« great minds obsess alike | Main | book review... »

December 02, 2008



The individual can estimate the likelihood of suffering violence (from the state) and can adjust his behaviour accordingly. Modern violence functions principally as a calculable possibility, rather than as a disruptive eventuality.

Benjamin would disagree:

For law-preserving violence is a threatening violence. And its threat is not intended as the deterrent that uninformed liberal theorists interpret it to be. A deterrent in the exact sense would require a certainty that contradicts the nature of a threat and is not attained by any law, since there is always hope of eluding its arm. This makes it all the more threatening, like fate, on which depends whether the criminal is apprehended.

I think on balance I'm with Benjamin. If coercion is functioning as a calculable deterrent, it's not being held in reserve as the guarantee of law - a guarantee which, as you say, exists in order not to be employed.


in this context, presumably "vast 'recapitalisation/bail-out' from the state" = sending in the army ...

Will Davies

well quite - but then the police would be accused that they were hording security to defend their own police stations, rather than lending it to the public for their own needs, as the government had hoped.


I'm not sure that you're quite right about Hobbes: although I haven't got a copy of Leviathan to hand, when he talks about the causes of disorder in the State of Nature, it looks like it's not just the problem of uncertainty about people's motives that generates conflict, but that people seek power and glory for their own sake. This is central, for example, to Rousseau's critique of Hobbes as having imported socially generated motives into a pre-social situation. Indeed, if people don't seek power and glory for their own sake, it's not quite clear that the State of Nature is a prisoner's dilemma rather than an assurance game: in a prisoner's dilemma, the best pay-off is from defecting when the other player cooperates, whereas in an assurance game, the best pay-off is from mutual cooperation but cooperation is prevented by the fact that the worst pay-off is that from cooperating when the other player defects. Without power and glory, the State of Nature looks like an assurance game since everyone understands that cooperation would be better for everyone but can't trust anyone else enough to do it, and you might, like Rousseau, think that assurance games end in cooperation, of a sort.

I think this has some broader implication, but I can't quite put my finger on exactly what it is. For one thing, it seems to show that it's the fact that people seek socially-constituted goods that generates the need for the state in the first place. I suppose the question is in what way do those socially-constituted goods need to be regulated in order to avoid generate the struggles over their possession that Hobbes describes. Are houses or credit the kind of negative-sum game - where any gain by you is a greater loss by me - that power and glory seem to be in his State of Nature?

Will Davies

Interesting, Rob. It sounds like I'm mis-remembering key bits of the argument. Although I do say "it's not that people are innately violent or bad, but that they might be". Obviously there has to be a threatening aspect at large in the state of nature, in order for it to deteriorate in a "warre of all against all". I've obviously forgotten the aspect regarding pride and glory that you mention.

But as I recall, there is still a sense that it becomes rational for all people to engage in violence, regardless of their own temperament. And this derives from the sense of uncertainty as to who is or isn't a (as you point out) vain-glorious threat. I guess I could go and pick up my copy...


Checking, the stuff on glory should be at the beginning of the second part of Leviathan. I think it does make a difference, because the outcome of assurance games depends on people's temperament - whether you're risk-averse or not - whereas prisoner's dilemmas don't - the worst outcome involves cooperating, and the best defecting. But I'm not a Hobbes scholar, or a sociologist, or even an economist, so...


You've misunderstood the prisoner's dilemma: then best solution, in the long run, is tit-for tat (cf wikipedia, which has a big section on this). So when I meet you in a dark alley, the rational stratergy is for me to not attack (but if you attack, then I should retaliate). However in the real world, Jeremy Clarkson is such a big oaf that when he meets Richard Hammond in a dark alley, Clarkson will win on size. The role of the state, then, is to ensure that we all have equal retaliation, i.e. to enforce the logic of the prisoner's dilemma (not break it).

Socialism: it's about helping the little guy stand up for himself; think otherwise and you end up on some authoritarian bender.


That's certainly not how Hobbes describes the State of Nature, where he is fairly explicit that everyone poses a threat to everyone else. Nor, it strikes me, is it a particularly sensible description of the rational thing to do given the pay-offs likely in (Hobbes' version of) the State of Nature. It's not very sensible to rely on a strategy which depends on iteration in a situation where a) you have no guarantee you'll meet your current potential cooperator again and b) the likely cost of cooperating when the other person defects is death. A better way of putting Pete's point seems to be that appropriately iterated prisoner's dilemmas become assurance games, because the iteration alters the pay-offs.


I think you're misremembering Hobbes, Rob. From Chapter 13:

if any two men desire the same thing, which nevertheless they cannot both enjoy, they become enemies; and in the way to their end (which is principally their own conservation, and sometimes their delectation only) endeavour to destroy or subdue one another. And from hence it comes to pass that where an invader hath no more to fear than another man's single power, if one plant, sow, build, or possess a convenient seat, others may probably be expected to come prepared with forces united to dispossess and deprive him, not only of the fruit of his labour, but also of his life or liberty. And the invader again is in the like danger of another.

He mentions 'glory' as one reason for aggression, the others being greed and fear ('diffidence'):

in the nature of man, we find three principal causes of quarrel. First, competition; secondly, diffidence; thirdly, glory.

The first maketh men invade for gain; the second, for safety; and the third, for reputation. The first use violence, to make themselves masters of other men's persons, wives, children, and cattle; the second, to defend them; the third, for trifles, as a word, a smile, a different opinion, and any other sign of undervalue, either direct in their persons or by reflection in their kindred, their friends, their nation, their profession, or their name.

John Morton

Is this another love affair with the "war of each against all", or, just another Common Purpose for social engineering.

Either way, it stinks.


You've totally lost me there, John

The comments to this entry are closed.