When President Obama justified his executive order to regulate firearms in terms of weighing the right to keep and bear arms with the state’s responsibility to protect the vulnerable, he may not have known that he was repeating an argument made by the seventeenth-century royalist philosopher Thomas Hobbes. Hobbes is perhaps the most profound thinker of human frailty in the modern canon of political philosophy (in the ancient world, the title goes to Hobbes’s personal hero, Thucydides). Life at the hands of one another, he famously wrote, is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” It is for this reason that we need mutual protection as the first virtue of civil society. It is tempting to conclude from such claims, like the National Rifle Association has in recent weeks, that individuals have a responsibility to arm themselves for this protection. But in drawing this conclusion, Hobbes would warn, the NRA fundamentally misunderstands both human nature and the nature of government.
In Leviathan, written while he was in hiding from the horrors of the British civil war, Hobbes asks us to imagine ourselves in a “state of nature” before the establishment of civil government. Without the constraint of public laws individuals live lives of perfect and total freedom. No government exists to tax them or to regulate the use of their property. In this state of nature each person has one natural right, the right “for the preservation of his own nature, that is to say, of his own life, and consequently of doing anything which, in his own judgment and reason, he shall conceive to be the aptest means thereunto.” The right to self-protection may seem like an uncontroversial starting point for thinking about politics but, Hobbes shows, taken by itself it leads to disaster. Notice that Hobbes says that a right to self-protection includes the right to individually interpret, “in his own judgment and reason,” what self-protection demands. This is where the trouble starts and precisely where, a Hobbesian would wager, the NRA’s proposals for an armed society threaten to take us.
The problem is that people are, on average, bad judges in their own case. It might be rational to say that the best way to protect myself is to stick to my little corner of the wilderness and let you have yours, but you might think otherwise. A policy of preemptive intervention is also rational in the state of nature and there is nothing to stop you from beating me over the head with a rock before I get the idea about doing the same to you. Maybe you think I’m a threat to your collection of apples, or maybe you don’t trust me, or maybe you even just don’t like the way I looked at you. In any case, these are all good reasons for you might find to exercise your right of self-protection by snuffing me out.
Once we head down this road freedom turns into suspicion and the state of nature turns into a state of “war of all against all.” Hobbes’s vision of a world of mistrust and murder was informed by his experience of the civil warfare that culminated in the beheading of Charles I. Once this cycle of suspicion, violence, and retribution gets moving it is has no natural end because of a certain fact about human nature. This is the fact that we are all equal in two important senses. First, we are equally vulnerable to die at each other’s hands. “For as to the strength of body, the weakest has strength to kill the strongest, either by secret machination, or by confederacy with others that are in the same danger with himself.” Even a thirty-bullet clip won’t save you while you’re sleeping. And second, we are equal in our short-sightedness. It is in our best interests to preserve ourselves by agreeing to abide by shared laws but mistrust and pride too often get the best of us.
We saw a contemporary example of Hobbes’s worries in the debates concerning Stand Your Ground laws. When George Zimmerman shot and killed Trayvon Martin he claimed that he was exercising his own judgment about his right to self-protection. Was Martin, an unarmed teenager walking home from the convenience store, really an immediate threat to Zimmerman? Or did Zimmerman misjudge the scenario and use lethal force out of the sense of personal mistrust that Hobbes calls “diffidence”? Either way, Florida’s Stand Your Ground laws puts the onus on Zimmerman’s own interpretation of the threat and in doing so blurs the lines between protection, assault, and revenge.
The NRA’s claim that the best way to stop a bad guy with a gun is with more good guys with guns, including good guys with guns in schools, is an extension of the same logic. Threats are everywhere and it is your right to protect yourself. But where the onus of interpreting what constitutes a reasonable threat is placed on individuals, even good guys, the result is too likely going to be an excess of force that responds more to perceived slights rather than real threats. It is the emptiness of the NRA’s distinction between good guys and bad guys that Hobbes underlines. He would not object to the claim that people suffering from clinically defined mental health problems should not be allowed equal access to firearms. But Hobbes would want to remind us that the difference between Adam Lanza and George Zimmerman is not one of good vs. bad or healthy vs. ill, but rather degrees in the distinctively human willingness to act impulsively or passionately when they are made the final arbiters of law enforcement.
So what’s the solution? For Hobbes, the only way out of the nightmare of the state of nature is to enter a social contract with each other whereby we agree that decisions about enforcing protection are best left to the state. The first step to this covenant comes when we acknowledge that our neighbors are bad interpreters of their right to self-defense, and that the best way to stop them from exercising their right to protection is by agreeing not to exercise ours in turn. This doesn’t demand any act of great moral altruim but rather an act of enlightened self-interest where we realize that we are individually better off with an accountable police force preserving social order than we would be at the whims of an armed militia of George Zimmermans.
But of course the real claim of the NRA and gun extremists is not that we need protection from each other, but rather we need to protect ourselves from the state itself. To Hobbes any state is preferable to the horrors of the indiscriminate violence of the state of nature. We ought to be more critical than Hobbes was of the legitimate boundaries of state power, but there is one last insight Hobbes has to offer to the discussion about guns in America. Human beings are frail, passionate, and irrational creatures, but more than anything else we are fearful. Hobbes’s advice to any student of politics is that “the passion to be reckoned upon is fear.” It is this fear that explains the violence and suspicion of the state of war. And it is the permanence of fear that makes people subject to manipulation by elites with vested interests. Hobbes took aim at British ecclesiastical institutions as merchants of fear but his conclusion can speak to us today: a politically mature populace does not demand changing human nature but neither is it to feed our appetite for fear with fantasies of millennial apocalypse. Rather, it requires learning to see that the greatest thing we have to fear is what we ourselves are capable of when left to our own devices.