Want Justice? Then accept (the fear of) Punishment! Welcome to the scary world of Thomas Hobbes.

Looks gentle enough doesn’t he? Go read his book! Openly sourced from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Thomas_Hobbes.jpeg for educational mischief. 

Well Hobbes never quite said that did he? But the essay question your asked to consider is as follows: Is it the case that, where there is no social contract and no common power, there is no justice or injustice? In your answer draw on Hobbes’s text, showing how he tries to justify this argument.

Firstly, note there that what you asked to do is give Hobbes’s argument not your own view. You may well be an anarchist who thinks the very idea of government is not necessary to achieve justice (anything else much). That doesn’t matter. You still have to explain the logic and reasoning of Hobbes here. By the way, many students get sidetracked on such essays into the nature and logic of Hobbes argument for today. Many see Hobbes as a type of fascist arguing for dictatorship (that debate is more open that you might think). Yet that is not what your asked to show in this essay, even if at times that theme touches upon what is for examination here.

I think a good way to start is ask yourself: what does Hobbes mean by social contract? What is distinctive about his view of social contract?

What does Hobbes mean by a common power…and what (in his account) is the relationship between a common power and a social contract…could one have a social contract NOT to have a common power…would that make sense…or a social contract for just a weak and limited common power say? A king that would only raises taxes for the army but otherwise have not rights to do anything else?

What is the relationship between these entities (a common power, a social contract) and what Hobbes describes as ‘justice or injustice’. Does he have an odd concept of justice?

How might Hobbes’s account of human nature (Chapter XVIII) logically support his argument that we need a social contract which confers a strong unlimited common power precisely to ensure justice?

At Chapter XIII, par 8 he describes how men who live without a common power ‘are at war’. Is this plausible? Does a situation of social anarchy (which is not the same thing as panic or chaos) always lead to ‘war’ between people?  Even if people were as selfish and greedy as he suggests, and well armed to boot, why might they agree a truce with each other? Could they not deter each other without much violence and agree to trade and even co-operate? To what extent are Hobbesian humans rational…and what difference would that make anyhow?

Notice in Chapter XIII, par13, there is a quote which is close to the essay title but different: “where there is no common power, there is no law: where no law, no injustice”. He is speaking or a situation of anarchy, but he means clearly by that also a sense of chaos and no order. Something like a civil war, or a state with an almost non-functioning government-a failed state. How credible is this? Even in times of chaos might people obey certain rules and procedures? Might people also voluntarily behave in certain ethical ways in extreme situations? Does each of his statements logically follow? That law is impossible without a ruler/government? Can you give me examples of folk or customary laws that might evolve from ‘the ground up”? Also, even if there is no formal law (from a government say) nor any customary or folk law (what people follow by practice or custom) does that mean the concept of injustice or justice becomes meaningless? If we are not told how to behave exactly, and if negative conduct is not expressly banned, does that mean we will surely behave very badly to one another? Why might selfish people is a very chaotic and competitive situation behave surprisingly reasonably? Why let women and children get to the lifeboats first? Is there anything in Hobbes’s own partial account of human nature that might suggest people could be altruistic…in a way he may not have considered logical? Also why would soldiers, pirates, or bandits,  who have taken prisoners not simply shoot them all, even in cases where there are no military laws or training to prohibit this? What does Hobbes suggest they will do and why? But what would they rationally do? What would be sociologically common? Would it fit the Hobbesian view here?

In Chapter XIV Hobbes has an abstract discussion of how a social contract might be made, and at par.8 he has a discussion about alienability of rights…what does this mean…and why does Hobbes think not all rights are re-alienable…that is once given away, cannot be re-given away (or given back)? What example does Hobbes give of an inalienable right?

What rights should we given the common power…should they be re-alienable?

At Par 18, of Chapter XIV he speaks of contracts agreed under mutual trust-why does he think these need for a common power to ‘compel performance’…could we not simply trust the contract signers to deliver? Could a contract be made ‘self-executing’ and not require an outside power? Could we design a game without a referee, where players engaged in bad conduct would be automatically punished, or they would have an incentive not to cheat? Are there many games, to us a different analogy to contracts, without referees or umpires?

At Par.27 Hobbes suggest contracts with an element of fear built in, become obligatory and therefore there will no be not cheat. What is his conclusion then as regards the type and nature of power required as a common power to enforce contracts…why is fear so important and that the coercive power should be feared?

Notice, even one accepts that we do need an external power to enforce contracts in extreme cases of cheating, then what sort of power should that external power have…should the referee have absolute power and use it without any restraint and need for justification?

At Chapter XV, par2. Hobbes has a rather limited definition of injustice…what is it, and what are the implications for why he think we need a strong fearful common power….at the end of par. 4 he has an equally odd formulation for what justice is….does he mean that justice is equivalent to authority and order?

At par 4, Hobbes has a major discussion about objections to his arguments (the fool hath said, etc.). What is he really saying here-there are at least two separate points made?



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