Hobbes suggests that in their natural state, individuals would resolve to an anarchic war of survival and self-interest. As such, Hobbes argues for a near-boundless figure of authority to curb the dangers of liberty. It seems that Hobbes’ philosophy is comparable to the limitless power of Sophocles’ Creon, who crushes individual liberties such as the freedom to mourn for Polynices, in order to ensure the safety of the polis. To Creon, the survival of the polis overrides all other factors. Liberty is pernicious in the sense that it undermines the ultimate authority of government. The freedom to speak against the Theban government, or even to actively defy Creon’s laws (as Antigone does when she buries Polynices) would suggest that authority is arbitrary, for it would demonstrate that it can be justifiably defied. The consequences, as Creon declares, would be anarchy and the deterioration of society. Therefore, Creon, as leader of Thebes, takes it upon himself to curb freedoms in the name of security.
Hobbes, like Creon, places much more importance on collective security than on individual liberty. Both figures portray not only liberty as being fundamentally pernicious, but also government as knowing what is best for society. According to Hobbes and Creon, government is a paternalistic figure that makes decisions on behalf of its subjects for their own good. They assert that a government is wiser than its subjects – “is Thebes about to tell me how to rule?” Creon asks, baffled – and acts in the interest of security. Individual liberty is in direct contradiction to this security – it undermines the authority of the government and by implication, threatens collective safety.
In many ways, Hobbes’ and Creon’s approaches are utilitarian. They seem to acknowledge that security and liberty are in contradiction. To Hobbes, the ‘greatest good’ is achieved by undermining liberty and maximizing security (via the maximization of paternalistic control). Therefore, according to Hobbes, collective security should not be held at expense for liberty, for security is linked with the greatest happiness; government knows what is best for its subjects and therefore should be given maximum control of its subjects in the name of societal protection and greatest good.
The crux to Hobbes’ argument is that individual liberty is inherently dangerous whilst, at the same time, the judgment of government is infallible in regards to bringing about security. Without these properties, there would be no justification for government to override freedom – how can one submit freedom to a government that does not, in fact, have absolute wisdom and would not work in the best interests of its subjects? Would it not be unjust if Creon’s agenda were, in fact, contrary to Thebes’ best interest? Indeed, if this were the case, would not the actions of government be classed as oppression, not paternalism?
It is precisely these questions that unravel Hobbes’ argument. The line between paternalism and oppression is hazardously thin; by utilitarian standards, the former is justifiable but the latter is not. John Stuart Mill acknowledges the paternalistic strain in many governments – that many regard themselves to have a ‘duty… to prohibit what they think is pernicious’ [p.25. Mill, J. 1859, On Liberty; subsequent citations refer to this text]; that power is ‘given to men that they may use it.’ [p.25] However, Mill nevertheless underlines that no one is a vehicle of ‘infallibility’ [p.24]. Governments are by human nature ‘corrigible’ [p.27]. Contrary to Hobbes’ conception of authority, government does not necessarily entail irrefutability and they do not necessarily bring about collective security. The implication for this is that perhaps it is a mistake to forsake liberty to authority, for governments themselves may be fallible; they may, in fact, not always know what is best for its subjects.
Sophocles clearly demonstrates this in Antigone. No doubt, Creon attempts to portray himself as benevolent and fatherly. He is convinced that his paternalism is truly in the best interests of Thebes – that criminalizing the freedom to mourn Polynices and to speak against the government entails the greatest good for his subjects. Nevertheless, throughout the play Sophocles underlines how incongruous this executive dogma is with Thebans. Haemon advises ‘don’t… assume the world is wrong and you are right’ [p.95. Sophocles. 1982, Antigone] – or as Mill may phrase, it is a mistake to be an ‘absolute prince’ [p.24], for it is necessary – even for an authority figure such as Creon – to acknowledge that government is corrigible.
This tendency is not exclusively fictional. Often in the real world, states presuppose that they know what is best for its subjects and consequently enact (allegedly) paternalistic laws, via minimizing individual liberties. Take, for example, the People’s Republic of China (PRC). The PRC has a longstanding history of restricting the exposure of information to its citizens. This has culminated in over sixty regulations that restrict Internet use in the PRC. Among the most stringently censored Internet locations are pornography websites. The supposed thinking behind this is that by restricting the freedom to view pornography, the PRC is able to maintain moral integrity amongst its citizens. By terminating certain liberties, the government of the PRC is presupposing that it knows what is best for its people.
Mill would adamantly oppose these restrictive actions of Creon and the PRC. In On Liberty, Mill highlights many utilitarian benefits to tolerating individual freedoms whilst minimizing state and social tyranny. Firstly, Mill dismisses the notion that government knows what is best for its individuals. Rather, Mill argues that individuals themselves know what is in their own best interests. Mill emphasizes that individually made (as opposed to state-directed) choices are best simply because ‘it is his own mode.’ [p.77] By this, Mill meant that due to the multitude of uniqueness among humans (‘human beings are not like sheep’ [p.77]), it is futile to impossible to impose ‘some small number of patterns’ [p.77] on the way individuals are expected to behave. Mill believed that because there is such diversity in the ‘modes of life’ [p.77] of humans, imposing a blanket morality deprives individuals of achieving that ‘which their nature is capable’ [p.77]. To clarify his opinion, Mill uses the analogy of a ‘pair of boots’ [p.77] that are custom-made to fit the wearer; that it is futile to attempt to force the ‘pair of boots’ on someone else who has different needs and requirements.
Surely, it is not the act of viewing pornography that Mill would endorse, but the availability of the choice to do so. When the PRC removes such choices, it is imposing a blanket morality on its subjects; it makes the mistake of supposing that certain behavior (such as viewing pornography) is bad for everyone, when in fact it may be acceptable for certain individuals. Similarly, when Creon removes the liberty to mourn for Polynices, he makes the mistake of supposing that anyone who mourns for the dead soldier becomes a threat to the polis. Of course, it may be that some who mourn Polynices may indeed be driven to incite revenge, but for many figures (such as his sister Antigone), mourning Polynices does not pose a threat to security. Creon fails to see the variance in his people, and thus seems to impose an unnecessary repression that is unsuitable for a large portion of his subjects.
Mill introduces the idea of the progression of humans via liberty. Mill advises against being ‘bowed to the yoke’ [p.70] of conformity. Though he stresses social conformity, it can be argued that conformity manifests when government attempts to streamline the behavior of its citizens by regulating nonstandard behavior. Mill warns that conformation for the sake of conformity creates stagnation in people’s development. When individuals do not think for themselves – when they allow government to tell them what is best for them – they fail to develop respectable mental faculties. Progression as society would be stunted for progression entails challenging a norm; if people are accustomed to being dictated what is best by the government, this habit of challenging norms may fail to exist.
Sophocles’ Antigone poses a perfect allegory to the question to what extent does government know what is best for its subjects? Creon, like Hobbes, believes the duty of government is to safeguard its citizens. In fact, this much is commonly accepted throughout political doctrines: government exists to protect. However, Hobbes asserts that individual liberties are directly pernicious to this protection. He calls for a tyrant in the vein of Creon to take the onus of doing what is personally felt to be best for the people. Surely, this cannot be a just doctrine; the opportunities for oppression are all too viable. Furthermore, Mill argues that governments are not always incorrigible, for in reality, nobody is. Furthermore, we cannot have government telling us what is best, because they do not; the PRC may think themselves to be benevolent when censoring pornography but they fail to see that the government’s moral values are not necessarily applicable to all of its subjects. Lastly, the promotion of liberty involves a utilitarian benefit: the ‘unfailing and permanent’ [p.80] progression of society. Perhaps we can conjecture another function of government: to promote the progression of its people. If this is the case, rather than dictating a set of values for its people to conform to in the name of security, governments should promote liberties in the name of dignified human development. In conclusion, governments do not know best, and in any case, the greatest good arises from liberty, not dictation.
Mill, J. 1859, On Liberty, Penguin Classics, London
Sophocles. 1982, The Three Theban Plays: Antigone, Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus, trans. R Fagles, Penguin Books, London
STANFORD ENCYCLOPEDIA OF PHILOSOPHY. Hobbes’ Moral and Political Philosophy. [online]. Stanford, CA. Available from: [Accessed 5 February 2010].
“To what extent does government know what is best for its subjects?”