Political Theory 101

In an article about child psychology for the New York Times, Nicholas Wade writes,

What is the essence of human nature? Flawed, say many theologians.
Vicious and addicted to warfare, wrote Hobbes. Selfish and in need of
considerable improvement, think many parents.

But biologists are beginning to form a generally sunnier view of humankind.

Leviathan Hobbes did not think that people were vicious and addicted to warfare. We are in dire need of a quick political theory lesson, Mr. Wade.

Hobbes thought that people are primarily self-interested. People are only motivated to act to preserve themselves. Like any contestant on American Idol, people also think that are more powerful than they actually are. So, if a dude saw another person's cow, Dude One would try to take it, because he believed that the Dude Two was a weakling. Although Dude Two may indeed be a weakling, he could join up with the other weak dudes, and jump the big guy when his back was turned. We all have different strengths and they all equal out; no one has any more power than another. This equality also means that there are no automatic leaders. Because we are self-interested, arrogant, and possess equal powers, we get into constant wars, if we don't have a really strong ruler to control us.

Hobbes never said that we are naturally violent. We only get into wars, because we want stuff. Nobody gets off on the violence. You have to get into 20th century writers to read about the senseless, violent, irrational side of human nature.

Hobbes thought that we're smart enough to realize that being in a state of war is a terrible thing — nasty, brutish, short — so we enter into a contract with an absolute ruler to get away from civil war. We would rather give up all our freedoms than being in a state of war.

So, Wade gets Hobbes all wrong. Wade would be better off reading Rousseau. Rousseau argues that people have a natural pity in them, before they get all corrupted in civilization with the invention of property.

One thought on “Political Theory 101

  1. I think I never really accepted the assumptions in the “essence of human nature” discussions. That is, we could determine what human nature really was if you could witness people in a “state of nature,” unbound by societal rules and constraints. But it was never obvious what a “state of nature” would look like, and you could imagine lots of possibilities, from Brooke Shields on the Blue Lagoon, to the whole gang from Lord of the Flies.
    What’s the population density? How abundant are natural resources? Are there man-eating predators around? What’s the gender ratio? It seems like you could arrange “nature” to come up with whatever human nature you want.


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