Sunday, September 27, 2009

Alexander Hamilton on Hobbes

"There is so strong a similitude between your political principles and those maintained by Mr. Hobb[e]s, that, in judging from them, a person might very easily mistake you for a disciple of his. His opinion was, exactly, coincident with yours, relative to man in a state of nature. He held, as you do, that he was, then, perfectly free from all restraint of law and government. Moral obligation, according to him, is derived from the introduction of civil society; and there is no virtue, but what is purely artificial, the mere contrivance of politicians, for the maintenance of social intercourse. But the reason he run into this absurd and impious doctrine, was, that he disbelieved the existence of an intelligent superintending principle, who is the governor, and will be the final judge of the universe."

--Alexander Hamilton, The Farmer Refuted.

Hamilton didn't quite understand Hobbes' points on the state of nature. Lacking civil government based on the consent of the governed, human life would be "omnia bellum contra omnes"-- war of all against all. Humans in a state of lawless nature are not free from restraint as Hamilton suggested, but living in violent anarchy. Hobbesian constructivism often bothers believers, and that was probably the case with Hamilton, though the Federalist papers at times hint at a Hobbesian sovereign, arguably (--there is a wrong side to Hobbes). According to Hobbes, laws are not God-given--regardless of the Cecil B Demille drama of the Old Testament--but agreed upon, contracted, established by men acting in their own interest. That point also bothers the pious, who demand that people act out of duty to their Creator, not because it furthers their economic interests.

Unlike many religious people, or naive liberals for that matter, Hobbes had no illusions about human nature, and at times seemed to anticipate Darwinism--Dennett has suggested as much, calling Hobbes the first sociobiologist. Hobbes did possess a keen awareness of economic and even biological existence, but he was not a Dawkins or Dennett, at least ostensibly. While not exactly orthodox--he called into question miracles, and the supposed infallibility of scripture--Hobbes did offer some pragmatic reasons in favor of the church and religious institutions, though given the time he may have been required to do so. Executing heretics was still rather common in the 17th century.

Hobbes' discussion of the contracting process remains relevant as well. Hobbes did not, as does John Rawls in Theory of Justice, actually specify how humans determine what sort of society they want to live in. Hobbes offered pronouncements which he terms covenants, such as "seek the peace". Not bad, but some rogues might consider peace not to be in their best interest. Rawls at least advanced the contractual discussion slightly by means of the Veil of Ignorance and Difference Principle (wiki 'er), though even that level of abstraction tends to ruin the par-tay, whether that of the yacht club GOP, or Club Che Guevara.


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