The sovereign’s duties

Notes for April 29

Main points

We discussed the two largest classes of the sovereign’s duties: those concerning the maintenance of the sovereign’s power and those concerning equality between rich and poor.

Duties to maintain power

I said that the remarks about the sovereign’s duties to retain power should be read as intra-royalist sniping. What happens when your side loses a civil war (or an election)? You blame the people on your side who, in your opinion, blew it. That’s at least some of what they were doing in Paris.

Hobbes was saying that Charles I should not have made as many concessions to Parliament as he did. His opponents, such as Clarendon, insisted that a hard-line position such as Hobbes’s would have made things much worse.

Rich and poor

Hobbes went well beyond the standard platitude that the sovereign is required to procure the safety of the people (salus populi). The sovereign has to see that people are able to acquire and keep “all the contentments of life” (30.1).

I noted that Hobbes had little room for a distinction between using force to repel a direct threat and using force to take what you need (e.g. from someone who is merely withholding it but not acting aggressively towards you). This is a clear implication of 14.4 and stated explicitly in 27.26.

This position put Hobbes on the far side of a historical divide. He sits with the medieval thinkers who had a broadly construed excuse of necessity for breaking various laws. By contrast, his contemporaries, such as Hale, were taking stronger stands in defense of property.

I said that you can see this distinction at play in Judith Jarvis Thomson’s famous article on abortion. This is because Thomson relies on ownership to determine who should get life-saving resources: if two people need a coat to survive in the winter cold, the owner has a stronger right to it and if two people need a body’s organs, the owner has a stronger right to them.

Tena correctly noted that Thomson’s use of this distinction is not as stark as I made it out to be. Thomson only says that ownership trumps need when giving the thing the owner has to the needy person would impose significant burdens on the owner. She didn’t say owners always win.

Someone, perhaps Tena, also mentioned John Harris’s article “The Survival Lottery.” This came up because one area where we clearly do not treat necessity as an excuse concerns the distribution of organs: you aren’t allowed to kill people ahead of you in the transplant waiting list even if doing so is necessary to save your own life. Harris’s lottery concerns this topic.

I posted links to both articles on Sakai. Print them out and enjoy some good summer reading!

This page was written by Michael Green for Hobbes Seminar, Philosophy 185s, Spring 2013. It was posted May 4, 2013.
Hobbes Seminar