Saturday, June 11, 2005

Social Contract Theory: Locke And Hobbes

Having written about Hume yesterday, I thought perhaps I might write a little about two of the theorists who are most clearly in his sights in his moral philosophy, Locke and Hobbes. Locke and Hobbes are interesting, perhaps because whilst both are philosophical quite fertile, their main works of political theory are rather transparently political polemics. Hobbes, a Royalist in exile in France in the aftermath of the English Civil War, wrote 'Leviathan', a defence of absolute government, if not monarchy, and Locke, a Whig, published, if not wrote, 'The Two Treatises On Government', a defence of limited government and a right of rebellion, in the aftermath of the Glorious Revolution. Their theories also share, structurally, rather a lot, most obviously the device of the social contract and of the state of nature, so, quite apart from more or less standing on opposite sides of an historically important political debate, comparison of them is potentially fruitful.

Locke, partly because he and Hobbes are seen as standing on opposite sides of this historical debate, is often thought to be writing against Hobbes, particularly because historically, the first Treatise of the two was lost through much of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. However, the rediscovery of the first Treatise makes Locke's target much clearer: it was Filmer, a now more or less forgotten apologist for the absolutism of the Stuarts on the basis of patriarchal rights, whose Biblical argument is systematically dismantled by Locke in the first Treatise and whose arguments against natural law theory addressed in the second. The only obviously anti-Hobbesian argument Locke makes in either of the two Treatises is a passage where he claims that claiming that people would establish an absolute monarch “is to think that Men are so foolish that they take care to avoid what Mischiefs may be done to them by Pole-Cats, or Foxes, but are content, nay think it Safety, to be devoured by Lions”, which is pleasingly succinct and dismissive, but hardly decisive, since Hobbes has a rather good explanation, on its own terms, of why it would make sense to establish an absolute monarch.

As has often been said, Hume, by challenging explicitly Hobbes's motivational assumptions and by pointing out that all governments rest on consent, is much better at showing Hobbes is wrong. Still, I think it is, despite Locke's unwillingness to engage directly with Hobbes, possible to show Hobbes's wrongness in a way that makes quasi-Lockean premises seem rather plausible. One of the main differences between Locke and Hobbes - indeed, the one from which one could plausibly argue all their differences flow - is their account of the state of nature and peoples' behaviour in it. Whilst in Hobbes's state of nature - the perhaps hypothetical state in which people existed before governments - life is, as is the staple of every undergraduate essay about him, 'nasty, brutish and short', in Locke's, at least until the invention of money, life is perhaps hard but not much more violent than life under a government. Now, the reason it is sensible in Hobbes's terms to establish an absolute monarch so as to exit the state of nature - in fact, the only way we could exit the state of nature - is that because people are basically greedy, capricious and proud, it is only if an absolute power is over them that they can be made to follow any rules at all: otherwise, it would never be in their self-interest to follow those rules, because there would be uncertain sanction attached to them, and so they wouldn't, meaning the rules were useless. Locke denies this, simply because his state of nature isn't like that: people are greedy, but not so greedy that life becomes a war of all against all.

One of the problems which all social contract theorists face is explaining both why and how people form societies, since they are asserting that legitimacy flows from that contract and therefore, it must have actually occurred, which means giving an explanation of how that might have happened. Because, if it didn't actually happen, it's hard to see where a social contract which derives its force from actual agreement to it could be deriving its force from, social contract theorists must have at least a quasi-empirical account of the actual social contract. Their state of nature needs to provide both the opportunity and the motivation to leave it, in short, which is where I think that Hobbes gets into difficulty. Hobbes's state of nature is exceptionally nasty: because it would always be irrational to risk getting suckered by someone, on Hobbes's account, it would always be irrational to make any bargain with anyone unless there was some overwhelming force one could rely upon to enforce compliance. Since the sovereign must be created by agreement, as precisely what gives them their absolute power is the submission of all to their authority, it would, on Hobbes's own account, always be irrational to attempt to create a sovereign, because you would risk being suckered.

Hobbes can't make the Humean argument that government could emerge from gradual, incrementally increasing, cooperation, for the same reason: gradual, incrementally increasing, cooperation would hold similar risks and so is ruled out on the same grounds. We could put this in game theoretical terms: although the state of nature is for Hobbes an assurance game, a situation in which it is best to cooperate, because the benefits of cooperation flow precisely from the impossibility of cooperation, except under an absolute sovereign (if we could organise ourselves without an absolute sovereign, then there would be no need to cooperate to form an absolute sovereign) it is impossible to cooperate to form an absolute sovereign. In the terms of the assurance game, which gets its name from the property of requiring assurance in order to reach the optimal outcome, we can never be assured.

This makes quasi-Lockean premises plausible because either we are still in the state of nature, or we managed to form a sovereign of some sort despite the fact that on Hobbes's own premises it is impossible to do so. If we are in the state of nature, since we don't live in a state of war of all against all, then Hobbes is wrong about the state of nature, and if we formed a sovereign of some sort, then whatever came before that can't have been as bad as Hobbes believed. Either way, we get the Lockean conclusion that the state of nature is relatively benign.

We can put this another way, rather than in terms of rational calculation. Hobbes, like Hume, collapses motivation and justification, not by undermining the idea that anything else could be the basis of justification, but by emphasising the compulsive aspect of obligation: it is only because we must do it that we are obliged, and since a must needs to be relative to our goals, which are simply morally empty desires, an obligation requires threatening us with vastly superior force. Yet, in the absence of vastly superior force, we must be obliged not to cooperate to form a vastly superior force, because there is no vastly superior force to compel us to do so in the face of the vastly superior force of the horrors of the state of nature, which obliges us not to cooperate. Thus, we are obliged not to form an absolute sovereign.

Locke though, if anything, faces the opposite problem. It's not hard for Locke to explain why we should want to form a sovereign of some kind: even if people are fairly good-willed, they will make some mistakes about the punishment of wrongs, even if those mistakes will not totally undermine any norms they adhere to, because of their good-willedness, meaning that there are possible benefits from forming a state. What's hard for Locke is to make real the requirement of consent, to make the formation of a state something that we can choose to do, rather than something that we must do. The reason that we owe the state allegiance, if in fact we do, is that it enforces the law of nature, rather than because we consent, because we would in fact only consent to a state which enforced the law of nature. Consent is basically epiphenomenal in Locke's theory, as can be seen from his difficulties with maintaining that those other than the original contractors have consented (those who accept property in a commonwealth consent, which is like saying, if I save you from drowning on the condition that you become my slave, you have consented to becoming my slave, especially when combined with the apparently contradictory claim that consent is necessary for any taxation, which together would imply that no-one can be deprived of property without their consent, unless it is inherited). So perhaps Hume was right, and social contract theories are rather dubious, since the conclusion here seems to be it's either hard to get the contract off the ground, or the contract itself isn't really doing any work.

1 comment:

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