One issue that continues to trouble political philosophers for centuries is how to explain the existence of a state.
If you begin from the starting point that freedom is a value to be cherished and pursued, how then can we justify a supreme, artificial body that sets laws which limit our freedom? Is the very existence of the state, therefore, not illegitimate?
During the enlightenment period, a group of philosophers including Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, sought to answer this conundrum through their social contract theory.
The basis for their theory is an understanding of what life would be like were the state not to exist, coined the ‘State of Nature’ by Thomas Hobbes. In his seminal work, Leviathan, Hobbes explained that in the absence of Government, laws and a common power to restrain human nature, individuals would have unlimited freedom to steal, rape and kill, and there would be an eternal “war of all against all.” In such a reality, life would be “nasty, brutish, and short.”
The beauty of political philosophy is that it is not merely theoretical. The debates between these great thinkers four centuries ago are still relevant today, and can enlighten our lives and inform contemporary policy debates.
In the age of global terror, this question of society’s willingness to concede certain rights in exchange for greater security is more relevant than ever.
For some, our civil liberties are an absolute, and cannot be compromised even if the cost is more terror attacks, like the Dusit attack just a few weeks ago.
For others, borrowing perhaps from Thomas Hobbes and the social contract theorists, it is rational to concede certain liberties in order to protect ourselves, and to enjoy the greatest freedom there is – the freedom to live.
As some have pointed out, the United States Declaration of Independence – a document informed by social contract theory – prioritises our rights as “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” The implication is that without life, we cannot be free and pursue happiness.
This tension is evident in the debate over the Statute Law (Miscellaneous Amendments) Bill which was signed by President Kenyatta last year. As part of the law, citizens are required to provide their DNA samples and their place of residence, postal address, and GPS coordinates.
As Uhuru told security chiefs in the aftermath of the Dusit attack, this “central master population database will be the authentic ‘single source of truth’ on personal identity in Kenya. The database will contain information on all Kenyan citizens as well as foreign nationals residing in Kenya.”
This declaration has met opposition from human rights groups, NGOs and some MPs, who have argued that it is a violation of the right to privacy.
These fears are legitimate and should not be ignored. The right to privacy is a fundamental right, and in light of recent scandals with Facebook and other companies, people are correct to be cautious about what data they share.
But while these concerns are valid, this Bill remains important.
The essence of the Western political tradition, as explained by the social contract theorists, is that while liberty should be cherished, it is legitimate and preferable for certain rights to be conceded to the state in order to protect others.
Kenya remains under serious terrorist threat, and the threat is evolving in a dangerous manner. It should not be ignored that the Dusit attackers were Kenyan nationals, and as such, at risk of slipping under the radar of the security services.
The first role of the President is to protect the citizens – remember, it is first LIFE, then liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Greater access to DNA and GPS data will help the authorities to do this, and therefore, we should be prepared to hand over this data in exchange for the extra security it will provide.
As Thomas Hobbes would say, this is a necessary step to prevent life from being “nasty, brutish and short.”
The views expressed in this article don’t necessarily represent KBC’s opinion.