Hobbes’ Commonwealth

In this post I will interpret Hobbes’ explanation of commonwealth via institution (C_I) as a means of escaping the ‘state of war’ (S_w).  Subsequently, I will consider an objection regarding the feasibility of forming a C_I in S_w, and then consider how Hobbes might reply.

A state of nature (S_n) is where there is no authoritative power to constrain people, no obligations nor civil laws, and all have a natural right (R_n) to do whatever he can to ensure his own self-preservation (SP) (103).  In S_n, all people have natural equality; each of us has the power to kill anyone else — no one is so superior to anyone else that they can, individually, ensure their SP (99).1

Three factors cause the S_n to evolve into S_w, viz. (a) competition, (b) diffidence, and (c) glory.  (a) People often desire the same things; natural equality means each person has reason to believe that they have a chance to attain their desires over others, leading to fighting, promoting S_w.  (b) A person realizes that at some point they may have to compete with others, and inaction just allows others to grow stronger as they compete, subdue, and acquire their desires; immediate action allows the person to strike when others are still weak.  But if a person can think this, then it is like that everyone can think this.  So everyone realizes that immediate action, going on the attack, is in their best interest.  And if everyone is predisposed toward aggression, then no one can be trusted, promoting S_w.  (c) Some are disposed toward vanity; they overestimate themselves, and think they are capable of, and that they enjoy, subduing others — they are easily dishonored, so take offense easily, thus promoting S_w.  Clearly, S_w promotes no one’s SP (99).

From R_n we rationally derive two descriptive conditions on behavior (the ‘laws of nature’ [Ln]. L1: we will do whatever we believe we need to in order to survive.  L2: we accept constraints on our conduct if we believe that others will accept similar constraints (104).2  A contract is a mutual transfer of rights (106).  Hobbes asserts that a contract becomes invalid as soon as one party doubts that the other party will uphold his end (108).3    A covenant is a kind of contract, namely a promise to be kept at a later time.  The third ‘law of nature’ (L3) is that men perform their covenants.  This straightforwardly follows from L1 and L2, for the person who breaks his covenant will not be covenanted with in the future, which bodes ill for SP, conflicting with L1 and L2.4  Injustice consists in breaking your covenants.  An obligation is a duty to obey another, only acquired through voluntary consent (for we are [initially] naturally free and equal [165]).  Because S_w is owed to natural equality and (a)(b)(c), to escape S_w, we must voluntarily consent to obligate ourselves to an artificially unequal power, a sovereign, with two attributes: the unlimited, unique, and virtually unconditional (1) right to command others and (2) the right to act (in whatever way).5  (1) Means that others have a duty to obey the sovereign, regardless of the nature of his command.6  (2) Means there is nothing the sovereign has a duty not to do, giving him the power to decide on and enforce his law.  The sovereign’s rights quench (a)(b)(c), and glory because the sovereign becomes the justly agreed on arbiter of resources and acceptable action (via right to command) and, moreover, has the power to enforce his will unconditionally such that all are compelled to obey, through voluntary consent (via right to do).  In addressing (a)(b)(c), we remove ourselves from S_w to the obeisance of an unequal, artificial power.

We cannot escape S_w and form C_I without obligating ourselves to the sovereign.  For everyone covenanted with each other to live peacefully, without installing a sovereign, then there is no external force to which they are obligated or can compel them.  Without this force, I have reason to doubt others’ veracity, and so the covenant is invalidated.  But to form a C_I is to install a sovereign who can punish those who do not keep their covenants makes it such that the everyone’s adherence to the covenant is in the interest of R_n.  When we covenant to form an institution, each person covenants which each other person to create a sovereign to whom they are all obligated by way of voluntary consent and whom is not obligated to them.  They cede their natural freedom to the sovereign; natural equality gives way to artificial obligation as the sovereign is created and ascribed these authoritative rights via voluntary consent.  Disobeying the sovereign to whom you are obligated constitutes injustice.  Crucially, this is not a covenant between the people and the sovereign — the sovereign is not a party to the covenant.  For if he were, then there would be condition on the sovereign’s power, namely that he uphold his end of the covenant.  And if anyone felt he had violated the covenant, then the whole covenant between the people and the sovereign would become invalid.  So in order to preserve the institution, there cannot be anything that the sovereign does which constitutes a breach of covenant; this means that he cannot be party to the covenant.  (Consequently, nothing the sovereign can do can release us from our obligation to him, and for any subject to fail to recognize the sovereign performs injustice, for the covenant is to recognize and obey the whomever the majority of the convention agree upon.)  Everyone can be assured that everyone else will keep the covenant — that is, obey the sovereign — as the sovereign has the right to command and do and so will punish anyone who breaks the covenant (recalling that breaching a covenant constitutes injustice).

Hobbes’ explanation of C_I relies on the derivation of L3 from L1 and L2, for without L3, there is no reason to expect anyone else to keep their covenant and so it is immediately invalidated.  But this derivation is tenuous.  L1 and L2 are both firmly grounded in human desire for SP.  This means L3 must be firmly grounded in the same.  But L3, as stated, doesn’t straightforwardly trace back to SP — it is not as though keeping covenants is entailed by your desire for SP.  The justification for L3 is that if you keep your covenants, people will covenant with you in future, which is better for your SP than not.  But intuitively, it is possible that breaking a covenant is better for your SP — albeit if only for temporary, short-term SP, rather than ‘the long run’.  But intuitively, people will only covenant with you if they believe that you keep your covenants, regardless of whether or not you actually do.  So what we can actually derived from L1 and L2, insofar as they trace to SP, is that men intend to appear as if they keep their covenants (L3*) — not that they actually do.

So in S_n, I know I am assure of L3*, but not L3.  But if I know this, and I know that everyone else knows L1 and L2, then I know anyone else is assured of L3*, but not L3.  If this is so, then diffidence must invalidate the covenant of C_I — regardless of our self-preservatory contract to obey the sovereign.  For there is no reason I shouldn’t suspect that someone is irrationally vain, overestimates himself, and plans to act as if he will uphold the covenant (publicly) — with know intention of keeping it (privately) — then he will take everyone else unaware, subdue them, and achieve the fulfillment of his own natural desires or SP).  If I know anyone else knows this, then I know everyone else has a reason to doubt the covenant, and the mutual doubt invalidates the covenant ipso facto.

You might think that such a vainglorious betrayal is antithetical to SP, for there is no reason to think that you might survive such an attempt.  Consequently, there is no reason for me to think that anyone would attempt such a coup — especially given the artificial strength and rights of the sovereign — it would be simply irrational.  So for Hobbes’ explanation of C_I to work, we need an additional assumption, namely each person assumes that each other person is rational (and would not get caught up in feckless vainglory).  Assuming rationality is importantly different from assuming the desire for SP.  Though Napoleon was irrationally vainglorious, he surely desired SP.  Clytemnestra publicly upheld her covenants, only to privately slay Agamemnon.  It was not that she didn’t desire SP, it’s that she mistakenly (and perhaps irrationally) thought that she could keep up her appearance to everyone else.  So in order to derive L3 from L1 and L2, we must further assume that no one becomes irrationally mistaken or vainglorious, not just that everyone desires their SP.

Consequently, Hobbes’ justification of political authority hinges on whether this assumption is plausible — whether we are entitled to L3* or L3.  Intuitively, it seems hard to justify.  Indeed, a person intends to privately break a covenant only if they do not think their breach will become public.  If they succeed, there will be no consequence, and all will continue to (publicly) keep the covenant.  Situations where someone intends to privately break their covenant are easily imaginable.  Suppose the sovereign commanded that you must spin three times before stepping in the shower.  You know that if you don’t, it’ll be injustice.  But sometimes you are reasonably confident that no one is watching, so you step in without the spins, figuring no harm no foul.  And maybe you’re right.  The point is that private breaches of covenants are intuitively plausible.  And if this is so, then I am assured only of L3*, not L3.  I have no reason to suppose that people won’t try to privately break their covenants, nor reason to suppose that they won’t sometimes succeed.  Therefore, I have reason to doubt that the covenant will be upheld by others, and others have reason to doubt me, and so our covenant must be invalid.  If this is so, then it seems we cannot get C_I off the ground.


  1. Agamemnon, intellectually and physically capable, returned home from a victorious war, and was slain in the bathtub by his wife, Clytemnestra — he could not ensure his preservation despite his capability. 
  2. I give up my right to nuclear force iff (I believe that) you, too, will give up your right to use nuclear weapons.  Renouncing the right to use nuclear weapons is good for everyone’s SP.  L1 amounts to natural freedom; L2 amounts to voluntary duty or obligation. 
  3. Suppose we duel.  If you cede me your right to bring a knife to our fist fight, I’ll cede mine.  If we agree, but I come doubt the contract (perhaps I see a knife hidden in your boot), then our contract is invalid and I can use whatever means at my disposal in our duel. 
  4. In S_w, there is reason to suspect covenants made, because there is no salient external force to compel people to keep their covenants. 
  5. No one else will have these rights. 
  6. Though its worth noting that you are not obligated to, e.g. kill yourself if commanded, for that violates L1. 
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