Introduction

I am a teacher.  I spend my days engaged with graduate students of business administration translating the basic concepts of ethical theory, juris prudence, distributive justice, civil governance and corporate social responsibility for very practical and in most cases, utilitarian minds.  That is my work, and what success it has enjoyed is due principally to three things: my brilliant colleagues at the Daniels College of Business who have patiently tutored me both in the what and the how of my academic endeavors, my extraordinary students whose no bullshit approach to life and learning has disciplined and educated me far more than I them, and finally, the life I have lived — as a student of history, theology and law, as a pastor, lawyer, social activists and politician, and as a father and grandfather.  If there is any merit here, it is not because I am a classic academician steeped in the intricacies of scholastic research, but rather because I am simply a translator and applier of such to life — life in the classroom, life in the board room, life in the human communities where I am privileged to speak and teach — in this epochal moment of human history.

Thomas Hobbes knew about the meaning of epoch – a point of historic departure – for that was the nature of the times he was given to inhabit.  In my view, we 21st Century inhabitants of the planet are again in such a period of history.  That is why I have chosen some fundamental aspects of the thinking of the scholar I consider the greatest of all political minds, certainly of all such to express themselves in the English language, for the structure as well as the point of departure for the content of this book.  This is not a book about what Hobbes would have said about human nature, social contract, law, politics or business were he alive today.  That would be a preposterous and fruitless enterprise.  This is a book about those issues Hobbes saw as critical for any serious person to address in order to make sense of life in the midst of radical and chaotic transition.

I believe the fundamental questions Thomas Hobbes addressed in his amazingly productive intellectual life are precisely those that must be engaged by serious persons today. These are precisely some of the questions that a sadly superficial public, aided and abetted by an unbelievably inane media, seeks most to avoid.  Hobbes was and is about getting back to the basics.  Who are we really?  What is fundamental to our survival? What are the bedrock values on which human integrity depends?  What holds civil society together?  How is effective sovereignty (on a global basis) achieved and despotism avoided?  What (if any) is the place of religion in understanding human nature and civil society?  What is law and the rule of law?  How is law related to ethics?  Are there universal values?  When (if ever) is war justified? In the midst of an epochal transition with such daunting questions far from definitively answered, is there a way of life – a modus vivendi – for the time being?

Garrett Hardin (1968) wrote in his defining essay, “The Tragedy of the Commons,” that the survival of our species on this grand commons we call The Earth, depends fundamentally on achieving, “mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon.”  This remains the unachieved (almost unaddressed) agenda of the Century before us.  In a sense, all of Thomas Hobbes’ writings were about answering this one question, “how, given our human nature, is meaningful survival possible?”  This book will not answer that question, nor will the subset of questions that make up its several chapters.  What it will do is introduce and define the fundamental questions the author believes must be addressed and resolved as a necessary condition for human survival.  As Thomas Hobbes understood, this is an awesome undertaking, beastly in nature, and not for the faint of mind, heart or conscience.  This is the reason for the strange title of my work, The Leviathan Project, and was, of course, the genesis of the title of Hobbes’s grandest text LEVIATHAN or The Matter, Forme, & Power of a COMMON-WEALTH ECCLESTICAL and CIVILL, London, Andrew Crooke, 1651.

There will be nine chapters to this project, each arising from concepts treated extensively by Hobbes for his time, which now must be joined and answered by ourselves in this time.  I hope my efforts here will help the reader reflect on, do further reading about, and mostly, engage with others in civil discourse on such topics.  I will, of course, express opinions of my own but I deeply hope that whether the reader agrees or disagrees with my own conclusions it will not be an impediment to his own reflection, scholarship and discourse.  As many public philosophers today are saying, we need to achieve a revitalized public engagement on matters of the first magnitude. I concur, and to this end, I offer this book.

Chapter 1: Human Nature.  In my catechism class years ago at The First Presbyterian Church of Lumberton, N.C., we were asked, “What is the chief end of man?”  The question lingers.  Can it only be answered with reference to God?  If so, to who’s God? Or is anthropology key?  What is your working anthropology?  Are we humans basically good – whatever that means – or are we basically flawed?  Are we fundamentally “social animals” or just animals that need socializing? Hobbes complained, that the majority of “writers on public affairs either assume or seek to prove or simply assert that Man is an animal born fit for Society. (and) On this foundation they erect a structure of civil doctrine, as it no more were necessary for the preservation of peace and governance of the whole human race than for men to give their consent to certain agreements and conditions which, without further thought, these writers call laws.”  The nature of man is little changed from Hobbes’s time to ours and the tendency of public policy experts in constructing theories of human polity remains much as then, just ignore it.  So the first chapter of this book asks Hobbes’ fundamental question, “Who are we really?” 

Chapter 2: What State Are We In?  I’m from Colorado, but that is not my question.  My aunt, a nervous Southern magnolia, would say when flustered, “Oh I’m in such a state!”  That is closer to what Hobbes meant by “The State of Nature” than my geographical response.  What is human nature beyond the borders of civility?  Given that we have achieved reasonable accommodation – in the developed world at least — as nations through constitutions, conventions, laws and governments since the time of Thomas Hobbes, what is the nature of things beyond the borders of the nation state?  In many ways the international arena looks a lot like what Hobbes called “The State of Nature,” where in a war of all against all (MNC vs. NGO vs. IGO vs. Nation State vs. the migrating homeless (without any organizational reference) life is truly, “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”  Failed capital markets; failed nation states; failed global conventions; the extraordinary scarcities of food, water, clean air, decent housing, adequate health care for so much of humanity; the failure of law to prevent war; the failure of even war itself to restore security in a time of terror, leaves us in a condition not something like, but absolutely like Thomas Hobbes’s concept of The State of Nature.

Chapter 3:  Have I Got a Deal for You!  What is a Social Contract?  How does such a thing come into being?  Can units as small as work groups and companies and neighborhoods create Social Contracts?  What would such agreements look like?  What would be their basic elements? Going from the small to the global, are we in a period of history when the fundamental elements of international Social Contract (for instance, the Breton Woods Institutions and the United Nations Charter) have, for all practical purposes, collapsed?  Is the Constitution of the United States still the social contract for our country?  What about Thomas Jefferson’s notion that about every twenty years we should throw the whole thing out and start over again?  Does being within the context of social agreement fundamentally change human nature?  What is the relationship of Social Contract to ethics, law and the conventions of day to day life?  Who are the parties to the contract, particularly in the international political arena?  Can we apply Hobbes’s theory of representation, authorization and sovereignty for individual citizens and national governments to nation states, multinational corporation, NGOs and some new form of international sovereignty, i.e.  is Hobbes’s theory of human nature and Social Contract fractal? 

Chapter 4:  It Take’s a Beast. Hobbes believed that there could be no “rule of law” if there was no one to “rule on law.”  In his view, social contracts held together only if there was a sovereign to enforce them.  Hobbes carefully chose the metaphor of Leviathan both to startle and to offend.  The notion of some beastly presence looming over us (look at the cover of his book!) is still offensive to Western, liberal tastes.  The United States is particularly conflicted over this notion of sovereignty.  Our politicians trumpet “the rule of law,” and then defeat any treaty (law) that would submit our country to the sovereignty of any body beyond our sovereign territory: not International Criminal Court, not The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, not The Kyoto Protocols, not The International Court of Justice. Even the majority of the present composition of our Supreme Court seems not to believe that we are even subject to our own international treaties freely negotiated with other nations.  It seems we have an authority problem.  What is the relationship between the citizen and the sovereign?  How is the Social Contract “authorized?”  What is the effect of free ridership on the Social Contract?  How can we achieve a new set of global agreements to deal with the very real threat of environmental, economic and political collapse?  Or will our Libertarian tendencies to rebel at any and all authority external to our own country do us in?  Will Thomas Paynes’s moving refrain, “Give me liberty or give me death!” be quite prophetic for libertarian democracy, will we get both – liberty and extension? Is it true (as Janice Joplin’s haunting song suggested), “freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose?”

Chapter 5:  The Law of Nature and the Nature of Law.  Are there any universals? What is law and how is law related to “The Law of Nature” (if there is such a thing)?  What is the appropriate relationship between law and religion?  Is there a “law of nations” anymore, and what is the relationship of The Law of Nature and The Law of Nations?  What is juris diction and how is the authority established to “speak the law?” Isn’t law really the only alternative to war?  Who are the parties, the juridical persons, in a new structure of international law?  Nation States?  Multinational Corporations? Non-governmental Organizations?  Does The Universal Declaration of Human Rights still represent the value foundation of international law? If not, what are the “hypernorms” of this new age upon which international law may be grounded?

Chapter 6:  Democracy and Theocracy. What is the future of the secular state?  Is the U.S. constitutional solution to the problem of religion and democracy (non-establishment and free practice) the only solution to this ancient dilemma?  Can secular and theocratic states coexist in a globalized world (without borders)?  Can citizens of a single state of differing faith backgrounds (including none at all) learn a new language of citizenship without god-reference? Is peace possible in a world where many nation states seem still hell bent on crusading?  Is evangelical atheism as injurious to civil society as religious evangelicals? Is religion a fundamental inclination of human nature?  Can one be secure enough in his own faith to comfortably coexist with those of other faiths in civil discourse?  Why are, “The bitterest wars those between sects of the same religion?”[1] What is the relationship between religion and war?

Chapter 7:  An Ethic for a Century in Transition.  W.H. Auden’s great quote at the conclusion of For the Time Being: “Follow Him through the Land of unlikeness, you will see rare beasts and have unique adventures.”  John N Gray’s notion of Modus Vevindi – live and let live – has much to commend it for times such as these.  Thomas Hobbes saw quite clearly that in the end, survival and peace were the only real issues for human kind.  The question is, can a human ethic of tolerance be developed sufficiently soon to avoid “the solemnity of the remorseless working of things.”[2] 

Chapter 8:  The New Hobbesians.  Who are those today on the critical edge of scholarship, policy and thought related to such questions as those I have addressed in this book?  Surprisingly, the field of what I call “new Hobbesian thought” is literally exploding.  I will briefly summarize the ideas of a few of the authors who I feel fit this bill, but through and beyond them, lies excellent resources for the reader to develop and expand on the conversations that, hopefully, this book has initiated.

  • Political economist John N. Gray
  • Biologist and environmental philosopher Hershel Elliott
  • Novelist Philip Pullman
  • Politician and policy analyst (my friend and colleague) Richard D. Lamm
  • Harvard philosopher and ethicist Christine Krosgaard
  • Harvard professor of government Michael Sandel
  • Author, Journalist, Economist Robert Kuttner
  • Economist and author Hernando de Soto

Chapter 9 (or, Appendix): The Leviathan Index. I began this project by trying to look at sovereignty itself, in its various forms, from soft to hard, or (ala Lynne Payne of Harvard) “compliance vs. integrity” structures for achieving integrity of systems.  I wished to establish an index of the amount of constraint necessary to achieve civility or compliance with law in large systems.  Specifically, I looked at factors related to nation states (incarceration rates; expenditures on police and civil security, expenditures on defense and armaments, costs related to civil litigation and contract enforcement, etc.) and to multinational corporations (training of employees, costs associated with compliance to federal and state regulation – e.g. Sarbanes Oxley, offensive and defensive expenditures on litigation, expenditures on monitoring of employees, cost associated with environmental performance, etc.).  The end of this investigation was to be the creation of a Hobbesian Index (the Leviathan Index) to compare large organizations as to the extent of force use to achieve obedience with law or civility.  I wanted to then rank organizations as to how coercive or cultured each was relative to citizens and employees.  I still think this is a potentially rich field of academic research.  What my faithful research assistant and I would learn is that MNCs are not willing to reveal such information (at least if it is attributable to the specific corporation) and that while there is vast information on Nation States about military expenditures, prison population, police and criminal justice expenditures there is very little continuity of data, nation to nation.  This appendix will then be suggestive, but not definitive, as to how to evaluate Corporations and Nations as to the amount of force or intrusion used by each to achieve civil behavior or corporate compliance.

*A note about narratives in this book: 

The reader is already aware that I am fond of telling stories.  Indeed you will discover as you go along that I use narrative form quite often, and in some cases (for instance Chapter 3) reference a fully developed story from my childhood (actually written for my grandchildren) to help explain the concept of “authorization” in social contract theory.  I hope this is not off putting.  My own conviction is that if one cannot reduce ideas to stories, one doesn’t actually understand the idea him/herself.

While working on this book I attended The John Locke Lectures put on by the Philosophy Department of Oxford University.  The Locke Lectures are arguably the most distinguished forum for philosophy in the world.  John Rawls, Robert Nozick, Christine Korsgaard and others of similar stature have delivered these lectures over the years.  This year’s Lock lecturer was T. M. Scanlon of Harvard University.  I have long admired Scanlon’s work.  His book What We Owe to Each Other (Belcamp Press, Harvard 1998), while intensely difficult reading, is a major contribution to the field of ethics.  During in his lectures this year at Oxford, Scanlon was so dense and so obtuse as to leave not just me (that would be too simple an achievement) but most of his highly sophisticated, erudite audience either asleep, befuddled or both.  Without metaphor, without narrative, almost (he once gave an example using a sharp knife to illustrate his point) without even the simplest of application, he read (without looking up) line by line by line from a written text.

Ethics is a branch of philosophy, of course, but it is also fundamentally emotive; human and personal in nature.  Ethics is about meaning, life and social engagement.  While I understand Scanlon is not a “narrative ethicist,” (most would categorize him as a contractarian), he is a human being who writes and lectures about ethics.   And, I would argue, therefore owes (ala, the title of his great book on ethics) both himself and his audience some relief from abstraction, some grounding in the richness of human application.  For five weeks in May 2009 no such relief was forth coming.  It was from this experience I decided to place some narrative foundation under this work of mine.  Seawell’s first law was framed: If you cannot make ethical theories into stories you most likely do not know what you are talking about yourself, and most assuredly nobody else will.

Not far from the lecture hall in Oxford where T. M Scanlon was reading his Locke lectures this month, is the site of Albert Einstein’s famous lecture on the General Theory of Relativity, delivered at Oxford in 1915.  Almost a century later, the General Theory is still difficult going for even the top physicists in the world, not to mention mathematically challenged persons like myself.  Yet Einstein’s genius was grounded in an intellectual humility; he spent a lifetime explicating and providing metaphor for one of the most difficult concepts the human intellect has ever grappled, and by so doing, changed our understanding of fundamental physical reality forever.   Surely we ethicists owe the human enterprise nothing less.

I love old un-loveable T. Hobbes because, as brilliant as he was, he meticulously provided definitions for his basic concepts in clear simple English (or Latin!) and did not mind stooping to metaphor and story to communicate the richness of his meaning. He targeted his grandest works of political and ethical theory not at scholars but at society as a whole.  And so, following Hobbes, I will try to write simply, provide clear definitions and from time to time give narrative diversion into the muck and mire of quite human experiences, examples and narratives.  This happens to be how ethics has been done at its best for nearly three thousand years, and I say if it was good enough for Socrates of Athens and Jesus of Nazareth, it is good enough for me.  Enjoy.


[1] Hobbes, p 24 De Cive 

[2] Philosopher A. N. Whitehead, as quoted by Garrett Hardin in “The Tragedy of the Commons.”



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