PHIL 41150: Political Philosophy
Dr. Robert Lane
Lecture Notes: Monday March 3, 2003

[8.] Liberty and Freedom (Leviathan Ch.21).


[8.1.] The Liberty of Subjects.


Here Hobbes discusses the "liberty of subjects" -- freedom with regard to civil law. There must be such freedoms in any sort of commonwealth, since no system of civil law can be so elaborate as to cover all possible behavior.


Hobbes lists the following areas of life in which a sovereign will allow individuals liberty:


...the liberty to buy, and sell, and otherwise contract with one another; to choose their own abode, their own diet, their own trade of life, and institute their children as they themselves think fit; and the like. (ch.21, 6, p.432)


At first reading, this may seem like a negative answer to our Question 4: What should a political society do? Hobbes' answer may seem to be: the absolute monarch should not interfere in his subjects' diet, careers, education of their children, choice of homes, etc. But I think a more accurate reading of this passage is to take Hobbes as making a descriptive (not normative) claim about the areas in which most sovereigns actually do allow their subjects liberty. Since Hobbes takes the social covenant to bestow absolute power on the sovereign, his actual answer to Question 4 would be: anything the sovereign wants, as long as he (or they) provide safety and security for his (their) subjects.


[8.2.] The True Liberty of Subjects.


Beyond these "liberties of subjects" (things that subjects are allowed to do by civil law), there is something else: "the true liberty of a subject the things, which though commanded by the sovereign, he may nevertheless, without injustice, refuse to do". (ch.21 10, p.433) So Hobbes allows that, even though the sovereign is absolute, there are things that the subject has the freedom/liberty to refuse to do, even if the sovereign commands them.


What are those things? This question must be considered in the light of Hobbes' previous claims:

         the absolute power of the sovereign stems from the subjects themselves -- it is they that transfer their natural rights to the sovereign by way of the social covenant

         so the subjects themselves "own" and are responsible for the actions of the sovereign

         the reason they've turned over their rights is to secure internal peace and to provide for defense against external enemies

         so whatever liberty a subject has to disobey the sovereign must be consistent with the fact that he's turned over his natural rights to the sovereign for the sake of his own safety


Here's the key to answering the question:


it is manifest, that every subject has liberty in all those things, the right whereof cannot by covenant be transferred. I have shewn before in the 14th chapter [29, p.408], that covenants, not to defend a man's own body, are void. Therefore... (ch.21, 11, pp.433-434)


And here Hobbes lists commands that a subject can rightfully disobey: commands that would bring harm to the subject himself, e.g.

         to hurt, maim or kill himself

         to abstain from essentials of life, such as food and air

         to confess to crimes without the assurance that he will be pardoned

         to refuse to go into battle (only when so refusing will not undermine the purpose of the social covenant, viz. securing safety and security for all; so, you can legitimately refuse to go into battle if you can cause someone else to go in your place, or if you are "of feminine courage")


None of this means that the sovereign does not have the power of life and death over his subjects; the sovereign still has the authorityN to put a subject to death -- he just doesn't have the authorityN to command a subject to harm himself.


[8.3.] The Death of the Leviathan.


The covenant among the subjects to transfer rights to a ruler is based on their desire for peace and security. This suggests that the covenant can be voided if the sovereign becomes unable to provide peace and security -- and in fact, Hobbes says exactly that:


The obligation of subjects to the sovereign, is understood to last as long, and no longer, than the power lasteth, by which he is able to protect them. For the right men have by nature to protect themselves, when none else can protect them, can by no covenant be relinquished. ... though sovereignty, in the intention of them that make it, be immortal; yet is it in its own nature, not only subject to violent death, by foreign war; but also through the ignorance, and passions of men, it hath in it, from the very institution, many seeds of a natural mortality, by intestine discord. (ch.21, 21, p.435)


If the sovereign is no longer able to enforce the peace and protect his subjects, then the social contract by which they have laid down their natural rights and bestowed sovereignty on him is null and void.


This is the basis of a serious criticism of Hobbes: he's being inconsistent. He begins by arguing that the power of the sovereign is absolute (the contract by which people transfer their right of nature is an alienation contract) -- but here he's describing a condition on which the contract may legitimately be broken (which implies that it's an agency contract).


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