Hobbes Against Limited Government

Topics: Political philosophy, Sovereignty, Thomas Hobbes Pages: 9 (3087 words) Published: April 12, 2010
Explain and discuss Hobbes' belief that neither limited government (where the sovereign is bound by laws) nor divided government (a system of checks and balances) is a practical possibility.

Word Count: 2, 764 words

In Leviathan, Hobbes imagines rational self-interested parties in a state of nature choosing among three alternatives: remaining in this state of nature; grouping themselves together under a government with limited, or divided, power and authority; or forming themselves into a civil society governed by a sovereign with unlimited power and authority. He contends, however, that the second alternative is basically illusory. Because of the constant danger of factionalism, civil war, and social disintegration in a group governed by a “mixarchy” with limited or divided power, such a form of social organization does not provide its members with sufficient security to really remove them from the state of nature. The choice of the parties, according to Hobbes, is therefore reduced to one between absolute sovereignty and the state of nature, and as the state of nature is “a state of war of all against all” Hobbes concludes that the parties would choose absolute government as the lesser evil. Absolute monarchy is the form of absolute government Hobbes prefers – as this furthers his political agenda of providing a means to resolve the civil conflict devastating his country - but nothing in his theory of sovereignty depends on the preference. In fact his concept of absolute sovereignty can be more convincing when not linked to a monarch, thus in this essay I will Hobbes’s former argument in isolation.

Why is absolute sovereignty necessary?
Hobbes's primary argument for the doctrine of absolute sovereignty is essentially an argument against right reason. Hobbes claims that any appeal to right reason or “the truth” comprises a completely inadequate basis for the resolution of disputes, because if disputes are about what the truth actually is, then appealing to these concepts – which cannot be identified without ambiguity or uncertainty – is essentially inconclusive and therefore self-defeating. Concern for the truth or right reason will not resolve disputes successfully or peacefully when people have entrenched and irreconcilable positions, because that is precisely the route to conflict and violence — “the state of war, of every man against every man.”

Hobbes establishes that if each individual were allowed the liberty to follow his own conscience without constraint, then as such consciences vary, peace and harmony in the state would be short lived due to a persistent tendency to disagreement and civil disobedience. This diversity of consciences and the unrestrained exercise of individual judgment would render any common action highly uncertain or virtually impossible. Although men, according to Hobbes, are not political by nature, their association depends on an agreement to observe justice among men who disagree about who ought to receive what, thus they need common standards of right and wrong to regulate their affairs. Where it is impossible to obtain a unanimity of wills and agreement a common policy cannot be determined so, Hobbes informs us, an artificial will or person must be created and accepted.

This “artificial right reason” introduces a public level of judgment that takes precedence over private judgments, so the problems of the latter are avoided. A sovereign may produce an incorrect answer which does not correlate with the truth, but the judgment stands “not because it is his private Sentence; but because he giveth it by Authority of the Sovereign ... which is Law.” Even if one believes that the sovereign’s decision is fundamentally wrong, civil disobedience is prohibited. That person has an obligation to obey, or face the consequences of the punishment power exercised by the sovereign. Thus, Hobbes’s sole and unique remedy for the “state of war against all” supports the concept...

References: Finn, S. (2006). Thomas Hobbes and the Politics of Natural Philosophy. Cornwall: MGP Books.
Goldsmith, M. (1966). Hobbes’s Science of Politics. London: Columbia University Press.
Hampton, J. (1986) Hobbes and the Social Contract Tradition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Hobbes, T. Leviathan. (1994). Retrieved on 02 April 2009, from The University of Adelaide Library Database http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au
Hopkins, S
Kafka, G. (1983). Hobbes’s War of All Against All. Ethics (93)2, 291-310.
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Rogow, A., & Lasswell, H. (1963). Power Corruption and Rectitude. Connecticut: Greenwood Publishing Group.
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Sorrell, T. (1986). Hobbes. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
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