Thomas Hobbes claims that in a state of nature, people are constantly fighting against each other, and the only way to overcome this is to form a commonwealth. He does this by going over the conditions that describe a state of nature, certain rights that all people have in nature, and the method for transferring these rights, by way of a pledge to a sovereign, whether it to the one person, or a group of people in order to achieve a state of peace. While Hobbes makes a very clear argument, it does contain some faults when examined.
Hobbes addresses these issues and tries to convince the reader that a commonwealth is the only way a society will experience lasting peace. Firstly, Hobbes argues that when there is no government or civil authority in place, humans are living in a state of nature. This state is what Hobbes calls a war, “of every man against every other man” (Leviathan pg.106). Since there is no order in place, everybody can then claim anything they want for themselves. To Hobbes, this war is a result of three different causes. Hobbes claims that humans are, for the most part, physically equal. He acknowledges that some people are stronger than others are but we are all individuals, have basically the same mental reasoning, and are vulnerable.
This means that a competition results among any person or group of people any time that they want something. For example, if I wish I had something that somebody else is in possession of already; and this person is bigger and stronger than me, I can get a few friends together and physically take whatever it is that I wanted. War also arises out of panic, or attacking somebody for fear that they are about to attack you; a pre-emptive strike. So, if I think that somebody wants to take something of mine, I may take something of theirs before they have a chance, and harm them for the purpose of protecting myself.
The third cause of war is glory, or the desire to be feared and have a good reputation, to put fear into people to stop attacking you in the future. Hobbes doesn’t just think that humans are absolute brutes constantly battling just because they love to fight; he does however, think that a society without the protection of some sort of sovereign can decline into this state because of the need people have to look out for their own self-interests and to preserve their own lives. I believe like Hobbes that living in this state of nature has a number of consequences.
Nothing in the world can be considered as essentially good or evil. So in a state of nature right and wrong is simply what is right or wrong to each individual person, since there is no government or laws that tell us right from wrong. The only way people can make promises with each other is by way of contract, which is a mutual exchanging of rights. There is a special circumstance of this contract called a covenant. A covenant is a contract in which one person will give up one of his rights to somebody under the condition that the other person’s right will be given to him at a later time. Covenants are the basis of all laws, rights to property, and most aspects in a civil society.
However, according to Hobbes, all covenants between people that live in a state of nature are objectionable because “He that performs the first has no assurance the other will perform after.” (Leviathan pg.115) This basically means that because people aren’t bound by any laws, the second person doesn’t have any incentive to keep his end of the covenant, as he won’t be punished for going back against his word. Hobbes’ prospects for humanity appear to be pretty depressing; however he does propose a way to overcome this state of nature. The only way that man can overcome the state of nature “is to confer all their power and strength upon one man, or upon one assembly of men that may reduce all their wills, by plurality of voices, unto one will.” (Leviathan, pg. 14)
When a commonwealth is created a group of people give up their natural right to anything they desire and self-protection, provided that everybody else in the group does as well, to a common sovereign. This sovereign can be either one person (a monarchy); a certain group of people (an aristocracy) or everybody in the commonwealth (a democracy). The sovereign introduces all laws to be obeyed. These laws must be for the good of those who are governed, because it is the people who created this sovereign in the first place. Whatever the sovereign decides to be fair or unfair becomes the fair or unfair because the sovereign becomes the voice of the desires of the people.
The easy part is that sovereign makes laws for the people to follow. The important part is that these laws must be enforced. In the state of nature, all covenants are void because there is no punishment for breaking them. In a commonwealth, however, it would be against the law to break a covenant, so the person would be punished. Therefore a person would not break the covenant to begin with out of fear of the punishment. Hobbes argues that if there isn’t a punishment that is worse than what would happen if the person went through with his end of the covenant, then in fact there really isn’t a law because there is nothing to fear.
The law must be both punishable and enforceable in order to be a law. I agree with him here because the argument seems rational, given the fact the way humans act. One main problem with Hobbes’ argument however is that the sovereign seems to have a lot of power. In the commonwealth, any law the sovereign makes actually becomes what is good and just and right, because the sovereign speaks for everyone. If the people stop wishing to follow the sovereign, there can be no such thing as a just rebellion. Anybody who is rebelling against the sovereign would be in violation of the law, and therefore wrong and unjust in doing so. Also, because the sovereign determines justice, there is nothing the sovereign can do which is unjust.
This means the sovereign can do anything he wants to, and nobody can justly say or do anything about it. While there is no such thing as a just rebellion, Hobbes does acknowledge three things that humans, by nature, will resist against. These are death, bodily injury, and imprisonment. It seems that a sovereign could be very domineering in his policies toward the people. Hobbes attempts to solve this by saying that the condition of the people reflects upon the condition of the sovereign, so it is in the best interest of the sovereign to treat the people well. Also, since the sovereign is created by the people out of their desire to live in a state of peace, he should act accordingly in order to achieve this state.
If the sovereign doesn’t work toward a state of peace, then the people would be closer to the state of nature; but the whole reason the people give up their right to self-protection is to ensure a lasting state of peace. I agree with Hobbes that the state of nature would be a bad thing to live under and a sovereign appears to be a good solution; however I think that the supposed unlimited power of the sovereign would need to be addressed. They need to be accountable for their own actions and not put above the laws they make.