Notes for April 1

Main points

Hobbes’s discussion of authorization is important for two reasons.

  1. We need it to make sense of the social contract. The references to the person of the commonwealth, bearing a person, and owning and authoring actions are opaque without it. (See Leviathan ch. 17, par. 13–14)
  2. It’s the chief part of the political theory that is in Leviathan but not the other political works. So it’s natural to wonder why Hobbes was motivated to add it.

Plus, the way it is generally understood generates enormous problems. Basically, Hobbes’s political theory would self-destruct if the generally accepted interpretation of authorization were true. Maybe that’s the way it is: Hobbes wasn’t perfect. But it would be more satisfying if we could see why he would have thought it all held together.

What’s coming

Gauthier and Martinich agree that what authorization does is enable one person (the actor or representative) to act on the rights of another (the author). That causes big trouble. As Martinich notes, it appears to mean that the social contract is inconsistent: the subjects alienate their rights and then try to use authorization to enable the sovereign to act on their rights. Huh? And as we’ll see when we read Gauthier, it makes Hobbes’s account of the sovereign’s right of punishment fall on its face. Since a sovereign without the right to punish is no good at all, this is a pretty big problem.

I took a first step at solving those problems today by distinguishing two things that authorization can be used to do.

  1. Extend the author’s rights to the representative. E.g. if I authorize Charley to enter my house, he acts on my rights when he goes into the house.

  2. Establish mere ownership of the representative’s rights. E.g. if I plot with Tena to commit a crime, I’m at least partly responsible for the crime.

Gauthier and Martinich treat authorization as if it only did the first of these things. They’re among the best and they didn’t make a simple mistake. Hobbes’s remarks about the similarity between ownership of property and ownership of actions led them astray.

But that can’t be right. The members of criminal conspiracies can authorize one another’s actions even though they cannot extend rights to violate the law to one another. And while ownership of property entails rights, ownership of actions does not: that’s why it’s possible to be responsible for doing something that wrong. So the second use of authorization has to be a live possibility.

With that distinction in hand, I’m going to argue that the social contract’s derivation of the rights of sovereignty employs the mere ownership use of authorization. That will solve Martinich’s problem: the social contract can be rendered consistent because the subjects can take ownership of the sovereign’s actions even if they have already given up their rights. And I’ll try to show how something similar works with the right of punishment.

Representation and persons

We spent the last part of the class talking about Hobbes’s claim that what he calls a multitude can only speak and act if it has a representative. Hobbes used that to dispute the idea of popular sovereignty; we’ll discuss this on April 22.

Tena hit the nail on the head: a group of people can speak and act by voting, even if they do not have a representative. Hobbes came incredibly close to saying this very thing, but weirdly confined his remarks about voting to a representative assembly. We’ll have to talk about whether he can put a reasonable argument together later.

This page was written by Michael Green for Hobbes Seminar, Philosophy 185s, Spring 2013. It was posted April 1, 2013.
Hobbes Seminar