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Why a Sovereign Ought to be under Contract

February 13, 2011
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I disagree with Hobbes as I believe a Sovereign must be under contract with those who authorized him and that the sovereign must go through re-authorization frequently, namely through elections.

Before I begin my argument, I wish to re-iterate important terms such as the state of nature, author, and actor.

To describe the state of nature, Hobbes says it is a time when men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, and man is in a condition called war. Furthermore, since a man in a state of nature has the right to everything he wishes, the concepts of justice and injustice do not exist.

My interpretation of Hobbes definition of an actor is a sovereign whose actions are authorized by authors. Authors transfer certain rights to the actor which restrict which actions they can justly act upon.  This is accomplished through a social contract that pertains only to those who have a contract with the other authors. The second portion of Hobbes’ definition is crucial. Hobbes refers to an individual who does not consent to the congregation’s authorization of the sovereign,

 “And whether he be of the congregation, or not; and whether his consent be asked, or not, he must either submit to their decrees, or be left in the condition of war he was in before, wherein he might without injustice be destroyed by any man whatsoever.” (177)

Thus, any individual not under contract with the authors can be destroyed without any labels of justice or injustice being attached to the authors’ actions. 

A distinction must be made between the separate concepts of the institution of the sovereign and the physical sovereign himself: the institution of the sovereign is the idea that authors will authorize a common power to rule over them, and the physical sovereign is the actor namely being a king, or queen. The physical sovereign himself, ought to be under contract.  The actor should be under the same contract as those that authorized him or her to be their actor. If the actor is not under contract, then he is not in awe of a common power, as he is the power himself, he has all his rights retained and he has not transferred any rights, and as stated by Hobbes, he cannot commit an injustice.  As a result, the actor has a right to pursue everything he wishes freely and can do so without the label of acting unjustly.  The previous two sentences describe all the criterion Hobbes utilizes to describe the state of nature.  Thus, my conclusion is that the actor lives in a state of nature. The fact that the actor can commit no injustice when he acts upon an intention to fulfill any desire, has no awe to a common power, and thus lives in a state of nature poses a problem.

As Hobbes states in Ch 18 (pg 177), an individual not under contract can be destroyed without injustice.  My conclusion is that an author has a right, if he wishes to act upon it, to destroy the actor as long as he still upholds his contract with those he made a covenant with.  Hobbes only defense to my previous statement is as follows:

“No man that hath sovereign power can justly be put to death, or otherwise in any manner by his subjects punished. For seeing every subject is author of the actions of his sovereign; he punisheth another, for the actions of himself.” (177)

I respond to Hobbes in two ways.  First, I say that we punish others for our actions frequently, and that when an individual is in a state of nature, we have a right to punish this individual for our actions.  Secondly, I give an example that an author has a right to kill when he is in the state of nature or another individual lives in the state of nature. The author transferred their right to kill to the sovereign. However, the author transferred the right to kill those who are under contract with him, not those who are not under contract with him, and this includes the sovereign.  Thus, authors cannot justly kill only those who are under contract with them. Moreover, the fact that Hobbes states that we cannot justly put a person to death (punish another) for our own actions does not negate the right of an individual to kill a person when he is in the state of nature himself, nor negate the right to kill an individual who is not under contract with him.

I appreciate views that disagree with my above conclusions. However, I will now give a scenario in which an individual has a right to kill a sovereign, especially a sovereign determined through blood-line.  After initial authorization of a sovereign by authors, that sovereign has authority over those authors, who are now his subjects.  However, after a generation in which the current sovereign is the son of the previous sovereign and the current populace of the state consists of the sons of the authors of the previous sovereign, we cannot say that the current populace was given an opportunity to authorize a sovereign as they were not even born during the initial authorization of the previous sovereign and the current sovereign was hand-picked by the previous sovereign without consent of any authors.  Thus, the current populace is in a state of nature unless they authorize a sovereign through their own consent and not the consent of their forefathers. Therefore, the current populace has a right to kill the so-called sovereign of the commonwealth, who has the false belief that he has authority, as the current populace lives in a state of nature.

The very fact that a sovereign cannot commit injustice, and can freely act to obtain his desires can and has created problems for commonwealths.  My remedy is the sovereign ought to be under contract with his people yet still enforce all contracts.  I believe the sovereign can play this dual role.  Many say that it is impossible to escape the state of nature when the sovereign is under contract because then there is no common power.  I respond by stating that the institution of sovereignty constructed by authors permits and restricts abilities of the sovereign.  Therefore, the physical sovereign defers to a common power of the institution of sovereignty.  A real-world example of an institution of sovereignty I refer to is the U.S constitution.  We transfer our rights and so does our president, our physical sovereign who acts with our authority, to this institution of authority, the constitution.  In a commonwealth with this method of a common power, the authorized physical sovereign has no more rights than those he acts on behalf of, and therefore no one has the right to kill the sovereign because he is under contract with his authors.

3 Comments
  1. timothyhall permalink
    February 13, 2011 6:06 PM

    I completely agree, this was an element of Hobbes discourse that I couldn’t disagree with more, and as it was a large part, made it difficult for me to find an accord with him in general. Especially in our world today, as well as with events in recent history, it’s tough to think of anything more irresponsible than a ruler to have such absolutist and unquestionable power. Hosni Mubarak apparently believed in this model of government and thought it entitled him to thirty years of corruption as president of Egypt.

  2. Ad maiorem Dei gloriam permalink
    February 13, 2011 11:46 PM

    I think that your point ‘Thus, my conclusion is that the actor lives in a state of nature. The fact that the actor can commit no injustice when he acts upon an intention to fulfill any desire, has no awe to a common power, and thus lives in a state of nature poses a problem’ here are based on two assumptions: First, that the actor is singular and not a group that have come to power because they were voted in and hence, by virtue of being voted in, have legitimacy to govern. Second, it assumes that the group/actor are/is not subject to the rules that he uses to govern the people. If the actor is also bound by the rules with which he uses to govern the people then it’s arguable that he/the group is no longer in the state of nature, yes?

    Still, you brought up an interesting point on hereditary consent and if I’m not mistaken, Hobbes argues that in the same way that parents can bind their children to obedience, once he/she pledges allegiance, this pledge binds his/her children. This view, I believe, diverges when one considers Locke’s philosophy in which he argued that children are bound by their parents to serve the government only until they can rationally make choices.

    Finally, I would like to bring up Locke’s notion of ‘tacit consent’ which might be applicable since though we do not expressly consent to a particular form of government, by virtue of us utilizing the state resources, being in the country subjects us to obedience to the state. It’s pretty much like when you’re in another country on holiday, you’ve got to obey that state’s laws. As such, though some people might not give their express consent, this concept of tacit consent still renders the sovereign legitimate. Something like consent through actions and analogous to how Socrates decided to remain in prison because he believe that by virtue of remaining in Athens and benefiting from his system renders him subject to the state.

  3. February 15, 2011 8:41 PM

    To respond, I would say that if the sovereign is also bound by the rules he uses to govern, then he is also under contract as he cannot justly break those rules. If a sovereign is above the law, then the law cannot restrict his actions. The law does not pertain to him or her, but neither is the sovereign protected by the law as he or she is above the law. Hobbes gives the right to fight back against a sovereign if he tries to kill us. This is because we have a right to self-preservation and self-preservation is the fundamental reason why authors engaged in contracts with each other. When an author’s self-preservation is threatened by an actor, the author can use any means to defend himself. I argue that he can defend himself without breaking his contract as his contract pertains to not taking the lives of only the other actors. If the individual who is threatened by the sovereign feels that in order to preserve his life he must remove the sovereign from power, then he can do it. The authors transferred the right to kill others within their contract, not those outside of it. The authors do not relinquish their right to decide for themselves what is right and just in life, their ability to read what they desire, their ability to act against oppression, and anything outside the confines of their contract. It is legitimate for the sovereign to govern if he is authorized. Nevertheless, the right to act against oppression was not forfeited.

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