Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) Top Ten Conflict Tips

Hobbes is interesting because he was really the first philosopher whose philosophy is informed by the explicit purpose of attaining peace and avoiding war, especially civil war. When he is mistaken, it may even be because he is putting the cause of peace above all else. We may not like his remedies, but in a time when we can all be destroyed by nuclear weapons, who can say that this priority is wrong?

  1. Hobbes was of course famously and deeply pessimistic about human nature. There may be examples of individual kindness, but Hobbes did not think they could be relied on as the basis for living. Similarly he saw that some are angered by injustice. He thought that society had come up with ways to overcome this in the form of the modern sovereign state or Leviathan.
  2. He believed that human nature was innately conflictual, but that current society had overcome this and was consensual though in a minimal and unstable form. He is known for his concept of the ‘war of all against all’, when in the natural state of society before organized states, the life of man was ‘nasty, brutish and short’. He certainly believed that civil peace was a fragile thing and that chaos could and did break out regularly. This was perhaps understandable given the era he lived in. He thought that humans were inherently irrational with a desire to dominate others and an intense struggle for selfish ends. He thought all groups were selfish and to the extent they were rational, they used this rationality for selfish ends. He tended to see rationality as passion with a long term horizon, concerning the long term consequences of an action. By contrast the other passions react to immediate desirable consequences without considering the long term undesirable consequences.
  3. To Hobbes even abstract ideals tended to be merely surreptitious methods of promoting individual or sub-group interests. He thought that faced with this reality, people had just enough rationality to recognize the situation and come together to form government in order to selfishly protect their lives, to be protected by authority from injury by others. In other words, the ‘rational’ came together and used force to suppress the ‘irrational’. In so far as he had a problem with existing governments, it was because their power was not absolute enough, so men’s passions could reassert themselves. He wanted a real Leviathan that men could cede sovereignty to so that rebellion became irrational. Hobbes lived in the aftermath of highly destructive wars of religion, when many countries were facing continuing internal religious conflict. It is hard to overestimate the impact of this on Hobbes. We are beginning to see a glimpse of this reality in our own world of jihads and variegated fundamentalisms. Moreover, as communications improved and the printed word diffused ideas more rapidly; it was easy to point to the diversity of ethical belief and conduct in the world and wonder, as Hobbes did, if there were a firm base for demonstrable ethics.
  4. Hobbes used Grotius’s idea of the right of self preservation as a minimalist fundamental moral principle. Looked at after the violent 20th century, and with the prospect of future wars of religion and over scarce resources, it is not such a bad principle. Hobbes saw how strong were the instincts for self preservation that could be leveraged in this cause. Emotions properly understood could guide us in the right direction. To Hobbes men did not want to harm other men for its own sake, but only to secure their own preservation. Recent research by Roy Baumeister on the problem, of evils such as genocidal wars, suggests that most are carried out under either defensive or idealistic banners, so Hobbes has a point.
  5. Hobbes saw it as very hard for society to achieve moral consensus across a wide band of issues. So he focused on the fact that even in a state of nature, we can agree we have a right to defend ourselves. However, in this state of nature, everyone is their own judge of when they are about to be attacked, so that despite agreement about the general right of self preservation, there will be radical instability because people will differ over what is legitimate self defense. Therefore we can’t just let everyone be free to do what they want in self defense.
  6. As there is no objective truth about the world, then all men differ on the situation they face. Conflict will arise despite the apparent solution in the idea of a fundamental right to self defense.
  7. His solution was a political one: men in a state of nature come to see the situation: that it is essential to renounce their right of private judgement over what counts as a threat to their self preservation. They need to accept the judgement of common authority by creating a state and submitting their wills and their judgments to the state. They let it be decided by a designated person or group of persons, which is the best way to guarantee one’s long term preservation, provided other people have similarly agreed to give up their rights to the sovereign. They are seeking to have their judgement aligned so there is one source of opinion of the danger to self and this elicits common action against criminals and other nations that pose a threat. Hobbes did not see the people as giving the sovereign his power in some form of social contract. Instead they freely gave it up. The state was obliged to preserve the peace, as well as to ensure the physical survival of all citizens, by providing for example food in time of famine.
  8. In some ways, maybe Hobbes is the founder of some form of conscious conflict process discipline and if we can build better ways of handling conflict, those ways become analogous to the Leviathan in supporting our species preservation. We should be sufficiently enlightened to elect and support a modern democratic Leviathan charged with protecting us from war and environmental catastrophe. But there are clearly dangers in this approach that unscrupulous rulers can exploit.
  9. We should appreciate the paradoxes of Hobbes, living as we do in a similarly paradox- ridden world. Hobbes was a dogmatist who attacked dogma; he was hostile to church authority, yet wanted such authority himself; he praised toleration yet wanted an absolute sovereign with total power over intellectual debate. He was addressing the question: how do we decide on our ethical rules when we have lost faith. And of course he showed how moral relativism can lead to replacing old intolerances with new authoritarianism.
  10. Finally, Hobbes had a profound insight into empathy which is central to this blogWhatsoever looketh into himself and considereth what he doth, when he does think, opine, reason, hope and fear, and upon what grounds, he shall thereby read and know what are the thoughts and passions of all other men upon the like occasions.’

As with Plato, we need to use Hobbes’ own skepticism to guard against creating Leviathans who don’t preserve their own people from war, or other threats: indeed who use the threat of the war of all against all to build self serving structures. Beware of self appointed Guardians. Hobbes’ focus on the centrality of conflict to life and the critical importance of building structures to avoid war is a significant step in the process of conflict thinking.

Footnote: I am not sure I have the stomach to post on Calvin, but I do love Calvin and Hobbes.

If you like this approach take a look at our other Top Ten Conflict Tips from Great Thinkers in the categories to the right of this posting. We cover Plato, Heraclitus, Von Clausewitz, Marx, Adam Smith among others. And have a bash at Post Modernism along the way…

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About creativeconflictwisdom

I spent 32 years in a Fortune Five company working on conflict: organizational, labor relations and senior management. I have consulted in a dozen different business sectors and the US Military. I work with a local environmental non profit. I have written a book on the neuroscience of conflict, and its implications for conflict handling called Creative Conflict Wisdom (forthcoming).
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