On Self-Interested Sovereigns
Machiavelli’s insistence that princes must learn to do “bad” to succeed implies that people are predisposed to do things that are “good” – to refrain from cruelty, to keep their word, etc. For Hobbes, this notion of “morality” does not exist. There are no rights and wrongs. Instead, humankind functions in accordance with self-interest.
What is “right” is the pursuit of this self-interest – the ultimate self-interest being that of self-preservation. What is “wrong” is doing things that inhibit this pursuit. This is Hobbes’ LAW OF NATURE. By his own reasoning, all humans must do what is best for themselves. That is why commonwealths exist – so that people can preserve their lives while exercising other, defined rights without fear of infringement on those rights by others.
But by this same reasoning, Hobbes tells us that sovereigns themselves (because they are people and not robots) are self-interested. Sovereigns are naturally disposed to favor subjects whose reciprocal favor benefits them, which inherently implies both that a fair ARBITER cannot exist and that hierarchy within a commonwealth is inevitable… which makes a commonwealth not so “common,” after all.
Does this mean that a commonwealth cannot exist? Well, not exactly. We must pursue the question of what allows a commonwealth to exist in the first place to see why. Yes, it involves a covenant, but that’s not all. Commonwealths exist because of enforcement – that is, because of the power the sovereign yields over his subjects. In the real world people don’t just get together and agree not to fight. People are sneaky and if they can get away with breaking contracts, they will by all means attempt to do so. That’s where sovereigns come in. Those who set up commonwealths know that sovereigns are necessary to enforce their covenants.
But all this we know. So what’s my point? My point is that this enforced-covenant thing needs to work both ways. In Hobbes’ commonwealth, sovereigns can do no wrong because they are not bound by covenant; the covenant in a commonwealth is instead between all those who install the sovereign. So even if a sovereign violates his purpose (that is, to protect equality between people of the commonwealth), which he inherently does because of his natural pursuit of self-interest, his actions are “just” because they violate no covenant. But this dissolves the purpose of the commonwealth.
Therefore if a commonwealth is to truly exist, sovereigns need to be held accountable, and by a different definition of justice. I propose a version of MLK Jr.’s:
…A just law… is sameness made legal.
The sovereign’s rule need not be subject to Machiavellian notions of moral “good” and “bad” (this would lead to political infighting), but should indeed be subject to gauging of fairness in the form of one of Hobbes’ own laws of nature: EQUITY – the acceptance of people as equal, and the treating of all as such. While definitions of “morality” vary, it is much easier to avoid infighting when all that needs be determined is whether a sovereign’s policies apply to all equally. A sovereign needs to himself covenant with the people that he will not violate the above definition of justice, or else face consequences – consequences that will be enforced by the people, and perhaps in the form of rebellion.
This, of course, or bring in the robots.