Thursday, June 16, 2011

Living Peacefully in Society according to Thomas Hobbes

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How to live peacefully within a society may be one of the most important concepts ever debated. Many great thinkers have done extensive work on this particular issue. In “Hobbes Leviathan,” Thomas Hobbes argues that humans can not live peacefully within a society unless there is a single sovereign power to enforce laws and govern that society. However, there are examples of other creatures that do live peacefully in a functioning society that have no sovereign power to govern them. Hobbes clearly recognizes this as an argument against him and attempts to justify his claim using bees and ants as an example of creatures that do live together peacefully with no sovereign power. He argues that humans cannot be compared equally to bees and ants since there are distinct differences between then. Although I do think that there are very distinct social differences when comparing humans to bees and ants, I believe that Hobbes justification for this can be proven wrong through recent studies on bee and ant colonies.

Hobbes explains that humans in their natural condition are always at constant war with each other to satisfy their selfish interests. In this condition, humans desire peace, yet their own passions go contrary to keeping peace so they will remain at war. Hence, he argues that there must be a single sovereign power over them to force them to live in peace. He states that for humans, a sovereign power is essential for “getting themselves out from the miserable condition of war, which is necessarily consequent to the natural passions of men, when there is no visible power to tie them to there punishment (Hobbes 117).” He continues by explaining that nations must have only one sovereign judgment to follow or they will not be able to function properly, nor will they have security against enemies because they will be constantly distracted by each other with all their conflicting opinions. He states that if the actions of humans are “directed according to their particular judgments, and particular appetites, they can expect no defense, no protection neither against a common enemy, nor against the injuries of one another (Hobbes 118).” Hence, humans must have a single sovereign power to rule them or there is no chance of peace.

Hobbes makes every attempt to argue that humans cannot live peacefully by simply agreeing with each other to live that way, but require a power over them to uphold this agreement. However, one argument against this claim is the fact that other species do live peacefully in functioning societies without any sovereign power forcing this peace upon them. Hobbes recognizes this argument and makes an attempt to justify it by describing bee and ant colonies. Hobbes clearly choose bees and ants since they are perfect examples of creatures which live together peacefully, all working together for the good of their community, yet have no higher power to over them to uphold this. Hobbes justifies this by presenting six reasons why human communities are very different from those of ants and bees, and hence no logical comparison should be made between the two. All six follow from the assumption that bees and ants do not posses the ability to reason or rationalize. First, Hobbes points out that humans are always in competition with one another which provokes them to go to war. Ants and bees, on the other hand, do not feel compelled to compete with one another and hence will not have this problem. Second, Hobbes believs that humans are more prone to “procure the private good of themselves, and if the public interests cross the private, humans prefer the private (11).” However, ants and bees cannot see any difference between their common good and private good and since they are naturally driven towards the private good, the will naturally serve the common good. Third, bees and ants do not have, “the use of reason” so they are without the ability to analyze any problem in their daily routine. Contrary to this, humans will reason out better and more efficient ways of managing their community and hence think themselves better fit to govern it. Forth, ants and bees do not have any language and therefore cannot discuss with others the concept of good and evil. Therefore, unlike humans, ants and bees will not stir up trouble through these discussions. Fifth, bees and ants are irrational creatures and “cannot distinguish between injury and damage.” Hence, when they are at ease they are content with their society. Humans, on the other hand, love to show off their intelligence and thus will become troublesome when they are at ease since they will desire to control their community as a display of wisdom. Sixth, bees and ants naturally agree to keep peace, but humans require a covenant. Hence, since Hobbes previously argues that, “a covenant made based on the trust of once another is void, but if there is a common power over them to force them to keep this covenant, it is not void there must be a sovereign power to enforce these covenants and keep peace (Hobbes 6)”

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Although at first glance Hobbes argument may seem logical, a little research and insight into this matter will show that it does not hold. This can be demonstrated by the fact that Hobbes argument is based on either his own assumption or what was believed about ants and bees in his day. His arguments are based on his assumption that ants and bees cannot reason or rationalize and hence cannot be compared to humans. However, a resent article written by Dr. Ed Vargo at North Carolina University clearly shows this assumption to be false. In the article, Vargo claims that “queen and worker ants in an ant society are often at odds about the proportion of new male and female ants raised in their colonies (Vargo).” Vargo continues to explain that worker ants will kill off a certain numbers of males to increase the female population. However, different ant colonies have very different ratios of male to female populations. He explains that this is due to the fact that the queen ant can decide the sex of each unborn ant and will enforce her own personal preference of what sex she wants more of. However, the worker ants will disagree with her witch causes a power struggle. “The root power struggles between queens and workers results form their different interests (Vargo).” Likewise, bees show an amazing ability to reason as well. According to the French researcher Martin Giurfa, bees “excel at cognitive tests normally performed by lab primates and human volunteers (Giurfa).” He claims that his studies can prove that “Abstract rules can be mastered by honey bees (Giurfa).” Hence, Hobbes is way off by his claim that ants and bees cannot reason or rationalize.

Hobbes argument that humans cannot live peacefully without the existence of a sovereign power to enforce peace may not be quite as true as he believed. Considering that there are species that can reason and rationalize and at the same time live peacefully in functioning societies with no sovereign power to enforce peace, one must continue to ask the question, “why must this be impossible for humans?” We can only hope one day that like these ant and bee colonies, humans can figure out how to willfully live together as well.

Works Cited

Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan. Cambridge University Press, 11.

Vargo, Ed. Science Daily Article. Augest 0, 001. http//

Giurfa, Martin. San Francisco Chronicle article. April 1, 001. http//

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