Hobbes And Absolute Sovereignty Essay Research Paper

Hobbes And Absolute Sovereignty Essay, Research Paper

A state is sovereign when its magistrate owes allegiance to no superior power, and he or she is supreme within the legal order of the state. It may be assumed that in every human society where there is a system of law there is also to be found, latent beneath the variety of political forms, in a democracy as much as in a absolute monarchy, a simple relationship between subjects rendering habitual obedience, and a sovereign who renders obedience to none. This vertical structure, of sovereign and subjects is analogous to the backbone of a man. The structure constitutes an essential part of any human society, which possesses a system of law, as the backbone comprises an essential part of the man.

Where this structure is present, one may legitimately speak of human society, together with its sovereign, as a single independent state, and one may also speak of its law. Where this structure is absent, one cannot legitimately apply those expressions, because the relation of the sovereign to the subjects constitute, part of the very meaning of those expressions .

Hobbes expressed a clear personal confidence in his position, and some would consider him to be the author or originator of an authentic political science. It was in De Cive, published in 1647, that he made a claim to have discovered a way of rationalizing enquiry into political behavior, and that he had also created a new science- a science of politics. Hobbes began his study of civil government by investigating its central subject, the human being as a natural and social animal, and then proceeded to define its origin, generation and form. It seemed to him that everything is to be understood by its constitutive causes. The mechanical analogy, challenging the traditional organic and theological concepts of the state, became for Hobbes both relevant and inevitable. Civic conflict was leading to desegregation of the contemporary 17th century English state, demonstrating to him that the sanctions which held it together were neither eternal nor ‘natural.

Hobbes was mainly intent on the creation of an impartial, theoretical science of government, “stressing the priority of truth above the delights of rhetoric or the utility of propaganda.” He focuses his attention on basic principles rather than changing institutions or forms of government. Leviathan can therefore be seen as a political creature or persona and that creature can exhibit aristocratic, republican, monarchical ,or even democratic features.

Hobbes’s first argument in favor of the doctrine of absolute sovereignty is essentially the argument against right reason, described as the vision and the heart of Hobbes’s moral and political philosophy. His doctrine of absolute sovereignty is derived primarily from the negation of this doctrine, and almost everything that one can discover in his notion of sovereignty can be found in his negation of this argument. An argument that leads to his conclusion, that it is essential for the sovereign to be absolute, and to possess effective enforcement or coercive powers.

Hobbes is principally concerned with the fundamental problem of human life in the commonwealth, and the manner in which conflict arises from those numerous plans, projects, and desires, which lead to the individuals action, and which are usually at variance, one with another. He sets out to establish that, if each individual were to be allowed the liberty to follow his own conscience, then in the presence of a diversity of such consciences, without constraint or discipline, peace and harmony in the commonwealth would be short lived, due to an all pervasive tendency to disagreement, and the associated danger of civil disobedience.

The problems, created by living in a civil society, do not merely derive from conflicts of interest or the clash of passions but, according to Hobbes, derive more fundamentally from a diversity of consciences and the unrestrained exercise of individual judgment which, in effect, makes common action highly uncertain or virtually impossible. Where it is impossible to obtain a unanimity of wills and agreement, in which a common policy cannot be determined, then the artificial will or the artificial person is in need of creation and acceptance, because it is the sovereign power – the artificial person that effectively constitutes the state.

This is a point of critical significance in Hobbes’s political philosophy. He was primarily concerned with the problems of union and unity within the commonwealth, with the construction of such a unity, and the possibility of common action that is a product of that unity. The absence of unanimity in decision making, and irresolvable conflicts of interest frustrate and militate against a natural unity. Therefore, in the event of open conflict, this would jeopardize the lives and the welfare of the subjects. Within civil society common action becomes essential, despite individual projects and disagreements, if the subjects of that society are to enjoy a peaceful and harmonious common life. A civil society, or commonwealth, must have a clearly defined and unambiguous decision-making procedure, which can arrive at definite decisions, and then initiate common action; despite divergence of consciences and a lack of unanimity. That is primarily the focal point of Hobbes’s concern, and is central to his concept of sovereignty.

Those who are aggressively and belligerently dedicated to their own self-interest or self-preservation, may not necessarily constitute the principal threat to peace and harmony in the commonwealth. Those who are normally honest, intelligent and decent may represent an even greater threat to civil stability, because they believe they have right on their side and they may, therefore, be even more stubborn in fighting for what they want, and negating the legitimate demands of others. It is for this reason that the latter may be less inclined than the former, to enter into a calculation of the costs and benefits of common action, because they believe that they occupy the moral high ground.

The latter often constitutes a more serious threat, not because they are fundamentally malicious or brutish, but because they are certain that they are the custodians of the truth, therefore, they often become the greatest threat to peace and harmony in the commonwealth. For that very reason, Hobbes was clearly aware of this aspect of the human condition- human beings as active participants in civil society . Therefore he regarded this as one of the most serious practical problems, demanding resolution by those responsible for civil government, and the rule of law.

Hobbes’s principal claim is that any appeal to right reason comprises a completely inadequate basis for the resolution of disputes, because if disputes are about what the truth actually is, then any appeal to right reason or the truth is essentially inconclusive and, therefore, self-defeating. Ideally, concern for the truth or right reason should be accepted as a governing principle, but this will not resolve disputes, successfully or peacefully, in those circumstances in which people adopt entrenched and irreconcilable positions, because that is precisely the route to induce conflict and physical violence – the ‘ state of war, of all against all”’ The truth and right reason do not bear clearly identifiable insignia, enabling them to be identified without ambiguity or uncertainty.

Artificial right reason introduces a public level of judgment that takes precedence over judgments that are merely private in character. Hence, artificial right reason effectively avoids those problems which derive from, and have their source in, private judgments. Hobbes makes it quite clear that the decision-making procedure, that the arbitrator must be selected on a fair and reasonable basis and by mutual agreement. There can be no prior requirement that either the procedure or arbitrator should always get things right or produce the correct answer. The sovereign does not provide the kind of certainty needed to ensure that his judgment will always coincide with the truth. Any sovereign, or any arbitrator, can make a mistake but the judgment made, in particular circumstances, stands nevertheless. Not because it is his private sentence; but because he gives it by authority of the sovereign … which is Law.” .

Hobbes certainly does not totally preclude dissent and he emphasizes that any decision made by the sovereign must be fair and just. But once a decision has been made, it is binding, and active civil disobedience thereafter is prohibited. One’s private judgment may be in fundamental disagreement with the decision; one may believe that it is essentially wrong; that it runs counter to the best interests of the commonwealth; but, nevertheless, one has a contractual obligation to obey, or face the consequences of the punishment power exercised by the sovereign.

Hobbes characterizes the natural, hypothetical, state of man as one in which deadly human conflict is common. A state in which continuous conflict and violence exist, as each man seeks to preserve his life and property from the predations of others (the state of war of all against all). .His unique remedy for that condition, seen as an eradicable human characteristic in the state of nature, is to be found deeply embedded in a powerful logical argument in which he supports the concept of absolute sovereignty as a necessary and sufficient condition, for the formation of a genuine political union Hobbes advises us that, if there is a power that is limited within a peaceful and harmonious commonwealth, then it must be limited by a greater power. And, he argues, that the search for the greatest power in the commonwealth, the sovereign power will be realized when one comes to an ultimate power that effectively limits all others, but which is unlimited in its own right. In essence, Hobbes claims, a government comes into existence only with the appointment or institution of a ruler with absolute power – a power that effectively transcends all others, and over which there is no appeal.

His argument sets out to demonstrate that civil society can be truly unified only when the state incorporates a single validating authority (a single human decision-maker) beyond which no subject can appeal. It is claimed that Hobbes is possibly in error in this respect, because he apparently fails to recognize that the final decision-maker need not be a single human being, but could comprise a group of decision makers, such as a parliament with a set of clearly entrenched rules or laws. However, it could be claimed that Hobbes does not explicitly recognize, in his political writings, a divided sovereignty or a government with a human ruler constitutionally limited by laws that are terminus ultimus.

The other argument successfully justifies absolute sovereignty only insofar as it includes a vitally important theorem: That is, because human beings are unable to establish any substantial co-operation among themselves and, in particular, are unable to agree on any rules of private property, no law or set of laws can be the final decider in a political regime. And this means that a human being or an assembly of human beings must act in this capacity. Hobbes denies that a state can rest on a set of ultimate moral rules that serve to limit the ruler’s power, and act as the ultimate authority in that political regime. He argues that the hypothetical laws of nature are not strong enough to act as final determinants in a civil society, because they are not specific enough to act as definitive and precise guides for the government of a commonwealth. Hobbes also rejects contemporary and modern theorists who claim that it is possible to organize a state based on a constitution, or a set of higher laws that regulate and define the power of government and its officials. Hobbes claims that such a constitution is impossible

Hobbes assumption is that human disagreement is all all-encompassing; that the subjects of a commonwealth are incapable of reaching a unified interpretation of a constitution and, therefore, an adjudicator will be needed to interpret the constitution for them. This means that the judge will effectively become the sovereign, because the power to reach a final binding decision will be located in him. He claims that if the adjudicator is subordinate to a higher authority, then that authority will effectively become the sovereign – hence the regress is generated.

Those who advocated a government, with sovereignty divided among different branches, were also repudiated by Hobbes. He asked the question, “’For what is to divide the power of a Commonwealth but to dissolve it; for powers divided mutually destroy each other.” Once again, Hobbes maintains that what destroys this kind of constitutional arrangement is the impossibility of agreement as to the interpretation or enforcement of moral rules or principles whatever their character. According to him, there are two reasons why such a commonwealth will disaggregate. The first is due to a recognition that people, who are exclusively guided or motivated by egocentric and selfish tendencies, will not suddenly lose those tendencies as they enter civil society. On the contrary, they may be expected to enlarge their wealth and jurisdiction, not necessarily because they desire more power, but because it will provide them with some protection from the depredations of others. Civil war will, therefore, inevitably follow.

Finally, Hobbes dismisses those who maintain that the ruler’s power can be limited by a contract between the sovereign and the people. He claims that this will merely lead inevitably to disorder and war, and will certainly not lead to a peaceful order and good government. . Hobbes clearly realizes that if a contractual relationship exists between a sovereign and his subjects, then it becomes essential to establish higher laws to regulate the ruler’s actions, and the subjects then have the right of interpretation or review. But it is not possible to guarantee a uniformity of agreement in the determination of the sovereign’s performance; whether or not he is acting in accordance with the goals and objectives authorized by the subjects. Failure to agree will lead inevitably to quarrels and infighting and, in his opinion, to warfare and a return to the conditions that obtain in the state of nature.

. Hobbes has be criticized for a number of reasons. One of the more prevalent reasons is that his argument cannot show that people, as he describes them, would institute what he defines as an absolute sovereign.’ Therefore, some argue that Hobbes’s social contract is invalid for the reasons summarized below.

First, 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.

Second, 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.

Third, from the second premise 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.

Fourth, it therefore follows from the third premise 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 very existence of the sovereign, which is dependent on obedience to his commands, is ultimately determined by the people as subjects.

Fifth, it follows, therefore, from the third and fourth premises, that the subjects cannot create a sovereign who meets the definition given in the first proposition – 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.

Those who are opposed to Hobbes’s concept of absolute sovereignty, both contemporary and modern, are many. But the sheer number of his opponents does not necessarily mean that he is entirely in error. However, the numerical weight and the prestige of his adversaries must create serious doubt in one’s mind as to the validity of his thesis. His contribution to the philosophy of politics and government, and his reputation and importance as an original political thinker, particularly in the English speaking world, remains undiminished.

Boucher, David & Kelly, Paul. The Social Contract from Hobbes to Rawls. London: 1994

Ewin, R. E. Virtues and Rights, The Moral Philosophy of Thomas Hobbes. Boulder: 1991

Goodin & Pettit (Eds.). A Companion to Contemporary Political Philosophy. Oxford: 1993

Hampton, Jean. Hobbes and the Social Contract Tradition. Cambridge: 1986

Hart, H. L. The Concept of Law Second Edition. Oxford: 1994

Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan. London: 1968

Martinich, A. P. A Hobbes Dictionary. Oxford: 1995

Oldfield, Adrian. Citizenship and Community Civil Republicanism and the Modern World. London: 1990

Reik Miriam M. The Golden Lands of Thomas Hobbes. Detroit: 1977.

Selbourne, David. The Principle of Duty, An Essay on the Foundations of the Civic Order. London: 1994


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