Hobbes’s Lesser Evil Argument for Political Authority

In: Hobbes Studies
Ben JonesRock Ethics Institute, The Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA, USA,

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Manshu TianDepartment of Philosophy, Northwestern University, Chicago, IL, USA,

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This article identifies an argument in Hobbes’s writings often overlooked but relevant to current philosophical debates. Political philosophers tend to categorize his thought as representing consent or rescue theories of political authority. Though these interpretations have textual support and are understandable, they leave out one of his most compelling arguments – what we call the lesser evil argument for political authority, expressed most explicitly in Chapter 20 of Leviathan. Hobbes frankly admits the state’s evils but appeals to the significant disparity between those evils and the greater evils outside the state as a basis for political authority. More than a passing observation, aspects of the lesser evil argument appear in each of his three major political works. In addition to outlining this argument, the article examines its significance both for Hobbes scholarship and recent philosophical debates on political authority.

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