Hobbes’s social contract

The syllabus says that the task for this class was to explain why there are two versions of the social contract. We did that and a lot more. We discussed:

  1. The components of the social contract: alienation and authorization.
  2. The scope of Hobbes’s theory: he thought he was describing what all states have in common as opposed to the specific characteristics of, say, monarchy.
  3. Hobbes’s claim that the sovereign cannot injure the subjects.
  4. The difference between the social contracts in the commonwealth by institution (ch. 18) and the commonwealth by acquisition (ch. 20): the first contract is horizontal (among the subjects without including the sovereign) while the second contract is vertical (between subjects and sovereign).
  5. And, finally, why there are two versions of the social contract.


Alienation and authorization

If you look at the description of the social contract at the end of chapter 17, you will see that the future subjects are described as doing two things:

  1. Alienation: they give up their right of governing themselves to the future sovereign.
  2. Authorization: they authorize the future sovereign to act as their representative.

Those are two different things. Alienation involves giving up rights. In particular, the subjects give up the liberty to ignore what the sovereign tells them to do. After the sovereign has been instituted, his commands are obligatory. This is how the sovereign can make laws, for instance.

Authorization involves enabling the sovereign to act as the representative for the future subjects. On the face of it, it is less obvious why this is important for the commonwealth to function. But Hobbes clearly thought it was significant: he devoted a whole chapter to explaining what authorization involves (chapter 16) and he frequently used variations on the term “authorized” in describing the relations between subject and sovereign in chapters 21 (on liberty) and 28 (on punishment).

In fact, the mystery of authorization goes even deeper than that. Hobbes wrote three books on political philosophy: The Elements of Law, De Cive, and Leviathan. The major parts of his theory are present in all three with one prominent exception: authorization. Scholars who work on Hobbes are intrigued by this. Why did he add it? To date, there is no completely satisfying answer.

The scope of Hobbes’s theory

It is very easy to substitute “king” or “monarch” for “sovereign” when reading Hobbes. And we know that Hobbes himself preferred monarchy and that he took the monarchy’s side in the English civil war.

Nonetheless, this is a temptation that should be resisted. Hobbes’s sovereign can be a monarch (as in a monarchy), an assembly (as in an aristocracy or representative democracy), or even the whole body of society (as in a direct democracy).

The crucial thing for Hobbes is that the sovereign is made up of one or more natural people who have the authority to exercise the rights listed in chapter 18.

Why did Hobbes say that the sovereign cannot injure the subjects?

Semassa pointed us to a particularly tricky passage.

Fourthly, because every subject is by this institution author of all the actions, and judgments of the sovereign instituted; it follows, that whatsoever he doth, it can be no injury to any of his subjects; nor ought he to be by any of them accused of injustice. For he that doth any thing by authority from another, doth therein no injury to him by whose authority he acteth: but by this institution of a commonwealth, every particular man is author of all the sovereign doth; and consequently he that complaineth of injury from his sovereign, complaineth of that whereof he himself is author; and therefore ought not to accuse any man but himself; no nor himself of injury; because to do injury to one’s self, is impossible. It is true that they that have sovereign power, may commit iniquity; but not injustice, or injury in the proper signification. (Leviathan 18.6)

The first thing to say about this is that the term “injury” is a technical term. It means “injustice.” There is no doubt that the sovereign can harm or damage you. What Hobbes is saying is that he cannot do anything that would count as an injustice to you.

But that is still hard to understand. Why?

Helena said that it should follow directly from Hobbes’s remarks about rights in the state of nature. No one has any claim rights prior to the state; there is nothing that anyone is obliged to do (or not do) to anyone else. The only rights people have are liberties: the permission to do what they think necessary for their own preservation.

People in the state of nature can become obliged to do things for one another by making contracts.

when a man hath in either manner abandoned, or granted away his right; then is he said to be OBLIGED, or BOUND, not to hinder those, to whom such right is granted, or abandoned, from the benefit of it: and that he ought, and it is his DUTY, not to make void that voluntary act of his own: and that such hindrance is INJUSTICE, and INJURY, as being sine jure; [without right -mjg] the right being before renounced, or transferred. (Leviathan 14.7)

But the sovereign is not a party to the social contract (in the commonwealth by institution, at least; see below). So the subjects have no claim rights against the sovereign and, you would think, this is enough to show that the sovereign cannot treat them unjustly.

It’s a good point. But Hobbes is saying something else here. He’s saying that the subjects “own” the sovereign’s actions because they authorized them. The argument he has in mind goes like this.

  1. There is no such thing as an injustice against oneself.
  2. The subjects own the sovereign’s actions by virtue of having authorized the sovereign.
  3. Therefore the sovereign’s actions count as the subject’s own actions.
  4. Therefore, if the subjects accused the sovereign of injustice, that would be tantamount to the subjects accusing themselves of injustice.
  5. But that is impossible by the first premise.
  6. Therefore, the sovereign cannot injure the subjects. (Where “injure” means “treat unjustly.”)

This argument appears to be redundant with Helena’s point. I do not know why Hobbes felt the need to make this argument. My best guess is that he wanted to cover something that is pretty clearly unjust: harming the innocent. For instance, we get this in chapter 21.

we are not to understand, that by such liberty [permitted under the law -mjg], the sovereign power of life and death, is either abolished, or limited. For it has been already shown, that nothing the sovereign representative can do to a subject, on what pretence soever, can properly be called injustice, or injury; because every subject is author of every act the sovereign doth; so that he never wanteth right to any thing, otherwise, than as he himself is the subject of God, and bound thereby to observe the laws of nature. And therefore it may, and doth often happen in commonwealths, that a subject may be put to death, by the command of the sovereign power; and yet neither do the other wrong: as when Jephtha caused his daughter to be sacrificed: in which, and the like cases, he that so dieth, had liberty to do the action, for which he is nevertheless, without injury put to death. And the same holdeth also in a sovereign prince, that putteth to death an innocent subject. For though the action be against the law of nature, as being contrary to equity, (as was the killing of Uriah, by David;) yet it was not an injury to Uriah; but to God. Not to Uriah, because the right to do what he pleased, was given him by Uriah himself: and yet to God, because David was God’s subject; and prohibited all iniquity by the law of nature. Which distinction, David himself, when he repented the fact, evidently confirmed, saying, To thee only have I sinned. (Leviathan, 21.7)

(Hobbes is referring to stories in the Old Testament. I included the relevant passages on Jephtha and David below.)

Strictly speaking he could have said that the innocent have no right against being killed and so there is no injustice in what Jephtha and David did. But he obviously thought he needed to say more than that. As we will see when we get to chapter 28, Hobbes pretty clearly thought that hurting the innocent was a big no-no, even for a sovereign. But he also knew that it “doth often happen in commonwealths.” So he needed to cover this sort of case.

I will have more to say about the significance of authorization when we discuss punishment. Promise!

Differences between the social contracts

There are two different social contracts. The social contract in what Hobbes called the commonwealth by institution (ch. 18) is horizontal: it is a covenant among the subjects and does not include the sovereign. The social contract in what Hobbes called the commonwealth by acquisition (ch. 20) is vertical: it is a covenant between the subjects and the sovereign.

This trips up even the pros because Hobbes suggests that it is very important that the sovereign is not part of the social contract in chapter 18.

because the right of bearing the person of them all, is given to him they make sovereign, by covenant only of one to another, and not of him to any of them; there can happen no breach of covenant on the part of the sovereign. (Leviathan 18.4)

But that is a head fake. The sovereign is part of the social contract in the commonwealth by acquisition. So this cannot be an essential point for Hobbes.

Is it a rank contradiction? Not really. The sovereign in the commonwealth by acquisition does make a covenant with the subjects, but it is one that the sovereign cannot breach. The would-be sovereign promises not to kill the would-be subjects right now (“to avoid the present stroke of death” 20.10) in exchange for their agreeing to make him or her the sovereign. Once that moment has passed, the sovereign’s part of the deal will be done and so there will be no possibility of breach of contract.

Hey, I didn’t say it was an especially persuasive point. Just that Hobbes did not contradict himself.

Anyway, the thing to remember is that the two contracts are different along this dimension: one is among the subjects without the sovereign and the other includes the sovereign.

Why two social contracts?

We have two social contracts: the social contract in the commonwealth by institution (ch. 18) is nice and peaceful while the social contract in the commonwealth by acquiistion (ch. 20) is nasty and violent. Why the redundancy?

I think Hobbes’s strategy was to argue that the nice and peaceful social contract was equivalent to the nasty and violent one. To be more specific:

  1. Both are equally valid. Fear is the motive in both cases, so fear cannot render the social contract that establishes the commonwealth by acquisition invalid.
  2. They have the same content. The subjects would give the sovereign absolute powers in the commonwealth by institution. So the state’s having power like that cannot be blamed on the coercion and violence that characterizes the social contract in the commonwealth by acquisition.

The idea, as I understand it, is that the commonwealth by acquisition is the realistic account of how actual states are formed. The commonwealth by institution story, by contrast, is an idealized version that will never actually happen. Jiwon had a nice summary of the idea that she shared after class: Hobbes starts with the ideal case and then argues that the lessons learned in discussing it apply to real states.

A problem for the future

Aaron noted something that we will return to in our next two sessions. Hobbes’s position in chapter 14 seems to mean that the subjects can’t authorize the sovereign to hurt them. If so, how does the sovereign get the right to punish?

Good question! Stay tuned!

Key concepts

  1. The components of the social contract: alienation and authorization.
  2. The scope of Hobbes’s theory: he thought he was describing what all states have in common as opposed to the specific characteristics of, say, monarchy.
  3. How does Hobbes argue that the sovereign cannot injure the subjects?
  4. The difference between the horizontal social contract in the commonwealth by institution (ch. 18) and the vertical social contract in the commonwealth by acquisition (ch. 20).
  5. Why there are two versions of the social contract.

Update: political science

I said that Hobbes had a better point about the disadvantages of dividing power between different political bodies than he is given credit for. Americans, at least, like to talk about the virtues of their system of checks and balances, in which the legislative (Congress), executive (President), and judicial (courts) branches can all frustrate one another.

Hobbes thought that a system like this was a recipe for civil war. I said that if you look beyond the American experience, there is evidence to support his point of view.

I was referring to research done by Juan Linz, a political scientist at Yale University. Matthew Yglesias has written a nice summary of his work along with some suggestive remarks about the US at Vox. Here is his brief recap of Linz’s argument (Linz 1990).

In a 1990 essay, the late Yale political scientist Juan Linz observed that “aside from the United States, only Chile has managed a century and a half of relatively undisturbed constitutional continuity under presidential government — but Chilean democracy broke down in the 1970s.”

The exact reasons for why are disputed among scholars …

Still, Linz offered several reasons why presidential systems are so prone to crisis. One particularly important one is the nature of the checks and balances system. Since both the president and the Congress are directly elected by the people, they can both claim to speak for the people. When they have a serious disagreement, according to Linz, “there is no democratic principle on the basis of which it can be resolved.” The constitution offers no help in these cases, he wrote: “the mechanisms the constitution might provide are likely to prove too complicated and aridly legalistic to be of much force in the eyes of the electorate.”

Hobbes was not writing about the particular problems of democracy. But the basic idea is the same: if you have multiple bodies that all claim to represent the people, you run the risk that they will come into conflict with one another.

Bible stories

In 21.7, Hobbes refers to two stories from the Bible: one about Jephtha and his daughter, the other about David and Uriah. In both cases, a sovereign (Jephtha or David) kills an innocent subject (Jephtha’s daughter or Uriah).


From the Book of Judges

11:30 And Jephthah vowed a vow unto the LORD, and said, If thou shalt without fail deliver the children of Ammon into mine hands, 11:31 Then it shall be, that whatsoever cometh forth of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return in peace from the children of Ammon, shall surely be the LORD's, and I will offer it up for a burnt offering.

11:32 So Jephthah passed over unto the children of Ammon to fight against them; and the LORD delivered them into his hands.

11:33 And he smote them from Aroer, even till thou come to Minnith, even twenty cities, and unto the plain of the vineyards, with a very great slaughter. Thus the children of Ammon were subdued before the children of Israel.

11:34 And Jephthah came to Mizpeh unto his house, and, behold, his daughter came out to meet him with timbrels and with dances: and she was his only child; beside her he had neither son nor daughter.

11:35 And it came to pass, when he saw her, that he rent his clothes, and said, Alas, my daughter! thou hast brought me very low, and thou art one of them that trouble me: for I have opened my mouth unto the LORD, and I cannot go back.

11:36 And she said unto him, My father, if thou hast opened thy mouth unto the LORD, do to me according to that which hath proceeded out of thy mouth; forasmuch as the LORD hath taken vengeance for thee of thine enemies, even of the children of Ammon.

11:37 And she said unto her father, Let this thing be done for me: let me alone two months, that I may go up and down upon the mountains, and bewail my virginity, I and my fellows.

11:38 And he said, Go. And he sent her away for two months: and she went with her companions, and bewailed her virginity upon the mountains.

11:39 And it came to pass at the end of two months, that she returned unto her father, who did with her according to his vow which he had vowed: and she knew no man. And it was a custom in Israel, 11:40 That the daughters of Israel went yearly to lament the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite four days in a year.

David and Uriah

From Kings 2

11:2 And it came to pass in an eveningtide, that David arose from off his bed, and walked upon the roof of the king's house: and from the roof he saw a woman washing herself; and the woman was very beautiful to look upon.

11:3 And David sent and enquired after the woman. And one said, Is not this Bathsheba, the daughter of Eliam, the wife of Uriah the Hittite? 11:4 And David sent messengers, and took her; and she came in unto him, and he lay with her; for she was purified from her uncleanness: and she returned unto her house.

11:5 And the woman conceived, and sent and told David, and said, I am with child.

11:6 And David sent to Joab, saying, Send me Uriah the Hittite. And Joab sent Uriah to David.

11:7 And when Uriah was come unto him, David demanded of him how Joab did, and how the people did, and how the war prospered.

11:8 And David said to Uriah, Go down to thy house, and wash thy feet. And Uriah departed out of the king's house, and there followed him a mess of meat from the king.

11:9 But Uriah slept at the door of the king's house with all the servants of his lord, and went not down to his house.

11:10 And when they had told David, saying, Uriah went not down unto his house, David said unto Uriah, Camest thou not from thy journey? why then didst thou not go down unto thine house? 11:11 And Uriah said unto David, The ark, and Israel, and Judah, abide in tents; and my lord Joab, and the servants of my lord, are encamped in the open fields; shall I then go into mine house, to eat and to drink, and to lie with my wife? as thou livest, and as thy soul liveth, I will not do this thing.

11:12 And David said to Uriah, Tarry here to day also, and to morrow I will let thee depart. So Uriah abode in Jerusalem that day, and the morrow.

11:13 And when David had called him, he did eat and drink before him; and he made him drunk: and at even he went out to lie on his bed with the servants of his lord, but went not down to his house.

11:14 And it came to pass in the morning, that David wrote a letter to Joab, and sent it by the hand of Uriah.

11:15 And he wrote in the letter, saying, Set ye Uriah in the forefront of the hottest battle, and retire ye from him, that he may be smitten, and die.

11:16 And it came to pass, when Joab observed the city, that he assigned Uriah unto a place where he knew that valiant men were.

11:17 And the men of the city went out, and fought with Joab: and there fell some of the people of the servants of David; and Uriah the Hittite died also.

11:18 Then Joab sent and told David all the things concerning the war; 11:19 And charged the messenger, saying, When thou hast made an end of telling the matters of the war unto the king, 11:20 And if so be that the king's wrath arise, and he say unto thee, Wherefore approached ye so nigh unto the city when ye did fight? knew ye not that they would shoot from the wall? 11:21 Who smote Abimelech the son of Jerubbesheth? did not a woman cast a piece of a millstone upon him from the wall, that he died in Thebez? why went ye nigh the wall? then say thou, Thy servant Uriah the Hittite is dead also.

11:22 So the messenger went, and came and shewed David all that Joab had sent him for.

11:23 And the messenger said unto David, Surely the men prevailed against us, and came out unto us into the field, and we were upon them even unto the entering of the gate.

11:24 And the shooters shot from off the wall upon thy servants; and some of the king's servants be dead, and thy servant Uriah the Hittite is dead also.

11:25 Then David said unto the messenger, Thus shalt thou say unto Joab, Let not this thing displease thee, for the sword devoureth one as well as another: make thy battle more strong against the city, and overthrow it: and encourage thou him.

11:26 And when the wife of Uriah heard that Uriah her husband was dead, she mourned for her husband.

11:27 And when the mourning was past, David sent and fetched her to his house, and she became his wife, and bare him a son. But the thing that David had done displeased the LORD.

12:1 And the LORD sent Nathan unto David. And he came unto him, and said unto him, There were two men in one city; the one rich, and the other poor.

12:2 The rich man had exceeding many flocks and herds: 12:3 But the poor man had nothing, save one little ewe lamb, which he had bought and nourished up: and it grew up together with him, and with his children; it did eat of his own meat, and drank of his own cup, and lay in his bosom, and was unto him as a daughter.

12:4 And there came a traveller unto the rich man, and he spared to take of his own flock and of his own herd, to dress for the wayfaring man that was come unto him; but took the poor man's lamb, and dressed it for the man that was come to him.

12:5 And David's anger was greatly kindled against the man; and he said to Nathan, As the LORD liveth, the man that hath done this thing shall surely die: 12:6 And he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity.

12:7 And Nathan said to David, Thou art the man. Thus saith the LORD God of Israel, I anointed thee king over Israel, and I delivered thee out of the hand of Saul; 12:8 And I gave thee thy master's house, and thy master's wives into thy bosom, and gave thee the house of Israel and of Judah; and if that had been too little, I would moreover have given unto thee such and such things.

12:9 Wherefore hast thou despised the commandment of the LORD, to do evil in his sight? thou hast killed Uriah the Hittite with the sword, and hast taken his wife to be thy wife, and hast slain him with the sword of the children of Ammon.

12:10 Now therefore the sword shall never depart from thine house; because thou hast despised me, and hast taken the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be thy wife.

12:11 Thus saith the LORD, Behold, I will raise up evil against thee out of thine own house, and I will take thy wives before thine eyes, and give them unto thy neighbour, and he shall lie with thy wives in the sight of this sun.

12:12 For thou didst it secretly: but I will do this thing before all Israel, and before the sun.

12:13 And David said unto Nathan, I have sinned against the LORD. And Nathan said unto David, The LORD also hath put away thy sin; thou shalt not die.

12:14 Howbeit, because by this deed thou hast given great occasion to the enemies of the LORD to blaspheme, the child also that is born unto thee shall surely die.

12:15 And Nathan departed unto his house. And the LORD struck the child that Uriah's wife bare unto David, and it was very sick.

12:16 David therefore besought God for the child; and David fasted, and went in, and lay all night upon the earth.

12:17 And the elders of his house arose, and went to him, to raise him up from the earth: but he would not, neither did he eat bread with them.

12:18 And it came to pass on the seventh day, that the child died. And the servants of David feared to tell him that the child was dead: for they said, Behold, while the child was yet alive, we spake unto him, and he would not hearken unto our voice: how will he then vex himself, if we tell him that the child is dead? 12:19 But when David saw that his servants whispered, David perceived that the child was dead: therefore David said unto his servants, Is the child dead? And they said, He is dead.

12:20 Then David arose from the earth, and washed, and anointed himself, and changed his apparel, and came into the house of the LORD, and worshipped: then he came to his own house; and when he required, they set bread before him, and he did eat.

12:21 Then said his servants unto him, What thing is this that thou hast done? thou didst fast and weep for the child, while it was alive; but when the child was dead, thou didst rise and eat bread.

12:22 And he said, While the child was yet alive, I fasted and wept: for I said, Who can tell whether GOD will be gracious to me, that the child may live? 12:23 But now he is dead, wherefore should I fast? can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he shall not return to me.

12:24 And David comforted Bathsheba his wife, and went in unto her, and lay with her: and she bare a son, and he called his name Solomon: and the LORD loved him.


Linz, Juan J. 1990. “The Perils of Presidentialism.” Journal of Democracy 1 (1): 51–69.