Hobbesian Morality in “Lord of the Flies”

If you were bored in high school english class studying the symbolism in Lord of the Flies, fear not, I shan’t be rehashing that. What I will do instead is liken LOTF to a work of philosophy, Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes, and show how they are essentially the exact same book.

  • In Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes writes of the tribulations and terror that mankind would face if there ever came a time when there was no government to keep law and order. He calls this anarchical situation the State Of Nature, (meaning the way things naturally are).
  • In Lord of the Flies, William Golding writes of the tribulations and terror that a group of boys face when there came a time when there were no adults to keep law in order, being stranded on a desert island, abandoning their decency, and reverting to the way they naturally felt like behaving.

Let me explain…

Images from Wikipedia

1. The State of Nature: A World Without Moral Rules

Hobbes wrote that when there was no government to ensure men would keep their behaviour in check, there would be no “moral rules” as we traditionally understand them (for example, loving thy neighbour, not stealing from others, etc.). He thought completely the opposite – instead of being “good”, he encourages men to use all their devious wiles to betray and overcome one-another to attain their own ends, when in this situation. It is the only logical thing to do, when faced with the risk of brutality by others; the logical thing to do is fight fire with fire if you want to survive.

Hobbes argues that men without over-arching government will definitely descend into war, based on some observations of human nature. Firstly, we have an equality of need. The simple fact of life is that in the world, we are in constant and never-ending competition for a finite number of resources like food and water, land, etc. Secondly, he sees all men are equal. We all differ in our faculties, but essentially we are equally vulnerable; “For as to the strength of body, the weakest has the strength enough to kill the strongest, either by secret machination, or by confederacy with others, that are in the danger with himselfe”. In other words, the enemy of my enemy is my friend, and together we can kill him.

Hobbes thought that “From this equality of ability, ariseth equality of hope in the attaining of our Ends. And therefore if any two men desire the same thing, which they cannot both enjoy, they become enemies; and in the way to their End, ….. endeavour to destroy, or subdue one an other”. In other words, if it’s a “me or you” situation, and you have the ability to destroy me first, you are going to use it.

When this is put together a picture emerges of a world where every man is suspicious of others trying to steal his supplies, his possessions, his land or what-have-you, and has to defend himself from attack, (in times such as these, the quote is appropriate: “Eternal vigilance is the price of freedom”).

While we are in this conflict we have no room for morality, because rather than risk going soft on people and refusing to harm them, the smart thing to do is to be as savage and brutal as possible so that people will think twice about crossing us in the first place.

Hobbes thinks that in this situation the smartest way to protect yourself is to anticipate the attacks of others: in short, the smartest and strongest survivors will dispose of or incapacitate others as expediently and brutally as possible, for no reason other than their mere existence poses a potential threat – “And from this diffidence of one another, there is no way for any man to secure himselfe,so reasonable, as Anticipation”.

Thus in Hobbes’ State of Nature, the life of man is “solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short”. Nobody wants to live in a world like this. This is just like how people describe prison gangs.

With everybody acting so violently to protect themselves, we are going to eventually catch it in the neck at some point. There is only one hope for humanity. We need to bargain our way out of this situation and create rules for co-existence and cooperation with other people – normative rules that govern our behaviour. We need to create moral rules.

Please check out this website or even wikipedia to gain an understanding of something
“The Prisoner’s Dilemma”, which Hobbes’ work draws heavily upon.

2. Justifying The Sovereign

Hobbes brings us to this point but goes on to further his political agenda and argues that without a “Sovereign”, a “common Power to keep them all in awe”, the agreement for peace, although rational, will be undone by suspicion.

Imagine that two people are rational and agree to cooperate with one another and thereby let down their guard. These two people will now have the time and energy to devote to becoming an industrious and productive member of a society. Unfortunately the smartest thing to do becomes again the policy of attacking the other person, who will now offer the least possible resistance. The rational thing to do would be to attack, or better yet, enslave the other person, so as to get the greatest benefit for yourself.

Assuming both parties are rational and reasonably smart, they will both realise this, and defect from their pact in anticipation; more and more people would realise that they are unable to trust others to keep pacts, and therefore no new pacts are made. Morality would cease to exist because of suspicion.

With a third-party Sovereign however (meaning a government, king, prince, emperor, or anybody with a monopoly on power), there are laws which people are punished for breaking, (arguably objectively and without bias). Thus, people may feel safe to follow the moral rules for peaceful living and cooperation and keep their pacts, confident that the Sovereign has eliminated all non-compliance with the threat of force, through the police, courts, and armed forces.

Unfortunately it also means that the word “Morality” loses most of its meaning.

Morality: A Definition

“Morality” is usually understood to refer to something like a code that we would follow voluntarily, based on shared values and common ideas. But according to Hobbes, the word “Morality” only has meaning with reference to a Sovereign power.

To say “x is good” is the same thing as saying “x is permitted, required, or rewarded by the Sovereign”.

To say “x is bad” is to say “x is forbidden, or punished by the Sovereign”.

What this means is that (for Hobbes), outside of a Common-wealth governed by a Sovereign, there is no such thing as right and wrong!: “To this warre of ever man against every man… …nothing can be Unjust. The notions of Right and Wrong, Justice and Injustice have there no place. Where there is no common Power, there is no Law: where no Law, no Injustice… …these are Qualities that relate to men in Society, not in Solitude…”.

The words of the moral language – Right, Wrong, Good, Bad – now have no meaning. They are something that exist within a particular society, and may differ between societies. They refer to the elected assembly’s idea about what should or should not be done. Rape and murder, for example, are only wrong once a law is made to prohibit them.

But imagine for a moment that we lose our government through revolution, natural disaster, or some other cause – would we necessarily lose our sense of what is right and wrong too? Can we distinguish between good and evil without needing to be threatened or enticed by the Sovereign power in our country? Would we still recognise that it was wrong to break our agreement to behave peacefully? Hobbes thinks that we would definitely revert to total violent anarchy without fear of repercussions.

Thomas Hobbes

Thomas Hobbes. A handsome devil alright. (Photo credit: Stifts- och landsbiblioteket i Skara)

Moral Laws Without Government

Or will we? Let’s examine this claim..

Imagine we still do not have a government because the events of 2012 occured or something like that.  Will it be possible for us to make a pact to cooperate, and thus adhere to some moral code outside of mere laws? Of course it is, but we need some reason to behave nicely and not defect.

Gregory S. Kavka explores the possibility that having a reputation for breaking your pacts will cause you to suffer more than if stayed true to the cooperation pact, and is in fact a form of punishment in itself.

Once an actor in a State Of Nature makes a pact and then breaks it, they may well reap the immediate rewards and plunder. However other actors will be disinclined to make any more pacts with them; the act of breaking a pact in effect resigns the actor to an eternity in the State Of Nature, and we have already seen how nasty this situation is. Thus there is motivation to make pacts for peace and cooperation and moral rules independent of the Sovereign, contrary to Hobbes’ theory. Reputation effects mean it will pay you to stick to the straight-and-narrow in the long run: “The fear of losing credibility and hence future opportunities for beneficial cooperation can suffice to motivate rational self-interested parties in the State Of Nature to keep their agreements with one another..”


Calvin and Hobbes

Image from Wikipedia

Wrong Hobbes, but you get the gist.

Hobbes can answer this criticism of his theory with Dominators. The term refers to an actor in a State Of Nature who will break their pacts (or just not make any) and attack you simply for the sheer enjoyment they get from dominating others.

Kavka had suggested that people can trust each other in a State Of Nature because the rational thing to do is to work up a good reputation through cooperation. But with even a single dominator around, even people who wanted to behave peacefully will now have good reason to attack others in anticipation again. If there is someone you know will always defect, you can’t afford not to defect yourself. You can’t afford not to fight fire with fire. Hobbes’ theory is in this basic form sound, according to my interpretation.

Lord of the Flies Examples

Finally, as promised, I will show alll these pieces of theory coming together, in the book Lord Of The Flies.

In the book a group of school-boys are thrust into a Hobbesian State Of Nature when their plane crashes on an island with no adults around. There is therefore no reason to behave nicely, except their own consciences. The sensible, rational boy Ralph blows a conch shell as a formal signal for an assembly, to plan a magnificent community based on mutual cooperation. Everybody would have a task and working together they would be saved.

But time goes by and the memory of the rational system of morality they left behind fades. They become too self-absorbed and irrational to notice a child is missing and has died in a forest-fire. The dominator, Jack, also finds hunting more exciting than cooperating with the planned community, and fails to keep his pact to keep the signal fire going. The beacon of hope, so to speak, whithers and dies.

Suddenly, though this is minor disagreement, a minor challenge to the moral code, and because there is no-one powerful enough to stop it, the island enters a condition of war. Simon is beaten in a frenzied gang attack that blurred the lines of fun, and Piggy the smart boy on Ralph’s side is knocked off a cliff and has his head cracked open whilst defending the conch shell, which represents law and formality. Ralph attempts to reason with the “savages” and asks them what they will do for food and shelter if they go on burning and wasting everything; he is met with hunting calls and howls. The savages will tolerate no threat to the legitemacy of their fun.

Finally, Ralph, who clearly saw the rationality of peace and order from the start and pursued it in deference to violence, in other words, tried his hardest to cooperate instead of defect, is deserted by the last of his friends who are pursuing the strategy of if you can’t beat em, join em for their own safety. Ralph is left in a war against all of them, and is hunted by the bloody-thirsty dominators.

Ralph is moments away from death, and moral law is only restored when a naval officer, representing the Sovereign which has power over both sides in the island’s war, finally arrives on the beach and rebukes them for their behaviour.

The only way that I can possibly think of that Ralph could have avoided the calamity, would have been to use Hobbes’ strategy of anticipation, against his own moral code and the moral code of English society from whence he came, and acted like a dominator himself, and killed Jack before he became problematic. There was ample time and opportunity, and everything suggests that Ralph is in fact the biggest and strongest boy on the island. But by trying to cooperate with a dominator, Ralph ultimately would have lost his life. The dominator became too powerful, because as we know, defecting trumps cooperating every time.

Marginally-relevant, title-appropriation humour.

While the book is not taken from real-life, its characters are real enough human beings, capable of just the same desires for peace or domination that Hobbes’ and Kavka’s are, and it demonstrates how society and morality could conceivably, and easily, break down in the State Of Nature given the existence of dominators, even despite everybody’s best efforts and intentions.


Hobbes’ State Of Nature is by definition amoral, because “moral behaviour” is to be understood as “obedience to the laws of the Sovereign”.

In a State Of Nature/time of Anarchy, we can see that the rational thing to do is to cooperate if we think others will.  However, we are almost certain to be swayed from this course due to suspicions about the intentions of others, specifically, whether or not they will comply with their parts of the bargains, or whether or not they are dominators who enjoy conquest. People are not generally held to be acting immorally when acting in self-defence – the difference being that in Hobbes’ world, probably suspicion alone would be justification for pre-emptive violence.

According to this pessemistic view of human nature, strong and powerful central government is the only sure way to prevent crime. Strong and powerful central government is the only way to make people feel secure enough to not have to take their safety into their own hands 24/7. Proponents of Facism or a Police State would have a field-day!

Incidentally, this is exactly what Hobbes was arguing for: “Order, at any cost!” Or more accurately, the continuation of the British Monarch a few centuries ago when civil war seemed possible. So not quite full blown facism. Still, makes ya think.

If you have anything to add I would love to hear your opinions and arguments. Please leave your comment below!


This blog has drawn on aspects of:

  • Two essays I wrote for PHIL 227 (Morality) at Otago University in 2010,
  • Hobbes, T. (1968) Leviathan, ed. C.B. Macpherson, Penguin Books, London, England.
  • Irwin, T. H. (2009) The Development of Ethics, vol II, Suarez to Rousseau, Oxford University Press, Oxford, England.
  • Kavka, G.S. (1986) Hobbesian Moral and Political Theory, Princeton University Press, USA.
  • Rachels, S. (2007) The Elements of Moral Philosophy, 5th Edition, McGraw Hill, New York NY, USA.
  • Rawls, J. (2007) Lectures on the History of Political Philosophy, Cambridge MA, Harvard University Press, USA.

4 Responses to Hobbesian Morality in “Lord of the Flies”

  1. Dylan Shield says:

    Zeppelin rules!!……

  2. Sean says:

    Excellent essay. Teaching LOTF and love making this connection. Well done!

  3. Andrew says:


  4. Ashley says:

    this is fantastic after reading this article I have a much better understanding of LOTF. I recently watched the movie in class and this is a lot of help. Thanks

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