Thursday, May 22, 2008

Being Inspired by Hobbes

This post is Part 3 in the series of posts (#1 here, #2 here) on "Taking People For What They *Really* Are".

Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) is without a doubt one of the most important thinkers in the history of political thought. And a political theorist looking to update (as indeed I am!) the social contract for the 21st century need look no further than Hobbes for inspiration on how to best approach such an enormous and laudable endeavour.

Hobbes should serve as an example for contemporary political theorists in a number of different ways.

Firstly, Hobbes was profoundly influenced by the science of his day. Science influenced Hobbes's writings, especially his greatest political treatise- Leviathan. Unfortunately, the specialization of academic disciplines has meant that in the 300+ years since the time Hobbes wrote Leviathan political philosophers have very little engagement with science. Consider, for example, the late twentieth century. What impact did advances in science have on the discipline of political philosophy? With the exception of concerns about nuclear proliferation, the connect between science and political philosophy is almost non- existent. And the sad thing is that the discipline could probably continue on its marry way for another 50 years ignoring science policy. But if we could be inspired by Hobbes then we would not let this happen. We need to narrow the gap between science and political philosophy. There are of course many factors that make this a formidable challenge. These range from respected venues for publishing one's work to job opportunities. The discipline needs more risk takers and imaginative thinkers that go can beyond the constraints that currently bind the discipline.

Secondly, Hobbes's political philosophy was informed by what he took to be the greatest threat to self-preservation- civil war. That is why he argues that it is rational for his contemporaries to accept rule by an absolute monarch.

I think it would be odd for the social contract of the 21st century to ignore the thing that would most likely kill most human beings alive today. Of course there are many possible things that could kill the world's 6.5 billion plus population. The earth could be hit by a meteor, or a nuclear war could break out. But the most likely cause of death for those currently alive will be senescence. And so one of the greatest challenges facing us this century will be to retard human aging, thus expanding the opportunities for healthy living.

Thirdly, Hobbes's social contract was informed by the history of human beings and our nature. Hobbes's most famous quote is that life in the state of nature is "nasty, brutish and short”.

Evolutionary biologists would agree with Hobbes about this. Indeed, this fact explains why we are susceptible to the diseases of aging. Most humans that walked the planet before us died of poverty, conflict, infection, infectious disease, etc. Very few died of age-related afflictions. And these external environmental hazards influenced and shaped our biology. We age the way we do (rather than the way rats, turtles, whales or dogs do) because of the threats we have faced as a species.

From an evolutionary perspective, it made little sense to develop protection against something that hardly posed a threat to humans (like senescence). Historically, most people would have died well before they reached an age where the diseases of aging (like cancer, heart disease, AD, etc.) would have been visited upon them.

The fact that the passage of time killed a very low percentage of human beings in the past does not mean this will necessarily be the case in the future. In fact we are entering a new era of human history. The vast majority of the people alive on our planet today will most likely suffer age-related morbidity and mortality (unless we find a way to redress this).

To conclude then, I think we should all be inspired by Hobbes's profound intellect. And his desire to merge science and politics is something that should inform the social contract for the 21st century.