The rights of sovereignty

Notes for April 3

Main points

There are two reasons why chapter 18 is thought to be important.

  1. It gives Hobbes’s account of the origin of the state
  2. It gives Hobbes’s account of the relationship between sovereigns and subjects: the rights of sovereigns and duties of subjects.

I think the first is false, though I can’t say anything persuasive about why I think that until we get to chapter 20. However the second point is certainly true. So that’s what we talked about today. And that’s why we did not worry too much about why we’re discussing a social contract that almost certainly never happened.

The chapter falls into four parts:

  1. A description of the social contract (¶ 1)
  2. Arguments directed at filling out some of the chief absolutist claims about the state: the sovereign isn’t accountable to the subjects, sovereignty is not conditional, and the subjects have no right to actively resist the sovereign or change the government. (¶¶ 2–7)
  3. An enumeration of the things that the sovereign must be given control of for the state to succeed. (¶¶ 8–15)
  4. Four summary remarks: the powers of sovereignty cannot be divided (¶¶ 16-17), popular sovereignty is incoherent (¶ 18), a point about honors (¶ 19), and Hobbes’s view that every state claims the same, absolute powers regardless of whether it is a monarchy, aristocracy, or democracy (¶ 20)

My epiphany

The chief point of the course is to present a masterpiece in all its glory. But a subsidiary aim is to give you a peek behind the curtain to show you how the scholarly work that you see manifested in classes is done: how do we get all that stuff that we say? Today, you got to see that process first hand. Because right in the middle of class, I saw a significant paragraph in an entirely new light.

Specifically, I had always thought that this paragraph was divided in two unrelated parts that I have marked (a) and (b).

(a) “These are the rights, which make the essence of sovereignty; and which are the marks, whereby a man may discern in what man, or assembly of men, the sovereign power is placed, and resideth. For these are incommunicable, and inseparable. The power to coin money; to dispose of the estate and persons of infant heirs; to have praeemption in markets; and all other statute prerogatives, may be transferred by the sovereign; and yet the power to protect his subjects be retained. But if he transfer the militia, he retains the judicature in vain, for want of execution of the laws: or if he grant away the power of raising money; the militia is in vain: or if he give away the government of doctrines, men will be frighted into rebellion with the fear of spirits. And so if we consider any one of the said rights, we shall presently see, that the holding of all the rest will produce no effect, in the conservation of peace and justice, the end for which all commonwealths are instituted. (b) And this division is it, whereof it is said, a kingdom divided in itself cannot stand:“And Jesus … said unto them, Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation; and every city or house divided against itself shall not stand” (Matthew 12:25). See also Mark 3:24 and Luke 11:17. for unless this division precede, division into opposite armies can never happen. If there had not first been an opinion received of the greatest part of England, that these powers were divided between the King, and the Lords, and the House of Commons, the people had never been divided and fallen into this civil war; first between those that disagreed in politics; and after between the dissenters about the liberty of religion; which have so instructed men in this point of sovereign right, that there be few now (in England,) that do not see, that these rights are inseparable, and will be so generally acknowledged at the next return of peace; and so continue, till their miseries are forgotten; and no longer, except the vulgar be better taught than they have hitherto been.” (Leviathan, ch. 18, par. 16.)

Here is how I used to understand that. Part (a) seemed to me to stake a claim that those three powers of government are inseparable: control of the militia, control of doctrines, and finances. These three powers are qualitatively distinct from the other rights of sovereignty: they “make the essence of sovereignty.” Part (b) clearly makes a claim about the specific case of the English state. But I never thought there was an especially deep relationship with (a).

But on Wednesday, the connection just hit me. In the English state, the militia was under the monarchy’s control, the church claimed control of doctrines, and Parliament tried to control finances. These various powers were contested: the monarchy claimed to be in charge of everything while the church and parliament tried to stake their independence. What Hobbes was saying was that this struggle for control led to the civil war. This naturally leads to (b), a claim that if the state hadn’t been divided like this the war would not have happened. Aha!

To give credit where it’s due, Michael, a student in my fall class pushed me halfway there. I have been saying for years that part (a) involved a distinguishing these three things (militia, doctrines, and money) from the other rights and faculties of sovereignty. I had said that these three were different in kind and more important than the others. But Michael rightly noted that this can’t be right. The ability to make laws is clearly an essential right of sovereignty even though it is not on the list of three (militia, doctrines, money). That dislodged my old way of reading this paragraph, making room for the new one. Thanks Michael!

Dividing the rights of sovereignty

The rights of sovereignty that Hobbes enumerates in what I called the third part of the chapter (¶¶ 8–15) are not terribly controversial, provided they are understood as powers that the government has to have. The only one that looks dodgy is the one about controlling doctrines, but even here I think we would concede the point. If open discussion of religious or political views really did threaten civil war, we would want the state to regulate them.

Here’s an example. According to the President of Genocide Watch, there are several steps that reliably precede mass killings. One of them involves what he calls “symbolization”, labeling the members of groups as a precursor to declaring some of them unclean or inhuman. The countermeasure? Suppress speech!

“To combat symbolization, hate symbols can be legally forbidden (swastikas) as can hate speech. … If widely supported, however, denial of symbolization can be powerful, as it was in Bulgaria, where the government refused to supply enough yellow badges and at least eighty percent of Jews did not wear them, depriving the yellow star of its significance as a Nazi symbol for Jews.”George Stanton, “The Eight Stages of Genocide.”

(But did fewer people die in Bulgaria?) Anyway, if he’s right about the facts, this way of controlling “doctrines” strikes me as blandly uncontroversial. Of course that’s what you would do. Hobbes saw the wars of religion and drew the same conclusion about religious controversy that we have about Nazism. It only seems offensive to us because religious controversy is so tame now.

Hobbes’s controversial claim is that all of the powers of the state have to be controlled by a particular body within the state: the person (in a monarchy) or assembly (in a democracy or aristocracy) that is the sovereign. In my opinion, Hobbes does not have a very interesting argument for this more controversial conclusion. What he has is the example of the English civil war as spelled out in paragraph 16. That’s fine as far as it goes. But there are obvious benefits to a division of power too and plenty of states have managed to live with such a division without suffering civil war. So at most Hobbes has shown that dividing the rights of sovereignty among parts of the government could be fatal to the state, not that it necessarily would be.

Authorization, again

I spent the last part of class going through some arguments in the first part of the chapter as a way of making good on my interpretation of authorization. What I had said about authorization is that it could be understood in two ways.

  1. Authorization involves extending rights from one party to another, enabling the second party to act on the first party’s rights. Example: if I authorize Charley to enter my house, he can act on my rights to enter the house.
  2. Authorization involves taking ownership of another party’s actions, meaning that the first party will be at least partly responsible for what the second party does. Example: if I authorize Tena to use my plans to rob a store, I am partly responsible for the crime.

Most people think Hobbes meant authorization in the first way. That leads to trouble. As Martinich pointed out, it would make the social contract contradictory: the subjects give up their rights and then authorize the sovereign to act of the rights that they no longer have! And as Gauthier will point out (when we read him next week), this way of understanding authorization makes it impossible to understand how the sovereign’s right of punishment could be derived.

Now, it’s entirely possible that Hobbes’s theory has these problems. No one’s perfect. But if there’s a way of understanding his political theory that both avoids these problems and fits with the text, that would be better. It would enable us to identify a coherent understanding of the state that we can attribute to Hobbes. Otherwise, the whole thing blows up on the launching pad or you get a sovereign without the right to punish. Again, maybe that’s the way it went. But it would be more satisfying if we could see why it made sense for Hobbes.

I think the ownership use of authorization gives us just the alternative we need. You can take ownership of another party’s actions even if you don’t have the right to do those actions: see the example I gave. And Hobbes himself used authorization to describe just such a relationship to another party’s criminal acts.

Today, I argued that the arguments that use authorization in chapter 18 mostly involve the ownership use of authorization.The exceptions concern representation; I’ll mention that later. That’s how Hobbes reaches his conclusions about the impossibility of injustice between subject and sovereign. To put it another way, authorization is the device Hobbes used to give theoretical depth to the standard absolutist positions that sovereigns are not accountable to their subjects and the powers of sovereigns are not conditional.

And, I might add, no one has ever identified a right that the sovereign would need to have extended to him: sovereigns are not party to the social contract and never surrender any part of their unlimited right of nature. There’s nothing they aren’t permitted to do. So what would they gain from being able to act on the subjects’ rights? If there’s no answer to that, then there’s no reason to think that he had to use authorization to extend the subjects’ rights to the sovereign.

Remaining questions

But nothing in this world is perfect and there were some great questions about the significance of the sovereign’s immunity from injustice raised in our session. Madison and Charley in particular pressed the question of why Hobbes put so much effort into showing that the sovereign could not be unjust to the subjects.

  1. What would the consequences of the sovereign’s injustice be? Is anyone going to throw the sovereign in jail over injustice?
  2. Why didn’t Hobbes just stand pat with his contractual definition of justice? Injustice constitutes breaking a covenant and the sovereign isn’t part of the social contract. Done! Why did he bother with all this stuff about authorization and accusing yourself of injustice, etc.?
  3. Why doesn’t the obligation of obedience settle it? Even if the sovereign is guilty of injustice, the subjects are obliged to obey. So what was Hobbes trying to avoid?

I think that, for the most part, these are just open questions. It’s not clear why he thought he needed all this machinery. It’s certainly there, but it’s not obvious why.

There’s also one other thing that authorization does for the sovereign that we haven’t said much about. It makes the “multitude” into one “person,” that the sovereign “bears” or “represents.” Hobbes thought this had significant implications for questions about the coherence of popular sovereignty and about which body in the English state represented the people. But we will postpone discussion of those points until will discuss the Skinner article.

This page was written by Michael Green for Hobbes Seminar, Philosophy 185s, Spring 2013. It was posted April 6, 2013.
Hobbes Seminar