Hobbes’s social contract

Notes for Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Main points

I said that the social contract (17.13) has two clauses: an alienation clause and an authorization clause. Then we went through the rights of sovereigns that are derived from the social contract (ch. 18) and the liberties of subjects that are retained through the social contract (ch. 21).

Alienation and authorization

Alienation involves giving up rights. Roughly synonymous terms in Hobbes are “surrender,” “lay down,” or “transfer.” When the subjects give up their rights to govern themselves to the sovereign, they alienate their rights to decide what to do. When the sovereign issues a command, they are obliged to do what they are commanded to do rather than being at liberty to decide for themselves.

The application of authorization to the social contract is less obvious. There are three things that could be meant by saying that the subjects authorize the sovereign.

  1. They create a corporate person with the sovereign as their common representative.
  2. They extend their rights to the sovereign.
  3. They take ownership of the sovereign’s actions.

As Patrick noted, these are not necessarily exclusive. It is possible that the subjects could do all three in the social contract.

The subjects definitely do the first thing in the social contract: they create the corporate person of the commonwealth and the sovereign “bears” or represents this corporate person.

As we will see, if the right of punishment is treated as a right that the subjects extend to the sovereign, there will be trouble. As Michael was saying today, it’s not at all clear that this is something they are capable of doing. And, at the very least, it seems out of the spirit of his repeated claims that the subjects cannot give up the right to resist punishment. This is something we will take up in the next two classes.

In my opinion, Hobbes mainly used authorization in the third way in the social contract: the subjects take ownership of the sovereign’s actions. I gave an example of this when we analyzed the argument in 18.6 (and the repeated invocation of the same point in 21.7). I think that this will solve the apparent problems with Hobbes’s account of the sovereign’s right to punish.

On constructing arguments

Here are some rules of thumb to follow when you’re trying to put an author’s argument into numbered form. Not all arguments fall into this pattern, but quite a few do.

The first premise is almost always the most general one. It is usually phrased in a way that makes no apparent reference to the issue at hand. This is because authors try to appeal to a proposition that their audience is likely to accept.

The second premise almost always picks out some feature of the thing under discussion. This usually brings the general premise to bear on the case at hand.

And the third premise is the conclusion. It asserts that something follows from the first two premises.

  1. All men are mortal.
  2. Socrates is a man.
  3. Therefore, Socrates is mortal.

In our case (18.6):

  1. People cannot treat themselves unjustly.
  2. The subjects authorize the sovereign’s actions.
  3. Therefore, the sovereign cannot treat the subjects unjustly.

We need an interpretation of “authorize” in the second sentence that links the first premise with the conclusion. I think that second premise relies on authorization to establish that the subjects own the sovereign’s actions. That is why the conclusion is said to follow: the sovereign’s actions count as the subjects’ actions and so the sovereign’s actions cannot injure (meaning ‘be unjust to’) the subjects just as my actions cannot injure me.

The liberty of subjects

Hobbes lists several things that the subjects retain the liberty to do. These are not what you and I would consider full blown rights. That is because they are not claims, meaning that the sovereign has no obligation to let us do the things we have a right to do. They are only liberties. So we have no obligation to submit to punishment or stay on the front lines of the war. But if we try to resist or run away, the sovereign is allowed to, well, kill us.

Even so, some of Hobbes’s critics have held that the liberty to resist punishment brings Hobbes’s political theory to its knees. We will take up their views in the next two sessions.


There was a handout for this class: 07.Hobbes.handout.pdf

This page was written by Michael Green for Seminar on Punishment, Philosophy 185B, Fall 2014. It was posted September 23, 2014.
Seminar on Punishment