On subjects and soldiers

Trip Start Jun 30, 2008
Trip End Aug 24, 2008

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Flag of United States  , District of Columbia
Monday, July 28, 2008

Resisting the sovereign

In Leviathan the authority of the sovereign is described as complete and unlimited. Actions by the sovereign are just and legitimate. The sovereign has the right to enforce obedience, since protection of commonwealth as a whole by the sovereign outweighs interests of individual. The reason for this position is that Hobbes describes the state of nature as a place which is so terrible that anything done by the sovereign is favorable to returning to this state. As a general rule, a subject cannot resist the sovereign because the latter has already empowered through agreement in advance through a social contract which binds all individuals through reason.

In chapter 14 Hobbes points out that the principle of a social contract is founded on "the voluntary acts of every man, the object is some Good to himself." In other words, the concept of self-interest of the individual is crucial. Therefore, acts by the sovereign which infringe self-preservation are illegitimate, implying that an individual's right to resist is based on the concept that self-preservation cannot be given up. People have the right to disobey the sovereign in order to save their own life if they are threatened or if the commonwealth can no longer protect them: "[c]onvenants not to defend a mans own body, be voyd." According to Hobbes it is the right of self-preservation which allows subjects to resist the sovereign, presumably if he acts in the manner of a tyrant. "[T]hey defend their lives, which the Guilty man may [...] do, as the Innocent. This limits the 'unlimited' right of the sovereign. However, precisely to what extent remains unclear.

Nevertheless, a unilateral right to resist is disadvantageous for the subject because he risks random attack through alienating oneself from others by breaking the social contract. Therefore, resistance by subjects is unlikely, according to Hobbes, because it contradicts self-interest. I assume that within the context provided by Hobbes in Leviathan a narrow interpretation of 'the right to resist' is most likely. Or in terms of maximization of individual preferences: if benefits do not outweigh the rights surrendering, the contract must still be kept. From this line of thought I conclude that the less rights individuals transfer to the sovereign, the higher the risk of anarchy and a return to the state of nature. And vice versa. Again it is unlikely that sovereignty will be divided - or the social contract broken.


Soldiers hold a special position in the Hobbes' reasoning, since they are distinguished from subjects in chapter 21. In contrast to subjects, soldiers can be ordered to risk their lives, thereby explicitly passing beyond the realm of self-preservation and creating tension with the concept of 'the right to resist' the sovereign.

A few exceptions are tolerated. When overwhelmed by an enemy they may retreat for the sake of self-preservation. In a similar vein "[w]hen [...] refusal to obey frustrates the End for which Soveraignty was ordained [...] there is no Liberty to refuse: otherwise there is." This implies that the sovereign can be resisted by soldiers too. Hobbes presents a number of cases. First punishment for not picking up arms can be avoided by providing a sufficient substitute. Second, sickness of cowardice of men are also grounds for resistance. After enrollment (in an army) these excuses no longer apply and soldiers must obey - thereby limiting the available room or resistance.

Nevertheless, a soldier in battle is exempt of answering the sovereign in three cases. The first is related to answering a superior, i.e. if his commanding officer grants permission to 'resist'. The second concerns the situation in which "the institution of the Common-wealth [...] was in vain." In the third case Hobbes implies a form of mutiny, which is again justified on the basis of self-preservation. This case differs from the first two in the sense that choice is left to soldiers, not captains or the sovereign. Therefore, soldiers also have the right to resist - again on the basis of self-preservation. Like subjects, Hobbes links obedience of soldiers to self-preservation in chapter 21 of Leviathan. "The Obligation of Subjects to the Soveraign, is understood to last as long, and no longer, than the power lasteth, by which he is able to protect them." Therefore, subjects may stop obeying the sovereign if the sovereign has been defeated. Or as Hobbes points out: "[H]is subjects become obliged to the Victor." This is an alternative circumstance under which resistance by soldiers is permitted.


The point that subjects have the right to resist the sovereign if the right to self-preservation is infringed, while soldiers must fight for the commonwealth (and specifically risk their self preservation) must be reconciled. The two points appear to contradict, but can be reconciled by considering the fundamental concept of self-interest, which is vital to the theory put forward by Hobbes. "[T]he Obligation a man may sometimes have [...] to execute any dangerous, or dishonourable Office, dependeth on [...] the Intention. When [...] refusal to obey frustrates the End for which the Soveraignty was ordained (i.e. protection by the commonwealth of individuals, MMTK); then there is no liberty to refuse." Therefore, soldiers may not refuse when the basic premise of collective security is at stake, since it resistance would harm the cornerstone of sovereignty: the social contract.

Following this line of reasoning and assuming humans make rational choices and serve their self-interest according to reason, Hobbes would probably argue that both soldiers and subjects will associate the will of the sovereign with self-preservation - just as soldiers will fight to save the commonwealth, and thus themselves. An interesting point in reading Leviathan is that both subjects and soldiers seem to decide whether resistance against the sovereign is just. This decision is left to people, not the sovereign.

Unless answering to different commonwealth and victor is more advantageous for subjects or soldiers, it is likely they will serve their self-interest by abiding to the will of the Sovereign. Therefore it is unlikely that subjects will choose in favor of their narrow self-interest or individual self-preservation, but rather look at the will of the Leviathan as a means to prevent falling back to the state of nature and seeking the security provided by the sovereign.
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