- Hobbes on Resistance: Defying the Leviathan
Hobbes, the avowed absolutist, in fact advances a theory of resistance rights, or so Susanne Sreedhar argues in her recent book. She recognizes just how vexed a thesis this is: Hobbes’s account of the initial sovereign-making covenant dismantles the dominant justification for collective resistance, the idea of a conditional contract between a people and their ruler (19). Nevertheless, she seeks to draw from Hobbes’s texts a comprehensive rationale for an entire battery of resistance rights retained by individuals in commonwealth, including the right to rebel.
The first half of the book aims to debunk the prevalent belief that Hobbesian subjects retain only a very narrow right to self-defense. According to this “standard interpretation,” it is impossible to alienate the right to defend oneself against life-threatening attacks because death, as the greatest possible evil, cannot be rationally willed. Any transfer of right is a voluntary act, “and of the voluntary acts of every man the object is some good to himself” (Leviathan 14.8).
Sreedhar deftly reveals the weaknesses of this interpretation, especially its inability to make sense of the contractual obligations of enlisted soldiers in commonwealth. Her proposed alternative is persuasive. The right of self-defense is inalienable within the specific conditions of social contract, but not “because death is the worst evil. . . . Rather, the right is retained . . . first, because there is no assurance that parties would fulfill a promise not to resist death; second, because such a promise would undermine the purpose of the social contract; and third, because the Hobbesian commonwealth does not require such a promise” (51). These three principles of reasonable expectation, fidelity, and necessity in turn allow Sreedhar to explain a broader set of rights derived from the right to self-defense, including the rights to resist “wounds” and “confinement,” to refuse incriminating testimony against oneself or a loved one, to disobey “dishonorable” or “dangerous” commands, and, finally, to “join” with others in rebellion if one’s sovereign poses a threat to survival.
In the second half of the book, Sreedhar argues (against Jean Hampton) that Hobbes’s theory of resistance rights is compatible with sovereign absolutism. In doing so she draws heavily upon Joseph Raz’s theory of political authority. When natural persons authorize a sovereign, they essentially agree to treat sovereign commands as Razian second-order “exclusionary reasons” for action. Such commands generally override individual first-order reasons for action. A subject retains the right to resist sovereign authority only when she possesses a “nonexcludable” first-order reason for action. But not just any reason is nonexcludable. As Sreedhar correctly notes, Hobbes most definitely does not treat political obligation as “mere cost-benefit analysis” (115). A subject is at liberty to act on her private judgment only if excluding such a reason for action would be contrary to the purpose of submitting to government in the first place (namely, security and well-being) and if its exclusion does not jeopardize the stability of commonwealth. Of course, the right to rebel is an exception to the latter condition, for rebellion does indeed pose a threat to commonwealth. In this case, however, Sreedhar differentiates between “ideological rebellion and rebellion from necessity.” The latter is “justified” because it is “motivated by self-preservation” (143). She cites the Warsaw ghetto uprising as an example.
This particular argument highlights a major flaw running through Sreedhar’s account. She claims that all of the above rights are held by “every subject qua subject” (56, 153); they would have to be in order to be celebrated as politically consequential (26–27). Yet subjects “justifiably” rebel only in situations where their sovereign has flouted the laws of nature to such a degree that the “artificial” achievement of legal order has already come unhinged. Subject and sovereign thus exchange acts of hostility—natural right clashes with natural right. I would argue that the rest of the rights Sreedhar lists as “true liberties of subjects” are also held qua natural person. These are rights no individual can...