Hobbes on sovereignty Notes for February 24

Main points

We talked about Hobbes’s understanding of sovereignty. We were particularly concerned with the relationship between the sovereign and subjects in two kinds of cases: revolution and the ordinary operation of the state.

Rights to revolution

Hobbes didn’t think there was such a thing. (Though this will be qualified in our next session.) He had various tricky reasons for holding that sovereignty isn’t conditional or limited, based on the way he described the social contract. But the tricky arguments only go so far: couldn’t there be a slightly different social contract that did include conditions?

He has to show that there was something contradictory in both instituting a state and at the same time holding out the option to dissolve it in a rebellion.

There’s nothing in the nature of a contractual agreement that rules this sort of thing out. I can fire my agent; why can’t I fire the sovereign? There has to be something special about the state.

One consideration is that the sovereign isn’t really a party to the agreement. If you want a revolution, you have to break your agreement with the other subjects, some of whom, presumably will oppose your revolution.

We were also hung up on the question of what recognizing such a right would involve. It may be helpful to revert to the distinctions we drew concerning rights.

Suppose the right to revolution is a claim right: the state has an obligation to respect it. How does that work? I show up at the seat of government with my pitchfork-wielding rebels and demand that the state give up. So is the government then obliged to fold up? That does seem silly. I wouldn’t agree to join a state if it could collapse when any old bunch of yahoos decided they were dissatisfied.

Suppose we understand the right as a liberty, meaning there’s nothing wrong in exercizing it, but others aren’t obliged to help you do so. If the state is allowed to resist and try to put the rebellion down, then what’s the point of the right?

Ordinary absolutism

Suppose we grant Hobbes’s claim that there is no right to rebellion. He’s also an absolutist about the relationship between sovereign and subject in the ordinary operation of the state. What does that mean?

One thing it means is that the sovereign can’t treat the subjects unjustly. The subjects authorize all of the sovereign’s actions and so everything the sovereign does to them counts as if they did it to themselves. Supposing it’s impossible to be unjust to oneself, which seems fair enough, you get the conclusion that the sovereign can’t be unjust to the subjects.

It’s not easy to agree with Hobbes on this point. Consider the example of the infidel prince from Chapter 42, ¶ 11. It’s tremendously important that there’s a distinction between what the sovereign does and what the subjects do. That works only if the subjects do not authorize everything the sovereign does.

The most Hobbes can plausibly claim is that the subjects authorize the sovereign’s actions “in those things which concern the common peace and safety” (ch. 17, ¶ 13). He tries to show that this must be everything the sovereign might do. Why? Because there is no way of developing institutions that could check the sovereign’s power that would not be used to bring down the state.

I think that something like this might make some sense if we take “sovereign” to mean what we do by “state.” The state does not, in fact, tolerate institutions powerful enough to check it. Modern states have developed internal checks: they give independence to one branch to keep the others in line. Hobbes thought those couldn’t work; he was probably too pessimistic, but it would be interesting to see what would happen if one branch seriously threatened another one in our government, much as the Parliament and King declared war on one another in Hobbes’s time.

This page was written by Michael Green for Social & Political Philosophy, Philosophy 33, Spring 2010. It was posted February 26, 2010.
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