Hobbes on liberty

Notes for February 25

Main points

Here is one way to understand what Hobbes was saying in chapter 18.

He implicitly accepted what I will call the minimum power condition. A state meets the minimum power condition only if the sovereign has at least the minimum number of rights necessary for the state to function and the subjects have at least the minimum number of obligations necessary for the state to function.

Hobbes plausibly assumed that anyone trying to make a social contract would try to meet the minimum power condition. What’s the point in trying to establish a state without doing so?

He argued that all the rights and obligations that he listed in chapter 18 are necessary to meet the minimum power condition: any less and the state will fail. In short, Hobbes tried to show that only an absolutist state could meet the minimum power condition.For what I mean by “absolutist,” see the handout for the next class.

Part of his case was built on observations of societies (see, for example, ch. 18, par. 16). But he also thought that the idea of a limited state was logically incoherent. If so, there is no such thing as a less than absolute state.

In today’s class, we discussed a set of logical arguments for absolutism. Then we discussed his views about the liberty of subjects. Some people believe that his views about individual liberty are so extreme that no state could respect them while also meeting the minimum power condition.

A logical argument for absolutism

We spent a lot of time going over the arguments in the fourth paragraph of chapter eighteen.

The main argument here is that the sovereign cannot be a participant in the social contract and so cannot be deposed for violating the social contract. This raises an interesting problem since the social contract in the commonwealth by acquisition (chapter 20) is a contract between the sovereign and the subjects. Either the arguments in chapter 18, paragraph four are wrong or the social contract in the commonwealth by acquisition is incoherent. I explained why I think it’s the former.

It seems to me that the most interesting point in 18.4 is that there is no neutral judge to decide a controversy between the sovereign and the subjects. Adam wisely reminded us not to take this too far. Subjects can bring lawsuits against the sovereign and they can win (see ch. 21, par. 19). Hobbes’s point is that any legal action against the sovereign has to be handled by an organ of the state, such as the courts. In the end, there is no one to bring your complaint to outside of the state. (And if there were, that would be the sovereign as it would have the power to enforce its decisions.)

Locke will make a big deal out of this point as well. He will insist that an absolutist state remains in a state of nature with its subjects on the grounds that there is no neutral judge to decide controversies between the state and the subjects (see Locke, §§89–95). It is not obvious to me that Locke ever explained how there could be a third party to judge conflicts between the state and subjects. If so, Hobbes’s point stands.

Individual liberty

There are two kinds of individual liberty in the commonwealth, according to Hobbes.

  1. Legal liberty: the acts that are not prohibited by law.

  2. The “true” liberty of a subject: the acts that a subject cannot be obliged to do even if they are required by the law.

Hobbes made a very controversial claim about legal liberty. He said that a sovereign could put an innocent subject to death without doing an injustice to the subject (ch. 21, par. 7). We will want to compare that point with his later insistence that the punishment of the innocent is not allowed.

He also insisted that all states take the same attitude towards individual liberty. Thus democracies like Athens can treat individuals just as capriciously as the worst monarchies do (also 21.7). Hobbes took himself to be describing all kinds of states, democracies and aristocracies as well as monarchies.

The true liberties of a subject are things that subjects are allowed to do even if the law forbids them. These primarily concern the defense of one’s life. So subjects retain the liberty to: resist punishment, refuse to incriminate themselves in court, refuse to perform any “dangerous or dishonorable” office such as participating in the military, and continue a civil war (provided they are not offered a pardon).

Subjects have these liberties because they cannot be obliged not to defend themselves (see 14.8 and 14.29). So any part of the social contract that required them to give up the right to defend themselves would be invalid.

As Ziqi pointed out, these are merely liberties to act contrary to the law. The sovereign is under no obligation to permit you to do so. Still, many of Hobbes’s readers have thought that they are fatal to his project.

To see what they mean, suppose that you do not accept Hobbes’s absolutism. You might still agree with Hobbes that the sovereign has to have enough rights to perform its function; you just think these rights do not have to be as extensive as Hobbes thought they did. You and Hobbes disagree about what the minimum power condition is. But even so, you and Hobbes probably agree that the minimum power condition includes at least the state’s ability to punish and raise a an army. Hobbes’s critics maintain that he could not explain how the state would have even these very basic powers.

That is what we will take up next time in our discussion of punishment.

Key concepts

  1. The arguments in chapter 18, paragraph 4.
  2. The arguments in chapter 21, paragraph 7.
  3. The true liberties of a subject (chapter 21, par. 12–17).
  4. The subjects’ right to sue the sovereign (chapter 21, par. 19).
This page was written by Michael Green for Social and Political Philosophy, Philosophy 33, Spring 2014. It was posted March 7, 2014.
Social and Political Philosophy