Steven Pinker Interviews Thomas Hobbes

Psychologist and Linguist
“You’re kind of unclear as to why this Leviathan would just be kind of a fascist dictator, as if that would be better than life in the state of anarchy.”
  • Transcript


Pinker:    I might want to resuscitate Thomas Hobbes and have dinner with him, the 17th century English philosopher who’s mostly – and I think I’m unfairly – associated with the idea that life in the state of nature is nasty, brutish, and short.  Hobbes was a witty and brilliant writer.  He was a kind of psychologist who had a physiological, mechanistic view of thinking and emotion.  He said reasoning is but reckoning – reckoning in the original sense of computation or calculation.  He thought deeply about the problems of violence, and had an analysis of the causes of violence that I think are quite valid today.  He put his finger on what might be the greatest violence reduction technique ever invented.  That is a responsible government.  And he . . .  Wherever you turn, I think, in psychology and philosophy, you find areas in which he had some _______ or _______.  So I would love to pick his brains if I could.  I’d ask him how he would solve the problem of policing the police.  He had this concept of the leviathan – that is a government to which people would voluntarily surrender their autonomy in exchange for having to adjudicate disputes and basically keep us from each other’s throats.   But I’d say to him, “You’re kind of unclear as to why this leviathan would just be kind of a fascist dictator, as if that would be better than life in the state of anarchy.”  Well one thing we’ve learned is that not only is it better to have a government and be in anarchy; but on the other hand having a ________, aggressive government might not be much better than living in anarchy.  I would ask him whether he could anticipate the concept of democracy, and how his own view of human nature could be confronted with the idea that whoever is leading the government would himself have the flaws of human nature.  How do you square that circle?