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On Self-Interested Sovereigns

October 8, 2010

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.

A Fair Arbiter

One way to eliminate the problem of self-interested sovereigns...

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.

2 Comments
  1. thacarter4 permalink
    October 9, 2010 11:21 PM

    I agree with the basic idea here. Clearly sovereigns need something balanced against their absolute power and should be forced to rule equally and justly. The problem lies in how to do this in a large, ever changing society. In America we have tried to legislate equally and fairly but I think everyone would agree that some laws are unfair and that people are still treated unequally outside of the law. I think it may just be that a human run society is going to have its flaws here and there no matter how good the sovereign is at ruling equally, so yea bring on the robots.

  2. Neil Rabinowicz permalink
    October 10, 2010 7:01 PM

    I agree with what your wrote here. When we had to read Hobbes for class this was one of the main points I argued against. The idea that just because the people elected a ruler then that ruler wasn’t accountable for anything didn’t sound fair to me. Why should the people be accountable for the sovereign’s decisions? The sovereign is a person with his own consciousness and decision-making abilities, and unless every single decision he makes is based on the people’s interests then it’s impossible to assume he will always do the right/just thing.

    Considering Hobbes’s principle then, anyone who voted for Obama should be responsible for all of his actions, even though we, the common people, have basically no control over most of the policies and laws he passes or decisions he makes.

    MLK’s definition of justice is, in my opinion, is the way society should view sovereigns’ decisions. If they make a decision out of self interest or a decision that ends up being detrimental to society, he should be held accountable for it. This is the way society has been for a while, at least in the US, a reason why Presidents can be and have been impeached in the past.

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