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Andrew Belonsky

Andrew Belonsky

Posted: July 13, 2010 05:45 PM

What the BP Oil Spill Tells Us About Human Nature

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BP employees will spend the next two days testing the latest well cap to stop the catastrophic Gulf of Mexico oil leak. This is the umpteenth time they have tried to stem the crude's spread.

It's also the perfect opportunity to explore how this company single-handedly disproved two of history's greatest philosophical minds: Thomas Hobbes and Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

Students of political philosophy know that Hobbes and Rousseau didn't exactly see eye to eye. Hobbes famously wrote that life for natural man was "nasty, brutish and short," for man was a monster who could only be tamed by civil society.

Rousseau, meanwhile, saw natural man as more childlike, although not necessarily innately good, and civil society as a restrictive force, an idea summed up in the 1762 treatise The Social Contract's opening line, "Man was born free, and he is everywhere in chains."

Despite their many disagreements, however, Hobbes and Rousseau both agree that natural man evolved, so to speak, because he had something other beasts did not: foresight. "[W]hereas there is no other felicity of beasts but the enjoying of their quotidian food, ease, and lusts, as having little or no foresight... man observes how one event has been produced by another, and remembers in them antecedence and consequence," declared Hobbes.

Rousseau too insisted that man, realizing his natural faculties were limited, harnessed the powers of deduction, and foresaw the need for cooperation: "Since men cannot create new forces, but merely combine and control those which already exist, the only way in which they can preserve themselves is by uniting their separate powers."

In order to preserve their self-interest, forward-thinking man could predict and avoid negative consequences, while finding reasonable conclusions for collective problems. Offshore drilling, and BP's particular handling of the Deepwater disaster, suggests otherwise.

For all of man's technological successes, we have not developed reliable methods with which to clean up disasters of our own creation, like the one still unfolding in the Gulf. If Rousseau and Hobbes's theories on foresight are to be believed, we humans would have to be far more responsible, meticulous and conscientious when it comes to embarking on projects such as offshore drilling. Clearly we have not been. Profits and the bottom line were valued above human and animal life. But, oddly, perhaps that does indeed prove Hobbes's brutish point:

Hobbes expands on foresight later in his 1651 masterpiece, Leviathan. Foresight is not simply the ability to map out the future. It's a complicated system for weighing benefits and pitfalls. "Because in deliberation the appetites and aversions are raised by foresight of the good and evil consequences and sequels of the actions whereof we deliberate, the good and evil effects thereof depends on the foresight of a long chain of consequences, of which very seldom any man is able to see to the end," he writes. "But for so far as a man sees, if the good in those consequences be greater than the evil, the whole chain is that which writers call apparent or seeming good."

The BP disaster, then, illustrates how a company put their own self-interest above potential harm, thus proving Hobbes's assertion that men are, in fact, quite beastly.

Some may argue that BP, and man in general, could not have foreseen the disaster, a hypothesis that supports Hobbes's belief that man could not see the end of all actions. But the past renders this argument moot: we have seen ecological disasters before, yet we continue to ignore experience and foresight, instead preferring to expand profits.

In that light, man does not read as a reasonable animal. We end up looking a lot like Hobbes' natural man, a creature who looks out only for number one, the rest of the world be damned.

Note: This piece also appeared at Death and Taxes magazine.