Thomas Hobbes and the Political Philosophy of Glory

By Gabriella Slomp | Go to book overview

Chapter 11
Hobbes's Impossibility Theorem

Introduction

In the previous chapter I analysed Hobbes's state of nature taking a rational-agent approach — a perspective pioneered in the 1960s by Gauthier and Watkins and still favoured by many today. Accordingly, I imagined Hobbesian individuals in the state of nature, attributed to them some of the characteristics described by Hobbes (rationality, fear of death, desire of glory, liberty, equality), calculated the payoffs of their joint actions, and finally singled out the rational strategy for them to follow.

As I argued in Chapter 10 the rational-actor approach succeeds in demonstrating that the state of nature is, as claimed by Hobbes, a state of war. However, as many have pointed out (e.g., Brian Barry) the rational-actor approach is unable to explain how Hobbesian men reach an agreement and join the social contract.

It is no coincidence that only critics (such as McLean and Taylor) who assume the possibility of 'repeated games' in the Hobbesian state of nature can account for a way out from it. But in my view the very idea of a 'repeated game' violates Hobbes's claim that individuals in the state of nature take no chances about their self-preservation. It is easy to notice that an agent can engage rationally in a supergame strategy only if he is prepared to make mistakes, if he thinks that he can learn from those mistakes, and adjust his future behaviour accordingly. This option is not open to the Hobbesian man, because making a wrong judgement may cost him his life and therefore deprive him of the possibility of learning from the past and of revising his strategy. Unwilling to trade off personal safety for any amount of information about other people's attitudes, Hobbesian men can neither take risk nor deploy any supergame strategy.

However, the fact that the rational-actor approach cannot explain the social contract, does not entail, as claimed by Hampton, that Hobbes's argument fails. Rather, we should deduce that the rational‐ actor approach is inadequate to explain the whole of Hobbes's

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