Covidian Philosophy Hour: Who we are when the shit hits the fan.

My affinity, or identification as it were, with the precepts of Thomas Hobbes’ theories on the true nature of man, are no secret. It’s always been my suspicion that all of our claims of morality as individuals and as a society are founded in our privilege. I’ve always believed that most of our cultural and social constructs of church and state were founded of dire necessity to keep us from feeding upon each other. There is certainly no shortage of evidence of how people behave when panic and fear set in and suddenly morality becomes relative. One brief example with a long history: What do we do when there is a rise in crime? We advocate for more brutal policing and sentencing and incarceration. Life sentences for crimes of need. Death penalty for any number of offenses, and so on. Hobbes, in Leviathan, put it thusly:

“And because the condition of man . . . is a condition of war of every one against every one, in which case every one is governed by his own reason, and there is nothing he can make use of that may not be a help unto him in preserving his life against his enemies; it followeth that in such a condition every man has a right to every thing, even to one another’s body. And therefore, as long as this natural right of every man to every thing endureth, there can be no security to any man, how strong or wise soever he be, of living out the time which nature ordinarily alloweth men to live. And consequently it is a precept, or general rule of reason: that every man ought to endeavour peace, as far as he has hope of obtaining it; and when he cannot obtain it, that he may seek and use all helps and advantages of war. The first branch of which rule containeth the first and fundamental law of nature, which is: to seek peace and follow it. The second, the sum of the right of nature, which is: by all means we can to defend ourselves.”
― Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan

Yet to be fair, there is evidence to the contrary also, that mankind rises (mostly) in times of catastrophe, and that this is our true nature. We are people sitting in the comfort of structure and rules and we rarely have the opportunity for selflessness and sacrifice… can this be true? There are valid arguments to that effect. It’s difficult to see any of this while we’re sitting in the center of crisis and fear, but not so hard at all when considering the evidence after the fact. This video, short as it is, is food for thought about this:

So who are we when things go wrong? Is there any real answer to that? Or is it mostly circumstantial and who we are has no real definition? How desperate do we have to be to become the brutes that Hobbes thought us to be, beneath the surface of society and church and this monstrously huge social contract with written and unwritten laws?

I can, on the one hand, point to armed citizen militias patrolling the southern borders, driven by the fear of… refugees, essentially. Fear of the loss of… what? You can watch the talking heads on the news as easily as I can. Just in recent years we had the White House whipping up the fear frenzy with constant talk of giant columns of criminals and communists and anarchists moving up through Mexico. You don’t have to look too far to see that Hobbes had his points. There are large groups of people protesting government measures to stop the spread of Covid-19, showing up at shopping centers armed and hysterical, fearing the loss of… what? Not their security but their sense of security. Fearing for their sense of autonomy which was never more than illusory anyway. These are strange and ugly times and my inclination is still, based on this, to say that Hobbes was right. How poorly would these same people (and we too) behave if things really bottomed out in a major catastrophe, or would the catastrophe flip the narrative? I’m inclined to say it would, and could possibly still, get much worse.

But I don’t know. Maybe animal fear and brutality to protect a sensibility more than one’s own body is more born of privilege than altruism is. If fear and panic come from the top down rather than the reverse… well…

Food for thought, this morning. Maybe I’ll really flip myself out and watch some post-apocalyptic shitshow movies. That’s where my thoughts on this topic began anyway, in the Small Screen Quarantine with the zombie binges.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s