War and Hobbes

“If there be a common power set over them both [parties in a contract], with right and force sufficient to compel performance, the [contract] is not void” – Thomas Hobbes, 17th Century philosopher and author of Leviathan

Thomas Hobbes, author of Leviathan

Thomas Hobbes, author of Leviathan

This quote from Leviathan is about social contracts and the state of nature as Hobbes sees it. He discusses the promises we make and specifically how when we enter into a contract with another party, there must be motivation to prevent us from breaking the contract.  Most of the time this “motivation” is going to be punishment, which must be worse than the benefit we would gain from breaking the contract.

Another important aspect in Hobbes’ theories are that a state of nature and a state of war are synonymous. It is my belief that no one truly lives in nature anymore.  Sure, there are some tribes in the amazon jungle that could be considered in nature, but in our civilized society, with iPhones, social media and other technologies it is impossible for us to live in nature. So then how can we see Hobbes’ social contracts in work? By looking at war.

There are many similarities between the United States’ military and Hobbes’ Social contract theory but I will only be

Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, prisoner of war for five years (via wikimedia)

focusing on the aspect of motivation. It is hard to think about someone being punished in war because it’s almost impossible to top the trauma they’re already experiencing. As I began thinking about punishment I thought about the recent occurrences with Bowe Bergdahl. Bergdahl was serving in the US army in Afghanistan when walked away from his unit, or went AWOL (absent without leave). In doing so he broke the contract he had with the military, an action that Hobbes would no doubt disprove of.  He was then captured and held by the Taliban for five years. In May, 2014 the United States traded five Taliban members in exchange for Bergdahl. Many believed that the United States shouldn’t have traded for him because he abandoned his post and deserted.  I did some research and found out that desertion during a time of war is a crime punishable by death (although it is mostly handled with persecution).

A person would only go AWOL if they believed they were going to die or be severely wounded, so at first I wondered what the point in killing someone who walked away was.  But then I realized that the military is employing Hobbes’ philosophy that the punishment must force the parties to remain in their contract. So the punishment of death gives a possible deserter two choices 1) a consequence that they understood was a possibility or 2) die as a coward who is putting all the other brave soldiers in jeopardy. Any rational soldier would chose the first option which is exactly how a Hobbesian contract is supposed to work.

(via wikimedia)

I understand that this sounds harsh, but we live in a time where there is no draft.  Every soldier in our army is fighting voluntarily and knows that there are potential consequences of their service.  So once a soldier is actually facing possible death, they cannot back out at the last moment and decide that they would prefer not to fight. Imagine if all soldiers abandoned their post as soon as danger was imminent.

Hobbesian contracts are best exemplified in nature, but seeing as that is something that is nearly impossible to find in today’s world, war is the next best option.

One thought on “War and Hobbes

  1. Good job on your blog post! It was short and concise. I thought your application of Hobbesian concepts in the time of war was clever. In times of war are we able to experience the life threatening situations that Hobbes says occur in the state of nature. The story of Bowe Bergdahl is an interesting one and I was surprised when it happened that more Americans weren’t upset with the deal we made with terrorists. I mentioned this briefly in one of my own blogs from several weeks ago and expressed my anger with the decision. You are right, its sounds extremely harsh to leave a man behind, but under such circumstances, I would have to agree with your statement that our men and women in uniform understand the possible consequences and risks that are associated with their jobs.


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