Righting the Wobblies

September 19th, 2005

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“Coach, am I a guard… or a tackle?”
If you watch the old, grainy high school football film, you can catch the moment I was kicked in the back of the head and wobbled to the sideline. It was not until later that evening – when the locker room (and my head) had cleared out – that the coaches informed me of my muddled inquiry.

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People rarely see a catastrophe like Katrina as a philosophical struggle, but the next few days are partly a battle to see who is right – Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) or the Hebrews Scriptures. Hobbes, a pessimistic atheist, believed that humans were basically selfish creatures who would do anything to better their position (like loot, plunder, and rape in a chaotic situation). Left to themselves, he thought people would act on their evil impulses. To prove his point, Hobbes wrote, if people are created with inclinations toward good (from God), then “why do they always carry arms and why do they have keys to lock their doors?”1 In Hobbes’ view, governments were created to protect people from their own selfishness and evil – not to promote virtue (as the Hebrew Scriptures taught). The best government was one that had the great power of a leviathan, or sea monster. Because people were only interested in promoting their own self-interests, Hobbes believed democracy – allowing citizens to vote for government leaders – would never work. At the end of the day, Hobbes believed life was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

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