Thomas Hobbes on the Logic of Violence and the Necessity of the State

Hereby it is manifest, that during the time men live without a common Power to keep them all in awe, they are in that conditions called Warre; and such a warre, as is of every man, against every man. – Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan


Leviathan Book Cover

Human nature, for Thomas Hobbes, a 17th-century English philosopher, starts with a particularly pessimistic—but likely accurate—view of equality. In a state of nature (before the establishment of societies), everyone has more or less equal capability of inflicting harm and death upon others. Even the weaker members of a group can kill the strong while they sleep, or with the use of weapons, surprise attacks, or group violence.

Hobbes recognized that people commit acts of violence for three principal reasons: competition, distrust, and glory. Humans often resort to violence to secure scarce resources, or to preempt aggression from others by establishing a ruthless reputation. Violence sometimes results simply from distrust: If you suspect that someone may try to end your life, it may be in your interest to preempt them and end theirs first. (Additional categories of violence include revenge killings and killings for pleasure [sadism].) 

In this state of nature, individuals have only one “natural right,” the right to self-preservation, and it is up to each individual to decide how this is to be secured. If conflicts arise—with no third-party to adjudicate the conflict—each person is tempted to use violence because they know the other person is operating according to the same incentives.

One may object to this pessimistic reading of human nature on the grounds that it is simply inaccurate, as one can point to countless examples of human selflessness and altruistic behavior. But Hobbes’ point was not that everyone is selfish all of the time; rather, his point was only that some people are selfish some of the time (which is undeniable). This would be enough, absent political arrangements with laws and their enforcement, to create a level of distrust and insecurity that would incentivize preemptive violence. 

The Hobbesian trap

Hobbes’ key insight was the logic behind what has come to be known as the Hobbesian trap. It is best understood with a simple example. 

Imagine that an armed burglar breaks into a home and is then confronted by an armed homeowner. While neither of them may wish to fire the gun—and neither may be intrinsically disposed to violence—both are inclined to take the first shot to preempt the other from doing the same. If the homeowner shoots first, it is not only because he thinks the burglar may be violent; it is also because the homeowner knows the burglar is thinking the same thing about him, compelling the burglar to shoot also even if he wishes not to. 

Notice two points about this example: (1) the homeowner and burglar may not be intrinsically violent people, and (2) both the homeowner and burglar may want to cooperate peacefully. Nevertheless, and despite any good intentions or innate predispositions to cooperation, the logic of the situation compels each person to take the first shot. 

The controversy with Hobbes is that he’s using this logic to describe the “state of nature” for humanity. He famously described this state as a condition “where every man is enemy to every man…and the life of man solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” While this is no doubt an exaggeration—to say the least—the underlying point remains valid. 

Hobbes thus initiated a vociferous debate, up to the present day, regarding human nature and whether it is innately good or bad, peaceful or violent. But as the careful scrutiny of the above example shows, this debate largely misses the point; whether human nature is good, bad, or a mixture of the two is largely irrelevant to Hobbes’ larger argument and to the Hobbesian dilemma. 

Think about the armed burglar example. The burglar and homeowner may have no record of previous violent behavior, and may be genuinely good and decent people. Perhaps an act of desperation drove the burglar to invade the home, but the burglar had no intention of using the gun. Intentions, however, are beside the point; the logic of the Hobbesian trap compels both parties to shoot even when cooperation is preferred. 

Humanity, in a state of nature, collectively faces a similar dilemma. Two groups or tribes that have valuable commodities and resources must both consider the possibility that the other group will ambush them to steal their possessions or hunting grounds. Just as with the burglar and the homeowner, each group is tempted to use preemptive violence even if the group members are inherently peaceful. The Hobbesian trap thus applies even to otherwise peaceful groups, not to mention to groups that include more violent and aggressive individuals (and it only takes the existence of one such group to create a general feeling of insecurity). 

While there is some debate regarding the extent of hunter-gatherer violence, it is undeniable that many extreme examples have been found, including a prehistoric massacre on the shore of Lake Turkana in Kenya, where “one group of hunter-gatherers attacked and slaughtered another, leaving the dead with crushed skulls, embedded arrow or spear points, and other devastating wounds.”

Hobbes would have been unsurprised by this archeological find; it confirms what he already knew to be a natural propensity for human violence, resulting not only from an aggressive instinct but also from a reaction to the Hobbesian dilemma. And hunter-gatherer violence is just the beginning; it would get much worse with the invention of agriculture, cities, and standing armies. 

Escaping the Hobbesian trap

There are a few potential ways out of the Hobbesian trap, some violent and some peaceful.

The first way out is through the use of preemptive violence as a tool of deterrence. The best historical example comes from the Assyrian Empire, whose reputation for ruthlessness likely prevented aggression from other groups. As Joshua Mark wrote, “A phrase oft-repeated by Assyrian kings in their inscriptions regarding military conquests is ‘I destroyed, devastated, and burned with fire’ those cities, towns, and regions which resisted Assyrian rule.” One can think of the mafia as a more modern example. 

Another way out takes violence to the extreme: mutually assured destruction via nuclear weapons. If one country initiates a nuclear attack on a country that has the same capability, the mutual destruction that will result prevents either from initiating the conflict. 

A more peaceful way out is the establishment of cultural norms within a small community where everyone knows everyone else and reputation matters. While this is a workable solution, it does not solve the problem of interacting with external groups and providing a means of self-defense against external ambush. Additionally, as societies become larger, with a larger collection of anonymous individuals, reputation and norms alone become less effective for the more violent and dishonest members of society. And further still, without the state monopoly on violence, groups face the risk of personal revenge killings, extended blood feuds, persecutions, and false accusations and judgements. 

The final way out of the dilemma—the one advocated by Hobbes—is the monopolization of violence by the state and the enacting of laws equally applicable to every member of society. While we may question Hobbes’ radical solution that gives total, unquestioned power to the state, we can at the same time recognize that without the state—which monopolizes power but only uses it when the laws are broken (ideally)—it is very difficult, and perhaps impossible, to escape the Hobbesian trap on a larger scale. With local, national, and international laws in place, we can all act relatively peacefully with the knowledge that others will do the same, and with the knowledge that others are thinking the same of us.  

The final possibility is, of course, that Hobbes was wrong, and that the Hobbesian trap only applies to societies post-state of nature. Perhaps, then, anarchism is the answer, and any and all forms of arbitrary authority and power are unnecessary and corrupting. 

This seems to rely on an overly optimistic view of human nature, however. The anarchist must explain how the Hobbesian trap can be overcome without the monopolization of violence by a central authority, and, just as importantly, they must confront the recently discovered examples of pre-society hunter-gatherer violence.

Further reading

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