Hobbes A Social Covenant Theorist Essay, Research Paper
Hobbes — a Social Covenant Theorist
Throughout the assigned portions of the Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes proves to be a “social contract” theorist, however inconsistently. Through his explanation of humanity extracting itself out of the state of Nature, by developing rules pertaining to property and contract, by means of the creation of a Sovereign, or Common Wealth, he clearly elucidates the basic concepts of social contract theory.
In order to fully grasp Hobbes’ theory of Social Contract, one must first become familiar with his basic premises of “The State of Nature.” In this state each individual is inherently in a perpetual state of war, due to several given reasons. Hobbes assumes that “Nature hath made men…equall.” (Hobbes 183) Also, that in this state of war all men exemplify purely egoistic behavior, striving to do whatever possible to maximize their own utility, even if it requires murdering another. In addition to these conditions, in the state of nature, there exists a state of natural scarcity, in which, a finite amount of goods, possessions, property, “cattell,” “wives,” whatever, exist to satisfy man’s infinite wants. “And therefore if any two men desire the same thing…they become enemies and…endeavour to destroy or subdue one an other.” (Hobbes 184) Hence, creating a constant state of war.
At no time, in this natural state, is injustice even possible. As Hobbes so concisely states, “Where there is no common Power, there is no Law: where no Law, no Injustice.” (Hobbes 188) Essentially, since every man is entitled to everything, he is also at liberty to exert any means possible — including violence — in order to satisfy all of his wants and needs. In this State of War, each individual is at the mercy of any of the whims of any invader, neighbor, child, or any other entity – lest they fail to protect themselves. Expressed by Hobbes, “And therefore, as long as this naturall Right of everyman to every thing endureth there can be no security to any man, of living out the time, which Nature ordinarily alloweth men to live.” (Hobbes 190)
In addition to this most inconvenient physical state of nature, Hobbes elaborates upon the “mutuall transferring of right.” (Hobbes 192) It is necessary for men to enter into contracts, a mutual agreement made by individuals in order to exchange the “right to the thing.” (Hobbes 193) “Things” can range from deciding on peace between two quarreling parties, with demands and peaceful sacrifices from both ends, to an agreement between two merchants for goods and services. At times it is necessary for “one of the Contractors” to, “deliver the Thing contracted for on his part, and leave the other to perform his part at some determinate time after.” (Hobbes 193) Thusly, forming this covenant, which promises that a good or service of some sort will be awarded to one of the contractors at a future time. However, in the state of nature, there exists absolutely no assurance that ones contracts or covenants will be upheld. Hobbes argues that it is in everyman’s best interest to not fulfill his end of the bargain, as it were. Therefore, due to his “feare of not performance on either part,” men are driven, by their own suspicions to create a coercive power, or sovereign, to regulate their contractual agreements and covenants.
Just as outlined in Social Contract theory, those in the state of nature, found it in their best interests to enter into a social contract, thereby abandoning some of their freedoms, in order to have the reigning entity of a Sovereign, or Commonwealth. This contract must be entered into by all men, with all men, who should perhaps say to each other, as Hobbes suggests, “I authorise and give up my Right of Governing my selfe, to this Man, or to this Assembly of men, on this condition, that thou give up thy Right to him, and Authorise all his Actions in like manner.” (Hobbes, 227) This governing unit was a single individual or group of individuals, established to preside over all contracts, or covenants made. In this capacity, Hobbes, is said to be a Social Contract theorist, in that men must enter into this agreement, to absolve some of freedoms in order to ensure security in all contracts and covenants. Hobbes contends that if one individual refuses to become a member of society, denying his consent to the establishment of a sovereign, then everyone else, who has agreed to the edification of a sovereign, has the right to either force him to join their social contract or they have the right to do harm to him. For if one individual still resides in the state of nature, then he has the right to everything and this by its self threatens each and every individual adhering to the contract.
While Hobbes’ premises appear to directly coincide with social contract theory, upon further examination, one can become aware of several glaring flaws in his argument. Within Hobbes’ theory there exists no system of checks and balances, as known today. The Social Contract agreed upon by the ‘citizens’ is not a contract at all, rather a covenant, i.e., the sovereign at anytime is able to govern as he sees fit, therefore there are no guarantees that this chosen sovereign will rule with justice and reason, as he is required to do. Since the Sovereign exists in a state of nature, he too is egoistic, and therefore is capable of ruling in his best interest, rather than in the interest of his subjects.
Hobbes allows for no revolution He contends that under a Sovereign all citizens must accept his ruling, for all of his laws, rules, etc., are indirectly derived from the original contract, which the individuals entered into. Therefore, they must accept the Sovereign under all circumstances (except if the sovereign mandates that an individual kill himself, for that violates the contract, by causing an individual to injure himself) for they, themselves created the Sovereign by way of their contract.
Also, the creation of an absolute sovereign, according to Hobbes, is necessary to secure peace and harmony in civil society or the commonwealth. The sovereign is defined as one who is the absolute master of all his subjects, and that he is the final arbiter of all questions in the commonwealth. The sovereign decides whether or not he, or his successor, will continue in power – a power that will be permanent. However, the subjects in the commonwealth empower a ruler by accepting and obeying his punishment commands. Their obedience, which they decide, must therefore, and of necessity, be in their best interests and their welfare.
Yet, it can be seen that the sovereign, who is created by the people, as subjects, does not decide for them the fundamental questions of acceptance of, and obedience to, his commands, including his punishment commands. It therefore follows that the ruler only holds power as long as his subjects obey his punishment commands. The sovereign does not determine the question of obedience to his commands, because that is ultimately a question the subjects determine for themselves, based on their assessment of their best interests and welfare. It therefore follows that the people as subjects, in due course, establish the very existence of the sovereign, which is dependent on obedience to his commands.
Therefore the subjects cannot create a sovereign who upholds their covenant- that is a ruler who decides all questions in the commonwealth and whose reign is absolute and permanent. And it does not follow that peace and harmony in civil society can be secured and guaranteed by the adoption of Hobbes’s schema, that outlines the ascension from war to peace in the first place – making Hobbes a Social Covenant Theorist.