Marvel’s Recent Unpleasantness

The next essay in “Supervillains and Philosophy” is “Marvel’s Recent Unpleasantness” by Libby Barringer.  The essay starts from Civil War (the first Marvel one, since there has been more than one by now) and brings in Hobbes and his idea of the sovereign to argue about the issue of choosing safety over freedom and to warn about how Hobbes would justify making a tyrant who has the ability to rule according to their own whims.  However, speaking as someone who is somewhat sympathetic to Hobbes’ ideas, this analysis gets Hobbes wrong, as there he at least conceived of more checks and balances than Barringer can see here.

The first thing to note is that for Hobbes it’s not a simple choice between safety and freedom.  The State of Nature seems like it is the state with the most freedom, because it’s the state with the fewest explicit restrictions.  However, the problem here is that while someone seems to have the most freedom to work their will on the world, they are actually pretty constrained by the fact that everyone else also seems to have the most freedom to work their will on the world, and that includes on other people.  Since we all have basic needs that we have to secure, the first thing we’d need to do in our “freedom” is secure those basic needs.  Except that since we have to interact with other people who want them as well, there is no way that we can secure those basic needs solely by our own devices in the State of Nature.  Anything that we could do to obtain and secure our needs can be overcome by other people seeking to obtain and secure their basic needs.  The smartest person can be overwhelmed by physical force.  The physically strongest person can be outmaneuvered by an intelligent person … or, more relevantly, can be overwhelmed if people gang up on them.  No one person alone can secure their basic needs, let alone their wants, especially if others will gang up on them.

So, once we realize that the State of Nature is nasty, brutish and short, with everyone constantly struggling to grasp and hold even their own basic needs against everyone else doing the same thing, the first thing we start to do is look for ways to come to terms with the others, both for protection and to be able to get at things that we can’t get ourselves.  But the nature of the State of Nature still rears its ugly head, as we want to be able to guarantee that the people we are coming to terms with will keep to the terms.  So we need an agreement, and what we need is a way for everyone to agree to keep the terms in a way that we can all rely on so that we can focus on other things than watching out for the latest betrayal from everyone else.  So that means agreements with multiple people with explicit punishments and threats from everyone else to gang up on the person who breaks the deal and cast them out so that they don’t gain from their betrayal.  And since these agreements actually allow people to be able to secure their own basic needs so that they can pursue and also secure their wants, people would want to be in such agreements since it is better for them to be inside such agreements than outside of them.  And thus the Social Contract was born.

So how does the sovereign come into it?  As societies get bigger, the Social Contract also grows to include more and more people, and so it becomes far more of a societal than a personal contract.  Given that, we need more impersonal rules and impersonal punishments:  we can’t and don’t want to try enforcing these rules at the personal level anymore.  So we need the rule of law, and need some body at the top to enforce the rules to the fullest extent possible.  That’s the sovereign, whose role in this order is to enforce the rules, even and especially with the power to execute those who break it and thus make breaking the Social Contract the option that will always be the least in their own self interest.

So is the sovereign just a tyrant, able to bend the rules for their own gain?  The issue is that the sovereign gets their power from the Social Contract, and the Social Contract exists to ensure that no one can simply use their own power against everyone else.  As long as the sovereign is keeping the Social Contract in place enough so that everyone still benefits from their reign, they probably don’t have all that much to worry about.  But if the Social Contract weakens, so does their power, and as already noted there is no one so powerful that they can’t be overcome by someone else if those people tried.  So the sovereign might seem to have absolute power, but their power is entirely conditional on upholding the Social Contract, and acting like a tyrant weakens the Social Contract.  Weaken it enough, and the sovereign will lose their power and, in the times Hobbes was writing, their life.  So they are just as constrained to not abusing their power as everyone is to stay in the Social Contract, and so have good reason to not become a tyrant … the same reason everyone has for forming a Social Contract in the first place.

There’s actually a good examples of this in the old Star Trek Pocket book The Kobayashi Maru by Julia Ecklar.  In part of Chekov’s version, the cadets are put in a standard mystery scenario where one among them is a murderer who will try to kill all the others, but only the murderer knows who (this is, of course, a larger number of “victims” than we normally see).  And they all quickly turn to groups of people hunting everyone else down trying to be the last survivor, and as the assessing officer notes Chekov was the most creative killer among them — lots of traps and gambits — but they all fell into that mindset.  He then notes that one cadet commanded their way through the scenario instead of murdering their way through it, and reveals that that was James T. Kirk.  What he did was get together a small group of trusted cadets who took over one room and secured it, knowing that they could all keep an eye on each other.  Anyone who came along could join, but they had to be disarmed and watched for a while until they were trustworthy.  This solved the exercise with a remarkably small loss of life … and did so by establishing a Social Contract where the de facto sovereign — and the guy who made all the rules — was Kirk himself.  What if Kirk was the murderer, or otherwise tried to abuse his power?  Once he was caught, it would break the contract and they would, at a minimum, kill Kirk, and if they couldn’t prove who was the murderer it would devolve to the (simulated) kill-fest of Chekov’s group.  So Kirk couldn’t use the scenario to become a tyrant but could use the scenario to save his own life and, incidentally, the lives of a lot of other cadets.  This, in essence, is what Hobbes’ Social Contract is all about.


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