A response to Keith Ng on Hobbes’s Leviathan

Thanks for the post on Hobbes’s Leviathan. As you note, it is a potent symbol and one with many meanings that wax and wane across different eras.[1] In particular, the idea of the Leviathan as a great creature of the sea has an important resonance is Western Christendom that Hobbes would have wanted to invoke. Christ was considered a fisherman or a fisher of men. The Leviathan, as a great fish, would be something that Christ would capture. In one view of this symbol, Christ’s kingdom, not of this world, would destroy the commonwealths (Leviathans) of this world. The full title of the book is instructive: Leviathan or The Matter, Forme and Power of a Common Wealth Ecclesiasticall and Civil  However, the issue of symbols, while important, leads us away from what Hobbes was trying to do with the Leviathan and why it returns to public’s attention the constant question of what makes political authority legitimate and why do people obey political authority.

Why do men obey the law?

No matter who is in charge or for what reason, there will be the question of why people obey and whether obedience is legitimate or coerced. If we put the argument crudely, we can say that before Hobbes the Ancient Greeks had the view that the laws are good, which is why people consent to them. Hobbes would argue that people consent which is why the law is good. Moreover, he would say that people obey because the sovereign protects them and allows them to pursue their own interests and business so long as it does not endanger public safety or the sovereign’s ability to protect the commonwealth.

Are we creating a new commonwealth in the digital domain?

What was central to the issue is the relationship between the individual and the community. Hobbes saw that the individual created the sovereign and the commonwealth. The Individual has a claim on the community that the Ancient Greeks would not have entertained. Hobbes’s Leviathan starts the process by which we recognize human rights as he proposed that man had a right or a claim against the community that set him apart from what the community could require from the individual. In that relationship, Hobbes, at least, argued that people obeyed as long as they were protected and the sovereign protected the people as long as they obeyed. However, man was dangerous so the sovereign had to be strong enough to require obedience if persuasion was not sufficient such as when someone wanted to rob someone or commit murder either of which would disturb the public peace and safety.

If the sovereign does not run the show, who will protect the weak and vulnerable?

The sovereign is absolute in his ability to overpower any individual or any group of individuals. If he could not, then why should the individual citizen obey the sovereign and not those who could resist or overcome the sovereign? Moreover, the individuals have created the sovereign for this purpose so they could escape the state of nature where the strong ruled the weak and all lived in fear of violent death. Inside the commonwealth, once the sovereign is established by the consent of the individuals, the sovereign will not prevent crime, although he will deter it by his ability to detect and punish those who commit crime. Today, we can walk down the street without concern for our safety because the sovereign ensures that rule breaking is detected and punished. In all states, murder is a crime without a statute of limitations. The state will pursue the case until it is solved and that is the implicit promise to all citizens. Although the sovereign may not be powerful in all places at all times, motor cycle gangs do exist and cause trouble, when the law needs to be enforced, the state does not back down and commits enough resources to overpower the threat.

We leave the state of nature through reason, the digital domain returns us to it by desire.

When we enter the commonwealth out of the state of nature, we do not lose all our rights. Instead, we retain our right to self-preservation. Hobbes, as some have argued, created the first human right. The individual’s claim against the state in the right to self-preservation is the first human right something a person has even before they are a citizen. Therefore, it is a misunderstanding to argue that Hobbes requires an individual to give up everything. Instead, man consents to give up some things, to escape the state of nature, in return for peace and relative prosperity. To ensure the peace, the sovereign has to have enough power, a monopoly on violence within the state. In the digital domain, it can be seen as a monopoly on the power of encryption so that they can ensure that our rights and freedoms are protected. We recall that the sovereign is responsible for ensuring the peace. In the midst of chapter 18, Hobbes lists 12 rights of the sovereign. The central right is Right 6: The sovereign is to judge what is necessary for the peace, which can include public opinion.

Would we have much justice if we were the judges in our own cases?

Without the sovereign, the individual would want to be the judges in their own case. The sovereign will act as the neutral judge beyond the power of any individual to overawe or resist to ensure peace within the commonwealth. Hobbes would understand the problem of terrorists because they threaten the public peace. In the same way that Hobbes’s sovereign could interdict public speech, so the current sovereign seeks to have the ability to manage opinions in the digital domain to ensure that they do not threat public safety. Thus, Hobbes would be at home with national security agencies wanting to access opinions in the digital domain to ensure public safety. Even Hobbes understood, as did Aristotle, that the community comes together for life, it needs to survive to continue, and stays together for the good life. If the community is not delivering the good life should it remain a community and how long will the individuals obey if it no longer worth living or dying for.

Do we really trade liberty for security?

We have to be careful not to assume that the trade-off is between security and liberty. Hobbes would suggest that our freedom is found within the law, not outside the law, so that we are not trading liberty for security so much as requiring security to be free. For an interesting analysis of the idea of the balance between security and liberty, see Benjamin Wittes’s article.[2] He does a good job exploring the false dichotomy. He proposes an idea of hostile symbiosis. I accept that a community must negotiate the issues, but I do not see this as hostile symbiosis. I suggest it is the nature of politics for there to be a tension between the individual and a community that is resolved every day through the interplay of laws within a community. Decent politics is not a hostile symbiosis rather it is a dynamic process full of confrontation and disagreement until the best agreed way of life is achieved. Will this satisfy everyone within a community? No. However, the goal is to achieve a common good that satisfies the community’s need for survival and the good life. We must careful to avoid simply equating this to a crude utilitarianism of the best life for the most people. Such a view also undermines the idea of a common good that can exist beyond a crude majoritarianism.

The sovereign has a responsibility to protect our rights including safety.

Hobbes was careful to spell out the rights or responsibilities of the sovereign as the basis by which a citizen could judge its effectiveness. See for example the list in Chapter 18 of The Leviathan.[3] If the state cannot protect us, either from the motor cycle gang or the international terrorist, why do we obey it? Here we see why the pre and post Snowden era are not different. They are continuous. The only difference is that the sovereign’s role has been made explicit whereas before it was implicit or only seen in its effect.  For example, the sovereign collected large amounts of data and controlled our movements before the internet—the census and passports. In that pre-internet era, we had a say in our government’s decisions and we still have a say. The difference is that the threats of the physical world in 1955, for example, were slower to materialize, than a cyber threat in 2015. The principles are still the same so the need to consult is present but the ability to review the decisions is limited. We can have a view on a military procurement programme that will take 20 years, such as for a new warship, and it will be difficult to have the same view on a programme relating to cyber defences that are currently under attack.

We live together peacefully and forget how much hard work that is to achieve and sustain.

All citizens understand that to live together we have to respect each other’s space and respect others in the way we want to be respected. What is different though is that the individuals feel more empowered and entitled to challenge the sovereign’s national security prerogative in a way they would have done indirectly, if at all, in a pre-internet era. Moreover, an individual can pose a greater threat in the internet era than in the pre-internet era. However, this does not require mass surveillance (which is a misnomer) so much as the ability to monitor and respond to threats in the digital domain.[4] On the sea, there are coast guards and look outs that searched for pirates and raiders on the horizon. Today, the same process occurs except it is in the digital domain, which has no clear boundary. However, the issue is how society operates as society, not government, actually does a better job at policing itself than any government could attempt to do. Society will enforce a type of conformity, in some cases simply obeying the law, to specific customs and habits. In this sense, society wants the state in those areas because it wants its rights enforced and protected. Thus, it enters the home when there is domestic violence or incest. It enters our communication when it is used for fraud or discrimination. It enters our minds when it inculcates, through the educational system, a set of beliefs. We accept those because they are good and that returns us to the start. The individual does not want to obey because they feel entitled to make the decisions that the sovereign has made to ensure their safety and the commonwealth’s safety yet they do not realize that they can only make that claim because the sovereign has created the basis by which it can occur and will be respected. We have reached the point where the individual now believes they have enough autonomy to replace the state or require the state to reduce its ability to protect the commonwealth and us. In that moment, we forget, though, our greatest freedom is within the law not outside the law. We have forgotten the state of nature and we believe that digital domain offers a paradise of a post liberal order where, unlike the state of nature, everyone will get along and the state will not be needed even though it is the state is what is implicitly needed to sustain such a vision.

We know the true cost of freedom and the price has been relatively inexpensive

We should welcome Snowden’s revelations because they have reminded us why we have the sovereign and the awesome task it does in keeping us safe and allowing us to exercise our freedoms. We could go back to 1648 and spend most of our time fighting wars, preparing for wars or recovering for wars. Is that what we consider “freedom”?

[1] For an interesting analysis of the Leviathan as a failed political symbol consider Carl Schmitt’s book The Leviathan in the State Theory of Thomas Hobbes: Meaning and Failure of a Political Symbol http://www.scribd.com/doc/86521613/Schmitt-The-Leviathan-in-the-State-Theory-of-Thomas-Hobbes-Meaning-and-Failure-of-a-Political-Symbol (accessed 12 March )

[2] http://www.brookings.edu/~/media/research/files/papers/2011/9/21%20platform%20security%20wittes/0921_platform_security_wittes.pdf  (Accessed 20 July 2014).

[3] http://oregonstate.edu/instruct/phl302/texts/hobbes/leviathan-c.html#CHAPTERXVIII (accessed 12 March 2014)

[4] The term is a misnomer because surveillance is a targeted activity within intent. By contrast, monitoring is something in which a target might be identified or nothing will be identified. CCTV for example is not surveillance in the way that a specific focused operation against an individual is surveillance.  CCTV monitors a public space. Surveillance targets an individual or a group. Without this distinction, we would consider a census as a mass surveillance system and soon any government activity, as it is a record keeping function for citizens, becomes surveillance and we are without theoretical coherence.


About lawrence serewicz

An American living and working in the UK trying to understand the American idea and explain it to others. The views in this blog are my own for better or worse.
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