Philosophers and the Coast
My first encounter with philosophers and government arose out of being a member of the chorus in a school production of the Gondoliers at Scots College. This memorable Gilbert and Sullivan operetta had the chorus singing to the aria of Giuseppe:
Oh, philosophers may sing of the troubles of a King,
Yet the duties are delightful, and the privileges great;
But the privilege and pleasure that we treasure beyond measure
Is to run on little errands for the Minister of State.
This verse had me thinking about what the great philosophers may have said about the “troubles” of the King (State), and how those “troubles” may lead to “little errands”! The second verse concludes:
And the culminating pleasure that we treasure beyond measure
Is the gratifying feeling that our duty has been done!
As part of summertime reading, I dived into the works of Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679—author of Leviathan) and John Locke (1632-1704—Two Treatises of Government). Their writings underpin modern forms of government through discussion of “social contracts”. They accept that people/communities naturally form governments to avoid the chaos of war and pestilence. However, they differ on the essence of citizens’ relationship with their governments.
Hobbes had a very dim view of people’s nature and capacity to make collective decisions. Every person was seen in a negative way as being in a permanent state of conflict with every other person and this saw them having a right to everything. In order to live in peace a social contract should be established involving a firm hand, the King, directing/controlling outcomes. This constituted a state of subjugation to a powerful central authority to protect the internal cohesion of the state and its security.
The philosophy of Locke provided a different theory of social contract linked to another conception of human nature. He was critical of the concept of the divine right of kings. To him people are moral beings generally wishing to live in peace with each other. People had rights of life, health, liberty and property “possession”. In this context we are not to injure the property of others. To secure such rights the people must place power in a government that can both protect them and adjudicate disputes between them. This view paved the way for modern constitutional and responsible government.
Both Hobbes and Locke resonate with me in terms of behaviour of those exercising a “right” to do what is in their self-interest with land ownership. Hobbes saw such actions in the absence of a moral compass based on the worst tendencies of people. Locke was more confident in a community working in agreement to obey laws and abide by moral limits in nature. However, Locke could be seen as being overly optimistic as “greed” (perhaps coupled with ignorance) drives actions where a “right” to use and protect one’s property is in conflict with any social responsibility to consider other private or public interests.
My awareness of how social conflicts play out in the coastal zone was enriched in reading the work of Robert Thompson (“Cultural models and shoreline social conflict”, Coastal Management, 2007, 35, 211-237). One of his seven “cultural models” is that of “sovereignty”. This is where individual property owners act as if they have virtually uncontrolled dominion over the use and disposition of property (their “castle”). Neighboring properties are seen as separate, autonomous domains.
This behaviour reflects both Hobbes and Locke where such actions not only fail to appreciate the consequences to others, but also that shoreline boundaries can be ambulatory. Yet this does not stop claims from landowners seeking to protect their boundaries as a “right”. Of course, such circumstances give rise to attempts to regulate such outcomes. This point opens up consideration of an ancient common law based on Roman Institutes of Justinian related to public rights to use the seashore. Thompson cleverly documents how these conflicts play out in a democratic society, something I will discuss further in a future blog on the Public Trust Doctrine.
Returning then to the Gondoliers: those “troubles” of the King (State) remain in dealing with conflicting interests in a dynamic coastal zone. I am not sure that the duties are always “delightful”, but from time to time I do feel privileged to “run on little errands for the Minister of State”. However, I am always looking in hope for that culminating pleasure that “our duty has been done”.
Words by Prof Bruce Thom. Please respect the author’s thoughts and reference appropriately: (c) ACS, 2023. For correspondence about this blog post please email email@example.com