This online colloquium has been established to discuss Silviya Lechner’s recent book, Hobbesian Internationalism: Anarchy, Authority and the Fate of Political Philosophy. We begin with an introduction to the text by Dr Lechner herself, which will be followed by weekly responses from W. Julian Korab-Karpowicz, Chiayu Chou, and Oliver Eberl, and finally a reply by Silviya Lechner. Many thanks to Palgrave Macmillan for supporting this colloquium.
The Core Thesis
Hobbesian Internationalism is an invitation to rethink three aspects of Hobbes’s philosophy. The first concerns the grounds of his political philosophy. My main thesis is that ‘anarchy’ (state of nature) and authority constitute its basic categories. Because the grounds of politics involve questions of morality and law, the analysis deals primarily with Hobbes’s moral and legal philosophy, entailing further considerations of reason, language and mind. With respect to law, Hobbes holds that certain authoritative determinations of value require a legal form, that they demand the creation of a civil state as a juridical construct, and therefore an ‘exit’ from the state of nature as a condition devoid of such authoritative determinations.
It is notable that there are moral relations within Hobbes’s state of nature—contracts and laws of nature (precepts of reason). Both of these have a propositional (statement-like) form and require linguistic reason. A further peculiarity of Hobbes’s moral and political theory is that it does not begin with obligations; it begins with rights naturalistically construed (‘rights of nature’). Hobbes views human beings as agents capable of transforming the world of nature and bending it to their own purposes. The book suggests that the main reason why Hobbes’s state of nature is an unpalatable condition is that the presence of other agents necessarily places constraints on the pursuit of self-chosen purposes by each individual agent—this is a relational standpoint of the moral universe.
Let us assume with Hobbes that human beings have weighty reasons to abandon the condition of ‘mere nature’ and create a civil state. Does the same logic apply to states in the international sphere? My second major task is thus to reassess Hobbes’s views of international relations. Hobbes is often enlisted as an emblematic figure in the tradition of political realism. As used by political realists, the term ‘anarchy’—or state of nature—has grim connotations: it refers to a domain of ruthless state competition for power and security not governed by normative limits. Against this, the book outlines a normative theory of international relations termed ‘Hobbesian internationalism’. Its main argument is that, internationally, the best analogue of Hobbes’s domestic theory of the state is Kant’s theory of international right, which puts forward a peaceful confederation of free states. In light of its commitment to freedom, this confederation cannot be organised as a super state but exists under conditions of a normatively modulated state of nature. Hobbesian internationalism is a theory of an international authority within international anarchy.
The State of Nature
The third major aspect of Hobbes’s philosophy tackled in the book is the concept of a state of nature. Like Robert Nozick, I believe that this concept is more interesting philosophically than the state, and that we must problematise it rather than take it for granted. The term ‘anarchy’, once again, is not linked to political realism. Rather, it stands for any domain of interaction bereft of common, authoritatively established standards. From this perspective, a primitive market or the internet represent states of nature or anarchical environments (the two concepts are used interchangeably). Part II of Hobbesian Internationalism is devoted to Hobbes’s arguments for anarchy presented in his major works on morality, law, and politics: The Elements (1640/1650), De Cive (1642/1647), and Leviathan (1651).
In general, an anarchical condition constitutes a social world whose building blocks are agent relations. The problem that each decision maker faces inside this world is not ‘What should I do, given the limitations of the environment (e.g. scarcity)?’, but ‘What should I do in relation to you?’. This relational view is manifest in two-party relations such as promises and contracts which not accidentally have prominence in Hobbes’s analysis.
Commentators like Michael Oakeshott and Murray Forsyth have noted that the elementary relation in Hobbes’s state of nature is physical proximity (Forsyth 1988, 136; Oakeshott 1975, 36–38, 64). Hobbesian individuals co-exist within a common finite space, and the premise that they have desires about external objects, or goals, as well as means to pursue these goals, entails that interaction with others is unavoidable. But if others cannot be avoided, can interaction be regulated so that, at a minimum, human life is preserved? Notice that self-preservation is not the point of Hobbes’s moral system but only its negative limit. Now, we may wonder to what extent is the plight of Hobbes’s state of nature associated with fears about one’s survival? In De Cive the state of nature is such a sphere of existential uncertainty, a ‘state of war’, linked to anticipatory violence and fear of violent death. In Leviathan uncertainty is explicated differently: it is of a more fundamental, epistemological sort and comprises uncertainty about future events. In The Elements, the state of nature is portrayed still differently: as a domain of ceaseless competition among prideful individuals. The point is that Hobbes does not adhere to a single, unchanging conception of a state of nature across his works.
Freedom and the State
Contractatianism supposes a sequence of three elements: a state of nature, social contract, and a civil state. Hobbes’s civil state is not an institution that imposes standards of fairness on individuals engaged in a cooperative enterprise, pace philosophers like John Rawls. A central thesis of Hobbesian Internationalism is that Hobbes regards the state as a public realm whose raison d’être is to enable the conditions of human freedom. The paradox is that in order to fulfil this task, the Hobbesian state must itself be a coercive or freedom-limiting mechanism. The difference between a thug who exercises coercive threats against a non-complying other and the Hobbesian state is that the state applies a rule of coercion that is general and omnilateral; its role is to enable the freedom of all by constraining the unbridled freedom of each. Hobbes is often misread as an absolutist who compares the state to an all-powerful God: but there is little of this, at least in Leviathan. In The Metaphysics of Morals (1797), Kant adopts Hobbes’s premises of the state, both its coerciveness as a condition for subjective freedom, and its publicness and omnilateralism with respect to its subjects. But Kant is equally concerned with the constitutional structure of the state and thus with safeguards against the possibility that it might lapse into partiality or favouritism in the course of its institutional reproduction. Accordingly, Kant elevates the general will (an idea borrowed from Rousseau) into a regulative limit on the decisions of the sovereign ruler of a ‘republic’ (a properly constituted, rule-of-law state). On Kant’s premises, the rules of the game must be impartial between subjects and sovereign. Hobbes imposes no such constraint on his sovereign because he is occupied with the problem of how the state is to be set in motion and not with how it ought to be reproduced.
Can we find evidence in Hobbes’s writings for the hypothesis that the state is a freedom enabling device? My strategy has been to point out that both the input of Hobbes’s contractarianism (his premises about the state of nature) and its output (his doctrine of the civil state) are freedom based. Hobbes begins his account by positing a single original freedom, the right of nature. This is a freedom to act as one pleases, and freedom in Leviathan is defined as the ‘absence of Opposition… or externall Impediments of motion’ (L XXI, 261 ). Given proximity, the exercise of the right of nature by any single individual necessarily constrains its exercise by any another. The remedy, Hobbes suggests, is to devise common rules that would enable a multitude of agents to pursue their divergent goals without being severely harmed or obstructed. The candidate rules are the laws of nature. Formally, each law of nature is a hypothetical (if… then…) prescriptive statement advising each individual what to do if this individual wishes to survive amongst others. Substantively, Hobbes lists prescriptions against reneging on one’s word, arrogance, revengefulness and so on. But while the object of the laws of nature is the intersubjective world, their normative force is subjective because it is up to the subject alone to decide whether to make a certain (say, non-arrogant) manner of acting a matter of future policy, as required by a law of nature. The defect of subjective judgement can be overcome by creating a different kind of rules: civil laws. The latter possess generality (govern classes of subjects), apply to all subjects within the relevant class (not merely to some), and are binding on all. Most importantly, they possess certainty in lieu of the fact that their status as laws is authoritatively determined by a single and commonly known authority, the sovereign.
The idea that the civil laws of the state are binding can mean that they are backed up by coercion. Initially Hobbes thought that coercion suffices to ground obligation and law, appealing to God’s overwhelming power that compels human beings to obey His commands. This command theory of law is outlined in De Cive. But it exhibits two errors, as HLA Hart pointed out in The Concept of Law (1961), even though his target was John Austin’s version of the theory and not Hobbes’s. The first error is that it conflates obligation (the idea of putting oneself under an obligation) with force (the idea of being compelled to comply by another by physical means).The second is that a rule must already exist before it is enforced, so whence does the rule come? Hobbes’s answer is contained in the twin concepts of authority and authorisation that are unique to Leviathan. As Hobbes writes at the end of Chapter XV, the sovereign rules by authority (‘by right’) and not because of superior power.
Authority is conventionally defined as a political concept or a right to rule. Hobbes however wants to know what grounds political authority. Political authority is grounded in (simple) authority, which Hobbes defines as ‘the right of doing any action’ (L XVI, 218 ). ‘Authority’, then, designates a capacity for agency which can be delegated to another agent, and which forms the basis of Hobbes’s theory of authorising the sovereign introduced in Chap. XVI of Leviathan. The new concept of authorisation—the act of granting authority to another—entails corresponding changes in Hobbes’s conception of civil law, the relationship between ruler and ruled, and elucidates the naturalistic roots of Hobbes’s moral philosophy. In De Cive law is defined as ‘the command of that person (whether man or court) whose precept contains in it the reason of obedience’ (DC 14.1). Laws are the ‘precepts’ of God in relation to human agents, of magistrates in respect of their subjects, and ‘universally of all the powerful in respect of them who cannot resist’ (DC 14.1). In contrast, in Leviathan law is a command ‘only of him, whose Command is addressed to one formerly obliged to obey him’ (L XXVI, 312 ). The result is a transformed, bottom-up account of political authority and political obligation. But in a deeper sense, Hobbes’s concept of authority, as power of agency, reflects a naturalist worldview inside which human beings represent bundles of natural physical and mental capacities, and where the right of nature is a capacity to act intentionally by overcoming obstacles in a physical sense.
In terms of interpretive methodology, Hobbesian Internationalism adopts a procedure of analytical hermeneutics. ‘Analytical’ since its aim is to test the coherence of arguments and not to engage in exegesis. But also ‘analytical’ in the sense that Hobbes’s philosophy is viewed as a stock of ideas that are recognisable as a system, bracketing considerations of historical or political context. This constitutes a departure from Quentin Skinner’s methodological quest for disclosing the ‘ideologies’ that may have motivated Hobbes to write what he did (Skinner 1996). At the same time, the adopted methodology is ‘hermeneutical’ in that it attempts to understand Hobbes’s philosophy as a whole before any attempt is made to understand its ‘parts’, betraying my indebtedness to the idealist tradition and to Oakeshott’s reading of Hobbes. As Oakeshott wrote, ‘reality has no parts … and everything asserted of reality is asserted of it as a whole’ (1975, 130). To settle interpretive uncertainties, analytical hermeneutics locates particular arguments that Hobbes advanced within the context of his philosophical system, seen as a totality. To be sure, an interpreter, in seeking to understand a whole, is only able to generate a partial representation of that whole. But not all interpretations are equally good or equally bad (see also Boucher 2018). An interpretation must pass an internal test of coherence operating on the principle of self-correction (e.g., it should be possible to show that certain premises lead to a given conclusion), which is public: the reader can ascertain whether the provided interpretation bears scrutiny.
My interpretive strategy rejects the approach of indiscriminately borrowing textual evidence from Hobbes’s corpus. In Part II of Hobbesian Internationalism it is argued that Hobbes presents different accounts of the state of nature in The Elements, De Cive, and Leviathan. The philosophically significant break occurs in Leviathan, opening up an avenue for a Hobbesian theory of international relations, but this does not relegate the pre-1651 works to mere drafts of Hobbes’s masterpiece. Each constitutes a system of ideas that can stand on its own, and each produces a different (though not logically disconnected) moral, legal and political theory.
The book identifies various analytical maps or models that Hobbes uses to spell out his arguments. With respect to the state of nature, the basic model in The Elements is competition (‘race’) fuelled by a desire for glory. De Cive lacks a clear model, but an appropriate reconstruction identifies a special uncertainty model where two groups of agents, moderates and glory seekers, are engaged in anticipatory violence (state of war). Leviathan contains three distinct models of the state of nature: (1) a generalised uncertainty model (epistemological and linguistic uncertainty); (2) a special uncertainty model (state of war); and (3) a mutual frustration (‘infelicity’) model where agents are obstructing each other, similar to drivers on a congested road.
Chapter 5 of Hobbesian Internationalism presents a structuralist reading of the infelicity model. It asks, what happens when free and equal individuals are confined to an unregulated, finite space of interaction? The proposed reading counts as structuralist because it factors out the differentiating properties of the Hobbesian agents (their motives) and employs only isomorphic properties (freedom and equality) plus environmental constraints. In Leviathan the equality of agents is understood as equal vulnerability to death, and freedom is absence of external impediments to one’s intended action. In terms of environmental constraints, the interaction space is assumed to be finite and bounded and the agents are similarly taken to be finite, physically bounded units. This model has freedom of action as its main concern as opposed to security: the problem is not how to avoid grave bodily harm or violent death but how to prevent collision among agents pursuing freely chosen and potentially conflictual goals. In this case, the role of the sovereign is not to provide security by virtue of wielding overwhelming power over the subjects but to generate a system of rules binding on them all. And even though these rules must be coercively enforceable—or must be civil laws—they are nonetheless freedom enabling devices. In Chapter XXX of Leviathan Hobbes compares them to ‘hedges’ that allow a multitude of travellers to reach their destination without obstructing one another. In Part III of Hobbesian Internationalism, this structuralist insight is used to illuminate the normative structure of the current international realm.
International Authority within International Anarchy: Kant meets Hobbes
Chapter 7 of the bookadvances the thesis that free and equal agents, states, would form an international authority that persists in an international state of nature. Two qualifications apply. The first is that the state of nature is normatively modulated. The second is that the envisaged international authority must be organised as a loose confederation of states, which each state is free to join or leave at will. Both premises are endorsed by Kant in his late writings: Perpetual Peace (1795) and The Metaphysics of Morals (1797). The proposed model of an international authority within international anarchy is a half-house between the ‘bare’ international anarchy model endorsed by political realism, and the utopian model of a super state.
Kant’s doctrine of an international authority composed of free states is based on a principle of international right, where right (Recht) is translated into English as ‘law’ or ‘justice’. My contention is that this principle has its pedigree in Hobbes’s domestic theory of the state, a point that remains poorly understood even among specialists given the tendency to focus on questions of morality. Kant and Hobbes might adhere to different conceptions of morality (depending on how they are read), but they share a theory of law and state. According to this theory, law and order require the creation of a state (public realm), whereas outside of the state, in the domain of the state of nature, lawlessness and disorder reign—in this respect political realists are correct in appropriating Hobbes. However, realism ignores the differentia of states as artificial persons who are (arguably) better placed than natural persons to ratify common rules of the game and to grant each other equal freedom. That is, the international state of nature is less harsh for states than the domestic state of nature is for human beings. This is because, as Hedley Bull has noted, it is relatively easy to kill a human being but very difficult to kill a state. Kant has another argument—that a ‘republic’ protects the rights of its subjects, and Hobbes will add, their security and well-being. This means that well-ordered states will not be pressed to build a super state—a state made of states—with the view of securing rights or well-being, for these things already exist inside their borders. But this is at most an instrumental justification of international authority. To provide a non-instrumental justification for it requires that we see the state as a legal person who has a moral personality (rights and duties of its own): a sort of moral sovereignty. This, on my interpretation, which links Hobbes to Kant and Kant back to Hobbes, motivates states to preserve a free, unencumbered interaction space among themselves based on shared rules of the game: a ‘thin’ international morality. If this space is to remain free, it should be anarchical: an insistence on a super state or comparable institutional structures, as in current projects of cosmopolitanism, is not only impractical: it militates against the idea of freedom which Hobbes understood so well.
Dr Silviya Lechner (King’s College, London)
Boucher, David (2018) Appropriating Hobbes. Legacies in Political, Legal and International Thought. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Forsyth, Murray (1988). Thomas Hobbes: Leviathan. In M. Forsyth and M. Keens-Soper, eds., A Guide to the Political Classics: Plato to Rousseau, 120–146. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Hart, HLA (1961) The Concept of Law. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Hobbes, Thomas. (1949 ) De Cive or the Citizen, ed. Sterling P. Lamprecht. New York: Appleton-Century Crofts.
Hobbes, Thomas. (1968 ) Leviathan, ed. C.B. Macpherson. London: Penguin.
Hobbes, Thomas. (1969. ) The Elements of Law, Natural and Politic, 2nd ed., ed. Ferdinand Tönnies. London: Frank Cass.
Kant, Immanuel (1991 ) Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch, in Kant’s Political Writings ed. Hans Reiss, trans. H. B. Nisbet. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Kant, Immanuel (1996 ) The Metaphysics of Morals, ed. Mary Gregor. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Oakeshott, Michael (1933) Experience and Its Modes. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Oakeshott, Michael (1975) Introduction to Leviathan. In Hobbes on Civil Association, 1–79. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund.
Skinner, Quentin (1996) Reason and Rhetoric in the Philosophy of Hobbes. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
 Leviathan is cited by chapter and page number of the 1968 MacPherson edition, the original pagination of the 1651 ‘Head’ edition is shown in square brackets. De Cive is cited by chapter and section number.