Original Sin: Part 7, Hobbesian Traps and War in a Malthusian World

Thomas Hobbes has come up a few times the comments to these posts. As well he should as Hobbes' analysis as to why humans exist in a perpetual state of war fits well with the fundamental thesis of these posts.

Why is there so much war?

One could posit, following Original Sin logic, that humans are intrinsically violent. However, one could posit, as Thomas Hobbes did in Leviathan, that humans grow protective and wary in a Malthusian world. This wariness infects interpersonal relationships and scales up to the level of nation states. This international wariness, combined with a desire to protect one's current situation, is the fuel behind war.

To summarize Hobbes' ideas, I'm going to quote from Mark Lilla's review of Hobbes in Lilla's book The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics, and the Modern West (p. 81):

Natural man, according to Hobbes, is desiring man--which also mean he is fearful man. If he finds himself alone in nature we will try to satisfy his desires, will only partially succeed, and will fear losing what he has. But if other human beings are present that fear will be heightened to an almost unbearable degree. Given his awareness of himself as a creature beset by desire--a stream of desire that ends, says Hobbes, only in death--he assumes others are similarly driven. "Whosoever looketh into himself and considereth what he doth," Hobbes writes, "he shall thereby read and know, what are the thoughts and passions of all other men." That means he can think of them only as potential competitors, trying to satisfy desires that may come into conflict with his own.

We can pause here to note that this analysis converges upon Girard's theory of mimetic rivalry discussed in our last post. Hobbes inserts into this milieu of rivalry a fundamental ignorance of other men's motives. That is, we begin by seeing each other as potential competitors. If so, how should I respond? Not knowing your mind or motives (Hobbesian ignorance) I, naturally, assume the worst. I assume that you might steal from me or, worst case, kill me to get what I have. So I begin to arm myself. I buy a gun, dig a moat, build a wall, buy some locks, and hire some spies. You, standing on your side, see all this going on. You see the gun, the wall, the surveillance. And what will be your predictable response? Naturally, you'll buy a gun, dig a moat, build a wall, buy some locks, and hire some spies. And I, on my side, look up to see you doing all this. My assessment as I look over at you? That I was right about you, that I was right to take preemptive measures. So I redouble my efforts. And you redouble your efforts. A feedback loop starts. An arms-race begins. A "cold war" is inaugurated.

This dynamic is called the Hobbesian Trap. And nations easily fall into it. Take, as a modern illustration, the current state of affairs between the United States and Iran. Both countries are locked into the Hobbesian Trap. We don't trust them and they don't trust us. So they are building a bomb. And we don't want them to. We think they are evil and they think we are evil. And God is on both sides.

Is Iran evil? I have no idea. But I do know this, their pursuit of a nuclear weapon is perfectly comprehensible to me. Inside that country a certain Hobbesian logic holds sway as it holds sway inside these American borders.

The point here isn't to get into US foreign policy. It is, rather, to point out the fully predictable and comprehensible tragedy of the situation. We see what is going on but find it very difficult to stop the Hobbesian machinery from churning away.

To summarize all this, we can note that the engine of the Hobbesian nightmare is simple ignorance. I don't know what your motives are. So I assume the worst and arm myself. You do this same.

But ignorance isn't sinfulness nor depravity. It is, as I've repeatedly stated in this series, the consequence of being a finite creature. As Lilla summarizes (p. 82):

That is why the natural social condition of mankind is war--if not explicit, armed hostilities, then a perpetual state of anxious readiness in preparation for conflict. Even the Bible recognizes this tendency. Hobbes asserts: Cain killed his brother not because of an explicit threat but because he feared losing what he had and was ignorant of God's reasons for favoring Abel. Fear, ignorance, and desire are the basic motivations of all human activity, political and religious. One does not have to assume man is fallen, or evil, or possessed by demons to explain why those motivations produce war. One need only understand how these basic motivations combine in the human mind, both when man is alone and when he is in society.

Next Post: Part 8

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12 thoughts on “Original Sin: Part 7, Hobbesian Traps and War in a Malthusian World”

  1. You still seem to think that the macro and micro are the same. That, to me, is ignorance.

    It is impossible to disregard the necessity of "protection", or "upholding the rule of law". Part of a free society is "holding people to account" for actions that would disintergrate the "rule of law". Therefore, I do not see that arming oneself is 'sinful". It is necessary regard and respect for the facts of evil in this world. Law nor policing law, which is the "arms race" is wrong, sinful, bad, etc. It is just good sense, especially if the enemy has proven not to be trustworthy in the past...

    Trust is built on the fact that people have acted in good faith, meaning that they have respected the "rule of law" in regards to "difference"...our nation and the West, are the ones who respect difference, as we do not uphold conformity of the individual in our cultural values...

    So, your "bilbicism" about moral disengagement is short-sighted in regards to the differences in cultural values, and the ways in which we repsect those differences!

  2. Sorry, I think I am ignorant. But, I still believe that it is impossible to believe naively that one can come to Utopian Ideals in this life...I am a skeptic, and it doesn't have to do with any "theological belief" but experience...

  3. Firstly, I happened to chance upon this blog I couple of months ago, have returned to it from time to time since, and have found it very helpful for my own spiritual journey. I am sincerely grateful for your work.

    Secondly, in this post you touch upon a theme that I find particularly interesting--the idea that what we (i.e., traditional Western culture) categorize as "sin" is perhaps better understood as "ignorance." My understanding (though I am no expert in this field) is that traditional Eastern religions emphasize the latter, and I would be much interested in your thoughts regarding the Eastern/Western dichotomy as it applies to your work here.

    Thirdly, in the picture of the chessboard, the king and queen's positions are reversed.

  4. castlerook,
    I have a strong sympathy for the Eastern notion that "sin" is best understood as a form of ignorance. That is, I think most people, most of the time, are pursuing things that they think will make them happy. I think this series can be seen as a description as to why our decision-making processes often are lead astray.

  5. Dr. Beck,
    I have stumbled across your blog a few months ago while searching for articles on universalism, and I had enjoyed following it since then.
    Let me first say how much I have enjoyed your attempts at approaching the problem of Original Sim from a standpoint that takes into account the external conditions we are in.

    Being from a more or less Eastern Orthodox background, I agree with how you refuse Augustine's & Calvin's definitions of Original Sin (sick, irrational & heartless as they are, from where I stand), and I agree with the point you are trying to make about Original sin's sources being extrinsic rather than intrinsic, to a point.

    What I'd like to comment on is the idea that us assuming the worst is normal behavior.

    I understand your logic of "ignorance" up to the point of me not knowing your motives, but then what I think a person would do & I know I would do, is to assume that you'll act as I would, having no better source of information. If I make that assumption & it results in me expecting the worst, doesn't that mean there is something inside me that would choose to do the worst, and leads me to expect you'd be no different?
    I am not suggesting we are intrinsically evil, I am just pointing out that there must be a reason why ignorance leads to hostility, and that reason may be reactionary, maybe... just thinking out loud.

  6. FireStone,
    I see your point. But I don't think we need to posit that we are thinking the worst about each other. Humans are generally risk-averse, which means we will prepare for worst-case scenarios. I think it is this risk-averseness that gets the Hobbesian Trap started rather than an innate misanthropy.

  7. Again, your view of individuality is bent toward "sin" through your understanding of "fear" and competiveness of acquisition of our desires...fear is the basis of the individual's life in your scenario.

    While this may describe those who are seeking the elementary needs for their sustenance, and there are those in our Western nations that seek their own greedy desires at the costs of the American government or the American people, there are those who have "convictions" that the individual is the epitome of "free societies". Freedom is not some negotiation, as without the freedom to choose and the right to act, there is no morality. There is only totaltarianism...

    Wasn't it Hobbes who thought that an ultimate sovereign was the only recourse to "war"? Submission and subservience to the "dictator" is the political scenario in his understanding. I don't believe that this results in a moral government, such as ours, that protects and maintains the individual's right of choice and course of action. Diversity is only affirmed in free societies, without that freedom we can only conform or rebel at great costs.

  8. Interesting that Jesus seemed to hold a similar view of sin as ignorance. At or near the climax of his passion, he appealed to his father to "forgive them, for they know not what they do."


  9. BTW, Richard, do you plan to post any ideas on how to escape the Hobbesian trap _once we're in it_? Avoiding it is one thing, but we're already in the throes of a death embrace with some pretty intractable enemies. qb

  10. I studied International Relations in grad school. I wrote a paper on Iran, with the solution of working with China to apply pressure through the markets. Works on paper. The problem is mistrust on all sides. So how do we move beyond that?

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