Hobbes’s Social Contract
We talked about four questions surrounding Hobbes’s social contract.
What is it supposed to do? What problem is it supposed to solve?
How does it work? Taking Hobbes’s legalistic lingo at face value, what is supposed to be involved in the social contract?
Does Hobbes’s theory apply to democracies? Do democracies have a sovereign? If so, who is the sovereign in a democracy?
Why does Hobbes have two versions of the social contract? Why isn’t one enough?
What Problem is it Supposed to Solve?
The social contract is supposed to solve the problem of the state of nature. Without the state, competition, diffidence, and glory cause a war of every man against every man with the consequence that life is nasty, poor, brutish, and short (see ch. 13). So the state is supposed to stop the war.
To make the point, I illustrated diffidence in the state of nature with the prisoners dilemma. (Here the first number is the payoff for the row player, the second number is the payoff for the column player).
Pre-emptive violence in the state of nature
||3rd / 3rd
||1st / 4th
||4th / 1st
||2nd / 2nd
The idea is that each side has what is called a dominant strategy, namely, one that it is rational to pursue regardless of what the other side does. That strategy is anticipation or starting the conflict on your own terms.
The state is supposed to solve this by locking us into the southeast box. How? By threatening to punish anyone who starts a fight (17.1). The genius of this is that it reduces the defensive motivations for fighting. If I am not worried that Will will attack me, I face less pressure to attack him first. If he thinks that I am not worried about him, then he faces less pressure to attack me first. The same is true the other way around. That is how the state stops the cycle of insecurity that causes conflict through diffidence. In other words, in diffidence, Hobbes has identified a cause of conflict in the state of nature that the state seems to be eminently capable of solving. All it has to do is credibly threaten to punish anyone who starts a fight and its work is done.
What is weird about the social contract, though, is that it does not explain how the sovereign gets the literal power to punish. A social contract is just a bunch of promises. Those are as good as the wind they are spoken on without force to back them up. Hobbes knows this! He says that “covenants, without the sword, are but words, and of no strength to secure a man at all” (17.2). But Hobbes does not put much effort into explaining how we get from the words in the social contract to actual force on the ground. That is very strange.
For what it’s worth, I think the story could well be like the one about power in chapter 10 (“Of Power, Worth, Dignity, Honour, and Worthiness”). This only makes it stranger. Hobbes had the resources to close this gap. Why didn’t he do so explicitly? It’s a mystery.
Do democracies have sovereigns?
It is very easy to substitute “king” or “monarch” for “sovereign” when reading Hobbes. Hobbes himself did not see it that way. Hobbes’s sovereign can be a monarch, an aristocracy, or a democracy. (He uses the word “assembly” to refer to democracies and aristocracies alike.) 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.
We talked about whether a democracy has a sovereign as Hobbes understands it. We had a bit of a mixed verdict. The people in a democracy are unlimited in what they can do. In our system, they can amend the constitution in any way they want. (Well, they can’t do so directly. An amendment has to go through Congress and the states. But that shows we aren’t completely a democracy.) But the people don’t exercise control over the institutions of government that Hobbes lists as essential to sovereignty.
I’m not sure of what to make of that. I suppose it means you can have a government without a sovereign. I suspect Hobbes would have been willing to grant the point while insisting that our system of government is not stable. Among other things, we have dangerously divided powers of government between an executive and legislative branch while giving both the legitimacy that comes from being elected by a vote of the people. Hobbes would have seen this as a recipe for disaster. It has worked for us so far but I wouldn’t bet on it for the long run.
Horizontal vs. vertical
The social contract in 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 is in interesting because in chapter 18, he insisted that it was very important that the sovereign does not participate in the social contract.
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. (18.4)
I will leave it to you to think about whether this difference poses a problem for the commonwealth by acquisition or not.
How could a contract made under duress be valid?
One of the most extraordinary claims that Hobbes makes is that the covenant in the commonwealth by acquisition would be just as valid as the covenant made in the commonwealth by institution. That is hard to swallow because the covenant in the commonwealth by acquisition is made “when the vanquished, to avoid the present stroke of death, covenanteth … that so long as his life, and the liberty of his body is allowed him, the victor shall have the use thereof, at his pleasure” (20.10). Hobbes thinks the two contracts are essentially the same.
There are two things to be said to explain Hobbes’s thinking.
First, he is not saying that this is the way the law works in a settled society. Contracts made under duress in normal settings are invalid. (That said, his explanation of how the law works in Leviathan 20.2 is weird.)
Second, the proposition that agreements made under duress are valid is one that most people accept in at least some cases.
Think about surrender in war. When one side is losing and wants to concede, it promises to lay down its arms so long as the other side promises not to continue attacking it. Under almost anyone’s moral standards, an army that asks to surrender and then uses the opportunity to catch its enemy off guard would do something wrong. And the convention of offering and accepting terms of surrender has obvious utility. It gives an army an alternative to suicidally fighting to the death. But that just is a promise made under the threat of death: the army only surrenders because it will get wiped out if the fighting continues.
Hobbes was thinking about how people could end the war of the state of nature. His proposition is that they could do so by making a covenant to obey the victor. That is very close to an army surrendering. (There are differences: the army typically gets to go home to its own country while the subjects in the commonwealth by acquisition are stuck with the conqueror as their sovereign. We have to think about how much that amounts to.)
I think Hobbes treats duress too casually. But, at the same time, I think there is a good idea behind it and so I am reluctant to dismiss the commonwealth by acquisition on the grounds that it is the product of coercion.
These are the things you should know or have an opinion about after today’s class.
- The components of the social contract: alienation and authorization.
- Do democracies have sovereigns?
- The differences between the two versions of the social contract.
- Is there anything to be said for treating agreements made under duress as valid?
Hobbes, Thomas. (1651) 1993. Leviathan. Edited by Mark C. Rooks. British Philosophy: 1600-1900. Charlottesville, VA: InteLex Corporation.