Online Colloquium (3): Chiayu Chou on Hobbesian Internationalism

This online colloquium has been established to discuss Silviya Lechner’s recent book, Hobbesian Internationalism: Anarchy, Authority and the Fate of Political Philosophy. We began with an introduction to the text by Dr Lechner, followed by a response from W. Julian Korab-Karpowicz. We now have a response from Chiayu Chou, which will be followed by a response from Oliver Eberl, and then a reply by Silviya Lechner. Many thanks to Palgrave Macmillan for supporting this colloquium.


In her erudite and detailed book, Hobbesian Internationalism: Anarchy, Authority and the Fate of Political Philosophy, Silviya Lechner provides a deep and comprehensive reading of Hobbes’s political philosophy by analyzing differences between Hobbes’s earlier works and his conclusive views in Leviathan. Lechner convincingly reveals the “the middle course” (28) that Hobbes adopts between theorists who believe that state authority is based purely on moral principles and those who equate authority to de facto power. This is because, contrary to the predominant view that the Hobbesian state of nature is a lawless condition, Hobbes actually emphasizes the role of natural obligation, which compels subjects to obey the laws of nature.

Beginning with an analysis of Hobbes’s concept of authority, Lechner progresses from discussing the “anarchy” in the state of nature to the “anarchy” in international relations. In particular, this book traces how later realists have interpreted and used Hobbes’s notion of the state of nature in the realm of international relations. Based on the “middle course” normative approach, Lechner challenges both the orthodox interpretations of Hobbes’s political philosophy of the state and the realist reading of Hobbesian international political theory in two stages. First, Lechner emphasizes two moral relations that are often underappreciated or ignored in realist readings of Hobbes, namely the laws of nature and the covenant. Second, by analysing the development of Hobbes’s ideas from his earlier works, which emphasized the laws of nature, to Leviathan, which emphasized covenant relations, Lechner goes further to constitute a Hobbesian international political theory that is based on Hobbes’s notion of covenant as a relation of trust and Kant’s account of international right (chap. 7). Assuming that these observations are accurate, Lechner is defending the normativist reading of Hobbes’s accounts of international relations (125–28) by agreeing that “morality has a place in international relations thus ruling out moral scepticism” (125). This results in a reconstructed model of international relations, namely Hobbesian internationalism, which implies “a Kantian theory of international relations superimposed on the fundament of Hobbes’s political philosophy” (140). Specifically, this unusual combination[1] “begins with Hobbes’s conception of the juridical state, transforms it into an argument for an international authority animated by Kant’s principle of international right, and complements it with Hobbes’s conception of covenants of mutual trust” (141).

One general point made in this argument pertains to the nature of “moral relations,” which are claimed to govern both the domestic and international state of nature. Specifically, a difficulty of reading Hobbes lies in the “fundamental antinomy of Hobbes’s thought in the following terms: Hobbes’s inquiry begins with natural law. Therefore, natural law theorists rightly consider him as one of their own. But Hobbes ends with the solid construction of a positivistic conception of the state. Therefore legal theorists rightly appropriate him” (Bobbio 1993, 118). Expressed differently, this controversy centres on the question of “what kind of bindingness there is here” , because, as May (2013, 5) indicates, Hobbes clearly claims that “all the laws of nature bind only in foro interno in conscience, not in foro externo.” This claim has already caused much interpretive difficulty. Although such difficulties need not be elaborated here, this interpretive difficulty may facilitate clarification of my following argument. In short, on the one hand, Hobbes’s claim appears highly “positivistic,” in the sense that the laws of nature seem unable to regulate civil laws (Watkins 1965; Skinner 1964). On the other hand, Hobbes appears to genuinely endorse the normative force of the laws of nature. He even extrapolates them to the international level by equating the laws of nature with the law of nations.

To some extent, Lechner’s book can be understood as an effort to resolve the aforementioned difficulty. The elegance with which she tackles this interpretive controversy is undoubtable. However, by indicating that “the state, as an inherently coercive public authority, has no alternative” (16), Lechner cannot avoid the positivistic answer that “both covenants and the laws of nature, as normative relations in the state of nature, remains uncertain” (106).[2] If this is the case, then the extent to which this normativist understanding of international relations can replace the traditional realist reading of Hobbes warrants scrutiny. In other words, the role and status of the moral relations that are said to govern both domestic and international relations remain unclear because of a dilemma: on the one hand, if moral relations can be effective in the absence of public authority, then the state of war can be avoided, and sovereignty need not be instituted; on the other hand, if no moral relations can function without a common power, then a Hobbesian supra-Leviathan is the logical conclusion. Furthermore, if the normative status of these moral relations and its relation to authority are unclear, then the nature of Hobbesian Kantianism, which is primarily based on the Hobbesian juridical state and a trust-based covenant, may also be unclear.

Nevertheless, in my opinion, this difficulty is not so much an omission of Lechner’s book as a reflection of the so-called “sovereignty dilemma” (159, quoting Flikschuh 2010). By “sovereignty dilemma,” Flikschuh implies that “given their moral status, states ought to submit under a supra-state public authority. Given the grounds of their moral status they cannot do so, but must treat themselves and one another as juridical sovereign agents”. Thus, “states must fall back on juridical self-enforcement within the loose framework of a non-coercive league” (Flikschuh 2010, 13). The point underlying this sovereignty dilemma is the distinct moral status of the sovereign state. From a Hobbesian perspective, independent juridical states ought to establish a super-Leviathan for an impartial and public authority to adjudicate disputes; however, this could only be true if the distinct role and status of the juridical state is neglected. Kant elaborates on this insight clearly in his mature political work, The Metaphysics of Morals. Kant, similar to Hobbes, conceptualizes states as being constituted by specific “structures” that an “individual agent ought to observe in pursuing their private ends” (103). Such structures cannot simply be replaced by an international framework of global organization nor can they be reduced to parallels with any individual in the state of nature.

As Lechner insightfully indicates, Hobbes and Kant remind us of the distinct moral importance of the state, which tends to be underemphasized given the trends of globalization and private security in modern society. In some respects, we may say that Kant’s international political theory provides an answer to the question that Hobbes’s theory of the state begins to ask.

Dr Chiayu Chou (National Chengchi University, Taipei, Taiwan (R.O.C))


Bobbio, Norberto (1993) Thomas Hobbes and the Natural Law tradition, trans. D. Gobetti. Chicago & London: The University of Chicago Press. 

Chiayu Chou (2013) Rethinking Hobbes and Kant. London & New York: Routledge.

Flikschuh, Katrin (2010) “Kant’s Sovereignty Dilemma: A Contemporary Analysis,” The Journal of Political Philosophy 18, no. 4: 469–93.

Hobbes, Thomas (1994) Leviathan, ed. E. Curley. Indianapolis: Hackett.

May, Larry (2013) Limiting Leviathan: Hobbes on Law and International Affairs. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Pogge, Thomas (1988) “Kant’s Theory of Justice,” Kant-Studien 79, no. 4: 20733.

Taylor, A.E. (1938) “The Ethical doctrine of Thomas Hobbes,” Philosophy 13, no. 52: 406–24.

[1]  To clarify, this combination has been noted by numerous scholars (Taylor, 1938; Pogge, 1988; Chou, 2013).

[2]  Because both normative relations are uncertain in the state of nature, covenants “can be stabilized through coercion by the civil state. The laws of nature as general rules of conduct are burdened by epistemological uncertainty which […] can be overcome by public reason that supplies a public language” (106).