Saturday, May 30, 2015

Hobbes and GameTheory

In Hobbled by Hobbes Christopher Ryan argues that the anthropological and archeological evidence is inconsistent with Steven Pinker’s interpretation of long term trends in violence. I don’t yet have a firm opinion about that issue, but Ryan also refers to Pinker and others as neo-Hobbesian. He explains that

For reasons having nothing to do with scientific accuracy, Hobbes’ dire sloganeering about the misery of pre-civilized human life echoes down the centuries. Who among us, three and a half centuries later, has not heard that our ancestors’ lives were “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”? This demonization of human existence in pre-state societies is essential to preserving the legitimacy of God and country—both of which run a protection racket promising to guard us against our own demonic inner nature. Hobbes’ infectious meme is certainly among the most famous phrases ever penned in the English language, and it shows no sign of fading. Indeed, his dismal view of human nature is still being enthusiastically spread by neo-Hobbesian presidents, pundits and professors.

I have thought for some time that Hobbes view of human nature has been somewhat misinterpreted. In Chapter 11 of Leviathan he describes his view of human nature:

So that in the first place, I put for a general inclination of all mankind, a perpetual and restless desire of power after power that ceaseth only in death.”

 That does sound like a pretty dismal view of human nature, but then he explains:

“And the cause of this is, is not always that a man hopes for a more intensive delight than he has already attained to; or that he cannot be content with a moderate amount of power; but because he cannot assure the power and means to live well, which he hath at present without the acquisition of more.”

In Hobbes view the problem was less our demonic human nature than that people are essentially a prisoners’ dilemma type game, a multi-person arms race.

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