Hobbes and Ebola

Thomas Hobbes

While studying Hobbes and his evidently cynical perception of human nature my mind drew a parallel between that conundrum and my Philosophy 160 class. In philosophy we were instructed to write an essay outlining the proper course of reaction to a national outbreak of Ebola (think Contagion or Walking Dead). Simple question right? Wrong. Quarantines are (arguably) an “infringement of individual liberty.” How much can we pull from our own sense of liberty before our national morality is compromised? Will the necessary loss of certain liberties during times of war transform what we are allowed to do in times of peace? With Hobbes understanding of human nature as fearful and self-interested the only possible answer to whether the government has the right is ‘Heck yeah’.


A case my philosophy class is looking at to help us understand the true stakes of this is Hirabayashi v. United States. In this case an American citizen of Japanese descent (who had never been to Japan) had his personal rights restricted by the army on the off chance he was a spy involved in espionage. Does the government have this right to protect the general public against a possible threat? In the majority opinion it was stated that, “In a case of threatened danger requiring prompt action, it is a choice between inflicting obviously needless hardship on the many, or sitting passive and unresisting in the presence of the threat.” Drawing this connection to Ebola, does the government have the right to quarantine the potentially affected? Most of us, would say yes. The difference between these cases is the racial profiling. However, it is feasible in a hypothetical world that once terror sets in that travelers from affected countries could be targeted and quarantined for ebola based on race and not on contact because of our natures as human beings. Hobbes would anticipate this crumbling into blatant fear-response because of his understanding that large events like this weaken even powerful sovereigns.

On the flip-side, if the government did not enact a quarantine and allowed people to wander free even when sick it could be considered a threat to everyone whom is healthy’s fundamental right to life. Such an instance as this however would most clearly demonstrate Hobbe’s state of nature in real-life. This is because it would provoke an ‘us versus them’ mentality and foster isolation in a country where that has become near impossible. In all honesty, if something like this ever happens (and breaks down society as we have come to know it) you all can find me locked into Costco and I will emerge only after a couple years have passed and the crazy with it. A cutthroat chaotic world such as we have hypothesized would be a terrible mix of the prisoner’s dilemma and the assurance games.


This is due to the understanding that lying with the aim of survival is more likely than in the assurance game but communication is possible (unlike the prisoner’s dilemma). Hobbes would most likely be fascinated by a wide-spread Ebola outbreak and its consequences on society. Quarantining to prevent the exposure of human’s darker natures is the obvious course of action. The only thing to be cautious of is the replacement of out liberties once we un-board our homes and eventually leave our individual Costcos.


One comment

  1. abklee · November 7, 2014

    Your connection between Ebola and Hobbes was a very interesting one, as is the debate on whether or not it is ethical to quarantine Ebola victims or possible victims. I agree that the government has the right to do this because it is in the best interest of the general public, and as Hobbes argues, Humans are naturally selfish and fearful, so it only makes sense that we would want to lock up any person who shows the first sign of a terrible virus. On the flipped, those people being forced into quarantine would be very unhappy as their natural state is ALSO selfish and fearful, thus they would be afraid and angry that they are quarantined, because they don’t care if others are infected, only that they are free to continue on with their lives


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