Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Hobbes on sovereignty, social order, & the nature of the social contract

I sent this to students in a course on social & political theory that I'm teaching this summer. (I almost never do courses during summers, but I guess everything in life has exceptions.) It may be of more general interest--by itself, and/or in connection with an earlier discussion of "Rousseau vs. Hobbes on sovereignty, citizenship, & the political".  —Jeff Weintraub

To: Members of PoliSci. 298-920 (Social & Political Theory)
From: Jeff Weintraub
Re: Some Hobbesian afterthoughts

Partly in response to some questions, let me return to a few theoretical points from Hobbes that might be worth spelling out a bit further.

=> As we know, for Hobbes the creation and maintenance of the sovereign power has to be understood as based (in principle, if not as a matter of actual historical events) on a covenant--or, as others have called it, a social contract. This (hypothetical) contract or covenant simultaneously creates the sovereign and establishes the fundamental distinction between sovereign and subjects.

In the history of political theory and ideology, there have been non-Hobbesian versions of this idea that understood it as involving some sort of compact or agreement between the sovereign and the subjects. It is important to understand why Hobbes strongly and explicitly rejects any notion of this sort, and why he regards it as incompatible both with the logic of his theory and with the core requirements of sovereignty itself.

Some of his key reasons are summed up in the discussion on pp. 230-231 of Leviathan (in ch. XVIII), and we partly discussed them on Monday.

In particular, we briefly considered some of the reasons Hobbes gives for rejecting the idea that the sovereign's authority could rest on covenants between the sovereign and individual subjects. Not only would this imply that the subject's grant of power to the sovereign might be conditional rather than absolute and all-or-nothing (which would dangerously undermine the core requirements of sovereignty itself), but there is also the problem that there is no conceivable third party that could “judge” between the sovereign and the subject in case of a disagreement over the terms of such a covenant. (And if such an independent third party existed, then we wouldn't have effective sovereignty, would we?)

On the other hand, there is also another historically significant version of the notion that the sovereign's authority rests on a covenant between ruler and ruled, and it might be worth a little more discussion than we gave it on Monday. This version involves, not a set of separate agreements between the sovereign and each individual subject, but a covenant between the sovereign and the people as a whole. According to this notion (of a "contract of government," to use one historical formulation), the people agrees to submit to the sovereign--and both sides have to abide by the terms of this covenant.

(As Hobbes puts it on XVIII:230, if "he that is made Soveraigne" were to make a "Covenant with his subjects beforehand," that would require either that "he must make a severall Covenant with every man," or else that "he must make it with the whole multitude as one party to the Covenant.")

In some ways, Hobbes regards it as even more important to refute this version--of a covenant between a sovereign and a people--than the other one. In addition to the considerations already outlined above, he also emphasizes one further reason that cuts to the heart of his whole theoretical vision.

This notion is completely absurd, Hobbes argues, because it would require assuming that there can be such a thing as a 'people' separate from or independent of the sovereign. That is, it pretends that a 'people' could exist as a collective body or community which is capable of collectively acting or deciding on its own--including, for example, the act of agreeing to submit to a sovereign. But this would violate what Hobbes regards as an absolutely fundamental and essential premise, which is that society consists exclusively of individuals--or, more precisely, individuals plus a sovereign. What holds those individuals together is purely the fact that they are all subject to the same sovereign. Until a sovereign is created, there is no body politic. (And if the sovereign is removed, the body politic dissolves back into individuals.) So it's ridiculous to think that a pre-existing 'people' could collectively make a covenant with the sovereign. A covenant "with the whole, as one party, it is impossible; because they are not yet one Person...."

This is an argument to which Hobbes returns several times, just to make sure you get the point. For example, in a very significant formulation on XVI:220, he insists quite sharply that it is the "unity" of the sovereign that constitutes a society and holds it together, and not any "unity" or solidarity between the members of society. Without the power of the sovereign to bind them together, they are just a mass of individuals--"the Multitude is naturally not One, but Many...."  For a graphic representation of this idea, have another look at the illustration on the cover of your copy of Leviathan, which also appeared in the original 1651 edition.

If you grasp why this argument is so important to Hobbes, it will give you an insight into some of the central premises and principles of his whole theoretical approach to society and politics--in particular, his radical individualism. So ponder it further.

=> And here is another Hobbesian theoretical question you might all want to ponder. We have seen that, according to Hobbes, a key task or function of the sovereign is to make (and enforce) laws. As Hobbes insists repeatedly, laws have to be made, and they can be made only by a sovereign power "that hath command over others" (XVI:217).

Well, within the logic of Hobbes's theory, how can we explain why someone might--or might not--obey those laws. Specifically, what kinds of motivations would lead an individual to obey (or not obey) laws or other rules?

Yours for theory,
Jeff Weintraub