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Battle: Liberty vs. Safety

November 3, 2010

Hobbes’ suggested that the sole duty of the governing power is protection, and if this comes into question, then the conditions have returned to that of the state of nature (or state of war). He repeatedly promotes the idea of fear as a primary motivator to partake in a covenant.

If a monarch, or sovereign assembly, grant a liberty to all, or any of his subjects, which grant standing, he is disabled to provide for their safety, the grant is void[.] (Leviathan, Chapter 21)

 This assertion made me wonder: What is the relationship between liberty and safety? Are they opposites, as Hobbes’ implies, unable to coexist with each other? Or can they complement one another?

To investigate these questions, I considered the role of liberty and safety in changing an individual’s perceived fear.

Liberty, in Hobbes’ opinion, is the “absence of external impediments… [that] may oft take away part of a man’s power to do what he would” (Leviathan, Chapter 14). Notice, liberty is not considered something that is given but, rather, a natural right. An increase in liberty can cause a decrease in fear because an individual is less afraid about the consequences for their own actions. But, because this increase in liberty applies to society as a whole, everyone is less concerned about punishment and this can increase the fear of other’s actions. “And from this diffidence of one another, there is no way for any man to secure himself… till he see no other power great enough to endanger him” (Leviathan, Chapter 13). From this analysis, it seems that fear has a very different effects on a personal level and political level.

Hobbes goes on to say “the safety of the people requireth further… that justice be equally administered to all degrees of people” (Leviathan, Chapter 30). To Hobbes, the idea of safety is directly related to the idea of justice. Unlike liberty, justice is not something that inherently exists in nature. Justice, and safety, are both being given. As safety increases, this can cause a decrease in fear because people are less afraid of others’ actions. On the other hand, however, safety can be the source of additional fear when justice is not being handed out fairly. In cases such as these, Hobbes reminds us that “to resist the sword of the commonwealth, in defense of another man… no man hath liberty… but [in defense of their own lives,] the guilty man may as well do, as the innocent” (Leviathan, Chapter 21).

Liberty and safety seem to have an inverse relationship when, in reality, their effect on fear changes drastically when looking at it from a private point of view and from a public point of view.

  1. Steve Neff permalink
    November 3, 2010 1:12 PM

    I agree with you that liberty and safety have an inverse relationship. I think Hobbes believed that more safety meant less liberty but I do not believe that is the case. If homosexuals had the right to marry, they would be gaining a liberty. But does that mean there would be less safety? I don’t think so because I don’t care what people do in their private lives but I’m sure some people who are against Gay marriage will be fearful that Gay people will make their kid’s lives unsafe or whatever other excuses they use to deny them this right. The same can be said about other liberties that are currently denied like abortion, etc. and the usual defense is “I won’t feel as safe” or it’s against their religion. The issue you brought up between private and public one is a good one and definitely plays a role in the liberty/safety relationship.

  2. changmc permalink
    November 3, 2010 3:05 PM

    I feel that make you a valid point that as liberty increases, people feel less safe because they must deal with the outcomes of the actions of others which they may not deem suitable. However, on the other end of the spectrum, when we address safety, we must also address punishment and consequence. If we increase safety to the maximum, freedom to do what one pleases may be stripped but on the continuum of liberty and safety, there is a point where people can use safety granted by law to engage in free pursuits. Voting for political officials is an example of how if people feel safe that they will not be swayed or harassed by others at the ballots, they will want to and be able to engage in the liberty of voting.

  3. yequan permalink
    November 4, 2010 12:41 AM

    According Hobbes’ theory, I also agree with you that liberty and safety inverse. Because to Hobbes, the concept of liberty is not constrained as he states it is just “absence of external impediments”. However, actions have to be controlled in social community. Then your argument applies.
    I would like to compare Hobbes and Rousseau at this point. To Rousseau, liberty is constrained as while as people enter the social compact. Because Rousseau believes the liberty is going to be different as entering social compact and people can not go back to state of nature any more. So the freedom people get is constrained forever. Rousseau even says “to be forced to free” if a person does not follow the general will.

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