The Relatedness of Social Contracts and the State of Nature to the University of Michigan

I chose to attend the University of Michigan after going to an incredibly small college preparatory school that left me feeling stifled and in need of a drastic change. I got exactly what I wanted when I stepped onto campus the fall of my freshman year; everywhere I turned there was a new person for me to meet. Yet, I immediately felt overwhelmed by the vast size of this institution. I now felt like a minnow in a sea of sharks. It seems as if there are a billion different organizations at the University and everyone is occupied and passionate about something. The truth is though, that even though the University does provide various communities for the students to be a part of, there is still a sense of disjointedness when I speak with many of my peers. 

Could this be because of the administration? Have we created a university that is structured around self-involvement that it does not encourage collaboration both academically and socially? If so, it would certainly reflect the political climate of our society today.

In reading the works of Hobbes, Rousseau, and Locke in class recently, I immediately began to make connections to different institutions in my own life and those that I encounter on an every day basis. The most glaring of these was Michigan. Obviously, we are not in a state of nature, but we are being ruled over with a governing body. We have social contracts to maintain; if we pay for our education and obey the rules in turn the University will give us the tools to go out into the world a successful individual.

These three theorists would disagree about what a lack of structure, i.e. the state of nature would do to education… If we were all free to choose how to educate ourselves little would probably get done and chaos would ensue. Rousseau would lead you to believe that the state of nature was a place without rationality with vast freedom, while Hobbes would argue that people are intrinsically selfish and would undoubtedly turn one each other, and Locke would be in the middle ground saying that while all people are self-interested in the state of nature, but also nonviolent.

I believe that the students at Michigan are ruled to an extent with all of these social contract and state of nature theories in mind. Our University is run by a democracy similar to the proposed solution by Locke with delegates presiding over our supposed best interests (Regents! Athletic directors!). While we do not have a sovereign (something Hobbes would endorse) to rule over us, there is an idea that if left without rules we would become self-interested, fearful barbarians.

This is a competitive university, with some of the most talented students in the world. This may also arguably be the most divided period in recent years for the campus. People divide themselves based on clubs, interests, athletic capabilities, Greek Life, even class and race to a certain extent causing social disjointedness. Continuously, there is a discussion raging on campus about the lack of diversity amongst the student body.

However, there are times when I look around this campus and I have never seen it more united. Most recently, the student body came together with the support of alumni for a rally to fire the now former athletic director, Dave Brandon. It is worth noting that this could not happen in a Hobbesian type rule. It’s moments like these, though, that give me hope for Michigan, that despite its huge size the students can still gather and maintain a sense of community. I think that people forget that even though we are so big that we are united over one common desire: to be at this school and have an amazing future. So in my opinion people are actually more like Rousseau would claim them to be: when we need to come together we will, and we will make sure we all do our part to create a thriving and successful community.

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The Underlying Contract of Professional Sports

The Detroit Lions were not a very good team so attendance for games was often low (from wikimedia.org).

The Detroit Lions were not a very good team so attendance for games was often low (from wikimedia.org).

Growing up in Michigan, I am a devout fan of the Detroit Lions football team. When I was younger, I remember being so excited to go to the Lions football games with my family. My excitement made the hour and a half car ride feel like a mere minutes. Unfortunately, most of the games I attended ended in a loss since the Detroit Lions were not what one would consider a great team. During this time the stadium, Ford Field, was not anywhere near capacity. As the team has progressively improved over the past few years, I have noticed a dramatic increase in attendance. In regards to the business aspect of the Lions, a well-performing team will increase attendance, leading to an increase in revenue. This observation has brought me to an interesting conclusion: there exists a form of social contract between the fans and the team. Fans benefit the team by generating revenue, which increases or decreases depending on the performance of the team. This is an application of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s idea of a social contract, originating from his book On the Social Contract.

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Social Contracts and Capital Punishment

I find a lot of parallels between the things we discuss in Political Theory and the things we discuss in my Philosophy course. I’ve even written a previous blog post on connections between the two. We cover much of the same material, though we look at it from different points of view. Philosophy gives me concepts that can be applied or explored based on the people and situations we learn about in political theory.

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Cesare Beccaria, an Italian philosopher

The last book we read and discussed in philosophy was On Crimes and Punishment by Beccaria. He discusses why we punish crime and what various forms of punishment are. One section in particular that got me thinking was the chapter on death as a punishment. It’s really interesting to me how the philosophies that were relevant long ago can continue to be relevant today. Since we recently read excerpts from their social contracts, I started to consider how Locke, Hobbes, and Rousseau would feel about death as a punishment. Death as a punishment is carried out today, though not in Michigan. It is very controversial and can, in my opinion, have solid arguments made both for and against it. Beccaria was against the death penalty. He was a deterrence theorist, which means that he believed that the purpose of punishment is to dissuade people from committing crimes in the future. He did not support the death penalty because he did not believe that using death as a punishment was an effective way to stop future crime.

So what would the philosophers we have been learning about think? How can we apply their social contracts to this disputed matter, since the question is so applicable today?

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A Hobbesian World

We did an activity today in our discussion section where we broke up into groups of five and each person in the group was given a role.  The scenario was that we were stranded on island and each person’s role had some impact on our survival.  The roles were cook, medic, hunter, fisherman, and woodworker.  Each of us had also contracted a deadly disease which gave us about 2 weeks to live with proper medication.  The medic was in charge of the medication, the cook would cook the food that was obtained by the hunter, the woodworker had the ability to make a boat and build weapons, and the fisherman is self-explanatory.  Each group in the class was given a different philosopher and had to base their decisions for survival on their philosophy. Continue reading

Being Yourself…?

“That government is best which governs least” – Henry David Thoreau American essayist, poet, and practical philosopher, leading Transcendentalist and author of the book Walden.

Junior year in high school, I discovered Transcendentalism. Its core beliefs center around the inherent goodness of both people and nature. Transcendentalists believe that society and its institutions—particularly organized religion and political parties—ultimately corrupt the purity of the individual. People are at their best when truly “self-reliant” and independent. The concept of community can only come to full fruition when it is composed of such individuals. I soon became passionately interested in the inspiring and empowering messages of individuality that were promoted. Although Transcendentalism was a religious and philosophical movement led by Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau in the 1830s, it still provides much insight into the continual tension between the individual and an established elected authority. Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau are some of the most important figures in philosophy that established and expanded on this tension. They did so by theorizing about the origin of society and the legitimacy of the authority of the state over the individual through social contracts. Through these, they expressed what they thought was the responsibility of government and the role of people within a society.

Meanwhile, all three, HobbesLocke and Rousseau, had differing points, especially when it concerned the advantages of state of nature versus the state under social contracts. Transcendentalists and these philosophers alike deal with the same central question:

How can you remain an autonomous individual while having to surrender some of your own will to govern yourself to an elected authority? The role of the individual and how to preserve that individuality and self-determination is always at war with the common good of society in a state governed by social contracts. Continue reading

Defying Hobbes’ Rules

Are we all the same? Can we all be clumped into one grouping of altruistic vs selfish or fearful vs confident? There are billions of people in this world and we are all different in some way or another.  So how is it that 17th century philosopher Thomas Hobbes can get away with stating that just because we are human we have some essential characteristics?  There are so many examples of people who defy Hobbes’ natural laws but I will only touch on a couple.

Example 1: altruistic vs selfish

(from wikimedia.org)

(from wikimedia.org)

In his book Leviathan, Hobbes makes that argument that we are all selfish and fearful. He states that even things that we do that may appear to be selfless and charitable are actually just for our own personal benefit.  In my Political Science 101 class I was learning about barriers to competition and to illustrate his point, my teacher brought in a guest. He name was Suzy and she is an officer in the United States Army having served multiple tours of Afghanistan. During her time she not only had to fight terrorists but also the institutional sexism of the army.  She faced constant harassment from her both her commanding officers and her subordinates.  She pushed on through such adversity to fight for our country and lay her life on the line daily. Still the case can be made that she weathered through such hardship to prove to herself that she is strong enough to take it and bolster her pride, which would be for her own benefit.

But we can look to the military for another counter to Hobbes argument.  Can we really say that those soldiers who were gravely wounded or killed joined the military for their own benefit?  Dying for one’s country or cause is the most selfless action anyone could ever do, there is no denying that. And to assume that those who were killed did so for their own gain and not for the protection of their country is absurd.

Example 2: Fearful vs brave

Hobbes states that we are all fearful; fearful of death, injury or loss. Recently I watched the 30 for 30 documentary, The Birth of Big Air, which chronicles the life and accomplishments of Matt Hoffman, a professional freestyle BMX rider. Matt Hoffman revolutionized the sport of freestyle BMX by inventing new tricks and constructing the largest ramps to date.  Throughout the movie, clips are shown of him crashing, landing on his head or falling in a mangled heap with his bike.  He has suffered over 100 concussions, 20 broken bones, and two comas. Yet throughout all of his injuries he is persistent to return to the sport and keep pushing his limits; this is a man who literally has no fear of pain or death.

I bring up these examples of people who defy Hobbes’ definitions of what make us human to prove that humans can’t all be grouped together. We are not all scared and we are not all selfish, some are more courageous than others and some are more philanthropic.  But it is unfair to say that all humans, across all cultures and times, possess the same traits.

Hobbes is right to certain extent, we all have fear and are all selfish; even Suzy and Matt Hoffman.  But the same could be said the other way around, every human has bravery and altruism. It may be the case that in most us our fear and selfishness are the characteristics that are most prevalent in our daily lives but to say that that is the only characteristic that people possess simply is untrue.

The Renounceth of the Michigan Right

This fall has been a rarity in Michigan Athletic history with the recent struggles of our beloved football team. With all the negativity engulfing the campus, it has resulted in the need for a scapegoat to pin the losses on. Unfortunately students and even some faculty members have found it most reasonable to point the finger on turmoil of the fall towards Athletic Director Dave Brandon. From rallies to petitions, Mr. Brandon has been faced with all in an up front manner that no person deserves. Regardless of how well our athletic teams perform in their respective seasons, there is no excuse to display frustration in such a disrespectful manner. As a student-athlete of this school, the way in which the student body and alumni handled this adversity, which became the center piece of the season, was a distraction that didn’t solve the true problem at hand. That problem was the fact that Michigan football isn’t normally what is known to be.

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Yes I do agree there was something that needed to be done about our athletic department, but not in the fashion it was performed. The culture of Michigan Athletics since Brandon’s hiring, was treated as more of business rather than the focus of benefitting the student body and alumni. Therefore I wasn’t surprised when the times finally got tough that it became so easy for people to use Brandon’s name as the cancer that infected the University of Michigan. Although Brandon didn’t make the University of Michigan, one of 26 Division one programs that actually made more than spent in the last year. He turned Michigan into a haven for prospect recruits to strongly consider when it came to their final decision. However, the situation with quarterback, Shane Morris, ultimately sealed the fate of the once beloved Athletic Director.

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Recently in our Political Science class we read and discussed a piece, Leviathan, by Hobbes in which addressed the actions of a man when it came to his rights and liberties in chapter 14. The chapter spoke a lot about the way in which a man’s action define a lot about his character. It got really specific in the sense that with each action comes a motive behind it. And with said motive results in the how the outcome is displayed and portrayed to those affected by each decision. Through this article I made a connection to the situation here at Michigan. “Whenever a man transferreth his right, or renoucneth it; it is either in consideration of some right reciprocally transferred to himself; or for some other good he hopeth for thereby.” (Hobbes) Through this quote, it speaks of what Dave Brandon’s intentions were when he finally decided to resign. Brandon heard of what was being said about him and the decisions he made while in his position of power, therefore when he felt it was the right time he renounced his position for the benefit of the public. He also did this to save himself for his pride and reputation were beginning to be tainted as each new article and petition was published by angry Wolverines. “..nothing else but the security of a man’s person, in his life, and in the means of so preserving life, as not be weary of it.” (Hobbes)

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Although Dave Brandon was far from the best when it came to being an Athletic Director, he still made strides to bring Michigan pride. He always had what he thought was the best interest of the school in mind when it came to whatever decision he made regarding athletics. And that is all anyone can really ask for, at the end of the day when you know that your best effort was put forward then there is nothing to be ashamed. Even though Brandon’s departure from Michigan wasn’t the way he expected to say goodbye, he still willed be missed and remembered for his effort to help make Michigan truly, “the leaders and the best.”