Notes for April 8

Main points

We talked about the following issues that arise in chapter 21.

  1. How could Hobbes say that the subjects authorize the sovereign to punish or kill them? Doesn’t that conflict with his position that the right of self-preservation is inalienable? (Not if we understand authorization my way! According to me, at least.)
  2. Why did he say that the sovereign can’t be unjust to the subjects because the subjects have authorized all of his actions? Why not just say that justice is defined as the violation of a covenant and that the sovereign isn’t part of the social contract?
  3. Concerning the true liberty of subjects, where did he come up with some of those claims? No one agrees to kill himself in the social contract, fine. But why do they also get to make an exception for people they like? If they can’t commit themselves to military service in the social contract, why can they do so in a more specific contract? And why does the right of self-preservation become alienable when the commonwealth is at stake: why couldn’t individuals bail out and surrender to the other side if they thought they would be more likely to save their skins, even if doing so made it much more likely that the commonwealth would fall?

Can the sovereign make you kill your father?

I said that I had a particular passage in mind that might help throw some light on what was on Hobbes’s mind when he introduced exemptions from killing your ‘fellow’ in paragraph fourteen. I said it reminded me of a moral philosophy example that was kicked around in his time: can an absolute sovereign require you to do something awful, like killing your father? After all, God told Abraham to kill Isaac and monarchs are like God, according to the absolutists.

Here is Hobbes’s stab at this. It’s from Behemoth, Hobbes’s history of the civil war (completed in 1668, published in 1682). This book is a dialogue between B, who asks the questions, and A, who is clearly Hobbes.

B. Must tyrants also be obeyed in every thing actively? Or is there nothing wherein a lawful King's command may be disobeyed? What if he should command me with my own hands to execute my father, in case he should be condemned to die by the law?

A. This is a case that need not be put. We never have read nor heard of any King or tyrant so inhuman as to command it. If any did, we are to consider whether that command were one of his laws. For by disobeying Kings, we mean the disobeying of his laws, those his laws that were made before they were applied to any particular person; for the King, though as a father of children, and a master of domestic servants, yet he commands the people in general never but by a precedent law, and as a politic, not a natural person. And if such a command as you speak of were contrived into a general law (which never was, nor never will be), you were bound to obey it, unless you depart the kingdom after the publication of the law, and before the condemnation of your father.Behemoth. Edited by Ferdinand Tönnies with an introduction by Steven Holmes. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 51.

As you can see, Hobbes was keen to avoid the conclusion that the sovereign could order you to kill your father. But he also didn’t have a particularly impressive way of doing this. So he dodged the question.

This page was written by Michael Green for Hobbes Seminar, Philosophy 185s, Spring 2013. It was posted April 8, 2013.
Hobbes Seminar