to achieve desired ends. Men are problem solvers; they can work themselves out of a bad situation using the power of reason. 5. Men are also subjugated to the surges of their desires. They have desires and become active agents to secure the objects of those desires.
Put all of these conditions together and the result is a terrible mess --Lord of the Flies type in which the life of any individual man is, as Hobbes puts it, nasty brutish and short.
Example. Suppose you, I and a bunch of other persons were flying across the Pacific. The pilots fall asleep and the plane wanders way off course. (Sort of like the Tom Hanks’ movie, Castaway.) The pilots awaken from the out of gas alarm and crash-land us next to a medium sized island. We make it to shore and watch the plane sink. We hear the pilots say that they were unable to get a distress message out and that the emergency beacon did not deploy when the plane went down. In other words, our stay on the island could be quite extended, perhaps a lifetime.
Now, ask yourself, what’s the first thing you’re going to do?
Tell you what I’m going to do. I’m going to find myself a big stick to protect my self from the rest. Why? I don’t know you or trust you, and a little protection is prudent. I get my stick and sit down watching the others. A small woman has a tote bag that she was able to rescue while getting out of the plane. She gets out a Snickers bar and starts to eat it. I am starving, for I did not eat the last meal, but slept through it. I go over to the woman and ask for a piece of her candy bar. She refuses to give me a piece.
What to do?
I tell her that if she does not give me some of the candy bar, I will catch her later and beat her with my stick. She still refuses. Later in the day, she wanders into the woods to relieve herself. I follow and beat her with my stick. I tell her that if she says anything to anyone else, I will drown her and make it look like an accident. From now on, she had better do what I tell her to do. I ask her if she has any more food. She does. I take it, reminding her again that she will die terribly should she say anything.
Now, let’s suppose that you are the woman. What to do?
You go back to the main beach where a good number of people are gathered. You notice that many persons have bruises and wounds that they did not previously have. The women all look terrified. The men glare at each other. Many have sticks. Two men get into an argument over coconuts that one has gathered. The argument turns into a fight and the two combatants beat each other into pulps. Meanwhile, a crafty woman steals the coconuts while no one is watching. This act inflames the others who are hungry and a general brawl breaks out. In the end, two persons are killed and many are injured. Life on the beach turns out to be one of war in which the existence of any single individual is nasty brutish and short.
What to do?
Hobbes says that we will all think along these lines. We are acting normally as human beings; we are seeking those goods that we desire. There aren’t enough goods for all of us, given our desires and temperaments. We are fighting amongst ourselves, killing and harming one another. This is a natural state for us to be in (Hobbes calls in the State of Nature), but it is BAD –it is a state of war. As rational beings, not animals that will simply continue to tear themselves apart, we must consider alternatives to the state of nature. In fact, any other state looks to be better. How do we get to some other state of existence?
Hobbes says that we reason our way out of the state of nature. Each of us knows that he/she cannot get what he wants in the state of nature; no single person is strong or smart enough to survive that kind of existence. We know that we cannot be king or Lord of the Flies (or at least if we are, we won’t be for long). We know that being at the bottom of the pile in a state of nature is truly unacceptable; who wants a cruel death? Somewhere in between is the answer. What are the conditions for getting there?
The conditions, Hobbes notes, are straightforward. Each of us gives up the power to harm anyone else. We contract together to give that power to others (what we call government or the Leviathan). Given the nature of the environment, the island, we come up with rules that ensure the safety and livelihood of each person. Granted, things are going to be stretched and tough, but some food, shelter and the knowledge that another person is not going to kill you for your property or just for the heck of it is far better than the state of nature. So, through contracting with each other, as rational beings figuring out what is the most personally advantageous option, we create a social existence. We are all better off living in a society.
As we reasoned and formed society through the social contract, we transferred our power to harm to another body, the government. But, what is this government? It is no more than the group we put in power to enforce the rules that enable us to live the best possible lives egoists could have with one another. The government (some big and smart persons on the island) enforces the rules of behavior. (Leviathan means “big body.”) No individual is as big or as smart as the government. Hence, only a fool would break the rules, for they would know that in doing so, he would return himself to a state of nature against the society with its government. And the government is the biggest, smartest power with the sole right to inflict harm –something no rational egoist would mess around with—on the whole island. The net result of a society is to live as good an egoistic life as possible. As rational egoists, we know that breaking the rules and running afoul with the government is clearly not in our best interests.
What about the rules? Basically, morality and the law are whatever rules rational egoists can come up with to make life as far removed as can be from the state of nature, war. Society is, as we noted, an artificial state of being (a coerced peace); it is a state of living by rules that have been socially determined, not individually determined as in the state of nature. . Note that society is not a natural state of existence; it is an artificial state of existence into which we are forced to get out of the State of Nature (war). For Hobbes, the choice is a no-brainer; better to live with modest means in a society than wind up dead in the State of Nature. A house is artificial, but reason tells us that it is a lot better to live in than a cave, which is a natural thing. Woven clothes are better than hides. Rock is better than Ravel. (Whoops. Better stop while I’m ahead.) Through the social contract, rational egoists create a state of existence in which all live reasonably well, or at least, as best can be expected given conditions. No one ends up on the bottom of the pile and no one is able to rule at the top of the pile; the government is designed to prevent just that.
So, morality boils down to a good case of pragmatism. Whatever rules or actions prevent war are those that we ought to obey. These rules will change as conditions in persons and the environment change.
Problems with the Social Contract.
There are a couple of problems. The first is, what if the government goes bad? The government can go bad in two ways. The first is to have an individual or group of individuals gain control of it. In a democracy or representative democracy, this is easy to happen. The Tyranny of the Majority, which John Stuart Mill speaks about, is a classic problem with social contract society’s going bad –beginning to dissolve back into a state of nature. Remember, women only recently in the history of our society gained the right to vote, the right to determine the rules of the social contract. Further, egoists can hide behind corporate power to empower themselves through the government. Current exploitation of the middle-class by corporate executives is rampant in today’s capitalist societies.
The second way is for the government to lose its power of enforcement. For whatever reason, should the government not be able to provide protection to its constituents from harm, the social contract fails and the citizens are returned to the state of nature to defend for themselves, perhaps even against inept powers of the government. If the government cannot protect its citizens from harm and yet requires them to support its existence, the citizens are returned to a state of nature and released from the contract. Which, as can been noted by rational egoist, is a very bad thing. The crux of the problems then revolve around making certain that the government is strong enough to do what it is supposed to do, and in fact does it –namely, protect its citizens from harm.