Sovereignty Notes for September 18

Main points

Chapter 17 is largely devoted to contradicting Aristotle. Compare it with the passages quoted in the handout “Aristotle on the state’s origin and purpose” [pdf].

But the highlight is the formulation of the social contract in paragraph 13. Three things stand out.

  1. The social contract is made among the future subjects. The sovereign does not covenant for his position.
  2. The future subjects “authorize and give up their rights”. Leaving aside the unfortunate syntax, is this redundant or, worse, contradictory?
  3. The social contract is for a specific end: peace and security. Usually, when an actor is authorized, the actor’s commission is limited (see the last sentence in Lev. 16.5). Is that going to be the case with the social contract?

Finally, we spent a lot of time talking about Hobbes’s characterization of the sovereign’s absolute powers in ch. 18. In particular, we spent a fair amount of time pursuing a question that Chris pushed: how could subjects authorize their own punishment (18.3)?

Hobbes’s arguments for absolutism

Some of these arguments are lousy. For example, Hobbes’s claim that it’s impossible for the sovereign to sign a covenant with the people as a whole isn’t very good. Why couldn’t the people as a whole appoint a representative who isn’t a sovereign?

Other arguments seem merely tricky, such as the argument that the sovereign could forgive any obligations in a covenant after being authorized to act for the subjects with whom the covenant was made.

The real question is why the subjects would agree to a social contract that included such extensive powers. Why would they authorize all of the sovereign’s actions, including the action of eliminating any obligations owed to them?

I think that Hobbes’s best argument is the one that there is no judge in common between sovereign and subject (see the paragraph on pp. 111-112). If there’s a conflict over the sovereign’s obligations, how will it be adjudicated? Since the point of the social contract is to establish a government that would guarantee peace, limiting the sovereign in ways that will bring on war doesn’t make any sense.

When we get to chapter 21, we’ll see Hobbes discussing cases in which subjects are released from their obligations. One question we’ll have to ask is: is that consistent with the absolutism articulated here?

Hobbes and us

We’re accustomed to the executive’s being subject to the law. That’s why Nixon was almost impeached (he resigned first) and Clinton actually was impeached (he beat the rap).

But that’s not quite what Hobbes means. Our system of government splits sovereignty among three branches of government. (Hobbes didn’t think this was possible either, but never mind that for now).

Is there a constitutional way of challenging the form of our government? I don’t think so (by which I mean, “I might be wrong, but …”).

You can challenge the government for breaking its own laws, but you do it through a branch of the government, the courts. That’s not the same thing as holding the government to a law that it hasn’t established. If you wanted to raise such an extra-legal challenge, how would you do it? Is there a court to go to?

Of course, our government recognizes all kinds of limits on its power that Hobbes would have thought foolish. But, by the same token, our government exercises far more power than Hobbes could have imagined. That’s worth remembering when thinking about Hobbes’s absolutism.

This page was written by Michael Green for Social and Political Philosophy, Philosophy 33, Fall 2006.
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