Friday, March 17, 2006

The Social Contract and LeviEthan

Something has been bothering me ever since Maternity Leave. Ethan made a point of stressing to Claire that she had a "choice" whether to give them the baby. What's more, Ethan's charm offensive worked -- Claire was willing to hand over Aaron a second time. Some of this can be dismissed as dramatic effect, but I've had a nagging suspicion that Ethan's preoccupation with choice means something more. Then it hit me.

Since the beginnng of this show, we've been inundated by social contract references. Locke and Rousseau are two of the most prominent social contract theorists in history. And a lot of the dilemmas our losties face from week to week (e.g., whether to move into the caves, who controls the guns, whether to raise an army) touch upon central questions of social contract theory.

So too does the question of choice. The basic idea behind the social contract is that people in the state of nature choose to give up some freedom to gain the greater benefits of society. How much freedom you sacrifice depends on your view of human nature. Locke was fairly optimistic, meaning folks retain the most freedom in his social contract. Rousseau was more pessimistic, and so subordinates more freedom to the "general will."

Perhaps the most pessimistic social contract theorist was Thomas Hobbes, whom I haven't mentioned. Hobbe's had the darkest view of human nature, famously positing that life in the state of nature was "solitary, nasty, brutish, and short." As a result, Hobbes concluded that human beings would freely choose to subordinate themselves utterly and completely to a monolithic state he termed Leviathan.

Which brings me back to Ethan and the Family. We already have a Locke and a Rousseau on the show. I can't help thinking we've met our Hobbesian LeviEthan as well. You have the choice to submit, but once you do, the Family can do what it wants, even kill you.