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The Real State of Nature – A Reflection on the 2003 Blackouts

February 17, 2011

Thomas Hobbes, in his work Leviathan, argues that without a central government or autocratic leader, life would be “solitary, poore, brutish and short.” He believed men had no ability to work together, are aggressive, selfish, and competitive, and that if left alone, everyone would solely be out for their own self interest. Therefore, a sovereign ruler must take over in order to stop humanity from the anarchy that would surely result from allowing humans to their own devices.

I want to tackle Hobbes’s underlying notion that humanity is hopeless on its own. I believe human beings can work together rather than against each other. Rebecca Solnit also highlights this view in her essay, Uses of Disaster. She writes about a professor who, after a hurricane, told her it was like “not quite a street party, but everyone out at once […] a sense of happiness to see each other, even though we didn’t know each other.” The view that tragic disasters bring out the best in humanity was cemented after the New York City Blackouts of 2003.

The Northeast Blackouts of 2003, as the disaster is officially termed, occurred after powerlines owned by Ohio energy company FirstEnergy brushed up against some tall trees and broke, overloading their system. This set off a chain reaction, leading to many cities in the Northeastern US and Canada rendered literally powerless.  Personally, I have never seen a community come together and help each other out like New Yorkers did after this event. As Mike Lee, an aspiring writer and New York City resident writes, “I’m deeply proud with my home city. New York City. It survived a major terrorist attack and a blackout. Despite popular opinion, New Yorkers didn’t riot, look, and pillage their own city. New Yorkers didn’t lie down and give up. They banded together like brothers and sisters, cooperating and sharing with one another to get through each crisis.”

This flurry of people helping people during a crisis was not prompted by a government or a sovereign leader. Instead, this is what happens when morality sets in- some actually have a drive within in them to just lend a hand, without concern about whether the favor given will be returned. It is poetic, actually, what happened in New York and all over during the 2003 Blackouts. Thomas Hobbes does his field a disservice making broad generalizations about the state of nature. Instead, we should look to what people actually do when times get tough- help their fellow man.

  1. Adam Evanski permalink
    February 17, 2011 8:59 PM

    John- You bring up a very interesting event one that I remember quite well. Like you mentioned people banded together, my neighborhood was no exception. This instance though I feel is far different. For one it only lasted 1-2 days and no major essentials like food, water, and shelter were disrupted. With those elements intact I believe people will naturally act charitable because they have everything they need. However take those away and you have utter chaos. Look no further than Katrina. So while I believe people do naturally act in selfless ways it really depends on the situation.

  2. Zack Orsini permalink
    February 19, 2011 6:53 PM


    Nice post. It brings back some memories of 2003 (a fine year!).

    In regard to Hobbes’ idea that people only act with selfish interests in mind, I have a few comments. In other posts on this blog, I have explained why I generally do agree with Hobbes on this point; I won’t get into the reasoning of why I agree with him too much again, but I will say this one thing: although people are inherently selfish (even when they are helping someone else truly because they want to help someone else, they are satisfying their own will by following through with helping that person and are thus unavoidably acting selfishly), this “selfishness” (which is natural) actually leads to very good things (including human solidarity).

    One life example I have of this goes back to 2003 (hurray for memories!). When the blackout occurred, I was living in Farmington Hills, Michigan (as my parents and younger brothers do today). The water that we would use (from the tap) was not drinkable due to the outage (I forget exactly why this was the case). [Completely unrelated to Political Science, this recollection reminds me of the Dead Weather song “Will There Be Enough Water” .] I remember my neighbors had a gas stove (we had an electric stove), so they could boil water. They also had a generator, which helped a bit too. They were very kind to us and boiled water on their stove for us to clean it so it could be drunk. I am thankful to my very kind neighbors to this day for their “selfless” act! (When I say “selfless,” I mean it in the everyday sense of the word and not the absolute philosophical “selflessness” that is often proposed by people.)

    Ah! Human nature! Tis’ a beauty ain’t she?

  3. Joe Godlew permalink
    February 21, 2011 5:12 PM

    This is a great example that is critical of Hobbes’ teachings. I have to agree with Adam above, in that people are inherently self-motivated. Yes, people will act in [seemingly] selfless ways as long as the inconvenience of doing so does not outweigh the perceived “benefit” that people expect to receive. Obviously, the good feelings that come about as a result of doing something nice for others are an important reward, but this reward is undoubtedly less important than finding food or water. Perhaps I am just critical of human nature, but I firmly believe people are inherently self-interested, and as such Hobbes’ theories are vital to maintaining order and contentment in society.

  4. lexifader permalink
    February 23, 2011 3:24 AM

    John-I really enjoyed reading your post because during discussion we actually talked about the New York City blackout as an example to contradict Hobbes’s view on mankind. My sister went to New York for an operation and I went into the city to stay with her at a hotel. The hotel staff was obviously very overwhelmed trying to keep all the guests under-control and happy but surprisingly everyone at the hotel was very calm and they made it a point to tell the staff how much they appreciate all that they were doing to help the situation. This is a perfect example of when people could have been out of control, selfish, and demanding to the hotel staff because they were infact paying money to stay there but instead all of the guests understood the situation and did not demand anything. I think Hobbes had it all wrong when he described man in the natural state.

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