Without a common power–a government–to keep everyone in line and on their best behavior, our lives would be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” At least, so claims Thomas Hobbes, whose 1651 masterwork, Leviathan, fundamentally changed the way that political legitimacy has been conceived of in Western political philosophy. Hobbes’ revolutionary insight was that the consent of the governed authorizes the legitimacy of the government, an idea which had no small impact on the core claims of such foundational documents as the U.S. Declaration of Independence. But interestingly, Hobbes doesn’t advocate in Leviathan for anything approaching representative democracy. Rather, his contentious claim is that we have good reason to consent to a form of government closer to absolute monarchy: a form of government that he considers to be more stable, and therefore more desirable, than any other. The foundation of Hobbes’ argument for consent-based monarchy is found in his famous (or infamous) “State of Nature” thought experiment, in which he invites his readers to imagine that awful state without a stable government. Life in such a state would be so bad, so deeply undesirable, that Hobbes argues we would have good reason to do everything we could to avoid it: namely, to abandon most of our freedoms to an absolute Sovereign. Before Hobbes can make that argument, however, he needs to convince us that life in the State of Nature really is untenable, and it is precisely this assumption that we’ll seek to test together over the course of the program.
In a dedicated Minecraft realm, we’ll find something as close to a State of Nature as we’re likely to discover. Our mission is simple: stay alive and accumulate points for various achievements conducive to living a good and comfortable life. If we find that we can do this with minimal difficulty, then the heuristic foundations of Hobbes’ argument become suspect. If, however, we find that life in a (artificial) State of Nature really is as bad as Hobbes promised it would be… then we have some serious thinking to do about whether we’re interested in accepting Hobbes’ contentious and unpopular conclusions. Over the course of the program, we’ll intersperse close readings of key sections of Leviathan with structured shared gameplay in Minecraft, and reflect upon how our experiences in this digital political community provide us with answers to some of the questions that have lingered since the birth of the social contract tradition.