Emma’s Philo Paper

Hobbes, Rousseau, and The Walking Dead

Introduction (Word Count, 75)

The state of nature is a hypothetical approach when discerning the limits of government.[1] For this paper I will employ a hypothetical thought experiment by using the zombie apocalypse in the show The Walking Dead, in order to situate modern man in the state of nature. I will then compare both Thomas Hobbes’ and Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s competing theories on the source of political authority.

Part I (Word Count, 480)

Hobbes and Rousseau both start by comparing man’s physical and mental equalities and inequalities. Hobbes, on the one hand, concludes rather quickly that all men are more equal than not but “without a common power to keep them all in awe,” he concludes that man would be in a continual state of war.[2] He claims that primitive man, without a governing power to moderate the passions, was in a continual state of war and this was what brought about the need for a governing authority. Furthermore, human behavior, Hobbes claims, is driven by the desire for self-preservation and happiness and in order to preserve oneself and locate and obtain happiness, man must employ a source of governing power. However, it is explicitly obvious that Hobbes also employs fear as a manipulative tool to convince the reader that some form of governing authority is necessary.[3] Hobbes uses the scarcity of goods as the reasoning behind the fear that drives man into conflict with all other men.[4] A governing authority, in Hobbes’ view, was then necessary in order to keep others from harming or stealing one’s goods. In this hypothetical thought experiment, Hobbes’ theory is best represented by “the Governor” in The Walking Dead, whose ethic is “you kill or you die.” The Governor’s totalitarian approach employs fear as justification for, and to maintain power, and throughout the show, the scarcity of goods is a prevalent problem. However, it is fear that drives the Governor’s behavior, not the search for and protection of goods.

Rousseau, on the other hand, finds that man’s inequalities are both physical and political and that the political differences are what make men unfairly unequal.[5] He disagrees with the Hobbesian view of the state of nature because he sees too many qualities in Hobbes’ primitive man that resulted from civilization and socialization, although he agrees with Hobbes that self-preservation is at the root of human nature. However, what sets Rousseau even further apart from Hobbes is his theory of human compassion which moderates the drive for self-preservation. Rousseau claims that human compassion determines one’s actions and not the obligation to follow a moral law, like Hobbes asserts. Furthermore, Rousseau suggests that it was man’s desire for private property that caused a breakdown in human compassion and first sparked the need for a governing authority.[6] In The Walking Dead, Rousseau’s view is best represented by “Rick” and the paternalistic governing authority that emerged among the men in the group. Rousseau’s theory about property is also quite evident as securing a safe haven becomes extremely important, and protecting it from outside invaders, whether human or zombie, requires a sort logic and justification that goes against the capacity for human compassion.

Part II (Word Count, 914)

Season three in The Walking Dead sets up the state of nature quite nicely in episode one when Rick and his group stumble upon a prison and encounter prisoners that had been trapped there for ten months with no idea what had happened to the outside world. Rick informs them that the country’s infrastructure had completely fallen and man is left to his own machinations for survival. For Hobbes, this is the worst possible scenario and demands the consent of people to be governed by a common power in order to avoid complete chaos.[7] Ideally, in Hobbes’ view, people would want to band together under a common governing authority purely out of fear of the unknowable results ground in mans’ predisposition for “…envy, and hatred, and finally war.”[8] What Hobbes forgets is that those are also reasons for man to avoid banding together under a common power if, as he suggests, envy, hatred, and war are innate in humans.

The tension between self-preservation and compassion that Rousseau described becomes very real in the first few episodes of Walking Dead as a battle over property ends in injuries or casualties on both sides. It is interesting to note, however, that both sides had already chosen a source of authority represented by Rick on one side and “Tomas” on the other. This fact might support Rousseau’s claim that political authority results as “a response to the breakdown of natural compassion and equality that occurs when humans become socialized and civilized.”[9] Although the world in The Walking Dead is quite post-apocalyptic, humans are still essentially social and civilized so it seems almost natural for one in a group to assume the responsibilities of leader. The clash over the prison also supports Rousseau’s theory that private property is the source of “a thousand quarrels and conflicts.”[10] Private property, in Rousseau’s view, was an invention of modern man, not primitive man, so he disagrees with Hobbes’ claim that primitive man was in continual war since it was more likely that fighting over property was also a modern invention.

The difference between Hobbes’ and Rousseau’s views on the source of political authority consists then of different views on human nature—in short, human morals and ethics. While Hobbes insists that humans with no governing authority are susceptible to the whims and drives of passion, Rousseau asserts that compassion is humans’ most telling quality and a breakdown in the capacity for compassion is the actual source of the need for a governing authority. Rick assumed his role of authority because of a breakdown in human compassion—namely, the zombie apocalypse that thrust humanity into chaos. Additionally, and perhaps because of his background, the people in Rick’s group looked to him as an authority figure. It can even be said that the Governor assumed his role of authority because of a breakdown in human compassion as the deaths of his wife and daughter (whom he now keeps in a closet as a zombie) have all but eliminated his capacity for compassion. However, the Governor displays a more Hobbesian reasoning for assuming power—fear.

The “continual fear, and danger of violent death,” is what Hobbes claims cause men to be in continual war with one another.[11] This is evident in the Governor. While Rick also demonstrates fear at times, his capacity for compassion, although stifled after the death of his wife, remains intact. Rick’s compassion moderates his actions, like Rousseau suggests and it is only when his self-preservation is in danger that he reacts with fear. This example creates some problems for Hobbes’ theory which relies heavily on fear as the catalyst for a governing power and seems to ignore the human capacity for compassion. In Walking Dead we can see these two competing ethics play out in the actions of Rick and the Governor. We can see that, because of Rick’s compassion, sounder and morally superior decisions are made as opposed to the Governor’s actions which all stem from fear and which in turn can be correlated to immoral and unethical decisions. For the Governor, because of fear, everyone is an enemy, even if no imminent threat is posed. If the reasoning behind having a governing authority is to prevent war and chaos, as Hobbes claims, then one would assume the governing authority to be devoid of the things that in effect cause war and chaos. This is why Rousseau makes a much sounder argument for the reasoning behind a governing authority.

While Rousseau acknowledges human’s inclination to fall prey to fear at times, his assertion that compassion will generally, and at times, involuntarily, override actions triggered by fear gives the reasoning for a governing authority a more moral backing. In Rousseau’s view, a breakdown in compassion resulting from man’s desire for private property, and not simply fear, drives the need for a governing authority. But here is where man’s political inequalities are most visible as those with property will be more likely to be protected under the governing authority than those without. This point is even visible in The Walking Dead, as loners like “Michonne” with no property or group to claim her become instant outsiders that are held with suspicion and contempt no matter where they go.

Conclusion (Word Count, 100)

What does this suggest for these two competing theories? For Hobbes who suggests humans need a common power to avoid war, The Walking Dead shows that if that common power relies on fear as a motivator, war becomes unavoidable. This contradicts Hobbes’ theory as, in his search for peace man only finds war because of fear. Rousseau offers hope for humanity as actions moderated by compassion lead to wiser decisions that in turn, avoid war. At the end of season three, rather than eliminate the survivors of “Woodbury” out of fear, Rick allows them into his tight-knit group, avoiding war.


[1] Garrett, Jeremy, Social and Political Philosophy, Week 1 Handout, pp. 2.

[2] Hobbes, Thomas, Leviathan, pp. 2.

[3] Ibid, pp. 1.

[4] Ibid, pp. 1.

[5] Rousseau, Jean-Jacques, A Discourse upon the Origin and the Foundation of Inequality among Mankind, pp. 1.

[6] Ibid, pp. 11.

[7] Hobbes, Thomas, Leviathan, pp. 1, 3, and 6.

[8] Ibid, pp. 6.

[9] Garrett, Jeremy, Social and Political Philosophy, Week Three Handout, pp. 5.

[10] Rousseau, Jean-Jacques, A Discourse upon the Origin and the Foundation of Inequality among Mankind, pp. 13.

[11] Hobbes, Thomas, Leviathan, pp. 2.

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