Is Political Obligation Necessary for Obedience? Hobbes on Hostility, War and Obligation

Teoria Politica 2:77-99 (2012)
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Contemporary debates on obedience and consent, such as those between Thomas Senor and A. John Simmons, suggest that either political obligation must exist as a concept or there must be natural duty of justice accessible to us through reason. Without one or the other, de facto political institutions would lack the requisite moral framework to engage in legitimate coercion. This essay suggests that both are unnecessary in order to provide a conceptual framework in which obedience to coercive political institutions can be understood. By providing a novel reading of Hobbes’s Leviathan, this article argues that both political obligation and a natural duty to justice are unnecessary to ground the ability of political institutions to engage in legitimate coercion. This essay takes issue with common readings of Hobbes which assume consent is necessary to generate obedience on the part of citizens, and furthermore that political obligation is critical for the success of political institutions. While the failure of the traditional Hobbesian narrative of a consenting individual would seem to suggest the Leviathan is indefensible as a project, this paper argues that the right of war in the state of nature was more central for Hob- bes’s understanding of political institutions than obligation. Furthermore, Hobbes provides an adequate defense of political institutions even if his arguments about consent, obligation and punishment are only rhetorical. In this way Hobbesian law is best understood as a set of practical requirements to avoid war, and not as moral requirements that individuals are bound to comply with. Thus Hobbesian political institutions are not vulnerable to contemporary philosophical anarchist criticisms about political obligation and political institutions as such. To develop this reading, I focus primarily on the Leviathan, including interpretations by Skinner, Kateb, Flathman, and Oakeshott. Ultimately, this argument provides insight into contem- porary political institutions of the state, citizenship, criminality, and the law in a world where political obligation has not been adequately justified.



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Thomas M. Hughes
University of California at Santa Barbara

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