Interpretation and 'power'

Class notes for 24 October

I keep going on about how laying down rights and (now) authorizing representatives involves something I call moral powers.

But, as I think JJ said, Hobbes never used that term. So what does it mean to say that what he wrote “involves” moral powers?

It could mean one of two things.

On the one hand, it’s an implicit criticism of Hobbes. He needed to identify moral powers in order to say the sorts of things that he did. But he didn’t do that. Therefore, his points about laying down rights, authorizing representatives, retransferring rights, and suing sovereigns are not explained as accurately as they should be.

On the other hand, it’s an interpretation of Hobbes, where “interpretation” is understood more along the lines of “reconstruction of what he should have said that is pretty close to what he actually did say”. Hobbes didn’t use the term, but he at least implicitly had the idea in mind. And, more to the point, interpreters who ignore this possibility aren’t accurately identifying how the argument has to go, whether Hobbes fully understood this himself or not.

It seems to me that you could take one or the other attitude to the points we’ve been discussing. Or both, even.

Speaking for myself, I tend to the critical side in some cases but not others.

For example, Hobbes described the ability to sue the sovereign as an instance of liberty (Lev. 21.19). Since liberty is the absence of obligations and since the power to bring a case is not accurately analyzed as liberty, I think Hobbes goofed there.

On the other hand, he never said that authorizing a representative involves laying down rights (some translations of De Cive 7.11 aside). What he did say was that being authorized is having a commission or license. Had he meant to say “transfer,” he could have, but he didn’t.

Update: 30 October. In fact, in a subsequent publication, Hobbes did explitictly draw this distinction, using “transfer” and “commit” where I have been using “transfer” or “lay down” and “power” and using “power” where I have been using “right.” (I got the reference from Gauthier, The Logic of Leviathan p. 149).

I cannot believe that Sir Edward Coke, how much soever he desired to advance the authority of himself and other justices of the common-law, could mean that the King in the King’s Bench sat as a spectator only, and might not have answered all motions, which his judges answered, if he had seen cause for it. For he knew that the King was supreme judge then in all causes temporal, and is now in all causes both temporal and ecclesiastical; and that there is an exceeding great penalty ordained by the laws for them that shall deny it. But Sir Edward Coke, as he had (you see) in many places before, hath put a fallacy upon himself, by not distinguishing between committing and transferring. He that transferreth his power, hath deprived himself of it: but he that committeth it to another to be exercised in his name and under him, is still in the possession of the same power. And therefore, if a man render himself, that is to say, appealeth to the King from any judge whatsoever, the King may receive his appeal; and it shall be effectual. (Hobbes, “Dialogue Between a Philosopher & a Student of The Common Laws of England”, In English Works, v. 6, p. 52)

My gloss: the King commits his right to adjudicate cases to judges. But that is not the same thing as transferring his right to do so. Therefore, the King retains the right to hear cases despite having committed this right to judges.

That’s about as direct a passage as one could hope for.