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Instinct or Inclination?

March 28, 2011

I was watching Late Night With Jimmy Fallon the other night with guests Rachel Maddow and Colin Quinn, when I heard a quote that got me thinking. After a good deal of comedic banter, Jimmy asked Colin what he thought of the situation in Japan. His response was “I like that fact that after a few days of worrying about [Japan’s] nuclear fallout we’re like ‘hey, what about our nuclear reactors?’ It’s human nature, like when your friend goes ‘I lost my cell phone!’ and you’re like ‘hold on a sec…oh good I got mine—what were you saying about yours?’”

There is definitely a lot of truth to that statement. After a few days of coverage on the disaster in Japan, its back to wondering where we fit into the equation. Headlines about radiation poisoning our water supply, along with articles suggesting what would happen if our nuclear power plants experienced meltdowns have been extensive in the news. Stephen Colbert also satirized the situation with his report on Californians’ reaction to the crisis.

After all of this, I couldn’t help but think about Thomas Hobbes. Although I do not normally agree with his pessimistic idea about egoism, I think his theory can definitely be applied to the current situation in the United States. Both of Hobbes’ ideas—that human motivation is centered around one’s own self-interest, as well as how humans are constantly trying to avoid violent death—validate the reaction in America right now (Wootton).

According to Hobbes, it is in our nature to immediately worry about ourselves when something bad happens to someone else. Like he said, “the right of nature…is the liberty each man hath to use his own power, as he will himself, for the preservation of his own nature; that is to say, of his own life” (Wootton). Although the example I am writing about is extreme, I think it’s safe to say that we can all relate to that ‘cell phone moment’ Colin Quinn described.

While I do not think that humans are purely self-centered, I do believe that Americans’ reaction to the disaster in Japan perfectly demonstrates Hobbes’ theory of egoism in human nature. It makes me wonder if it is a survival instinct or simply a selfish inclination?

Wootton, David. Modern Political Thought: Readings from Machiavelli to Nietzsche.
Indianapolis: Hackett Pub., 2008. Print.

  1. Micah Friedman permalink
    March 28, 2011 10:54 PM

    It is an interesting thought. But, looking at the Colbert video, there is an even more interesting dichotomy of reactions. In Japan, people are as Locke or as Solnit would believe them to be, when faced with a disaster. They are helping one another, not looting from one another, and overall good, in as close to a state of nature as possible. But, in California, people are buying up as many vitamins and kelp supplements as they can to keep the radiation away from them. Although, the Hobbes reaction with the cell phone thing is very true in some respect, an earth quake creates a more realistic state of nature which would lead me to believe that there is not one single state of nature for all men. But, rather, different traits that each man personifies.

  2. snradin permalink
    March 29, 2011 12:21 AM

    I find your post insightful, but there are a few things I disagree with. First off, Hobbes’ take on the crisis in Japan would be that we wouldn’t even care what was happening, we would only look out for ourselves and our own self interest. In reality, yes what happened in Japan made us worry about our own future, but that didn’t stop us from sending support in donations and volunteers to Japan. In Hobbes’ mind, we would take that money and free time we used to aid Japan and use to to better ourselves and our own future. Also, although one can take a look at the cell phone example and think of it as selfish and egotistical (a Hobbesian response), I think the reaction of “what about our nuclear reactors” is not so far as being Hobbesian. The incident in Japan was huge, and it scared us and made us aware of our own problems and the possibility of future suffering here in America. It is not unjust or hurtful to Japan in any way to think about preventing a future disaster in our homeland. Also, Colbert is a comedian and comedians take facts and exaggerate them for comedic purposes and effects. For example, when he shows a clip of mad chaos and cars on fire Colbert says “this is how to do it Japan.” He is technically referring to a Hobbesian state of chaos that would ensue if everyone were to look out for themselves–but in reality he doesn’t really want this. You say “according to Hobbes, it is in our nature to immediately worry about ourselves when something bad happens to someone else,” and while this is true, it would take much more than that to apply Hobbes’ theory to the situation in Japan. People are still aiding in the relief of the country in crisis and are not acting as extreme as Hobbes’ describes them to be.

  3. arweil permalink
    March 29, 2011 5:27 PM

    This is a very interesting post. It is interesting to view the crisis in Japan in a different manner than I have been. While I do see the view point that Micah has stated, I am also able to see your view point as well. Since the disaster, I have been thinking in terms of what Locke would have to say. When faced with this disaster, citizens of Japan were seen in a way that is as close to the state of nature as possible. The natural good within humans, as Locke would support, was clearly visible. The Japanese citizens acted selfless, helping one another as much as possible and aiding strangers if they were in need.
    Because I was seeing the responses in this way, your take on the incident really opened my eyes to what Micah touched upon, that maybe there is not simply one state of nature, but rather multiple state of natures. Your cell phone example seemed so familiar- it is such a common thing for humans to first think of themselves when someone brings the possibility of something negative to their attention. I have seen it in so many people that I know, including myself.
    After reflecting on your viewpoint as well as the Lockean viewpoint, it made me realize something. I recalled how surprised I was to learn that the Japanese citizens acted so selfless. I was shocked to hear about the good natured reaction. I guess I had just assumed that people would act in the opposite way (loot from one another, do anything to help themselves). After thinking about your statements on Americans responding selfishly, however, I was not surprised. This sort of thing is what I would expect from humans. So does this mean that for simply thinking in this negative way that I agree with Hobbes’s view on egoism? And what does this tell me about my faith in the true state of nature? Perhaps it is possible that humans are able to have and/or develop two different types of nature, good or bad.

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