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					Module 10: The Nature of Justice – Hobbes, Rousseau, and the Social Contract

        Author: Daniel G. Jenkins, MA

        Updated April 2008

This module is meant to accompany “Chapter 10: The Idea of a Social Contract” in Rachels’ The
Elements of Moral Philosophy, 5th edition.

Module Goals:
After completing readings, presentations, discussions, and coursework for this module,
you will be able to:
       Identify and explain core aspects of Hobbes’ ethics
       Apply Hobbes’ ethics in moral decision-making
       Analyze the usefulness and critique features of Hobbes’ ethics
        Synthesize Hobbes’ ethics with other theories in the academic study of ethics


In module 9 we discussed Kant’s deontological approach to ethics. One of the most interesting
things about Kant’s ethics is how his notion of justice contrasts with that of the Utilitarians.
While the Utilitarians say that punishment should not be retributive, but should merely have as
its goal the prevention of future criminal behavior, Kant says that the only goal of punishment
should be punishment for a crime; to try and change someone or rehabilitate them to be more
like what we think they should be like for the purposes of fostering the greater good is using
them as a means to an end, which violates Kant’s notion of human dignity.

Additionally, Kant feels that the punishment should be comparable to the crime: hence murder
warrants the death penalty. For Kant, justice is punishment, and is not tied to any consequence
of punishment. To deny someone adequate punishment, even the death penalty, is to deny that
they are ends in themselves, and to deny that they are autonomous, reasoning beings. For Kant
it is reason and autonomy that separate us from the beasts; if a person has shown him or herself
to not be a reasoning, autonomous being, we owe them no more consideration that the deer
we hit on the road at night.

What stance do you take on justice? Is the goal of justice punishment, as Kant suggests, or is the
goal of justice rehabilitation, as the Utilitarians suggest? In the module that follows, we will
explore in depth the notion of justice through an ethical lens.

Hobbes and the Social Contract

Thomas Hobbes (5 April 1588 – 4 December 1679) was an English philosopher, whose famous
1651 book Leviathan established the foundation for most of Western political philosophy.
Hobbes's account of human nature as self-interested cooperation has proved to be an enduring
theory in philosophy.
Hobbes said morality should be understood as the solution to a practical problem that arises for
self-interested human beings. Hobbes did not believe that there were moral truths or
absolutes, merely pragmatic solutions to real problems. He noted that we all want to live as well
as possible, but we can’t flourish unless we have a peaceful, cooperative social order. Moral
rules are rules that are necessary if we are to gain the benefit of social living. According to
Hobbes, this is the key to understanding ethics.

What if there were no rules and no method or mechanism by which they could be enforced? No
government, no police, no courts. What would this be like? Take a moment to think about this
before advancing.

Hobbes calls human activity in the absence of rules the state of nature, and in the state of
nature we would be free to do as we pleased. But we would have no industry, no hospitals, no
society, continual fear of danger and violent death, and the life of man (and woman) would be
“solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

Things would be this way not because people are bad, but because of four basic facts about the
conditions of humanity: 1) Equality of Need – Each of us needs the same basic things in order to
survive, like food, clothing, and shelter. Although we may differ in some things (insulin,
antidepressants) we are all essentially alike. 2) Scarcity of Resources – The world is a hard,
inhospitable place, where resources are limited and the things we need to survive do not exist in
plentiful supply. We have to work hard to produce what we need, and even then there is often
not enough to go around. 3) The Essential Equality of Human Power – who will get scarce
goods? Each of us wants to live, and as well as possible, and will therefore want as much as we
can get. Can we prevail over all others who want the same goods? Hobbes doesn’t think so,
because no one is so superior to anyone else that he/she can prevail over them indefinitely.
Even the smartest and strongest can be brought down by others acting together. 4) Limited
Altruism – If we cannot prevail by our own strength, can we rely on the charity of others? No,
because even if others are not wholly selfish they nevertheless care very much about
themselves and we cannot assume that when vital interests conflict that others will step aside
and let us through.

Put all these facts together and what you have is a constant state of war, one against all, which
no one can hope to win. Each person will seize what he needs to survive and defend it from
attack or capture. This is life in the state of nature. Hobbes was not making empty analogies or
speculative predictions – he pointed out that this is what happens when civilizations descend
into anarchy following the collapse of government. Consider, for example, Iraq following U.S.
occupation, or New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina. People hoard resources, board up
their windows and lock themselves in the basement with a shotgun. People are constantly at
each other’s throats, armed and disdainful.

How can we escape the state of nature? We can formulate a stable and cooperative society,
where the amount of essential goods can be increased and distributed to all who need them.
Society is conducive towards increasing the total amount of essential goods because it allows for
division of labor; rather than each person farming or raising what they need to eat, people are
free to become teachers and scientists and artists and auto mechanics and doctors, knowing
that their labors will be rewarded by the labors of others. Cooperative social order and division
of labor allows all benefits we associate with society today.
Two things are required for us to establish cooperative social order: 1) there must be guarantees
that people will not harm one another; that is, people must be able to work together without
fear of attack, theft or treachery. Think about it; would you leave the house if you didn’t have a
reasonable expectation that you wouldn’t be harmed? Probably not unless you had to, and not
unarmed. 2) People must be able to rely on one another to keep their agreements. Would you
go to work if you weren’t confident that your employer would pay you, for example? Division of
labor is what allows society to function, and it depends on the ability of each person to share in
the benefits created by others.

Once these assurances are in place a situation can develop in which in which everyone is better
off than if they were simply pursuing their own needs in a state of nature. However,
government plays an essential role in cultivating and maintaining these assurances –
governments provide a system of laws, police and courts to ensure a minimum fear of harm and
to help ensure that people keep their bargains with one another.

So, to escape the state of nature people must agree to the establishment of rules to govern their
relations with one another and they must agree to the establishment of an agency, the
state/government, with the force to uphold those rules. Hobbes says this agreement exists and
is responsible for society, and he calls it the social contract. For Hobbes, morality is the very
rules that allow social living, while the government is the enforcer of those rules.

So, the social contract is an agreement we make with one another with two conditions: 1) we
will not harm one another 2) we will keep our agreements. With the social contract we escape
the state of nature and reap the benefits of social living.

Hobbes says that only with adherence to the social contract can we become
beneficent/altruistic beings, because only the contract creates the conditions under which we
can afford to care about others. In the state of nature, we’re always looking out for number
one, but operating under the social contract we can give without fear that we are giving our last
meal away.

The social contract is a simple concept to understand, but there are problems with the concept.
For example, can we talk about the contract as if it really exists? Certainly the U.S. Constitution
and Bill of Rights are our social contract, but none of us tacitly endorsed the contract. We agree
to its terms and conditions by default; that is, we were born, we reaped the benefits of
cooperative social order as outlined by these documents, and were thenceforth beholden to its
terms and conditions. It can be argued quite effectively that our contract is the best such
contract ever created; nevertheless we typically think of a contract as something that we sign
and explicitly rather than implicitly accept. Moreover, it may be the case that our social contract
does not apply to everyone. Can you think of some people or some situations to which our
social contract does not apply? Think about this before advancing.

Some might argue that there are urban areas in the U.S. where not even police will go to
enforce the law. In such areas there is no force to ensure we refrain from harm or keep our
agreements. Likewise, it can be argued that the very wealthy can at times be absolved from
meeting all the terms and conditions of the social contract.
What is most contentious about Hobbes’ social contract theory, however, is how he
conceptualizes justice. Hobbes asserts that it is the primary role of the government to ensure
safety; that is, he emphasizes the first part of the social contract more than the second, because
he notes, perhaps correctly, that an essential condition of keeping our agreements is remaining
safe. Hobbes is in favor of very big government, with lots of power, to ensure our safety – even
at the expense of liberty. What do you think? Would you sacrifice liberty for the sake of safety?
Why or why not? Think about this a moment before advancing.

In contemporary America, the debate between liberty and safety is made poignant by the “War
on Terror” and our military efforts in the Middle East. Take, for example, the Patriot Act, an Act
of Congress that United States President George W. Bush signed into law on October 26, 2001.
The Patriot Act expands the authority of law enforcement officials. Whereas police and other
government agents were once required to get a warrant to search and/or seize private property,
the Patriot Act allows government-sanctioned persons to search your home, your car, read your
email, read your text messages, and listen to your phone conversations – all without ever having
to tell you, and without proving to a judge that there is sufficient evidence for such a search.
While many argue that this expanded authority is necessary to bring terrorists to justice, others
contend that the lack of oversight primes the situation for abuse of authority.
Another contemporary issue that typifies the debate on safety and liberty is found in the
Military Commissions Act, signed by President George W. Bush on October 17, 2006. This Act
denies those deemed to be enemy combatants the right of habeas corpus, which is the right to
be brought before a judge so that those detaining you must justify their reasons for detaining
you, and the right to be tried for a crime so that your guilt or innocence can be determined. This
is especially controversial because of the several hundred inmates at Guantanamo Bay, many of
whom are U.S. citizens that have been held without trial for years. Again, some argue that such
measures are necessary to ensure our safety, while others suggest that these measures
undermine all rights worth protecting.

What do you think? Can we sacrifice liberty for the sake of safety? How much?

In contrast to Hobbes, Jean-Jacques Rousseau stressed the importance of the social contract in
ensuring liberty. Rousseau (1712-1778) was a philosopher, literary figure, and composer of the
Enlightenment whose political philosophy influenced the American Revolution, the Constitution
of the United States, the French Revolution, the development of both liberal and socialist
theory, and the growth of nationalism. Rousseau was friends with philosopher David Hume, and
his emphasis on cooperation in drafting the terms of the social contract influenced the
understanding of democracy advocated by the founding fathers. Without Rousseau, we would
live in a very different nation. Indeed, Benjamin Franklin, influenced by Rousseau, said “he who
would sacrifice liberty for the sake of safety deserves neither.”

Rousseau said that when we enter into the social contract we take on a duty to set aside our
private, self-centered inclinations in favor of rules that impartially promote the welfare of
everyone alike. But we are only able to do so because others have agreed to do the same thing –
this is the essence of the contract. Rousseau thought that we likewise have an obligation to
participate in establishing the terms of the social contract, and a duty to overthrow the
government when it no longer represents us. This is reflected in democratic theory in general
and in the provisions of the U.S. Constitution in particular.
Regardless of whether you find yourself aligning more with Hobbes or Rousseau in terms of the
social contract, morality, as defined by social contract theory, might be this: “morality consists in
the set of rules, governing how people are to treat one another, that rational people will agree
to accept, for their mutual benefit, on the condition that others follow those rules as well.”

We began this module with demonstrating the contrast between Utilitarian and deontological
notions of justice, and ended the module by contrasting Hobbes’ and Rousseau’s notions of
justice. Ethically speaking, which of the latter two presents a more defensible exposition of
justice? That is, is safety or liberty of more importance in the social contract, and why? How can
these positions be backed with either a Utilitarian or Kantian perspective? Consider these
questions as you study this module.

Summary

Hobbes asserts there are no moral truths, rather, morality consists in whatever pragmatic rules
we adopt that allow us to reap the benefits of cooperative social living. In particular, Hobbes
notes that human life in the absence of such rules is a dangerous life he refers to as the “state of
nature.” We can escape the state of nature by formulating a social contract, the two basic
terms and conditions of which are that we will not harm one another, and that we will keep our
agreements. Hobbes believes that ensuring our safety should be the primary role of
government, while Rousseau believes that ensuring liberty should be the primary role of
government. We can ask many questions about the ethical implications of each theorist’s
conception of justice.

If the subject interests you further, you may download an e-book version of Hobbes’ Leviathan
for free from Project Gutenburg by clicking here: http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/3207

				
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