Political Philosophy Spring 2024

Hobbes’s Social Contract


Today’s readings are about the social contract. This is the solution to the problems posed by our natural condition. We make an “artificial man” called the commonwealth, or state, using covenants. The state, in turn, creates and enforces laws, thereby making peaceful social life possible.

I want to discuss three questions about the social contract.

  1. What is it supposed to do? What problem is it supposed to solve?

  2. Hobbes was clearly trying to defend absolutist monarchy. Does his theory have anything to tell those of us who live in democracies?

  3. Why does Hobbes have two versions of the social contract? Why isn’t one enough?

What Problem is it Supposed to Solve?

Here is the problem of diffidence as explained in chapter 13.

Row Column Anticipate Wait Anticipate Wait 3rd 3rd 1st 4th 2nd 2nd 4th 1st Hobbes on anticipatory violence in the state of nature

The obvious solution is a mutual non-aggression treaty: I won’t attack you if you don’t attack me. But that has a similar problem.

Break Keep Break Keep Hobbes on keeping covenants in the state of nature

We want to be locked into the southeast box but we cannot accomplish that on our own. The state is supposed to solve the problem by threatening to punish anyone who starts a fight or who breaks their covenants (17.1). The genius of this is that it reduces the defensive motivations for fighting. If Amelia is not worried that I will attack her, she faces less pressure to attack me first. And if she thinks that I am not worried about her, then she faces less pressure to attack me first. That is how the state stops the cycle of insecurity that causes conflict through diffidence.

In other words, diffidence gives Hobbes 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. Hobbes himself 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 swords that could be used to threaten punishment. That is very strange.

We are going to have to do some work for him to try to figure out what the story might be.

Is the Theory Relevant for Democracies?

Officially, Hobbes’s theory applies to what he thought were the three kinds of government: monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy. He meant to describe sovereignty in general, whether it is held by a monarch, a class of aristocrats, or the people. However, he was writing in defense of a monarch, Charles I, and he was clearly thinking more about monarchy than about the other two forms of government. The thrust of chapter 18 is that the sovereign has to have exclusive control over the levers of the state and that there cannot be any formal ways of checking the sovereign’s power.

One thing in particular stood out for Hobbes. Throughout the English Civil War, both sides agreed that Charles I was the King of England and thus sovereign. The Parliamentarians said that they were fighting for the king, even when they held him captive. Parliament was not sovereign but rather represented the people. That was the story. Hobbes thought this was a recipe for disaster. You can’t split the sources of legitimacy in the state between two different parts. If they fall into conflict, each one will have a claim on being the legitimate government.

I want to suggest that this is relevant to the US. The US has a federal government with two branches that are elected. When they come into conflict, each one has a reasonable claim to represent the people who elected them. In a parliamentary system, by contrast, the leader of the dominant party in Parliament holds the executive office. The legislative and executive branches can’t have independent claims to represent the democracy. I think the US system is bad and that Hobbes would correctly advise against it.

Other than that, Hobbes is not a very good theorist of democracy. He was really thinking about monarchs.

Why two social contracts?

We have two social contracts. The commonwealth by institution is made by people who calmly meet and take a vote (see 18.1) while the commonwealth by acquisition is made when people who have been defeated in a war agree to make the conqueror sovereign in order to avoid “the present stroke of death” (see 20.10). Why the redundancy?

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 (18.2).

  2. They have the same content. The subjects would give the sovereign absolute powers in the commonwealth by institution (18.3).

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. Here is some textual evidence from the very end of the book (it is not included in our readings).

In Chapter 29, I have set down for one of the causes of the dissolutions of commonwealths, their imperfect generation, consisting in the want of an absolute and arbitrary legislative power; for want whereof, the civil sovereign is fain to handle the sword of justice unconstantly, and as if it were too hot for him to hold. One reason whereof (which I have not there mentioned) is this, that they will all of them justify the war, by which their power was at first gotten, and whereon (as they think) their right dependeth, and not on the possession. As if, for example, the right of the kings of England did depend on the goodness of the cause of William the Conqueror, and upon their lineal, and directest descent from him; by which means, there would perhaps be no tie of the subjects’ obedience to their sovereign at this day in all the world: wherein whilst they needlessly think to justify themselves, they justify all the successful rebellions that ambition shall at any time raise against them, and their successors. Therefore I put down for one of the most effectual seeds of the death of any state, that the conquerors require not only a submission of men’s actions to them for the future, but also an approbation of all their actions past; when there is scarce a commonwealth in the world, whose beginnings can in conscience be justified. (Hobbes, Leviathan, “A Review and Conclusion,” par. 8)

So what is the point of the idealistic version? That is something we will have to talk about.

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). The covenant in the commonwealth by institution, by contrast is made by people who take a vote on who will be sovereign (18.1). Hobbes thinks the two contracts are essentially the same.

Most people find this hard to accept. 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 actually do accept in at least some cases.

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 agreeing to surrender to avoid getting wiped out in a war. But there is nothing questionable about surrendering in a war, even though is obviously done under the threat of violence. (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.

Main Ideas

These are the things you should know or have an opinion about after today’s class.

  1. The components of the social contract: alienation and authorization.
  2. The differences between the two versions of the social contract.