Hobbes’s two social contracts Notes for October 10

Main points

We finished our discussion of the apparent differences between the commonwealth by institution and the commonwealth by acquisition. These differences are listed in the handout.** Which we have thanks to Anne. Thanks Anne!

The big picture

Hobbes wanted to show that people would give the government the same absolute powers in the peaceful version of the social contract as they would if the social contract were made at the point of the sword. We talked about quite a few of the technical points about the two contracts.

The bottom line is that Hobbes had to show that the only effective state would be one with absolute powers. That’s what everything about the commonwealth by institution comes down to: people who had the time to decide what the state would be like would give it absolute power because otherwise it would fail.

Three wise observations

Callum is correct to have said that Hobbes very much needed to show that the sovereign was not at war with the subjects. Otherwise, the commonwealth isn’t a solution to the problem of the state of nature. As we will see next week, Locke maintained that an absolute sovereign, like Hobbes’s, did remain at war with its subjects. Hobbes needed to maintain that the sovereign has the right to use violence against the subjects but that this does not generate war.

David was right to say that we would do well to distinguish the government from the individuals who hold positions in the government. Hobbes himself did not always clearly adhere to this distinction in describing the sovereign.

And, finally, Michael was correct to note that the ability to make laws is a crucial right of sovereignty.

The right of succession†† Added October 12.

Jackie pressed me by email to explain Hobbes’s views about succession. Specifically, he asked, if the sovereign has the right to choose a successor, doesn’t that mean that any state founded as a Commonwealth by Institution will wind up like a Commonwealth by Acquisition, with the old sovereign imposing a new one on the subjects.

This got me to look back at the book. The right of succession isn’t discussed in the assigned reading. You can find it in Ch. 19, from paragraph 14 (marginal note: “Of the right of succession”) to the end. There, Hobbes explains why he thinks the parties to the social contract would give the sovereign the right to appoint a successor. If he’s right, then succession isn’t like the Commonwealth by Acquisition. It happens by the subjects’ consent, just like the sovereign’s traffic laws do.

When you read it, you’ll notice that Hobbes thought this was one area where democracy has an advantage. Suppose a group of people sets up a democracy: they elect representatives to make laws and run the state. The representatives make laws about how elections work. The people vote for new representatives under those rules. And so on and so on. Once consent sets up the representative body, it just keeps going under its own rules.

It’s much harder with monarchy, even according to Hobbes (who favored monarchy himself). His argument was that the subjects would give the monarch the ability to appoint a successor because the alternative was that the state would collapse when the monarch dies. Since no one would want that, they would give over the power to the monarch.

Thanks to Jackie’s question, I see that this is a much more interesting subject than I had realized. Thanks Jackie!

Key concepts

  1. Hobbes’s attempt to explain why the sovereign would not be accountable to the subjects in the commonwealth by institution in the fourth paragraph of chapter 18. In particular, it’s important to see why some of those arguments fit awkwardly with the commonwealth by acquisition.
  2. His application of this idea in the seventh and nineteenth paragraphs of chapter 21.
This page was written by Michael Green for Social & Political Philosophy, Philosophy 33, Fall 2012. It was posted October 10, 2012 and updated October 12, 2012.
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