Political obligation: of subjects and men

Leviathan

Simon Bogojevic-Narath's (2006) 'Leviathan'

The distinction between man and subject, and the positions that follow from it, make it possible to understand as consistent Hobbes’ claims (1) that no man is bound by the civil covenant to kill himself, or any other man and (2) that a sovereign may not unjustly kill an innocent subject.

In forming his theory of political obligation, Thomas Hobbes deliberately distinguishes between men and subjects. For example, Hobbes argues that a man can resist any attempt by the sovereign to kill him and any command issued by the sovereign that he kill or injure himself (Leviathan, ch. XXI). This seems to contradict the point Hobbes makes in the same chapter that it is not unjust for a sovereign to put an innocent subject to death. The apparent contradiction is resolved, however, when one understands that there is a distinction between men and subjects, just as there is between a man as a man and that man as sovereign. The political status attributed to men in the ‘subject’ and ‘sovereign’ cases are human fabrications—ones that Hobbes argues are required for peace and civil society.

For Hobbes, individual men become subjects when they enter the social covenant; however, they do not thereby cease to be men. They now possess a civil status as subjects as well as their natural status as men. And when the sovereign mortally threatens a subject, that subject, as a subject, is obliged to obey. Hence, in such instances it is not unjust for the sovereign to put a subject, even an innocent one, to death. It just so happens, however, that in each instance that a sovereign mortally threatens a subject, he or she also mortally threatens a man. Facing a mortal threat, that man, as a man, may disobey. He retains that primary right of nature—the right to self-preservation. In such instances, it is the individual threatened man versus the man (or woman) of the sovereign. Such a situation returns the two individuals to the state of nature. Therefore, mortal threats by the sovereign fall outside the scope of the social contract because the social contract applies only to individuals as subjects.

Two further conditions follow from the distinction between man and subject. Firstly, although at the point of mortal threat the individual man (or woman) who was the subject comes face-to-face in the state of nature with the individual man (or woman) who was the sovereign, the individual who was the sovereign may engage the services of other subjects to carry out the mortal threat. Only the threatened individual has exited the social covenant; the sovereign for that individual is but another man in the state of nature. However, the social covenant remains intact for all other subjects. The sovereign, therefore, remains sovereign for all of the other subjects. Hence, the sovereign may engage the remaining subjects to kill the recently-lapsed subject.

Secondly, subjects may not defend an individual against the sovereign. So long as the subject retains his or her status as a subject, he or she remains obliged to obey the sovereign. Assisting an individual in mortal danger from the sovereign would amount to exiting the civil association, at which time, in assisting that individual, one would have ceased being a subject and would be but another man (or woman) assisting a man (or woman) in the state of nature. It is therefore impossible, by definition, for a subject to disobey the sovereign. Only men can disobey the sovereign, at which time they forfeit all of the privileges afforded them by the social covenant.

Understanding this distinction between man and subject is integral to understanding the importance of the artificiality of Hobbes’ theory of political obligation, however much the distinction may appear to be pure semantics—‘a distinction without a difference’ as Martinich puts it in his Hobbes biography (1999). The distinction between man and subject, and the positions that I’ve claimed follow from it, make it possible to understand as consistent Hobbes’ claims (1) that no man is bound by the civil covenant to kill himself, or any other man and (2) that a sovereign may not unjustly kill an innocent subject.

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References

Hobbes, T 1996 [1651], Leviathan, rev. student edn, ed. R Tuck, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Martinich, AP 1999, Hobbes: a biography, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

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