The main contributions of Thomas Hobbes’s book Leviathan are his thoughts on the state of nature and social contract theory. Hobbes explains how social and political structures developed and why human beings submit to the authority of a government. Hobbes’s writings were greatly influenced by his experiences of the English civil war and its destructive nature. In Leviathan he proposes that without a strong government human beings would exist in a state of lawlessness. He refers to this state of lawlessness as the state of nature. The state of nature is a state of constant conflict in which the main goal of people is to survive. In this struggle for survival people compete for power and any means justify the ends. Life is violent and lonely because no one can be trusted. This state of lawlessness ends when people submit to a social contract enforced by an absolute sovereign. The sovereign provides safety and peace and in return people give up part of their liberty.
Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679) is regarded as one of history’s most influential political philosophers. His famous book Leviathan, published in 1651, is one of the most cited works in political philosophy. The title derives from the biblical Leviathan, a creature of supreme size and strength. Hobbes’s Leviathan is sovereignty and the head of the Leviathan is the sovereign. Hobbes believed in a strong monarchy as the best form of government. The main purpose of the sovereign is to protect the commonwealth and civil peace. The sovereign has the right to punish violators of the social contract. He also determines the successor. People must accept the sovereign as the highest power regardless of whether the sovereign gained power by force or contract because in either case the social contract is preserved.
The State of Nature
Hobbes begins his work with a discussion of human nature, what he refers to as the state of nature. The state of nature is the natural state of human beings and how life would be without the regulation of a civil authority—the sovereign. According to Hobbes, the greatest fear of people is a violent death. Thus, human beings will do anything to avoid a violent death. The pursuit of self-preservation and power puts everyone at risk of being killed by another person, including family, friends, and neighbors because everyone is a threat to everyone else. Hobbes states that people are “restless in stirring of power after power.” In addition, human beings are competitive, diffident, and glory seeking.
These characteristics make humans prone to conflicts and, as a result, violence and war. Individual judgment is poor because it is based on people’s interests and convictions. Thus, the state of nature is anarchic, or as Hobbes puts it “a war of all against all.” Everyone only acts in their self-interest, which results in a life that is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” The constant conflict can only be avoided if everyone agrees to a social contract laying out the rules by which everyone exists. In return for their natural rights the state will protect people from death and harm.
The Social Contract, Justice, and Punishment
Hobbes assumed that everyone’s main interest is to avoid death, and because the only way to avoid death is to submit to a sovereign everyone will agree to the social contract. He argued that the social contract is a mutual transfer of rights. In other words, I give up my right to kill you and you give up the right to kill me. Submission to the sovereign is the rational choice even if people disagree with the sovereign because anything is better than the state of nature. The social contract legitimizes the authoritarian government.
Justice can only be achieved with a social contract because when there is no social contract everyone is free to act in his or her own self-interest. There are no unjust actions because there are no agreed-upon rules. In order to establish what is just and unjust, a government must exist with a social contract that prohibits certain behaviors. Hobbes states that, “before the names of just, and unjust can have place, there must be some coercive power, to compel men equally to the performance of their covenants, by the terror of some punishment, greater than the benefit they expect by the breach of their consent.”
An important assumption of Hobbes is that everyone will give up the rights entitled to them by the state of nature and follow the rules established by the sovereign because it is the only way to avoid living in the state of nature. Breaking the rules is a threat to the commonwealth and the civil peace. Hobbes believes that the purpose of punishment is to correct the offender, preserve peace, and defend the social contract. Revenge is not a valid sentencing goal because it returns people to the state of nature. Only the sovereign may punish offenders to preserve the community and peace. The sovereign has the sole power in deciding what the punishment should be, but it should be determined and proscribed by the law. Excessive punishment is considered a hostile act. Types of punishments include corporal punishment, exile, death, monetary punishment, incarceration, or a combination of these. Hobbes was also concerned with the punishment of the innocent. He states that punishing the innocent is a violation of the law of nature and an act of injustice.
Psychological Egoism and the Criminal Justice System
Human beings pursue their own goals regardless of possible detrimental consequences for others. This is also referred to as psychological egoism. Hobbes stated that human beings engage in acts that demonstrate their power and superiority. Hobbes argued that human beings are egoistic and acts that appear to be altruistically motivated actually serve certain self-interests. For instance, Hobbes asserted that people don’t have pity for another person because they feel bad for that person, but because they are aware that something similar can happen to them. It is self-pity rather than empathy for the person who is suffering. Similarly, offenders do not show remorse in court because they really regret the crime they committed and the suffering they have caused; instead the showing of remorse is driven by the egoistic goal to receive a lighter sentence or get away without punishment. For instance, in his court statement Bernie Madoff, who ran a Ponzi scheme for years, said that he now understands the wrongfulness of his actions: “I live in a tormented state now, knowing of all the pain and suffering that I have created.” According to Hobbes this statement is not a reflection of his true state of mind but the attempt to avoid a harsh punishment.
Hobbes’s theory can be applied to offenders and the criminal justice system. With regard to criminal offenses, rape is often about power rather than sexual gratification. Similarly, white-collar offenders who embezzle money act to increase their power or to show their superiority. Thus, violators of the law return to the state of nature in their pursuit of power and preservation.
Hobbes’s psychological egoism is also apparent in the criminal justice system. For instance, racial discrimination is a conscious act by the white majority to safeguard their own power status. Racial threat theory states that punitiveness and social control by the majority group will increase when the minority population gains economic, social, and political power. The purpose of increased punitiveness and social control is to secure the status quo and sustain power over the minority population.
Hobbes’s egoism can also be applied to the abuse of power by criminal justice personnel, such as police officers, corrections officers, prosecutors, and judges. The abuse of power serves to assert authority and to demonstrate superiority over the weaker person. Anything that threatens that power, such as whistle-blowers, are punished by their own group. For instance, among police, the blue code of silence is a mechanism that serves the purpose of protecting police from being held responsible for misconduct or even criminal acts.
- Blalock, H. M., Jr. Toward a Theory of Minority Group-Relations. New York: Capricorn, 1967.
- Henriques, D. B. “Madoff Is Sentenced to 150 Years in Prison.” New York Times (June 29, 2009). http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/30/business/30madoff.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0 (Accessed September 2013).
- Hobbes, T. Leviathan. New York: Touchstone, 1997.
- Zagorin, Perez. Hobbes and the Law of Nature. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009.
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