It’s better to live on your knees than to die on your feet: Thomas Hobbes on the dangers of political idealism

This is a discussion piece on seventeenth-century British philosopher Thomas Hobbes’ criticism of domestic political idealism, using contemporary Australian politics as a point of reference. As a discussion piece it lacks academic rigour. So, what the hell. Let’s get it started with a factually incorrect abstract.


In the December 1982 edition of Rolling Stone, Thomas Hobbes published a scathing review of Midnight Oil’s ‘10-to-1’ album. Midnight Oil, Hobbes claimed, were corrupting Australian youth with such politically incendiary tracks as ‘Short Memory’ and ‘US Forces’. But it was the lyrics to ‘The Power and the Passion’ with which Hobbes took particular issue, writing:

We hear that “It’s better to die on your feet than to live on your knees”. How foolish! What vainglory! Who penned such rot? Was it Hirst, Moginie or Garrett? Have The Oils taken leave of their senses? Anybody who has lived through the English Civil War and who can ratiocinate knows that the opposite is true. Standing up for political ideals can only lead to political subversion, civil unrest and, ultimately, civil war. And with civil war comes a return to the State of Nature — a state in which all persons, upright, kowtowed and procumbent, face the constant threat of death; a state in which, as I have argued elsewhere (see my Leviathan (Bohn, 1651)), life for all is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”. All things considered, therefore, it’s better to live on one’s knees than to die on one’s feet.

In this entry I’ll give a few working examples of political idealism and political realism before moving onto Hobbes’ criticism of the former and his argument that domestic peace and commodious living require us to forfeit our political ideals lest they undermine the sovereign’s authority.

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Are political obligations always moral? A Hobbesian rumination

Uncle Sam

Richard K Dagger opens his very good Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on political obligation with the following claim:

To have a political obligation is to have a moral duty to obey the laws of one’s country or state. On that point there is almost complete agreement among political philosophers.

There are two problems with this opening gambit.

Firstly, and of least importance, agreement in any amount—be it no agreement, little agreement, almost complete agreement or complete agreement—does not itself establish the truth of a proposition. One’s suspicion should always be roused by attempts to use claims of ‘near complete’ or ‘general agreement’ to establish a point.

Secondly, and more importantly, a political obligation is not always a moral duty. For a political obligation to always be a moral duty, one of two conditions must be met. The terms ‘obligation’ and ‘duty’ must be synonymous, thus rendering the proposition tautological or true by definition. If this condition is met then to have an obligation means the same thing as to have a duty. If this condition is not met, then for Dagger’s principal claim to hold all ‘political obligations’ have to fall within the set of what we consider to be ‘moral obligations’. To have a political obligation would then be to have a moral obligation because there would be no political obligations which were not also moral obligations. Let’s deal with these two conditions in turn.

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Political obligation: of subjects and men


Simon Bogojevic-Narath's (2006) 'Leviathan'

The distinction between man and subject, and the positions that follow from it, make it possible to understand as consistent Hobbes’ claims (1) that no man is bound by the civil covenant to kill himself, or any other man and (2) that a sovereign may not unjustly kill an innocent subject.

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Osama bin Laden’s death: justice and extrajudicial killing

The scenes of jubilation in the US following Osama bin Laden’s death indicate that many people think killing him without trial was a good thing. But you don’t have to be an Osama bin Laden apologist to believe that it would have been preferable for the US to maintain at least a veneer of justice by first putting him on trial.

There were three possible courses of action:

Osama bin Laden

Osama bin Laden

  1. Find bin Laden, kill him without trial;
  2. Find bin Laden, try him and then kill him;
  3. Find bin Laden, try him and and jail him for life.

(1) is pure blood lust. It may feel good, but it lacks even the pretence of impartial judgement. (2) at least makes the veneer of justice possible — of weighing evidence and punishing accordingly. Think, in recent history, of Saddam Hussein’s trial and execution or, going further back, the trial and execution of Charles I. In terms of impartial judgement, (3) is similar to (2) but with an alternative punishment.

Now, if you’re in a firefight with Osama bin Laden and he’d rather die than surrender, then (1) is the only option. But then you’ve chosen (1) because (2) and (3) were not available options. In this situation (1) may be justified. It does not make it just.

Based on the FBI most-wanted list, Osama bin Laden has yet to be convicted: ‘REWARD: The Rewards For Justice Program, United States Department of State, is offering a reward of up to $25 million for information leading directly to the apprehension or conviction of Usama Bin Laden.’

The problem with the images beaming out of the US of Osama-death parties is that they suggest people think (1) was the first preference and best option. Those images just look like people celebrating an extrajudicial killing by a big state.

Irrational markets, information deficit, or both?


Now, I am no economist. Nor do I profess to understand financial markets. But I am interested in the stock market. As someone who studies how and where power is gained and exercised, watching the stock market today is like peering through the window of an exclusive gentleman’s club of old. Pushing your ear up to the glass you get to understand the goings on of the middling classes.

Such voyeurism brought me into contact with the efficient market hypothesis (EMH) or efficient market theory. The idea behind EMH is (briefly) that no one person can possess more knowledge than an entire market. The information a market possesses equals the sum total of all information on which market transactions are based. The more sources from which a market (or any entity) gathers its knowledge the more it will know and the more efficiently it will be able to set the price of commodities. As such, because the market is the sum total of all transaction it will have better knowledge of what prices should be than any government, financial analyst or group of analysts.

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The petty thief’s fallacy


Little Timmy likes cake. Mmm.

Have you come across the petty thief’s fallacy? It takes the following form.

  1. It is wrong to breach principle P
  2. Person B breaks principle P to a small degree
  3. Therefore, person B has not acted wrongly

An example. Mother has just finished baking and icing a chocolate cake. She says to little Timmy, ‘Timmy, you are not to eat any of this delicious chocolate cake’. But then little Timmy thinks, ‘But if I only eat a small slice, it won’t be so bad. There’s lots of chocolate cake and I only want a small piece. There will be plenty of cake left over if I only take a small slice’. So little Timmy cuts himself a very small slice of cake and eats it. Mmm, that delicious chocolate cake. Here’s little Timmy’s reasoning:

  1. Mother said it is wrong to eat any of the chocolate cake
  2. I’ll only eat a small slice of the chocolate cake
  3. Therefore, it’s okay for me to eat a small slice of the chocolate cake

But little Timmy’s reasoning is fallacious because he mistakenly thinks that the magnitude of his infraction matters — that it’s okay if he only takes a small slice of chocolate cake. Little Timmy’s fallacy turns on his belief that taking a small slice of the cake only constitutes a small breach of Mother’s orders. But any breach of Mother’s orders, large or small, is a breach of Mother’s orders. The magnitude of the breach does not matter.

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Responses to WikiLeaks tweet show that nothing published on the Internet is protected under the first amendment


WikiLeaks’ ‘Cablegate’ leaks were hosted on servers until 1 December when, The Guardian (UK) reports, Amazon bowed to political pressure and ceased hosting the main site and the subdomain. The Guardian article sounds like a bit of a beat-up. In the past, WikiLeaks have used the Swedish-based hosting service PeRiQuito AB (PRQ). PRQ keeps a minimum of information about its clients and is protected by Sweden’s liberal media laws. PRQ is the natural choice for groups whose activities, if not illegal in other countries as is the case with its most infamous client The Pirate Bay, inhabit a legal grey area. Therefore, if WikiLeaks used Amazon’s hosting services it may have been in anticipation of a day like 1 December.

Amazon’s termination of its contract with WikiLeaks may not be so surprising. What is surprising is the response to WikiLeaks Editor in Chief Julian Assange’s tweet claiming that if Amazon is “so uncomfortable with the first amendment, they should get out of the business of selling books”. The Guardian article notes the response from ‘constitutional lawyers’, whomever they may be:

Although there are echoes of the censorship row between Google and China earlier this year, constitutional lawyers insisted it was not a first amendment issue because Amazon is a private company, free to make its own decisions.

This is also the response from lawyer Kevin Bankston at Electronic Frontiers Foundation (EFF), a libertarian group aiming to keep the Internet open. He argued that Amazon’s actions were disappointing but not a breach of the first amendment. Fair to say that both Democrats and Republicans agree with Kevin’s second point. The analysis of the constitutionality of Amazon’s actions may be correct, but its implications are troubling.

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High-speed rail debate in the US

High-speed rail in Japan

High-speed rail in Japan

On November 9 2010, Keith Yost, columnist with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology newspaper The Tech, published an opinion piece stating the case against high-speed rail (HSR) and large-scale infrastructure projects in general. In his article, ‘Derail high speed rail: It’s time to end the liberal fetishization of infrastructure’, Yost, who also blogs at The Sensible Technocrat, argues that the US should abandon proposals for high-speed rail because the potential cost is too high compared with the potential benefits. The pattern of urbanisation in the US makes HSR unviable, Yost contends. Homes and workplaces are spread across urban centres, making node-to-node transport such as HSR ill-suited to the needs of US citizens. The flexibility afforded by cars is a much better fit, he argues. This argument may apply to US HSR proposals, but it’s largely irrelevant to the Australian discussion.

The main proposal in Australia is for a high-speed rail link between Melbourne and Sydney. The link will provide an alternative to air transport. It’s not simply a substitute for existing rail and automobiles. When considering convenience you have to compare oranges with oranges. So, if the Australian line offers an alternative to air travel, one has to compare the convenience of HSR with the convenience of air travel. And not many people have a form of air transportation parked in their garage. Most of us have to travel to an airport, much as we would have to travel to a station if we were to use HSR. If this is also the case in the US, then the rejoinder also applies there.

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