Hobbesian choice

Arnold M. Zwicky zwicky at CSLI.STANFORD.EDU
Fri Jan 28 20:40:21 UTC 2005

In a letter printed in the NYT 1/28/05 (p. A20), John A. Viteritti
In "Winning Cases, Losing Voters" (Op-Ed, Jan. 26), Paul Starr presents
the Democratic Party with the Hobbesian choice of living by its
convictions [AMZ: and losing votes] or compromising its principles in
order to get more votes.

At first i thought this was a malapropism ("Hobbesian" for "Hobson's")
followed by a semantic extension, from 'no choice at all' to 'a bad
choice, between two unacceptable alternatives'.  In any case, the
expression was unfamiliar to me.  But then Google told me that the
Hobbesian path was well trodden, especially in 2003.

First, at
there's a National Review piece (4/21/03), "Hobbesian Choice: An oral
translation", by Peter Wood, which begins:
MR. PAYTON: I think that decision which would say that we have to
choose, would be a Hobbesian choice here.

I _thought_ that's what I heard Mr. Payton said, but I had to wait for
the transcript to be sure. John Payton is the lawyer who argued the
University of Michigan's case to the Supreme Court in _Gratz_ v.
_Bollinger_ on April 1.
After some Payton-bashing, Wood gets around to asking: "... What in the
world is a Hobbesian choice?"  He rejects the Hobson's choice
interpretation, in favor of invoking the ideas of political philosopher
Thomas Hobbes.

Later that year, in July, the folks on STUMPERS-L coped with Hobbesian
choices.  Here's our very own Fred Shapiro:
On Wed, 9 Jul 2003, Sidney Allinson wrote:

 > > Wall Street Journal (via ProQuest Nat'l Newspapers - 1988 to
 > > Harbrandt, Robert F. "Letter to the editor:EDB goes against the
 > > Wall Street Journal_, April 10, 1984.
 > > "EPA did not make a Hobbesian choice when they banned EDB."

 > Surely, the correct phrase is:
 > "HOBSON'S Choice."

No, actually "Hobbesian choice" appears to be a legitimate term that is
not a malapropism for "Hobson's choice."  It is used to mean a choice
between brutish options, whereas "Hobson's choice" means no choice at

At this point, though, "Hobbesian choice" hadn't been tracked back very
far, though the reference to Hobson, a much less well-known person than
Hobbes, pretty much has to date back to the actual Hobson's lifetime
(c. 1544-1631, overlapping with Hobbes's, 1588-1679).  So I was still
suspicious that Hobbes's name and ideas had gotten grafted onto
Hobson's, a suspicion that was not allayed by a column (later in 2003)
in which it's maintained that a choice between two bad alternatives
*is* no choice at all:

"Tar Baby II" by Edgar J. Steele, 10/25/03, about G. W. Bush:

George's current dilemma is a classic Hobbesian choice, which is no
choice at all, the name of which derives from Thomas Hobbes' belief
that man must choose between living in a state of nature (a life which
is "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short") or suffering under an
arbitrary and absolute government (Thomas Hobbes, _The Elements of Law:
Natural and Politic_, 1640).

So, are these references to Hobbes just after-the-fact reworkings, or
did someone devise "Hobbesian choice" independently of Hobson?  How far
back has anyone gotten with "Hobbesian choice"?

arnold (zwicky at csli.stanford.edu)

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