It was the high mark of Hobbes’ genius to elevate the concept of political obligation to serve as the cornerstone of his political theory: its primary function, to spell out the necessary relationship between the subject and the sovereign.
To drive in the final nail, Hobbes had to ensure that the obligation in question is moral rather than merely prudential. In short, that it wouldn’t be subject to an individual whim or a haphazard circumstance but forever binding. Thus, he laid the foundation.
The idea of obligation, purportedly underlying most of our social structures, whether expressly political or not, is hardly surprising.
In ancient Greece, for instance, the cradle of democracy and the birthplace of city-states, it was considered a solemn duty of every citizen to take an active part in the community affairs.
In the Middle Ages, noted for the conspicuous absence of a durable political structure, political and social stability was maintained by a complex set of reciprocal relations: serf to vassal, vassal to a lord, lord to an overlord. And underlying each of these relations, there was the concept of personal obligation, a concept of duty. That’s the Middle Ages in a nutshell.
Indeed, even as we look further back, to our primitive or pre-political stage, to the life of a clan, a tribe, or an extended family, we’re still drawn to the very same conclusion: it’s our sense of obligation that made each of these possible.
In short, the concepts of obligation and duty were always present, albeit implicitly so, in all social structures with any degree of permanence, spelling out the conditions of said permanence; and they were implicit in the set of complex personal relations which in effect constituted those structures. Arguably, the subject’s sense of duty and obligation to, say, a reigning monarch wasn’t just to the institution of kingship but also to the king’s person.
Well, with Hobbes, sovereignty and personhood undergo an irrevocable break. Hobbes’ idea of a sovereign, the rudiments of what was soon to become a modern state, is as impersonal as it gets. Hence the need to reposition these concepts front and center to make explicit what previously was only implicit. Hobbes is merely following here the dictates of his grand project.
Macpherson captures this very movement in Hobbes “from motivation to obligation,” the manner of Hobbes’ “deduction” of the latter from the former, in the following excerpt:
Once Hobbes has established that the general inclination of all men is the search for ever more power over others, he is easily able to show that if there were no power able to overawe them all, their lives would necessarily be miserable and insecure to the utmost degree. He has already postulated that men necessarily seek to live, and to live commodiously. It follows that rationally men who fully calculate the consequences must shun such a condition by acknowledging a power able to overawe them all. To do so they must make, or act as if they had made, a covenant with each other by which they all simultaneously transfer to some man or body of men the rights they would have to protect themselves if there were no common power to protect them. It is this transfer of rights which creates their obligation to the sovereign. And since this covenant is a restraint on the appetites, it cannot be binding without a power to enforce it; hence men must transfer their natural powers at the same time as their natural rights. This gives the sovereign absolute authority and sufficient power to wield that authority effectively. Only by acknowledging such authority can men (a) hope to avoid constant danger of violent death and all the other evils which they would otherwise necessarily bring upon themselves because of their otherwise necessarily destructive search for power over each other; and (b) hope to ensure the conditions for the commodious living which they necessarily desire. Hence every man who understands the requirements of men’s nature, and the necessary consequences of those requirements, must acknowledge obligation to a sovereign.
Whether the obligation in question can indeed be said to be a moral one is a matter that needn’t concern us. Suffice it to say, Hobbes thought that it was, and his best argument to that effect rested on another one of his postulates: an equal right to life.
To cite from Macpherson again: “Hobbes can treat his political obligation as a moral obligation because it derives from a transfer of rights which he treats as moral rights.” Besides, the allegedly inviolable distinction between fact and value, and the purported fallacy of deriving, therefore “ought” from “is,” may well be a red herring, as the writings of both Elizabeth Anscombe and Philippa Foot ably attest.
During this essay, I propose treating all obligations and duties that happen to derive from the nexus of personal relations as essentially moral. I will include here such obligations and responsibilities as those of, say, a slave to his master, or a battered wife to her husband. Only when the relationship in question shall be deemed and recognized by the injured party as essentially exploitative or immoral will it merit a review. And when that time comes, all bets will be off. But until then, and not until then, I think it is right-headed to consider the slave or the battered wife as “morally bound” to their “betters.” At the very least, that’s how they see themselves!
True, this operational definition may strike one as being hopelessly subjective and unduly offensive. Still, it has the distinct merit of bypassing the practical turn of mind to which even Hobbes, it seems, was susceptible. There’s no calculation here; there’s only sentiment!
Meanwhile, another question suggests itself: Are we justified to extend the same kind of logic and rules of procedure to impersonal relations, such as those that obtain between the subject and the state? Can we be morally bound to an institution in the same way that we’re morally bound to persons?
I suspect this is the right kind of question, but then again, we don’t have to answer it now.
In any event, Hobbes was on to something when he posited the concept of political obligation as the central concept of political theory. More so than individual rights, which merely presuppose, and consequently arise only in the context of some preexisting political entity that is presumed to guarantee them, only after the fact, political obligation is more central because it’s a priori: it spells out the preconditions.
Thus, not only must we surrender our natural rights to the sovereign (as most social contract theorists would have it), which is synonymous with acknowledging the obligation as a kind of quid pro quo for services yet to be rendered. What’s more, it is only because of said obligation, sustained, that there can be such things as the sovereign, the subject, or the state.
It is thus that individual rights fall by the wayside in the greater scheme of things. They’re not at the cutting-edge when it comes to the theory of the state. Political obligation is!
I intend to expand on this insight and develop this concept to the extent possible. Even though it’s on the right track, I find Hobbes’ notion of political obligation much too restrictive if it is to take us beyond the political configuration limited at present to the liberal state. That happens to be its greatest weakness, that Hobbes conceived of it with no other form of polity in mind.
In particular, I find the contractual basis of Hobbes’ idea of political obligation its weakest link. Not only is it the case that, for this very fact, it is also unduly beholden to some utilitarian picture of Everyman, a truncated version at best of how humans qua moral agents tend to behave. It is also false as an account of how we typically form and sustain most of our relationships.
Thus, it is time to dispel the philosophers’ myth which, under the guise of utilitarianism and social-contract theories, appears to have crept in and, ever since Hobbes, contaminated our thinking about politics and the state.
As part of this program, I intend to disentangle the concept of obligation from its typical, overly legalistic/contractual framework. I suspect that moral philosophers have only added to the confusion and share some of the blame, especially insofar as their treatment of rights and responsibilities is concerned as a set of reciprocal concepts.
It is not the case that rights and responsibilities aren’t reciprocal in the sense that they both feed off one another, the one legitimizing the other, and vice versa. Of course, they are! But the concomitant result is, the concept of obligation was even further implicated, by association, in the legalistic/contractual framework. It had become too compromised in the process to administer the kind of radical break that’s needed.
The long and the short of it is, we need a brand-new concept of political obligation, a more or less stand-alone concept, unencumbered by old associations and relics from the past if we are to move beyond the liberal state and the typically contractual basis of its operations.
And it is no different with rights. They, too, must become divorced, to the extent possible, from their typically legalistic context, as something to be guaranteed by the state because of the social contract, to approximate instead a meaning that would be more pertinent to a purely moral type of discourse: to connote the general worthiness of the individual qua individual, along with the underlying assumption as to the moral equivalence of persons, rather than the specific gains that may yet to be won, as a result of a bitter struggle against the reactionary elements of the state.
Only thus, by forging a linguistic environment capable of supporting these concepts and a new form of polity, can we hope to overcome the apparent limitations of the liberal state and its contractual basis of “doing business,” its modus operandi, and move beyond.
I alluded earlier to the weakness of all contract-dependent accounts as to the origins of most of our social structures, narratives of how we typically form and sustain those relationships that are the lifeblood of those structures. And although the notion of obligation or a set of reciprocal obligations, to be more precise, does form an integral part of those relationships, it’s not always or necessarily an obligation which is born of a contract. Again, the life of a clan, a tribe, or an extended family come to mind. None of them are contingent on anyone signing their name on the dotted line. All come about naturally.
As part of the program to free the notion of obligation and related concepts from their usually restrictive, contract-laden language and bearings, I propose to trace back the beginnings of all our social formations to their natural habitat. And here, the notion of loyalty, as a kind of affinity which comes to us naturally, readily suggests itself.
It’s undoubtedly both logically and psychologically antecedent to the mere acknowledgment of an obligation, moral or otherwise: indeed, once we get to consider the broader context, duties and obligations do come to be seen as a byproduct, as a formal acknowledgment of, or a testimony to, a set of loyalties already in place. And loyalty?
It’s the springboard, the fertile source of all manner of us coming together as humans. Everything else follows.
In articles to follow, I intend to examine the concept of loyalty, an articulation of social impulse which manifests itself, so it seems, in all manner of groupings, social formations, what else have you; the likely impetus behind those groupings if not their very source.
Right off the bat, it has got two things going for it: a particular affinity we all share in common, which makes us huddle together and form a group, coupled with the functionality of the group. It’s a powerful combination in its own right.
Also, notice that with loyalty at the helm, nowhere are we led to infer the need for a contract to reinforce the preexisting arrangements. Granted, the kind of groupings entertained thus far, a clan, a tribe, an extended family, all stand out for their high degree of informality, which may be one reason why the idea of a (social) contract is so out of place in cases of this sort. Indeed, perhaps the contractual basis of social arrangements goes hand in hand with the degree to which these arrangements are formal, their necessary aspect.
By its very nature, must the state partake of a degree of formality to require a contractual basis for its foundation? Can’t we conceive of a likewise institution that would be less demanding in that respect?
Alternatively, can’t we think of a polity that would be just as comprehensive as the state happens to be, or nearly so, but without the added requirement — namely, the dubious benefit of a contract? And if not, must such a polity be as comprehensive as the state to serve us in an undiminished capacity? Can’t we do with less for more?
We’re yet to tackle some of these questions as we embark on our project. Meanwhile, let’s enjoy the ride.