This set of dialogues was delivered on a CBC radio series over twelve weeks. I wrote and then read these aloud for broadcast, my voice trying to play both “parts”. To some surprise, it went over quite well. Nothing has been changed, all appears here as written and delivered, I think around 1960.
POLITICAL OBLIGATION AND POLITICAL PURPOSE
R. J. ROWAN
It may seem unfair, or at any rate impolite, but nonetheless it can be argued, I think, that as citizens most men most of the time are not so much virtuous and enlightened as they are simply lucky.
The significance of that sentence will provide the subject matter for these discussions. But it will not always be immediately obvious that that is the case, for the matter is very complex. It is much like a great snarl and tangle in a very long string of beads. We think we should be able to construct a clean and coherent necklace from the tangle. But the tangle is so complete and our vision so dim that obscurity is apt to be present a great deal of the time. Sometimes it will be left to you to try to pick up the thread and re-string the beads. Other times I will try to do it. Perhaps, and perhaps even often, we will discover that certain beads which we thought should be a part of the necklace, since they were on the string, have no proper place in it at all.
I said that as citizens we are not so much virtuous and enlightened as we are simply lucky. Habitual and conventional behavior seems to serve well enough most of the time. We tend normally to rely upon it, and neither expect nor demand anything more. We seem to believe that habit is sufficient. But time and luck run out; and habit has a nasty habit of breaking down, as every social and clinical psychologist knows too well.
For many men in the world fortune has already changed. Conventional behavior and habitual attitudes are themselves now in question. Without being too gloomy, one might hazard that we, too, nowadays, may not ever be too far from such a condition. If and when that condition arrives there may be a deep need for enlightened civic virtue. But in what does it consist?
Consider, for example, the unlucky, the awkward, indeed the awful situation which faces any white citizens of the Union of South Africa. Many of them find both unwise and evil the duly enacted law and policy of that nation, called “apartheid”. Should such citizens obey or disobey? Be careful how we answer. If we choose not to answer, are the grounds of our refusal to be found only in our good fortune at not having to face the situation, or is our refusal grounded in reason?
Should German citizens have obeyed or disobeyed Nazi policy concerning racial and other matters? Perhaps we think the answer to that question is clearer, therefore easier, than it was to the first. But is that true? And if so, why is it true?
Should white citizens, particularly those in the southern part of the United States, obey or disobey the duly enacted law and policy of that nation having to do with racial integration in public schools?
Ah, that’s the easiest question yet; no puzzles there. That situation constitutes not only a civil but also a moral disgrace. There one finds disgusting bullies and bigots, engaged in rioting, screaming, insulting, coercing, manipulating, taunting; using every legal and extra-legal device in an effort to delay if not utterly to frustrate “the law of the land”. That issue, at least, is clear. They should obey; such disobedience is intolerable. If they do not obey, the community simply must bring its full legal and coercive force to bear upon them.
But from somewhere, perhaps from the dim recesses of the philosophic past, a kind of cranky voice is heard. Perhaps it is the ancient voice of Aristotle; or maybe it’s the voice of Rousseau; it could be the voice of Hobbes. Almost plaintively it speaks: “I’m a bit confused. I’m not sure whether US citizens, no matter where, have a general obligation to obey the law of the land, or whether they have no such obligation yet should not be unmannerly when they disobey? Tell me, do they have an obligation to obey or do they not? And if they do not, then just how does one go about disobeying, if not in such a fashion?”
Surely we will answer firmly: “Yes, they have an obligation to obey. We are not arguing the form of disobedience, since it is simply illegitimate”.
“I see”, says the voice, “and the Germans, did they have a like obligation to obey the law of the land in Nazi times? And for the same reasons? And the white South Africans, they too should obey the law of their land, the one they call “apartheid”?”
“Oh no,” we reply, “that’s different”.
“Oh. And what’s different about it?” asks the voice.
“What’s different about it? The integration policy in the US is both wise and good, and also overdue; the Nazi and South African policies are just the reverse. That’s the difference. They laws in question just happen to be contrary, in motive, in effect, in general, and in particular. That’s obvious”.
“Aha, now I see”, says the voice, “you mean that citizens have an obligation to obey the laws of the land when the laws are wise and good. Their obligation ceases just when and if the laws are not wise and good. And if the laws should chance to be unwise and evil then citizens may well have an obligation to disobey. Is that what you mean? Is that the way we are to understand civic virtue?”
At about this point, one suspects, we’re very apt to turn down the volume on our philosophic hearing aid. Way down. The logical direction implicit in the last statement, even though it is still somewhat vague, is yet clear enough to some of us to be embarrassing. Thus impatience on the one hand, and smugness on the other, can easily cut off the conversation. We don’t have such problems; civil disobedience is not a problem in stable, civilized communities like ours.
Well, maybe it all depends upon what we mean by “civil disobedience”. We do have courts, fines, jails, and prisons. Surely the existence of such institutions is traceable to the simple fact of disobedience. But that kind of disobedience has to do with crime, serious or minor, and the bulk of it stems from what might be called “the criminal element”. A tragically large portion of that criminal element can almost be said to be professional in their disobedient activity. But since time does not permit us to treat all aspects of civic virtue, we will try to exclude from consideration this, the “normal” species of crime. We do so with the further justification that it does not seem to raise any fundamental question concerning political obligation and purpose. We may be mistaken about that. Normal crime, or some instances of it, may arise in the discussion later, but we shall try meanwhile to exclude it.
And so we are back again to stable, civilized communities, like ours, in which a genuine type of civil disobedience does not arise. In which there are no substantial groups, or even substantial individuals, who refuse on grounds of principle to obey the law, or who hold themselves not clearly obligated to obey.
There is, of course, the case of the religious sect in British Columbia which, on grounds of principle apparently, refused to obey or to cooperate with the public law and policy concerning education. But why raise that? The matter is pretty well settled now. Court orders were issued, the police appeared, removed the children from their parents, by force if necessary, put them in proper schools, and that was that. In fact, the group in question, formerly disobedient, now seems to recognize the propriety of those steps since it no longer disobeys. And the children have now been returned to their families.
Did someone turn up that hearing aid? We seem to be tuned to that cranky voice again: “how are you so sure what those people and other people in similar circumstances recognize?” it asks. “Maybe they do not at all admit the propriety of the law in question, much less acknowledge that they have a general obligation to obey. They may will recognize only what anyone might, namely, that it is imprudent, it is folly to disobey or resist when superior force, especially the implacable force of the community, is massed against one. Don’t you see that conformity based upon prudence must be distinguished in all cases from obedience based upon obligation?”
“Your distinctions, voice, only manage to confuse and complicate what is, after all, a pretty simple matter. One that we have had nicely settled, moreover, for a long period of time”.
“No doubt I’ve been out of touch”, says the voice, “and I’m sorry to cause this difficulty. But would you straighten me out be explaining the simple matter that is nicely settled?”
“Very well”, we reply, “it works as follows: we have a stable community. The stability of it is largely traceable to the fact that it is based on the rule of law. We hold the rule of law to be a fixed, efficient, and moral principle. Those who refuse to heed that principle are what might be called “bad” citizens. They can either leave the community, or they can be rightly coerced into obedience. That’s the long and the short of it”.
“So that’s the simple matter”, crows the voice, “and why, do you not openly acknowledge your debt to me? I, Thomas Hobbes, formulated and advocated that very principle in the 17th century, and I was the first of so-called modern philosophers to do so. Others, before and after me, spoke in similar terms. There is, moreover, scarcely a justice on any bench or a member of any political executive who does not accept the principle, either explicitly or implicitly. Incidentally, I have enjoyed a very bad reputation ever since, because many political theorists find the principle harsh—or worse. But in any case, I surely didn’t need you to announce the principle to me, as though it were news”.
“Mr. Hobbes, you forced us to do so. You acted as though we were confused. You asked “loaded” questions, raised unlikely circumstances, pretended the matter was not clear to us”.
“But nothing you’ve said convinces me that the matter is clear”, insists the voice of Hobbes. “Let me state a certain form of the principle which you called “the rule of law”. If you accept it I will stand corrected. I suspect, I must tell you, that you really don’t accept it, much less that you understand its full significance. This is my statement: all members of any civil society or community – and they are the ones called “citizens” – are under a general and fundamental obligation to obey all the duly enacted laws of that community. In a way and at a minimum that’s simply what it means ‘to be a member’. Now part of the force of the principle is that members have this fundamental obligation to obey evenif they have the power or ability to disobey, to frustrate, or to misuse the law by illegal and extra-legal devices, whether as individuals or in groups. That is to say, citizens should obey even if reason indicates they might disobey with impunity, or if prudence and profit incline them to disobey when it is possible to do so. Now is that the principle you accept, and is that the way you understand it?”
“Yes, that is what we accept and that is the way we understand it”.
“Very well”, says Hobbes, “I rest easy and my mission is clear. I shall be off to Louisiana, there to counsel citizens concerning their duty to obey the law of the land. That finished, I shall take myself to South Africa, there to give precisely the same counsel. And then I shall return whence I came, there to comfort the ghosts of German citizens of Nazi times. They, too, have a bit of a bad name, you know. Largely undeserved, it would seem, if political obligation is as we now view it. I shall praise those grieving ghosts for their remarkable loyalty, for their obedience to the laws of their land during those difficult days. “I was only following orders” deserves to commended as a principle rather than condemned as an excuse. Thank you and goodbye”.
“Goodbye and no thanks”, we shout in unison, “for your logic, Hobbes, is blind and insensitive to the needs and problems or ordinary men. Incredible conclusions like those you just uttered can only come from a principle perversely or unconditionally applied. Who can believe that men have a civic obligation to obey all laws, no matter how stupid or evil they are? Those are but the unwarranted conclusions which you derive from an otherwise just and workable principle”.
“Perhaps you are right”, says Hobbes quietly, “for I, myself, have nothing but the deepest loathing for the motives and the effects of the Nazi and South African laws. I have puzzled long and conscientiously over the matter, but can find no way to condition the rule of law or its operation among men so as to avoid the difficulties and yet achieve the benefits. If you know the way – well and good. If not – the matter surely requires that we try to come to a deeper, common understanding. Let us, later on, take up the question where we now leave off”.
POLITICAL OBLIGATION AND POLITICAL PURPOSE
R. J. ROWAN
Why is it that politics, both practical and theoretical, gives so much trouble? One would think that all the ideas and institutions related to politics are by now old and familiar enough to allow us to settle most of these matters once and for all. Yet here we are still, and perhaps forever, talking about “the problem” of political obligation. Maybe some of us are not convinced that it’s a genuine problem; maybe it’s only a problem that political philosophers take seriously. But if that is the case, why were we unsure, why was the voice of Thomas Hobbes able to haunt us so successfully in the last discussion?
But since the voice of Hobbes promised – or maybe it threatened – to return again, it would probably be wise for us to caucus right now. Let us get our position and our arguments straight before he starts raising objections. If we do that we will not likely be caught off-base when he asks “loaded” questions, suggests extreme circumstances, and frustrates us with his logic.
What now do we believe concerning the problem of political obligation? Well, first off, it would appear that we recognize the necessity and advantage of stable, civilized communities. We are in agreement with Hobbes on that. We also seem to agree with him that the principle of the rule of law provides a basis for such communities. But what is the significance of that principle? It was on that question that we bogged down last time. Does it mean that citizens have an obligation to obey all the duly enacted laws of their nation, without exception? Well, in a way, yes. At any rate that’s how it operates here. And few of us seem to have any doubts or reservations whatsoever concerning the legal and moral right of our community to take certain kinds of coercive steps against those who disobey any laws.
We begin to feel very uncomfortable, however, if the principle is extended to other times and places. That is how Hobbes was able to trap us before: oh yes, we believe in the rule of law, no nonsense about that around here. But about the Germans in the Nazi period — well, it isn’t so clear that they had a like obligation to obey all the laws of their nation, or that their government was right to coerce or manipulate them into obedience. Nor is it clear concerning white South Africans and their laws dealing with racial and other matters.
In the face of this discomfort it may be very tempting to say “but that’s their problem, poor souls, not ours”. That lame assertion, however, would only confirm the harsh judgment with which these discussions began, namely, that as citizens we are not so much virtuous and enlightened as we are simply lucky. Good fortune and habit provide nicely for us. But that is equally lame, for the problem is ours to some degree.
Civil disobedience in minor and major proportions is always found somewhere in our community. And the attitude of many of us, moreover, is steadily disobedient anyway, though circumstances do not always or often bring that attitude into view or action. Perhaps that condition is unavoidable and damaging, but within limits is tolerable. The limits of toleration, however, may be closer than we realize. We may well have to face the problem of political obligation and civil disobedience in an extreme form one of these sunny days.
No, one would not expect it to occur over racial matters here. But there are other serious problems. For example, jolly old, solid old England, where obedience and the rule of law is fairly bred in the bones, is presently moving toward a situation in which civil disobedience might not be a merely theoretical possibility. Eminent, responsible men and women there, among them Bertrand Russell, are seriously considering such acts, believing that the problem of nuclear armament may require such drastic forms of action. Matters of that kind could well rise to plague North America in the foreseeable future, and we will be ill-equipped to face them unless we have forearmed our minds and attitudes. Where principles are lacking or are only vaguely understood, expedience, prejudice, passion, or hysteria is sure to rule. Who can take pleasure in that prospect, and who will not be utterly miserable, really, when the mere prospect is replaced by the primitive, frozen fact?
What, then, are we to say concerning the principle of the rule of law? Consistent application of the principle leads to consequences which seem, somehow, to be plainly unacceptable. Therefore, we must try to find a way to condition the rule so as to avoid those consequences.
Perhaps it is the logical rigor, itself, which causes the trouble. Consistency, as has so often been noted, is really only a petty virtue, the bugaboo of small minds. Let us try to rise above it. But in the name of what? Ah, commonsense! What else? Let us be reasonable, let us be practical. And in this regard, practical reason surely indicates that it would never be right, in practice never be reasonable, to hold men obligated to obey unwise and evil laws. It would not be moral, it would be immoral for men to obey fundamentally immoral laws or laws so unwise as seriously jeopardize the welfare of men. In brief, then, we will reject Hobbes’ logic in the name of common morality. He cannot capture us, for the principle of rule of law must be qualified so as to hold only for wise and good laws. Thus it is we are prepared to meet him.
And here he comes; gloomy, rigid man. With his logic net swinging gaily over his shoulder.
“Well, well, my friends, and here you are again”, he greets us.
“Friends indeed!”, we mumble quietly.
“And what have you to say today?”, he continues.
“We have this to say, anyway—we were right last time, though we weren’t then sure why, and we re-affirm what we said then”.
“I see”, says Hobbes, “but what in particular do you now re-affirm?”
“We re-affirm the rule of law, but we clearly understand now that it must be qualified, otherwise it leads to unacceptable consequences. It would not be suited to the moral and practical situation in which men, flesh and blood men, find themselves. It would be downright wrong to hold men obligated to obey laws which were seriously unwise or evil. Political obligation, thus, has distinct but reasonable limits. Furthermore, everyone recognizes that to be true”.
“So that is what you have discovered in the meantime”, says Hobbes. “Perhaps you’re right. Perhaps we should understand political obligation to be limited to those laws which are wise and good. But tell me, you say that everyone recognizes these limits, though you could be wrong on that, but does everyone equally recognize the wise and the good?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean”, says Hobbes, “does everyone clearly see and understand what is wise and good, or do men sometimes disagree about such things?”
“Of course they sometimes disagree; that’s a major part of the trouble”.
“And”, continues Hobbes, “is their disagreement sometimes very deep, and about important matters, and are they often prepared to fight, even to wage war, over these matters?”
“Of course, of course”, we answer impatiently, “but please get to the point more quickly”.
“No doubt these things are clearer to you than they are to me, and that is why I go slowly”, replies Hobbes, “but please be patient with me a moment longer. Now, if men have a general obligation to obey the law, but only when it is wise and good, who is to determine whether a law is wise and good?”
“What do you mean, Hobbes, who is to determine?”
“I mean, is each man to have the authority, unilaterally, to determine whether the law is wise and good, so that if he decides ‘yes’ then he is to be held obligated to obey, but if he decides ‘no’, then he is not so held? Or is it to be left to some men only to determine whether the law is wise and good, with their authority being final and binding on all?”
“What difference will it make, which way it is settled?”, we answer brusquely.
“It will make this remarkable difference”, answers Hobbes. “If it is left to each man, individually, to determine the wisdom and goodness of law then it will be a very strange civil system characterized by an immense amount of legitimate disobedience”.
“But why do you say that, Hobbes?”
‘Because you just admitted that there is wide disagreement about these things. Furthermore, such a system will encourage men to disobey when their disagreement with the law is not based on its stupidity or evil, but only because it would be inconvenient or unprofitable for them to obey. They will claim to be disobeying on principle while doing so out of simple selfishness. Do you want that also?”
“No, we don’t want that”.
“But your system would encourage it”, says Hobbes. “And you’re also aware, I take it, that the community could never legitimately bring coercion to bear upon a citizen if you hold that each man is authorized to determine for himself which are the wise and good laws. What an interesting theory we’re developing here, in which a man is held obligated to obey only those laws which he is inclined to obey anyway, because he agrees with their wisdom and goodness; but is not obligated to obey any with which he disagrees. Such a theory would seem to make political obligation either meaningless or superfluous”.
“Wait, Hobbes, now you’re going to fast! We didn’t intend to extend this authority to all matters, that would be silly. No theory of political obligation can allow, much less encourage, casual or trivially self-serving dissent and
disobedience. We mean this to apply only to fundamental, important matters, concerning which dissent is based on grounds of deep reflection, principle, and conscience”.
“But how can that help?” answers Hobbes quickly. “Don’t you see that there is a little more agreement about which matters are the important ones, of deep principle and conscience, than there is about which laws are wise and good? Decisions concerning that question will have to be left to each individual citizen as well, otherwise nothing is accomplished. If you give a man the right to decide which laws are wise and good concerning fundamental matters, but do not give him the right to decide which are the fundamental matters, then the first right is of no value at all. You remember the old story: before our wedding, my wife and I agreed that she would make all the little decisions, but I would make the big ones … and in fourteen years of marriage there have been no big decisions to make”.
“Somehow, Hobbes, you always manage to twist our meaning. What we mean is this: in practice, in actual fact there won’t be much disagreement, thus there won’t be much disobedience, legitimate or illegitimate. One can always count on a vast amount of conformity to the law, whether the law is concerned with big or little matters”.
“Ah, now I see”, says Hobbes, “you really are relying on the force of habit or convention to produce general conformity to the law. Very interesting. But do you realize that you have thereby given up on a theory of political obligation and thus will never be able to hold a man obligated to obey if habit and convention do not lead him to? Thus you will never be able to answer the questions ‘Ought he, or I or they obey? Can the community rightly demand that they obey, and force them to if they do not?” In fact, a theory based upon habit or convention can never legitimately ask those questions, much less answer them. You’ll never be able to make sense of the question whether the Germans, the South Africans, or the Americans, even, should or should not obey the law of their land. Nor Canadians either, for that matter”.
“Mr. Hobbes, it is difficult for us to tell whether you are deliberately or only accidentally devious. One thing is clear, however: you are always able to confuse matters. You always manage to make ordinary men, commonsense attitudes, and practical answers appear to be silly, or contradictory, or even immoral. As though we really weren’t able to handle these subjects well enough. We’re not as glib or articulate as you are. That we admit, but somehow we know we are correct and you are wrong about all this. Right now we must be off, to take care of merely ‘habitual’ or ‘conventional’ mundane matters, as you might put it. But we will be back next week, if you will, for we aren’t through with you yet. We’ll figure it out somehow, and have some answers by then”.
“My friends, I am deeply sympathetic to you, though you won’t believe it. But in any case I look forward greatly to our next meeting”.
POLITICAL OBLIGATION AND POLITICAL PURPOSE
R. J. ROWAN
Did we go wrong in our last discussion, really, or is it only, as we claimed then, that the ghost of Hobbes is always able somehow to confuse matters? Are we, ordinary men, ordinary citizens, really unclear about a matter apparently so fundamental as civil society, political obligation and purpose, and things related to it? Or do we have genuine understanding of it, though admitting that we have great difficulty giving precise expression to that which we understand?
It would be nice, wouldn’t it, it would be comforting to believe that we understand the matter, and thus be able to dismiss the difficulties as mere problems of detail and expression? Perhaps that is the case …. but do we know it? If it is the case then we should be able to tidy up those details if we make an intelligent effort to do so. If we should not succeed in that effort then we could never be sure that our confidence in our belief is not unfairly won.
Perhaps to embark upon that effort is, on the part of ordinary citizens, already to have conceded too much. Our halting efforts to give correct and precise expression to what we understand about these subjects can always be twisted around. Someone like Hobbes could always cavil and quibble, pretend that things which are right and obvious really are not. Maybe, however, he isn’t just quibbling, caviling, and twisting; maybe we don’t have genuine understanding of these things; maybe, even, we aren’t right?
Oh well, such musings serve no good end. We must be preparing our argument, for we challenged the voice of Hobbes to return. It said it would, and here we are without our answers.
Well, then, let us begin at the beginning. Let us ask ourselves what is the fundamental stake or issue in this argument. First off, it appears ….
“Here I am again, my friends”, rudely interrupts the voice of Hobbes. “I’m ready to be instructed by you. I have been eagerly waiting to hear what you have figured out since our last discussion”.
“Well you see, Mr. Hobbes, we aren’t exactly prepared to give our answers, for, to tell the truth, we were very busy in the past week. A regular mountain of stuff had accumulated which simply had to be deliberated and done. We had to decide about bridges, highways, and dams; about candidates and issues, there are always elections you know; then there was a raft of civil disputes to be adjudicated; and criminal cases to be tried; we have been worried about our educational system and had to deliberate policies concerning it; economic matters are much more complex than they were in your day, so we find we must spend a vast amount of time deciding about production and distribution, and foreign trade too; in addition, there is a great debate going on concerning national defense policy, arms, missiles, bases, civil defense, and all that; then there was a great to-do in the UN, where matters are always remarkably complex and where policies must be most delicately adjusted; and to add to all this, there were several successful, and several unsuccessful, rebellions and revolutions in Africa, Asia and elsewhere to be considered, we can’t ignore those developments either. Well, anyway, to make the unhappy story short, all our time and energy the past week has been taken up with deciding and doing. We just had nothing left over to devote to such philosophic matters as political obligation and purpose, civil disobedience, and all that”.
“Oh, that’s too bad”, replies Hobbes. “I really did want to hear your opinions on the subjects we were discussing. But tell me anyway, how did things go: did you get those matters done, were your deliberations fruitful, are you confident that the things you decided were well decided? If so, what more can a man ask?”
“Those questions, Sir, can only be given an ambiguous, ‘yes and no’ kind of answer. In our opinion, some of the deliberations were fruitful, some were not. In fact, some matters were so controversial and complex that we delayed decision. Concerning the decisions we did make, well some are probably good, at least we think so; others not. One can never have absolute confidence about any of them really, much less about all”.
“Yes, I suppose that’s the way it is, all right”, says Hobbes. “But tell me, you said some matters were so complex and controversial that decision was delayed. I take it then, that those which were decided received general, if not unanimous, agreement?”
“What? Hardly! You don’t know men well, if you think that, Mr. Hobbes”.
“Perhaps I am naive”, replies Hobbes. “But I used to fancy myself deeply understanding of men and their condition. Strictly speaking, of course, I haven’t had much to do with men for some centuries, but I didn’t think they would have changed too radically in the meantime”.
“Likely you’ve just forgotten a great deal then, Mr. Hobbes, otherwise you never would have asked if there was general agreement on the complex public matters we are faced with. There is almost never that kind of agreement. There are always some unenlightened people, cranks and fanatics, around, surely you remember that?”
“Oh I do indeed remember the absence of general agreement concerning public affairs”, replies Hobbes, “though I was never so sure as you seem to be that those who disagree were to be viewed or treated as cranks, fanatics, or unenlightened. No doubt some of them are, and it surely does make things simpler to treat all of them as though they were; I do see that. But anyway, since there wasn’t general agreement, I suppose you’re pretty worried now about the future?”
“One can always be a bit worried about the future. But why do you say ‘since there wasn’t general agreement’ we are worried about the future?”
“I mean”, says Hobbes, “that you are probably dreading and expecting those who were not in agreement with the decisions to engage in rebellion or insurrection, to disobey openly, or at any rate to try to subvert the laws or policies in question”.
“Hobbes, what on earth are you talking about?”
“My words were clear enough, I think”, replies Hobbes.
“Oh your words were clear, but the meaning isn’t. Are you seriously asking us if we expect those who actively participated in due, public deliberations will disobey or subvert the policies simply because the decisions made do not coincide with their judgment or position? What kind of a nation, what kind of a community do you think we have?”
“You misunderstand me, gentlemen”, replies Hobbes. “I was rather asking what kind of a community you think you have. And I only ask because I found the answers you were giving in our last conversation very confused, if I may say so”.
“Well, then, we will answer you succinctly: we neither except nor would tolerate any such subversion or disobedience, least of all from those who took an active part in the deliberations”.
“How fortunate you are”, says Hobbes, “that your deliberations are so constantly directed to unimportant matters, to things concerning which deep reflection, principle and conscience are not relevant”.
“What are you up to, Hobbes? You say the strangest things. As though defense policy, educational matters, production and distribution of goods, criminal law, marriage and divorce …. As though such things are not of the greatest moment, matters of the most fundamental significance. Let us tell you Sir, that public deliberations in our country are seldom devoted to trivial matters; we are almost always concerned with things to which deep reflection principle, and conscience are distinctly relevant. Do you think we’re playing games, or doing exercises? We deliberate public policy and the decisions made affect the fundamental welfare of every citizen, and many in other nations as well”.
“That, gentlemen, is exactly what I suspected all along”, asserts Hobbes forcefully, “and I think it is true not only of your community but of any civil society worthy of the name. But I’m afraid that what I must say next is going to irritate you. You may want to claim that I am confusing matters by devious and tricky devices. But please note that all these will be things which you asserted, not I, though sometimes you only said them in answer to my questions. You will recall that last time you were insisting upon the need to place distinct limits on the principle of the rule of law, arguing in effect that there must be at least one condition attached to the general obligation of citizens to obey all the duly enacted laws of their civil community. As I remember, you were insisting on this in the name of commonsense and morality, claiming that citizens had the obligation only when the laws were wise and good. When I questioned the wisdom and feasibility of such a system you said you weren’t applying it to all matters, for that would never work, just to the important ones; those concerning which a citizen’s obligation to obey will rightly cease just in case his dissent stems from deep reflection, principle, and conscience. Do you recall all this?”
“Yes, and we find nothing irritating in it?”
“But you should”, says Hobbes, “for today you assert that civil policy is always dealing with fundamental matters, concerning which men may well, and usually do, disagree on grounds of deep reflection, principle and conscience. But you do not expect, and will not tolerate any disobedience; you said that straight out. On what are you going to put the limitation into effect then? What are these important, fundamental matters concerning which a citizen’s obligation to obey ceases just in case his dissent rests on deep reflection, principle and conscience? Not the questions you deliberate, not education, not defense, not divorce, not production, no—not even war. All those are important and fundamental, men basically disagree concerning them, but you will not tolerate any disobedience there. You don’t even expect disobedience. What’s left then?”
“Slow down Mr. Hobbes. That’s too much for us to handle without a little thought. As we said, we haven’t had time for philosophy lately, we’ve been busy with important, practical matters”.
“But don’t you realize”, adds Hobbes quickly, “the important, practical matters with which you’ve been so busy are intimately related to the very same matters we’ve been discussing? In fact, political solution of the practical questions presupposes some kind of solution to these philosophic problems. And though it may be rude of me to say so, I can only conclude from all this, gentlemen, that you do not practice what you preach or that you simply do not understand either your practice or your preaching”.
“Yes, that is rude, Sir. You make it sound as though we deliberately maintain the difficulty which you claim to find. There are problems, that we admit, but they aren’t as serious as you make out. We can clarify things nicely when we have a little time”.
“My friends, what I said was not intended personally. What you don’t seem to realize, however, is just how far apart your ideas and practice are. That separation seems to cause little trouble so long as circumstances are favorable; one can rely on habit, an almost mechanical adjustment when things go well. If circumstances alter, however, or if new ones present themselves, then the difficulties pile up, habit breaks down, and mechanical adjustments simply do not take place. At that point preaching and practice, thought and action, can no longer be safely kept apart. They must be brought together. But how?”
“Perhaps you’re right, Mr. Hobbes”, we answer bleakly, “in any case you’re most persistent. It does sound a bit unreal, a bit imaginary to us, however. The problems which really occupy us seem usually to be of a different character. Right now, for instance, we must be off to the UN, there to consider the mess in the Congo. That’s the kind of problem we have, and it would be nice for a change if you could shed some light on matters of that kind”.
“I’m afraid I’m a bit ignorant of the things you mention”, concludes Hobbes, “but perhaps you could tell me about them when we get together again. But good luck in the meantime”.
POLITICAL OBLIGATION AND POLITICAL PURPOSE
R. J. ROWAN
If, as citizens, we aren’t really virtuous or enlightened, then we surely do need luck, and lots of it. And nowhere is that fact more evident than in the area of international relations. Here we sit, constantly on the verge of total disaster, seemingly unable to save ourselves. Nations, even in the UN, do not agree, and without agreement what little is done seems contrived or fated more to prejudice than to help the situation. Matters get worse and more precarious with time, and though we use the interval busily to cultivate our domestic garden none of that will be worth much for long … unless international problems are settled reasonably and soon.
And that’s the trouble with political philosophy and political philosophers, isn’t it? They have so little to say about these important, concrete matters. Problems of political obligation and purpose do well for discussion: they serve to stimulate the mind. They do little beyond that, however, to help us solve the real problems we face. Theories and abstractions are interesting enough, but there is nothing abstract or theoretical about the Cold War, about exploding populations, about under-developed nations, about international resources and trade, about world health and education, and all that. The most pressing problems are economic, human, moral, practical; not philosophic. What help, then is philosophy?
But here comes the ghost of Hobbes again. Maybe if we can get him off the subject of political obligation we can make a better showing. On practical political problems, as in the UN for example, we surely have enough familiarity and comprehension to show him how far from the genuinely important issues he really is, with his constant talk of political obligation.
“My friends”, says Hobbes in good humor, “I’m glad we are together again. I have some most interesting things to tell you. You’ll never guess, for instance, how I spent the past week”.
“We can only hope, Sir, that it was spent more profitably and pleasurably than ours. The UN lately has been a nightmare, and so little is being accomplished”.
“Ah, that’s a shame”, replies Hobbes. “But I was more fortunate, for I found my week well spent”.
“All right, you win. What did you do?” We ask in a tone of resignation.
“Can you imagine—at this stage in my career? I spent the week in the library reading newspapers, books, magazines, all kinds of things…no novels or poetry”.
“Harmless enough, but what in particular did you read?”
“What I think you call ‘current events’, but some were not so current, for I began back around 1914 and ready my way steadily through 1960. And I can tell you I found it all simply fascinating”.
“You found it fascinating! What a morbid sense of fascination you must have, the. What could be more grim and awful that that period? But since you seem to have a taste for the morbid just be patient. Read the papers through the next ten years, if there are any. The news in the next decade is apt to be really ‘hot’, and not only in the metaphoric sense”.
“I feel your bitter irony, gentlemen”, replies Hobbes. “Yet I still find the situation fascinating”.
“Only someone who is far too objective, dispassionate, and philosophic could find it so, Mr. Hobbes. For us who live in it and must steadily face it, it is only miserable, dangerous, and difficult”.
“Why, those, are almost my own words, gentlemen, used centuries ago. I said then that the life of man is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. And I said it for precisely the same reasons you now echo it. I am only too well aware of your misery, danger, and difficulty, and I mourn for you. I find the situation fascinating not because I am callous, but because the life of nations, and therefore of men, is still today very nearly what it was when I spoke long ago. It is especially fascinating to me since I see where the difficulty actually lies, whereas you do not. And it’s such a simple thing, really”.
“That is cheap talk, Mr. Hobbes, for you don’t understand our modern problems at all. Surely your reading convinced you of the great difference between past and present conditions”.
“Yes, details have changed, problems are more complicated, and man’s power is immensely greater than it was in my time. Despite those facts, however, the reading only emphasized the similarity, and made it clearer that the basic political problem remains constant. This problem has destroyed countless men and it is likely to destroy you, also, unless it is solved”.
“We don’t seem to be communicating very well, Hobbes. Let’s get back to more solid ground. Take the UN, for example, you surely aren’t claiming that the Cold War, with all its significance, has much to do with your theories of political obligation?”
“But I do claim that indeed”, replies Hobbes.
“But how can that be? Communism didn’t exist when you lived, and the Cold War wasn’t even dreamed of”.
“But war was dreamed of, my friends. And war, whether between individuals or states, whether hot or cold, is the inevitable result of a failure in politics. It certainly ought to be clear by now that political order is the chief substitute for war; that political order is the least step necessary in order to minimize hostility and aggression”.
“Oh, that’s clear enough”, we reply, “yet it is not the basic problem we face right now”.
“You think not”, answers Hobbes, “very well then, tell me what you think is the major problem in international relations these days”.
“Those crazy, fanatical communists, they are the major problem, they cause most of the trouble. Take the Congo right now, just for example. Let’s admit that the UN policy there isn’t everything one might want, but at least it’s a start. But the Soviet Union is bent on pursuing her own imperialistic, selfish interests, and the UN policy does not coincide with those. So she’s using all kinds of devices in an effort to frustrate or subvert the policy, and maybe subvert the UN too. She’s even refusing to pay her fair share of the costs of the policy. You can see what a mess she makes of things”.
“Well, I can see that things are a mess all right”, replies Hobbes, “but I’m not sure we agree about either the cause or the cure. By the way, in 1914, before communism had created a Soviet bloc, what was the difficulty then? And in all the other wars and international troubles throughout recent history?”
“In 1914 it was the Germans, and again in World War II. It’s always somebody”.
“Yes, it certainly always is somebody: it’s not the devil and it’s surely not the weather”, replies Hobbes. “But is it not the case, at least today, that a substantial portion of international difficulty is traceable to the simple fact that nations can’t or won’t agree about mutual problems and policies, and that each refuses to go along with policies with which it is in disagreement?”
“Of course that’s a major part of the trouble. We could make simply immense progress in solving at least many of the actual human problems, economic and spiritual, if we could just get some reasonable agreement among men of good will”.
“We shall come back to ‘reasonable agreement’ and ‘men of good will’ later on”, says Hobbes, “but right now I can’t understand why you won’t draw the obvious lesson, the moral in all this”.
“What lesson? Where’s the moral?”
“It’s the same old lesson, found always in the same place. Let me state it, as briefly as I can: you agree that, within limits, men have it in their power to provide pretty well for their practical, general welfare. But somehow, especially when they face each other as nations, they are unable to do it. They disagree about which policies are appropriate or necessary, and each nation, especially the powerful ones, reserves the right to veto, dissent, disobey, frustrate, or subvert all those policies which it particularly doesn’t like. They reserve the right even to wage war, suicidal war perhaps, in a mixed-up effort to preserve what they call their ‘national interests’. Is that a fair description of things?”
“Well it may be a fair description, Mr. Hobbes, but of only one side of the whole matter”.
“Perhaps we can get to the other side in a moment, but let me continue. Is the condition I just described intolerably dangerous, especially today when the power of man is, in many respects, practically unlimited? How much luck can you count on, in short? How long can that kind of system stave off disaster? Or more accurately speaking, how long before that kind of system itself produces disaster?”
“It’s hard to answer those questions, Sr. We have managed to avoid disaster for 15 years using that system. But still, it probably wouldn’t be a good bet we can avoid it for another 15”.
“Well then, gentlemen, it seems to me that your problem is not what you have claimed it to be, it is not so much moral or even practical, it’s not a problem of ‘reasonable agreement’ and ‘good will’: it’s the same, ancient and basic problem of politics. And thus we are back to the same matters we have been discussing all along. We are back to the principle of the rule of law, which is, itself, only a kind of variant of the problem of political obligation. That’s the problem, you’ll recall, which you insist upon describing as ‘merely theoretical’. It should be clear by now just how theoretical it really is!”.
“Somehow, Hobbes, we just knew you’d get back to your favorite theme. But it was unnecessary, really, because we’ve never tried to deny the philosophic force in your position. What we would still claim, however, is that it’s theoretical and abstract. For example, your ideas make no allowance for the full force and significance of national sovereignty and national interests”.
“You say I don’t recognize the full force and significance of national sovereignty! What else do you think I’ve been trying to bring out? Apparently I’ve failed, so I must spell it out crudely since you cannot or will not derive the obvious inferences from the argument. What is the real significance of national sovereignty? It’s this: sovereignty among nations is no more and no less than the right to dissent from or disobey those laws, policies, or judgments which any nation finds not to its liking or interest. That’s all it amounts to. In the last analysis it’s the right to bring everything to a halt, to refuse to negotiate or deliberate, unless each one’s want or judgment is satisfied”.
“Come, come, now, Hobbes, you’re getting excited. You grind your axe with such fervor that the heat of the grinding goes to your head. In truth, national sovereignty is no more than the right of a nation to preserve its national, its vital interests. Normally this right can be exercised without difficulty or friction, but sometimes it must be exercised against the illegitimate and unreasonable demands or interference of others. And thus it must include the right to make war, but only because others will not recognize the legitimacy of one’s claims or interests”.
“How innocuous, gentlemen”, replies Hobbes. “How much comfort such nonsense must give to you as each privately provides for what will prove to be your common disaster. Why not stop pretending? Don’t you see that national sovereignty is only the exact, logical parallel of that sovereign right you were earlier trying to claim for each individual citizen, or groups of them, within a nation. I take it you have abandoned that claim, and for good reason too. Why will you not abandon it here?”
“Sir, we have not abandoned that claim entirely. But even if we had there would still be excellent reason to maintain it here. Things are different within a nation; the international world is an immoral or amoral jungle in which each must take care of himself”.
“Now that is an interesting view”, concludes Hobbes. “Why don’t we pursue that theme next time?”
POLITICAL OBLIGATION AND POLITICAL PURPOSE
R. J. ROWAN
We are no sooner gathered and about to organize our ideas against the visit of Hobbes, than the voice of the ghost of that persistent figure brusquely interrupts:
“My friends, I’m so anxious to continue our discussion of last time that I will not even indulge you in your usual preliminary soliloquy. Besides, you appeared so confident at the end of our last meeting that I can only judge you to be on ground where you have matters clearly settled.”
“We suspect your sweet tone of flattery, Mr. Hobbes. Encouragement from you along a certain line almost always seems to lead to trouble for us. What are you up to this time”.
“I’m not up to anything. I haven’t been up to anything all along. My haste to pursue the last discussion does, however, have a more urgent motive. It stems from concern for you and your welfare, though I’m afraid you’ll never believe me when I say that. I have the feeling, nonetheless, that time is running out for you. That unless you get straight about certain matters and take certain steps accordingly, you will shortly find that there is simply no way out. You will probably think it fatuous, or arrogant, certainly an unwarranted confidence in what you’d call ‘mere philosophic theory’, when I say that certain matters, (theoretical ones if you like,) simply must be settled and widely understood, otherwise many of the troubles which torment men, both on a national and international level, will not cease but will rather intensify. Since the troubles coupled with the present power of man adds up so ponderously, any intensification will likely be more than men can handle”.
“Aha! Just what we suspected, Hobbes, you’re another prophet of doom and gloom. Our leaders have counseled us about your kind. We shall appropriately discount your timorous, academic, pessimistic nature. But here you were, in a hurry to continue the discussion, but now you delay to pronounce dire warnings. Let us get on”.
“Right you are, gentlemen”, says Hobbes brightly. But he adds to himself: “Am I, Thomas Hobbes, getting soft and sentimental? I, so often accused of being grossly insensitive to the nature, needs, and condition of man? I, whose rigor and logic will make no due allowance? Or is it they who are brash, heedless, and insensitive? Confident and optimistic where they should not be; bound by conventions no longer serviceable; habitual where they should be thoughtful? Oh well, no matter. Back to the discussion”.
“You were saying last time, Sir, that you found our concluding remarks interesting. We said that things are different within a nation that they are without. The difference is so great that sovereignty is both necessary and proper in the international jungle, for there reason and morality have very little if any role at all. The rule there is ‘take heed for thyself’, not the rule of law. Now what’s wrong with that statement?”
“I didn’t say I found anything wrong with it; only that I found it very interesting. And I still do. I would agree with you that the role of reason and morality is minimal in the international jungle, as you call it; often they are utterly absent. That’s why it’s a jungle. But do reason and morality operate to a substantially greater degree within most civil societies, or at any rate within many?”
“Of course they do, Hobbes, and that is why the right of individual sovereignty exists only in a limited way within a given civil community, but must be unlimited in the international world”.
“I see”, says Hobbes. “And now would you care to speculate for a moment as to why that is true? Why do reason and morality have noticeable sway within civil society, but have so little or none at all outside it?”
“Mr. Hobbes, we have idly puzzled over that question many times ourselves, but are unable to give any very specific answer. Maybe it’s just that men are basically schizophrenic; they have a natural, devilish side, and they also have a somewhat more artificial moral and reasonable side. The two sides seem constantly at war, and the devilish side is able to express itself more easily outside the confines of the civil community, though it will sometimes express itself anywhere”.
“But why does the devilish, the dark side of man express itself more easily outside the confines of the civil community?”, persists the voice of Hobbes.
“Who knows? It just seems that there are times and circumstances when men are prompted to behave in a manner that is hastily selfish and shortsighted, unreasonably aggressive, stubborn, blindly and cruel and destructive. The evidence of history provides more than enough support for that view”.
“I agree with you there”, replies Hobbes, “but which are these times and circumstances when men are hasty, selfish, shortsighted, unreasonable, aggressive, stubborn, blindly cruel and destructive, when, in short, wise deliberation and moral principle have no force?”
“Who can say, Mr. Hobbes, except looking backward? Look again at history: disagreement, friction, war and misery everywhere. What cause or motive has not been sufficient to produce these? Tribes or nations, economics or religion, ideology or race, pride and vanity, all these and much else have served at one time or another. Peace-loving Christians, bloodthirsty and bellicose savages, meek little clerks, and outraged mothers; who is not subject to these forces? Who can account for the gas ovens of Dachau or those unholy Crusades?”
“Enough, gentlemen, you have convinced me. The picture is not a pleasant one. The veneer of civilization is indeed thin, yet is even more precious for that very reason. But is there no tangible cause, no cure for all this?”
“We don’t know, Mr. Hobbes, we can only hope. Our lives are taken up with the mere living …. We leave it to the likes of you to make more sense of all this”.
“But you can’t leave it to the ‘likes of me’, because your ignorance and confusion is part of the cause of all this. And why do you only hope, my friends? Why aren’t you more confident? I would agree that there is no sure guarantee against these forces of unreason and immorality. Yet your own community, and some others, possess a history and condition which, to an important degree, constitutes a vast improvement on the scenes and conditions you were describing. I wonder why that is?”
“Perhaps we’re just a bit more civilized, who knows?”
“But why?”, persists the voice of Hobbes. “Are you somehow blessed, innately endowed with greater reason and a more acute moral sense that other men?”
“Modesty forbids us saying ‘yes’ to that, Mr. Hobbes, yet it seems almost to be true sometimes.”
“My friends, I find that hard to believe, and I think you do also. But besides, my optimism inclines me to accept an interpretation which provides more tangible, accessible, and therefore more hopeful conclusions”.
“And what is that interpretation, Sir?”
“I think that partly as a result of historic good fortune, but also partly as a result of common sense and self-discipline, you have created a system which makes possible the use of deliberative reason and the counsel of moral sense. At the same time it discourages exercise of the contrary faculties. You have so arranged things that it is generally, not always, but generally to a citizen’s advantage to operate within this system and to hold himself and others bound by it”.
“But surely, Mr. Hobbes, none of this, even if true, eliminates unreason and immorality”.
“You are right, gentlemen. This system, in itself, does not strictly eliminate those features of human nature you were so gloomily listing a moment ago (and now who are the prophets of doom and gloom?). Thus this system cannot
completely prevent the expression of unreason and immorality. But it does, nonetheless, make them less likely and, perhaps, less dangerous if or when they are expressed”.
“But why is that, Sir?”
“Because the general expectation shared by the members of the system that all will hold themselves obliged by the decisions of it, and will be held obligated by the others anyway if they do not, itself provides a very strong incentive to behave in the expected manner. That is to say, members are strongly motivated to conduct mutual affairs within and to accept the mutual decisions resulting from, the authoritative forum provided by the system”.
“Could you say all that in a simpler way, Mr. Hobbes?”
“Well, I can try. I mean only that you have created a civil, as distinguished from a merely natural, system. With difficulty you have created and with like difficulty maintain, a set of authoritative institutions within which most of your mutual affairs must be conducted. These institutions are such that within them reason and morality are, or may be, relevant, quite simply because they can be given authority, force, and efficacy there; within such a system men at least have the chance to heed and implement reason and morality. But outside such a system reason and morality are almost irrelevant, as you, yourselves, eloquently observed. Even with the best will it is all but impossible to make them efficacious when one has no confidence that others will do likewise. And it now becomes obvious that the simple lack of such an authoritative system will continue to make a jungle of the international world. That world is no civilized community”.
“But wait, Hobbes. Many, if not most, of the individual participants in the international world are themselves civilized men. You won’t deny that”.
“I won’t deny that, gentlemen, yet it is true only in one sense. Men are not really civilized unless their relations with all men express that quality, and that is surely not true of international relations. Look at it this way: civil-ization is really no more than the steady, organized development and expression of reason and morality. It is all but impossible to express those steadily outside a system of civil authority. Being obligated to operate within such a system is that first step which civil-izes men”.
“Mr. Hobbes, time is cutting off our conversation again, but before we leave there’s one thing we want to say: your position seems to make some sense, and yet it still sounds just a bit too pat and eloquent”.
“I understand your reservations, gentlemen”, concludes Hobbes. “And I will be glad to discuss them with you when we get together again”.
POLITICAL OBLIGATION AND POLITICAL PURPOSE
R. J. ROWAN
In truth, there does seem to be some sense in what Hobbes has been saying: that civil society makes civilization possible; that it civilizes men by providing an authoritative forum within which reason and morality can develop and be given expression and force; that the international world is a jungle mainly because it is not ruled by law, but rather by individual calculation of prudence, thus only by accident does it take on a precarious appearance of peace, common benefit, order, and reason. Yet, also in truth, few of us have ever had occasion or encouragement to view things in that way. Why is that, we wonder?
“I have been eavesdropping, my friends, and I trust you’ll forgive my breaking in this way”, says the voice of Hobbes. “But I think I can say something which will put some of your reservations to rest”.
“If you can do that, Mr. Hobbes, then please do, for what you have been arguing lately strikes us as somehow foreign and remote”.
“I understand that, gentlemen, and suspect that you find it so because you usually wear this cloak of political order habitually, unconsciously. Thus you are led to overlook the basically simple, yet immense significance of this system of authoritative, civil institutions. There are times, however, when men do reflect on these matters. Sometimes their reflection leads to the deepest cynicism, other times to a starry-eyed, emotional, and piously sentimental attitude towards civil society. What I have said about it coincides with none of your standard attitudes, for few ever carry on those reflections for long. It is no surprise, therefore, that few of you have achieved a deep or consistent understanding of it”.
“Then why haven’t we been told about it? Is it your own, your private doctrine?”
“Why you don’t hear about this more often is another long story in itself, but it is not because the doctrine is private to me, Thomas Hobbes. Oh no, Socrates and Plato understood all this, and many other, modern figures also. Rousseau was perhaps the most eloquent in arguing this view, but no one was clearer about it than Aristotle”.
“And what did he say, Sir?”
“Aristotle said that men are by nature political animals. In saying that he certainly did not mean that each man in his first appearance is mature in reason and morality; much less did he mean that all men naturally conduct their affairs within a proper political order. He meant that of all the animals, only men can develop and express those qualities of morality and reason unique to them. It is potential in man’s nature to do so. But only within a certain social framework is that possible. Only within an authoritative, civil system can men fully realize their rational and moral nature. Thus to say that men are by nature political animals means, really, that if they are to achieve their distinctive character they require a political order in which to do it. Other animals live in herds or colonies, to be sure, but that does not make them political, nor does it make possible the development or expression of what is not in their nature, namely reason and morality. Aristotle even went so far as to say that only Gods or savage animals could live outside such a system, and since we are not Gods the inference to be drawn is obvious. And thus, finally, the lack of political order in the international world takes on even greater meaning”.
“Mr. Hobbes, you and your philosopher friends are so plausible, so seeming logical that we’ve reached the stage where we can almost anticipate each sentence you utter. In fact, we were just doing so. But while we were anticipating what you would say, our minds wandered. And an idea struck us with such force, so remarkable and humorous that we must tell you about it”.
“Of course, gentlemen”, replies Hobbes. “By all means tell me about this humorous and remarkable idea which came to you while I was eloquently holding forth”.
“The idea Sir, stated in its simplest form is this: we have, in a sense, been hoaxed by you, and only now do we realize it”.
“Hoaxed, my friends? By me? How so?”
“Well, Sir, let us tell the story as follows: weeks ago we started out to consider the proposition whether as citizens, most men most of the time are genuinely virtuous and enlightened, or whether they are simply lucky. We began, indeed, with what has proven to be a thorny aspect of that question, the problem of civil obedience and the rule of law. But we set about to consider it on what seemed a simple, commonplace level. We tried to approach it by taking instances with which, presumably, we are all familiar and concerning which we all have some relevant, defensible opinions. We asked ourselves about obedience in the southern part of the United States, in South Africa, in Nazi Germany; and in England where nuclear policy is causing such a controversy”.
“I remember all that, gentlemen”, says Hobbes, “but where is the hoax you say I am guilty of?”
“The hoax likes in this Sir”?, we reply. “What we were trying to do seemed straightforward, yet once you began to speak we constantly lost sight of those simple questions. You always managed to get us off on to some other topic than the one with which we began. But how did you do that, and why? Our views seemed sensible and only sometimes were they shown to be mistaken. And yet the discussion steadily took a turn which was unexpected. Each time we would end up on ground which was relatively unfamiliar, where simple matters became complex and strange to our mind’s eye. On, your questions and remarks seemed easy and innocent at the time, but now we wonder if they were truly relevant?”
“What do you mean, my friends, ‘were they truly relevant?’”asks Hobbes.
“Specifically we want to ask you what more we now know about civic virtue and enlightenment that we knew before. More generally we want to know why you take us around Robin Hood’s barn, in and out of a maze of complexities, when all we really want or need is a simple and straightforward answer to a simple and straightforward question”.
“Now I see what perplexes you my friends”, replies Hobbes. “And I shall do my best to explain away the hoax by giving you a straightforward answer. What you think are simple, practical problems, very often are not. Therefore, they cannot have simple, direct answers. I am not claiming that is true of all problems, but I do think it is true of the problem of civic virtue and enlightenment”.
“But Mr. Hobbes, how does one know whether a problem is simple or complex, and whether a solution is adequate? Do we just take somebody’s word for it, yours for example?”
“Not at all”, replies Hobbes. “This is not a question of authority, but of reason. And one of the best methods of reasoning about problems was systematically used by Socrates. Unfortunately, the method is apt to be misunderstood by ordinary men, and partly for that reason philosophers, ever since Socrates, have had a curious reputation. Men are apt to believe that philosophers suffer from an aggravating disease, perhaps brought on by their vocation. The symptoms of the discover are these: philosophers make so many distinctions and qualify so many matters that they begin to befuddle themselves; once begun, however, they do not stop, they continue in such earnest that they finally reach a level so profound that the question which first prompted their inquiry can no longer be recalled…indeed, it has lost all meaning. Some would describe them even less tolerantly: philosophers, they would say, are by nature quibblers and paltry splitters of words”.
“Though we have the deepest respect for you, personally, Mr. Hobbes”, we answer, “our experience does seem to confirm one or the other of those views”.
“Oh, I realize that; all philosophers expect it sooner or later”, replies Hobbes patiently. “But let me suggest a different interpretation, the one which Socrates defended. Take a problem, he said, or a solution proposed for it; view it from all angles, put all kinds of questions to it (you will see now what I have been doing with you). If the problem is more complex that was thought, or if the proposed solution is inadequate, then the questions should rapidly reveal confusion or inconsistency. If that occurs, then in order to get it straight and to arrive at an adequate solution (if there is one), simply continue the same process: reformulating the problem, amending the answers, over and over until things become clearer. One is not merely quibbling or splitting words in this process. Ordinary men do it themselves sometimes, philosophers try to do it systematically. But depending on the problem and the imaginative skill of the person, this Socratic method, as it is called, is quite natural, logical, and effective”.
“Mr. Hobbes, you’ve managed to do it again. We are wandering from the subject once more. We asked a simple question, and before we know it you have us discussing all kinds of unrelated matters. We simply must repeat our question: what more do we now know about civic virtue and enlightenment that we knew before?”
“This is most embarrassing, my friends”, replies Hobbes, “because this answer will be equally frustrating. How much more you now know depends upon how much you knew to begin with. Not how much you thought you knew, but how much you knew in fact. And you can answer that better than I”.
“Look here, Mr. Hobbes, we’re patiently trying to understand, but how can we succeed if you persist in asking instead of answering the questions? Isn’t this fast becoming a waste of time?”
“I think not”, answers Hobbes. “I think we have already learned a great deal about political matters”.
“Maybe so”, we reply, “but we’re not aware of it”.
“But that’s because you still don’t know what you were looking for”, says Hobbes. “You thought the problem was simple, that one could answer the most perplexing political problems in superficial haste, as though instances of civil disobedience, for example, could be considered independently, without reference to a more general conception of political purpose and procedure. I have been trying to help you mainly by showing the futility of your superficial approach”.
“But what specific application does that have to civic virtue and enlightenment, Mr. Hobbes?”
“If one wants to understand the nature of civic virtue and enlightenment”, replies Hobbes, “that is, if one wants to understand the appropriate and intelligent role that citizens and their agents should play, then one must surely have a clear view of the virtue and the reason of civil society itself. This means that what citizens or their agents should do within the civil structure is chiefly a function of the nature, purpose, and procedures of the structure itself”.
“Then we were wrong to begin with specific instances in the first place”.
“Not at all”, answers Hobbes. “We almost always begin with instances, real or contrived. But we do so not only in order to answer questions concerning the instances, but also in order to comprehend the fundamental principles underlying them, and to relate those to other relevant principles. And that is why our discussion so often took a tack which disturbed you. I was trying to get you to generalize the principle underlying your hasty judgment in specific case, and to relate it consistently to others. When you found it difficult or awkward to do so, it became obvious that you were confused or inconsistent in your view of matters”.
“Then you are saying, Mr. Hobbes, that civil society rests on a set of complex, but inter-related ideas, and that unless men understand this basic set of ideas they will not be able to make sense of a number of difficult political problems”.
“Yes, I am saying that, though much more remains to be said”, answers Hobbes.
“Well, Sir, since time is again pressing us to conclude, we will spend the intervening period trying to digest what we have covered so far leaving whatever more is to be said to our future discussions”.
POLITICAL OBLIGATION AND POLITICAL PURPOSE
R. J. ROWAN
Let us see if we can briefly summarize the general position which Hobbes has been arguing. He seems to believe and wants us to understand that the first, preliminary, but necessary step in true civic enlightenment consists in a comprehension of the fundamental nature, purpose, and value of civil society itself. He has been trying to bring us to recognize that men’s first stake in the maintenance (and also the creation) of civil order is general, not merely specific. That is to say, the values which civil society serves are not confined to the benefits conferred by its specific policies. He thinks, apparently, that a structure of civil authorities and relationships itself makes possible the development and expression of human reason and morality. It does that by providing the orderly forum within which, alone, they may be given genuine meaning and force. Civil society, in short, makes civilization possible. If one doubts the truth and significance of Hobbes’ position on this matter then he has only to turn his attention to the condition and relationships of men as they face each other in the international world, where such a structure of civil authority is almost entirely lacking.
So much, then, seems clear. What is less clear, but seems to follow, is that Hobbes would argue that any act which subverts the civil structure, however the subversion takes place, carries with it an implicit responsibility for undermining either the chance or the fact of civilized life, in great or small degree. If that proposition is admitted, then Hobbes would surely have to insist that no act of civil disobedience is ever well advised or should ever be tolerated. Thus at its minimum, civic enlightenment requires recognition of the general stake which all citizens have in the exceptionless rule of law. And civic virtue, finally, reduces to that enlightened behavior which is consistent with the basic set of ideas concerning civil purpose, value, and procedure.
If that is his doctrine, then what are we going to say about it? It seems likely that our first impulse would be to say this: the doctrine must be rejected, for no matter what virtues Hobbes has shown it to have, it nonetheless leads to precisely those intolerable consequences we noted at the beginning, namely, that citizens would be obligated to obey unwise or evil laws. Thus we must insist upon a way out.
“To insist on a way out is easy, my friends, but to find the way is rather more difficult”, says the voice of Hobbes suddenly. “I told you at the end of our first discussion that I understand and sympathize with your impatience, for I am subject to it also and for precisely the same reasons. But as I said then, I have puzzled long and conscientiously over the matter, but can find no way to condition the rule of law or its operation among men so as to avoid its difficulties and yet achieve its benefits. If you know the way, then by all means speak out”.
“That’s just the dilemma, Sir. We don’t know the way to condition the rule of law so as to achieve its benefits yet avoid its difficulties. But we still insist that a way must be found to do so”.
“My friends”, continues Hobbes, “suppose that there simply is no satisfactory way to condition the rule of law, what then will you do? Are you prepared to abandon the principle? Not very likely. Oh, in abstract theory you might admit limits, but not in practice. Neither yours not any other civil society will ever sanction such behavior. Indeed, it could not do so and still remain genuine. The moment civil authority cannot rightly command and enforce obedience to its laws is the moment that men are back in a state of nature, where unauthorized, private force and other non-civil relationships prevail”.
“In all honesty, Mr. Hobbes, we seem to be strapped either way, yet we still can’t accept it. Is there no other solution?”
“I have none, my friends, but neither does anyone else that I know of. However, there are ways of viewing the matter, which while they don’t resolve the dilemma, do nevertheless blunt its horns in such a way as to make the whole situation happier”.
“What do you mean, Sir?”
“I mean this”, answers Hobbes. “Men are, in fact, basically committed to the exceptionless rule of law, and for good reason. The evident harshness of that principle is frightening, but it may lose much of its terror, when the principle is viewed in a general and historic perspective. Its awesome, inexorable rigor seems to be softened when we measure the principle against its generally beneficent qualities. The implications for human welfare if the principle is absent are so negative that they serve to elevate the immense, positive value of the principle. It is that contrast which I have been trying to emphasize during all our conversations, and viewed from this side I find nothing further to be said”.
“Apparently you think there is more to be said, on another side, Mr. Hobbes?”
“Yes, I think there is, but we have scarcely touched upon it”.
“Sir, perhaps our anxiety would be lessened if we considered whatever is to be said on this other side”.
“Very well, gentlemen, let us turn our attention to an aspect of political philosophy which we have not explored. And to start the discussion I am prepared to present a number of assertions, all of which need clarification and precision, but which might serve to focus the subject for us”.
“That’s fine with us, Mr. Hobbes. You put forth the propositions and we’ll set about to criticize them afterwards”.
“I shall begin, then, by going back just a bit. The principle of the rule of law causes difficulty because adherence to the principle seems plainly to require obedience to unwise and evil, as well as to wise and good laws. That consequence is strictly unavoidable, I think, and it everywhere receives anguished attention. However, when one looks at the unwise and evil laws which civil societies enact from time to time, one feature of those laws usually fails to receive the attention it merits. I refer to the fact that unwise and evil laws suffer from a specific political defect. I mean that part of their unwisdom and evil is traceable simply to the fact that some men in the community are using the power, prestige, and authority of the civil structure in a manner that is discriminatory and exploitive with respect to the other members. Now discrimination and exploitation of men by men is always lurking in human life, but it is realized with exceptional and odious force whenever some men manage to turn civil law and policy to the service of what is no more than their private interest or advantage. I am not claiming this is true of all cases of unwise or evil laws, but it does hold for a great portion of them. When it does occur, some members, presumably equal as citizens, are being unfairly treated by the very agency, civil government, which should never have or allow such a policy to be its object. Thus it is that these citizens no longer find the rule of law exceptionless. They are forced, in a sense, to consider disobedience legitimate. But perhaps I am going too fast here….do you think you understand me?”
“Only vaguely, Sir”.
“I will try to make my meaning clearer. I mean that unwise and evil laws, most of them anyway, are traceable to a private, and therefore an illegitimate use of public authority. They constitute a distortion of proper public purpose, and almost surely occurred as a result of a misuse of the appropriate public procedures”.
“Mr. Hobbes, even if we grant your point, what is accomplished? This is a trifling, weak, and irrelevant thing to say about unwise and evil laws…That they are illegitimate within the limits of public purpose, and arose through the misuse of public procedures. Why not better say what everyone knows: that unwise and evil laws are cruel, inhuman and inhumane; that they hurt, maim, and destroy men in physical and spiritual ways! That’s what should be said, and that is why there is a point beyond which further prattle about the exceptionless rule of law is nothing but craven and immoral nonsense”.
“I expected that reply, my friends, and if you hadn’t given it, I would have”, answers Hobbes. “But before you throw me out of polite society, let me finish my case. I will grant that it seems weak to say that unwise and evil laws are politically illegitimate – especially weak when men are faced with the immense and oppressive force of the community bent on enforcing such a law. But I do not think such an assertion is irrelevant, for it raises the question as to why this so frequently occurs. And why does it so frequently occur, my friends?”
“Do you want us to repeat our list of the dark depths of human nature, Mr. Hobbes?”
“No I don’t, my friends. Only the naive and the little children are unaware of the dark impulses and powers of men, so there’s no need to celebrate the fact”.
“What, then, would you have us say, Sir?”
“Not have you say, my friends, rather have you do. I mean, what do you propose now to do about exploitive and discriminatory civil policies? What within the limits of reason might be done, for it has been insisted from the beginning that there is no sure guarantee against unreason and immorality. But are you prepared to roll over dead in the face of this fact, seeking not to prevent, but rather continuing to allow exploitation and discrimination, of yourself and others, carried out illegitimately through civil law and policy? Or do you propose, instead, to become party to that sorry enterprise, ignorantly or intentionally participating in the effort to turn civil law and policy to your own unwise and evil ends: encouraging and profiting from a discriminatory and exploitive use of this grand system of institutions which, as everyone should know, can have only a public, never a private, benefit as its goal?”
“Now wait a minute, Hobbes, that’s going too far. We will continue to try to do our best, like other decent people”.
“But how can your best be any good at all, my friends, when you are either ignorant or cynical concerning the legitimate purposes and methods of civil society? What you are quick to call ’unwise and evil laws’ are made possible, indeed they are made almost certain, by a combination of cynical misuse of public purposes and procedures together with widespread ignorance and confusion concerning their legitimate objects and methods”.
“Mr. Hobbes, are you implying that a large portion of the citizenry are themselves party to a misuse or distortion of public purposes and procedures?”
“I am not implying that, my friends…I am saying it. Such attitudes and behavior are often clearly understood by those who engage in the misuse, but perhaps more often they stem from ignorance and confusion. But because that is the case the situation is subject to a large degree of correction, if meaningful education concerning such matters were taken seriously. Wise and good policy is no mechanical result of civil procedures. It is rather a function of the understandings and attitudes which citizens bring to those procedures. Since men are not prepared to abandon those procedures they had better try to insure their proper use. When the large body of citizens intelligently insist that at least this specific ordering of human affairs shall be subject to a non-discriminatory and non-exploitive guidance, and are themselves prepared to be so guided, at that time the incidence of unwise and evil laws can reasonably be expected to diminish appreciably”.
“Well, Mr. Hobbes, you seem to have us involved in the middle of strange ideas again. Our reactions to your views will probably profit from the time allowed before our next meeting”.
POLITICAL OBLIGATION AND POLITICAL PURPOSE
R. J. ROWAN
Near the end of our last discussion we asked Hobbes if he was implying by his remarks that a large portion of the citizenry themselves are prepared to engage, actively or passively, in a misuse or distortion of public purpose and procedure. His answer was that he was not implying….he was declaring that.
Well, perhaps we should be satisfied, for at least that proposition is clear, which is more than we can say about the remainder of that discussion. Through most of that discussion he seemed to be saying that a large portion of unwise or evil law stems from the fact that citizens harness civil policy to the wrong ends and turn public procedures to their own private benefit. He even suggested that much of our political difficulty, in this regard, could be corrected by some kind of civic education no less!
Since all that seems so far-fetched and naive, we should perhaps leave it to him to try to make sense of it. But we surely wish he would keep matters simple and uncomplicated. It’s hard enough to operate our political system with reasonable efficiency as it is, without the complications he always introduces.
Abruptly the voice of Hobbes speaks: “Have you ever thought, my friends, that it’s hard to keep your system operating with reasonable efficiency because it is operated as it is?”
“What? What’s that you’re saying, Hobbes?”
“I am saying that men seem to assume that all or most of their political difficulty is inherent in the political system, and is therefore necessary, whereas one might argue that a large portion of the difficulty is traceable not to the system, but to the way in which men operate it. Political decisions will never be easy, nor will they always be accurate…that we must admit. However, it may still be the case that if citizens and their agents approached their civil structure with a clearer conception of its legitimate purpose and with the attitudes necessary for its appropriate operation, a major portion of the difficulties which upset them would disappear”.
“You’ve said things like that time and again, Hobbes, and we still don’t understand it. But suppose we grant it, where would the discussion turn?”
“Oh, the discussion would turn in the same direction it would if you didn’t grant it. Though it will take us less time to get there if you’ll admit the point for the sake of the argument”.
“Very well, for the sake of the argument we’ll admit it. Now what do we consider?”
“We might now inquire concerning the object or purpose of civil policy itself, for unless that notion can be made significant almost anything in the way of policy can occur”.
“Why, we’ve been through all that before, Hobbes. Remember our long discussion about civilization, about reason and morality being made possible by civil order?”
“You are now attaching too much significance to those ideas, my friends. Civil society, if it is to achieve the good life for man, must pursue more definite goals than those. Certain specific programs must be embarked upon, using civil policy as vehicle. And in order to determine which programs should be implemented, some clear conception of a legitimate and valuable public purpose must be provided. Fortunately for us, however, at least the name of that conception is already available”.
“Why of course, the name of the legitimate public purpose is ‘the public interest’. Everywhere the name is the same, though in older times it was called ‘the general welfare’, or ‘the common good’”.
“Mr. Hobbes, we trust you’ll pardon us saying so, but you really are out of touch with reality”.
“Out of touch? How so?”
“Why all this talk of public interest is just rhetoric, Sir. No one means anything significant by it. The language of public interest is used because it’s respectable, but it masks issues by throwing a cloak of common benefit over policies which are really otherwise. Everyone is in there trying to take care of himself, and it would be a foolish person, indeed, who would pay serious attention to talk about the public interest”.
“Well, gentlemen”, replies Hobbes, “if that’s the way things are, then someone is surely out of touch with reality. But just who that is, remains to be seen”.
“We’re afraid it’s you Sir, but in any case don’t waste your time pursuing that line”.
“No doubt you’re correct, my friends, and we would do well to drop that topic. Before we drop it, however, I have just one small question which you might answer for me quickly and clearly, and then we’ll find some more fruitful line of discussion. The question is this: if a judge, for example, were to say ‘the interests of justice require such and such’, or were to say ‘the public interest would not be served by something or other’, are we rightly to interpret what he says in the way you just described? Are you prepared to dismiss his remarks as mere rhetoric, designed to confuse issues? Should we understand him to be giving the cloak of legal impartiality and judicial objectivity to what is no more than his own prejudice or interest or advantage?”
“Well, Sir, it’s hard to say. It probably depends a lot on the particular judge, and the matter in question”.
“I see, gentlemen”, continues Hobbes. “And I suppose you’d give much the same answer if the question were about the prime minister, or any other political executive. That is, if he spoke about ‘the public interest requiring something’; and the same would be true with respect to legislators if they were to support policies in the name of ‘the common good’, or ‘the general welfare’.”
“We said, Sir, it depends. Qualifications are necessary in each case, but on the whole that’s what it boils down to”.
“Those qualifications may be quite interesting, my friends, but we’ll ignore them right now. Let me try to formulate your answer in more general terms. You would say that reference to ‘the public interest’ is mere rhetoric, lacking genuine significance; the language of public interest is used because it confuses and masks issues through its ability to make policies appear to be serving common ends; but that underlying all the rhetoric is nothing but an individual or group interest, each seeking maximum advantage for itself; and, finally, that all or most citizens understand this to be the case and are prepared to have the system operate on this basis? Now does that statement catch the full flavor of your intentions, gentlemen? With reasonable accuracy, that is?”
“With the appropriate qualifications, Sir, the answer is ‘yes’”.
“I was right, then, gentlemen, in believing you could and would give a quick and clear answer to my question. You have certainly done so. I hadn’t intended to ask further questions along that same line, but your answer to the previous one raises another, to which I’m sure you’ll have an equally quick and clear answer. So if you would satisfy me just once more, we could then turn to a more fruitful subject”.
“We will certainly try to give you a quick and clear answer, Sir. You’re making it especially easy to us to do so now that you ask simple, straightforward questions, which can be readily answered without long explanations and complications”.
“I will try to maintain that quality, gentlemen, since you find it so congenial. My question, now, is this: if our former description is accurate (that public interest is mere rhetoric, that you all understand yourselves and your political agents to be pursuing nothing but individual or group interests, and so forth), if that description is accurate, the why do you have, at the same time, such severe penalties attached to what you sometimes call ‘corruption in government’? I mean, why is the offering or the acceptance of financial or other private inducements to public officials prohibited?”
“Oh, come on now, Hobbes, that question is utterly silly. The answer to it is so obvious that it’s a waste of time to say it”.
“Then why don’t you answer it, gentlemen, instead of wasting time noting that it’s obvious?”
“Really, Sir, you can’t be serious”.
“Oh, but I am serious, however I’m beginning to believe that you aren’t…you’re just spoofing me, otherwise you wouldn’t have said what you did before about the notion of public interest. The answer to my question about corruption in government is obvious, but it would seem to be clearly inconsistent with your previous remarks. So you must have another, more serious answer, for you’d never want to embrace that contradiction”.
“There’s no contradiction, Sir, and we stand by our former assertions. The answer is this: bribery is a form of dishonesty and is therefore made illegal, and not just for public officials”.
“But that won’t do, gentlemen. The question is, why would it be dishonest for a public official to accept any kind of personal advantage? If, as you claim, everyone recognizes that public policy is and ought to be the servant of individual or group interests, then why is it corruption to seek and gain powerful support for one’s interest by offering private advantages to those public agents who are in a position to further it?”
“This is ridiculous, Hobbes. You know as well as we do why we couldn’t allow such a system”.
“Of course I know why, gentlemen, but I don’t think you do. Let me suggest an answer. If you want to accept it, that’s fine with me”.
“Go ahead Hobbes, there’s no stopping you anyway”.
“Well then”, says Hobbes, “you could argue the matter this way: we can’t allow corruption in government because acceptance of private advantage by public officials would make the whole civil process just too primitive, too uncivil, too unfair. Therefore, we impose limits so that at least the grossest and most obvious kinds or personal advantage are not to be offered or accepted in an effort to influence public policy. Now how does that sound, gentlemen?”
“Sounds fine, Hobbes, why didn’t you say it long ago?”
“I guess I just have trouble keeping up with you, my friends. But anyway, there’s a consequence of that position which should be made explicitly clear before you affirm this doctrine too heartily, and it’s this: if citizens and their agents fully believe that public policy should serve individual and group interests, but are prohibited from using the grosser devices in an effort to further those interests, then subtle and more devious devices will surely be used. If one is denied the opportunity to influence policy by direct forms of economic and other kinds of power, then he must discover and utilize less direct kinds of pressure and influence. But note that pressure and influence is still being used. And thus it is that the language of public interest is debased into its cynical rhetorical form, for the language insures that the confusing facade of genuine public deliberation is maintained. Policy is argued, though not decided, in terms of public, never of private, benefit. Thus one outlaws simple, gross corruption of public authority by instituting a complex and invidious system of the same character. The devices of persuasion pre-empt the public form, while behind the scenes private organized pressures determine what will be called ‘public policy’. That is the consequence of your inconsistency, gentlemen, and there’s yet another consequence, but perhaps you’d rather not hear it now”.
“We’ve probably heard enough, and indeed more than enough, of such talk for this time Mr. Hobbes. No doubt you’ll be able to recall this additional consequence in our next discussion”.
POLITICAL OBLIGATION AND POLITICAL PURPOSE
R. J. ROWAN
In the last discussion Hobbes was claiming that as citizens, most of us are involved in a serious confusion. Apparently he thinks this confusion goes right to the heart of the attitudes and understandings with which citizens and their agents approach the problem of determining public policy. And thus it vitally influences policy itself.
As Hobbes sees it, the trouble is this: most of us are taught and encouraged to pay no more than lip service to the concept of public interest as providing the only legitimate standard of public purpose. Our actions on most occasions, and our words when we are honest, indicate that we are either unable or simply refuse to recognize a general, common object of public policy distinct from individual or group interests. It is not surprising, therefore, that in large and in small ways we steadily seek to turn public policy to the service of private interests.
Yet on the other hand, we are not prepared to carry those propositions to their limits. We are not prepared, for example, to extend the same attitudes and understandings to our public agents, to judges, legislators, or executives. We will not allow them too use their office to pursue their private interests. They are not to turn public policy to their own advantage, nor are they to sell their influence for any kind of price in return for a public benefit to be conferred on the highest private bidder. As Hobbes made clear, the notion of corruption in government, and the laws directed to prevent its occurrence, simply do not make sense except on the principle that public agents are expected to be responsible to public, not private, interests.
But there is even more to the story than that. Hobbes also argued that if we outlaw one form of corruption, but do nothing to change the attitude which makes corruption both natural and necessary, then we only insure that corruption will take a different form. If the use of the most direct and gross forms of influence is prohibited, but citizens continue to believe that public policy ought to serve their private interests, then other, perhaps more invidious, kinds of influence will be used in the general effort of citizens to turn policy to their private advantage.
Well, now, if that’s the story, why don’t we simply accept it? It seems to be entirely faithful to human nature. It expresses exactly what all of us expect, when we have had any wide experience with men. Individuals are naturally self-seeking and self-serving, and individuals in groups behave in the same manner. Since that is the case, there’s no good reason for Hobbes to insist upon calling ‘corrupt’ or illegitimate’ what are only the natural efforts of citizens to turn public policy to their advantage.
“But I don’t insist upon those terms, my friends”, says the voice of Hobbes. “the expression ‘corruption in government’ is much more yours than it is mine. If you wish to abandon that expression, and the concept underlying it, you are of course free to do so. However, you will still be faced with the problem of making sense of your political system and its policies. I will be very interested to see how you can do it without relying on that notion or others like it”.
“Look here, Sir, maybe we can’t make complete sense of our political system. No doubt there are many inconsistencies and difficulties in it. But in that respect, we’re surely no worse off than the rest of mankind. Would you, Sir, want to claim that things were ever different and better? Are you prepared to argue that in other times or places men do not seek to turn political authority to their own advantage, or that private interests have not always provided the chief motive for those participating in government and politics?”
“On that score, I’m afraid you’re only too correct, my friends”, replies Hobbes. “Only a foolish man would argue that public affairs were ever conducted much differently for any long period of time in any community. Citizens are first of all natural men, therefore one must surely expect them to try to use public authority in their interests whenever they can do so, much in the way they use all other institutions. I would be the last person to deny that, or to minimize it’s importance. But that comment raises the additional consequence which I mentioned at the end of our last discussion”.
“Oh yes, we were sure you wouldn’t forget it, Sir. And now, what is that consequence?”
“It is this: if public policy rightly ought to serve the private interests of those who direct or control it, which is what you seem to be asserting, and if all the citizens fully understand that to be the case and are themselves prepared to act on it, then none of them can make any sensible complaint when policies result which are unfavorable to them. The very most they are entitled to say is ‘bad luck for me’, though if they were candid they might add ‘but it would have been bad luck for them if I had gained control’. What citizens would not be entitled to say is ‘improper, illegitimate policy’, yet those are the very terms and concepts which most will insist upon using”.
“In simple language, Hobbes, what does all that add up to?”
“It adds up to this: if you really abandon all notions of legitimacy concerning public policy framed in terms of common benefit, then you also thereby abandon all notions of illegitimacy concerning those policies which direct public benefit to merely private advantage. And that is precisely what one does if he maintains that the basic purpose of law is simply to further the interests of those who happen to be in a position to enact and enforce it. If citizens truly believe that the purpose of law is to serve the private interests of individuals or groups then how could any citizen object when the law does in fact serve such private interest? If that’s what policies are supposed to do, and if that’s what the political system was set up to accomplish, then it would surely never be illegitimate for it to do precisely that”.
“We’re beginning to see your point, Mr. Hobbes, and it does make things a bit awkward for us, doesn’t it?”
“I’m afraid it does, my friends, for I don’t see how you can have it both ways. Either you abandon a conception of genuine and legitimate public purpose entirely or you accept one and seek to apply it consistently everywhere”.
“And you think, Sir, that the use of civil authority to further private interests is fundamentally inconsistent with a genuine conception of legitimate public purpose?”
“Why of course, gentlemen, it has to be inconsistent. The pursuit of private interests using civil authority as vehicle is inherently exploitive and discriminatory, and is bound to result in precisely that condition which you most fear: the imposition of unwise and evil laws”.
“Why is that, Sir?”
“Well, think for a moment what the terms ‘exploitive’ and ‘discriminatory’ mean. As I understood them, and in the sense relevant here, ‘exploitive’ means turning another person’s energy, work, property or values to your own advantage without respect for his welfare or interest. It means to use another person, or to treat him, at your satisfaction without heed or consideration for him. ‘Discriminatory’ action is treating another unfairly. For example, denying another an advantage or benefit on grounds which are irrelevant to the purpose or enjoyment of the benefit; or to penalize another for arbitrary reasons, or to confer special privilege on some to the exclusion or to the harm of others. The two notions are related, though still different. And while I haven’t made them entirely precise their significance is sufficiently clear for our purposes”.
“Yes, Mr. Hobbes, the expressions are clear. That is what we understand by them”.
“Well then, my friends, if you understand what discriminatory or exploitive action would be, you must also understand why the pursuit of private interest using public policy as the vehicle cannot ever be consistent with any genuine conception of public purpose. And you can also see why the substitution of private interests for public interests is bound to result in unwise and evil laws. Look at political history again, and you will find,, unfortunately, that it was precisely the discriminatory and exploitive use of political authority which made stupidity and evil possible on the grandest scale. The stupidity and evil of which individual men are capable is nothing compared to what they can accomplish when they are allowed or encouraged to harness public policy to their private interests. For then in the name of the state, in the name of justice itself they are able to treat their fellow citizens in the most exploitive and discriminatory fashion imaginable. And they are able to do so, moreover, systematically. If that is to be the purpose for which civil society is organized and used, then any citizen should think carefully about it unless he is convinced of his own power to control it for his own interest”.
“Your position is becoming steadily clearer, Mr. Hobbes. We can now understand why you reacted so bitterly when we earlier rejected the notion of ‘the public interest’, as having no significance.”
“Yes, my reaction was rather sharp, wasn’t it, my friends? But let me make clear why I reacted as I did. I am not seeking to dictate to you, only trying to help you understand that you may legislate for yourselves. I thought I found you ambivalent or inconsistent on an important matter, and wished to show you the full meaning of that inconsistency. You may reject all conceptions of public purpose distinct from the satisfaction of individual or group interests if you please….but you should be well aware of the consequences if you do. It may be the case that the concept of public interest has no genuine meaning in your community, that all of you are deliberately, self-consciously intent upon turning public policy to your own advantage. But if that is so, then I don’t see how any of you could have any justifiable complaint if things turn out very badly indeed for many, or even for all of you. But you, my friends, know much more about the conduct of political affairs in your own community than I do. Perhaps your description is correct, that public interest is seldom heeded in fact though always celebrated in words. If that is the case then my general indictment will have specific application to your condition, otherwise not”.
“Perhaps in the time before our next meeting, Sir, we shall consider the conduct of political affairs in our community more closely. Things may be as bad, or worse, or perhaps even better than we quickly judged earlier. What we should look for then, is this: do we, as citizens, believe that public policy ought to serve private interests, or do we act in that way even if we protest that it ought not? Or do we give genuine credit to the notion of the public interest and seek, as citizens, to insure that public policy shall confer genuinely common benefit? Now how does that sound?”
“It sounds fine, my friends”, concludes Hobbes, “and I shall be very interested to hear your report. There is one difficulty you will immediately encounter, however, and I should warn you about it beforehand. If the pursuit of private interest is not in the public interest, then what interests are in the public interest? But no doubt you’ll have that difficulty resolved by the time of our next meeting”.
POLITICAL OBLIGATION AND POLITICAL PURPOSE
R. J. ROWAN
We have spent the week since our last discussion, as we said we would, in a thoughtful assessment of the actual conduct of political affairs in our civic community. We did so in the hope of discovering the degree to which a conception of legitimate public purpose has real meaning for us. We wanted to find out if pursuit of private interest provides the chief civic motive, or whether citizens are truly committed to the public interest. Thus we spent the week watching, remembering, and reflecting, and we are now ready to report our conclusions to the ghost of Hobbes.
“And I am eagerly waiting to hear your report, my friends”, says the voice of Hobbes. “What have you found concerning your civil society and the general welfare?”
“Well, Sir, the situation is a bit confused, in some respects better and in some respects worse that we had thought. As you no doubt expected, the citizenry is ambivalent and inconsistent about the purpose of public policy, hence we found a mixture of institutions, practices, and attitudes. Since we are unable to fit them into one coherent scheme, we are hoping you will help us do so”.
“I will be happy to try, my friends, but first let us hear your report”.
“Very well, then, with no attempt to organize or to qualify, this is what we found: on the one hand, the day by day cynicism of most of us concerning the public interest and the direction of public policy is extreme. The concept of the public interest is often given verbal credit, but the welfare of the majority is constantly sacrificed to special interests. Most of us, individually and in groups, are intent upon pursuing private interests, and usually try to turn civil authority to that end. We are upset about that only when we fail, or when other private interests win out over our own. We tend to believe very little that is said in what you call ‘the public forum’, and rightly so. For since each is prepared to dope, manipulate, deceive and lie in an effort to provide for himself, and knows that to be the case, each must necessarily distrust all others. We have grown skeptical about our language because we have learned that it is constantly used in an effort to confuse issues and to disguise the motives and the effects of policies”.
“Hold on, gentlemen! Surely you must be mistaken in your judgment of matters. Are there no reasonable public agents, men of good will, legislators and executives who are deeply committed to the public interest?”
“Oh, there are some, but not many. Our political system produces leadership which generally reflects the dominant level of understanding and attitude in the community. But in any case, the position of public agents is made impossible by the basic attitude of the citizens, thus any agent’s commitment to the public interest is largely frustrated. We make the political future of public agents dependent upon their willingness and ability to use their office to satisfy private interests. Citizens join together into clubs or associations in order to bring organized pressure to that end. If no club congenial to our interests is handy, we form one. It has even reached the stage this is said to be the appropriate and responsible form of civic behavior, and it is encouraged in the name of public spirit. Public agents are thus immediately caught in the deadly cross-fire of these organized pressure groups, and since their political future is at stake, they tend to become sensitive to these pressures, even against their will. Responsible political leaders cannot escape the swirling tide of organized, private influence, and if they are to remain in office they must respond to the shifting alliances of private interests. Their judgment is constantly sacrificed to the great god “compromise”, and the result, euphemistically called “public policy”, is a strange and awkward creature, having only an accidental relationship to the substantial welfare of the majority of the citizens”.
“Gentlemen”, replies Hobbes, “I find it hard to believe what you are saying. One always expects men to be partial to themselves, and without constant checks and reminders they will usually give their interests an undue benefit of doubt. But what you are describing goes far beyond that natural and common propensity. Are there no counter influences, no institutions which check private interest and thus serve the public welfare?”
‘A few; there are even some associations, the membership of which does not hope thereby to profit in private ways. Though these associations come into existence to meet a glaring public need which is not being satisfied in the clash of private interests, their effect is limited. These associations are few and are very difficult to organize effectively; and in any case, they are steadily forced to compromise with the strength, influences, and attitude of the more numerous and powerful private interest groups. Thus their contribution to the welfare of the unorganized majority of citizens is never great”.
“But you have political parties, my friends; are their principles and platforms not formulated with reference to the public interest?”
“All parties claim that, Mr. Hobbes, but few have a genuine platform, much less a set of political principles. All parties, Sir, must seek the power of office, and given our system no party can reach office, still less remain there, except by tailoring its platform to the interests of the most numerous and powerful groups. Platforms, therefore, usually consist of a hodge-podge of concessions, promises, and benefits ladled out in all directions. Only a soft-headed partisan could claim these platforms represent any genuine concern for the common good. And for that occasional party which does in fact stand for certain political principles and devises a platform accordingly…the situation is not good. The leadership of such parties, no matter how intelligent and responsible, can do little to hold the party to its principles when the understanding of the mass of citizens rests solidly upon a commitment to private, not public, interests”.
“Gentlemen, what a fascinating political system you have….in which responsible deliberation about matters of common interest is discouraged, if not made impossible. How correct you were when you said that the public interest is without meaning among you. No wonder that the concept and the language of public deliberations is based into an invidious form of confusing rhetoric. In light of what you’ve said, I see no way I can help you make this into a sensible and coherent scheme”.
“But wait, Sir, there’s another fascinating side to our story. We began by saying ‘on the one hand’, now let us describe ‘on the other hand’, for it brings out the citizens’ ambivalence and inconsistency in the strangest way. What we have said to this point indicates that we daily make a mockery of the concept of public interest, especially as concerns our domestic affairs, and we steadily act so as to deny it significance and force. But how quick we are to abdicate that position when the community or the nation is said to be facing a vital peril! At that moment we hysterically re-invest the concept of the general welfare with the most eloquent meaning, and simply will not countenance any private or factional interest standing in its way. No private sacrifices, no matter what their nature, are then too great, for the common good shall be served! Individuals and groups simply must fall into line, and it would be disloyal, a kind of treason to place any private interest above the public welfare. Now, Sir, can you make sense of that for us?”
“I’m afraid I can’t, gentlemen. I see no way to reconcile the plain inconsistency in the two attitudes and forms of behavior you describe. But perhaps more important is their self-defeating irony. I mean how ironical it is that men make nonsense of the concept of public interest in normal times, when the private sacrifices it requires are temporary and minimal, but the general benefits immense; yet in times of emergency and grave peril, the same men insist upon making sense of the concept, when the private sacrifices it requires are lasting and immense, but the general benefits, given the very nature of the case, are likely to be minimal or marginal at best”.
“Exactly, Sir, how ironical!”.
“But gentlemen, the condition is also self-defeating, for the heedless pursuit of private interest, discouraging genuine deliberation about matters of common interest, is precisely the factor most likely to bring about a general emergency or common peril. And having contributed to the emergency through their unenlightened civic behavior, a people and its leaders are ill-equipped to deal with it thoughtfully or responsibly. They have little understanding or experience about deliberation on matters of common concern. Thus their response can only be impulsive, passionate, and emotional. Lacking a steady sense of discipline, lacking a steady commitment to a significant conception of their common welfare, having discouraged the habit of deliberation, and having destroyed the public forum through the misuse of it….they have left only a frightening and unenlightened patriotic fervor, which is consistent with anything now said to be in the public interest! If such a system is to survive it must be remarkably dependent upon good luck, because its members, as citizens, largely lack a disciplined sense of enlightened civic virtue”.
“We are agreeing with you more and more, Sir, and the full meaning of your position concerning the nature of political purpose is at last becoming clear to us”.
“Some of its meaning is becoming clear to you, my friends, but not all. I think I have detected a further confusion and a further irony in what you have been telling me. It indicates that you have not yet thought your way through to the very heart of the notion of legitimate public purpose”.
“What do you mean, Sir?”
“From what you have said it is plain that you have now rejected a conception of public interest framed in terms of satisfaction of private interests, but you have done so by substituting the notion of the interest of the majority. Am I correct, then, in saying that you now believe that the true or legitimate purpose of public policy is to satisfy the interest of the majority?”
“That’s right, Sir, that’s what we believe, and we can’t understand why we didn’t see it before”.
“But what I can’t understand, my friends, is why you think that’s an improvement. In what sense is the interest of the majority at all different from any other private, factional, or partial interest, except that it represents a somewhat larger portion of the total citizenry? Don’t you see that it is of the same kind, that satisfaction of the interest of the majority, simply because it is their interest, would in principle be exploitive and discriminatory with respect to the interests of the remainder? Turn again to political history, my friends. Even a quick survey will show that policy serving the interest of the majority can be, and all too frequently has been, more odious and oppressive, more harmful and evil, than policies devoted to the interest of factions less large. Hundreds of instances, including that of Nazi Germany, indicate that the most cruel, discriminatory, and exploitive public policies often are taken in order to satisfy what is at least claimed to be the interest of the majority”.
“Oh, we’re well aware of the difficulties you raise, Hobbes, but we have a ready defense. You see, we qualify the notion of the interest of the majority with a doctrine of minority rights”.
“Oh, yes, I’ve heard of such a doctrine. Tell me, does your doctrine of minority rights mean that a minority within the community can rightly prevent policies which are in the public interest?”
“Well, it doesn’t mean exactly that, Sir”.
“But if it doesn’t mean exactly that, my friends, then it’s of no value as a check upon the interest of the majority, especially when you have said that service to the interest of the majority is the public interest, and therefore constitutes the legitimate public purpose”.
“Well, Sir, we’ll have to think this through a bit more. Perhaps by next time we’ll be able to give a better explanation of the concept of public interest”.
POLITICAL OBLIGATION AND POLITICAL PURPOSE
R. J. ROWAN
The process of philosophic analysis seems to go on and on. No sooner does criticism produce change in the old position, than further weaknesses are found in the new. And that is what occurred in our last discussion. We were then led to renounce, or to denounce, the doctrine that legitimate public purpose is identical to or even consistent with the pursuit of individual or group interests. Satisfaction of private interests, we finally admitted, is not the same as the achievement of the public good.
“But in renouncing that position we naturally, but imperceptibly, slid into the view that satisfaction of the interest of the majority of citizens constitutes the public interest, and serves as a valid conception of legitimate public purpose.
But Hobbes was quick to criticize the notion of majority interest, insisting that in principle it was a negligible improvement on the idea of private interest. He pointed out that satisfaction of the interest of the majority, using civil authority as a means, is basically discriminatory and exploitive with respect to the interests of the remainder. He noted that the imposition of majority interests has, through history, often led to conditions more oppressive, more cruel, more odious than has service to the interest of factions less large.
Once again, his point is well taken; there is much force in his criticism. But where do we go from here?
“And where do you want to go, my friends?” asks the voice of Hobbes.
“We want to settle the question of legitimate public purpose once and for all, Sir. But if the notion of private interest won’t work, and the notion of majority interest won’t work, we don’t know what will”.
“Perhaps you should enlarge your conception of public interest even further”, replies Hobbes. “You did that somewhat when you moved from the idea of individual or group interest to majority interest. Further expansion might accomplish the necessary end”.
“But Sir, in that direction we come only to the idea of the interest of all the citizens”.
“Of course, gentlemen, that’s what it would lead to”.
“But we can’t embrace such a view. It amounts to a demand for unanimity, and given men as they are unanimity is impossible”.
“Doesn’t that depend upon the kind of unanimity you’re seeking, my friends? Agreement in judgment is quite unlikely, whereas agreement in interest may often be found. Let me put the matter this way: consider, for example, a civil community with a population of 18 million. You have already rejected the view that policy serving the interests of a group less than a majority would be legitimate, because it would be exploitive and discriminatory with regard to the interests of the remainder. But you are now suggesting that if an interest is shared by a majority (i.e. by 9 million plus one), it would be legitimate for public policy to serve it. I find that puzzling, for if the policy was discriminatory and exploitive, and thus not in the public interest, when shared by 9 million, why does it lose those discriminatory and exploitive features when one person is added to the number? Surely mere arithmetic has no power to cause such a qualitative transformation”.
“We appreciate your point, Mr. Hobbes, yet we still can’t accept the idea of a common unanimous interest”.
“But why not? You were prepared to admit that 9 million men plus one might possibly share an interest; in fact you were making that possibility a necessary condition of legitimate civil policy”.
“Yes we were, because it not only seems possible, but even likely that a majority in a community might share an interest”.
“But the reason you find it possible or likely, my friends, is not because of the numbers of men involved, but because of the magic which you superstitiously attach to the word ‘majority’. Suppose we now take a community which numbers in total what was a bare majority in the former example, that is 9 million men plus one. Will you admit that the members of this second community might all share an interest or have a common concern of some sort?”
“It seems like we’ll have to admit that possibility, Sir, since we were insisting upon that number of men in the former case”.
“Exactly, my friends. And doesn’t that make clear that it’s not numbers of men, not percentages of majorities that’s really important here…it’s the fact that interests may be common to men, at least in the sense that they share them. If that were not the case then any attempt to generate a notion of common purpose would be strictly doomed to failure, right from the outset”.
“But one percentage is important, Sir”.
“That’s right, my friends. The percentage of ‘100’. But its significance is qualitative, not quantitative, since it’s not the number of men who make up that total, but the fact that the concept of 100% is inherently and utterly inclusive. The concept rests upon and designates a factor which is and must be genuinely common or shared by all the members of a population”.
“Mr. Hobbes, we seem at last to have your point focused in complete theoretical clarity. What you’re saying is that interests may, in theory, be shared by any number of men, but the only interest which can legitimately serve as the purpose of public policy is one shared by all the members of a given community. It will be a question of fact, not of theory, which interests are thus common, but any attempt to identify the public interest with the interest of any portion or part of the community, majority or other, is both arbitrary and harmful”.
“That is the heart of the matter as I see it, my friends, though not all political philosophers see it the same way. And we should also admit that in practice it is usually easier to discover common interests in a smaller than in a larger community, and it will also be easier to serve them equitably. Yet that comment only brings out the complex difficulties facing a large and heterogeneous civil community, and emphasizes the very high quality of effort which must be made by it to achieve the common good”.
‘But we face an even further difficulty, Sir, for we are committed to a democratic civil community, in which majority rules. Now everyone knows that majority rule automatically means majority interest. But since majority interest is not the public interest, we’ll have to give up democracy, if we stick with your theory, that is”.
“But there’s no theoretical difficulty here at all, my friends, though there is a practical one. The practical problem, by the way, holds equally of any political system, not only of democracy”.
“Well Sir, there may be no theoretical problem, but it’s certainly the case that most people think that majority rule implies majority interest, thus they are led to believe that democracy should serve the interest of the majority”.
“But isn’t that because such people confuse a certain method of making decisions with the object or purpose for which the decisions are made? What I mean is this: decision-making is inherent in all political systems, including democratic ones. Political societies are not only or exclusively decision-making systems, but they must be that at a minimum. Thus any political system must authorize some person or persons to make decisions which will be binding on the total community. Democracy is that system which vests fundamental decision-making authority in the judgment of the citizens at large, who are now properly to be viewed as the sovereign civic agency. Therefore, democratic citizens are public agents in their sovereign or ruling capacity, in precisely the same sense and manner as any other public agents, as judges, legislators, or political executives”.
“But what about majority rule, Sir?”
“Majority rule is only the operation of the principle that agreement in judgment by a majority of participating citizens shall be taken as the judgment and decision of the community, and shall be deemed binding on all. That principle is utilized only because unanimous agreement in judgment is unlikely in any large body of men”.
“And it’s right there that the imposition of majority interests is implied, Mr. Hobbes”.
“It is not implied, my friends, though it is possible. More importantly, majority interest is not thereby authorized. You authorize judges to make decisions. Do you thereby authorize them to make decisions in their own interest? Not at all. You also authorize legislators to make decisions. Do you thereby authorize them to make decisions in their own interest? Not at all. You will indict that as civic corruption when it occurs, as we agreed previously”.
“But you do admit, Mr. Hobbes, that the imposition of majority interests is possible in democracy?”
“Of course, my friends, but I thereby admit little, since corruption is possible in any system. It may be that corruption is even more likely in democracy, for with the anonymity provided by large numbers, and in the darkness guaranteed by secret ballot, citizens may be tempted or even encouraged to do what they would not dare do openly, namely: to misuse their sovereign civic capacity, by substituting private interests for their judgment concerning the public good”.
“But what’s to prevent them doing that, Sir? What’s to make them heed the public good, and not their private or majority interest?”
“With that question, my friends, we finally succeed in stringing the scattered beads into a completed necklace, for the circle is slowly but surely being closed”.
“Now why do you say that, Mr. Hobbes?”
“Because we are back where we started; we are once again discussing the problem of political obligation. But this time we are viewing it in a somewhat different aspect, for we now see that a theory of political obligation extends far beyond a mere theory of obedience to the law. A doctrine of political obligation is inescapably and intimately tied to a conception of legitimate public purpose”.
“But our question, Sir: what’s to make citizens in a democracy heed the public good, and not their private interests?”
“Only their enlightened sense of civic virtue, my friends. No mere arrangements or mechanics in any political system can prevent public agents from committing that all too common, yet seldom noted, kind of treason. For it is a kind of treason for public agents to place the wrong interests, questions, or purposes uppermost, and it is of little importance whether these agents be the citizens at large or only specific persons among them. Your stake in adequate civic education is, therefore, very great, greater even that in other systems, for it will largely determine the attitudes and understandings with which citizens approach their public role. Thus political obligation must be seen as having a positive side also, and one which deserves special emphasis in democracy, for it consists in the duty to behave responsibly in one’s civic capacity, to deliberate conscientiously in the effort to discover and to serve the common, vital interests of all members of the community. Civic virtue, in the end, amounts to no more than the enlightened pursuit of the public interest, for that is the common purpose for which the civil community exists and is authorized”.
‘Well Mr. Hobbes, the circle does indeed seem to be closed now, doesn’t it? What’s left to be said?”
“Oh, a great deal remains in the general area of political theory and practice. But we have probably said as much as we should or could say for the time being. And besides, the atmosphere here on earth is troubling to us ghosts….we tarry too long at our peril. So I shall be off, returning to plague you and your fellows no more. Before leaving, however, I want to wish you each the best. And since individual welfare is so much determined by the general level, I can hardly wish you will individually, except as I wish you good in common”.
POLITICAL OBLIGATION AND POLITICAL PURPOSE
R. J. ROWAN
Before considering some questions, it might be in order to say at least a few words about that man Hobbes, for there was indeed such a man. A most remarkable figure, Thomas Hobbes, an Englishman, was born in 1588. John Aubrey reports Hobbes’ birth as being on Good Friday, April 5th, when he was delivered somewhat prematurely due to the fright given his mother by the approach of the Spanish Armada. That he was born on Good Friday is of coincidental interest because he was probably a non-believer.
He was precocious, but his scholarly production seriously intended for public consideration began late, near the age of forty. That is a never-ending source of not quite jesting comfort to undistinguished, middle-aging philosophers; our light, now feeble, may yet begin to shine brightly. Hobbes indeed, more than made up his late start. As Russell notes, it cannot be discovered “that he wrote any large books after the age of eighty-seven”. He died in 1679, at ninety-one years.
His intellectual significance is immense. Hobbes is first in line of great English philosophers, and his influence has much to do with the direction taken by English philosophy after him. His importance, however, is much more than merely historic. His ideas, especially in the area of political thought, stand today as clear, as challenging, and as powerful as on the day they first appeared.
He had distinct literary gifts, with unusual power of expression. He once said “when I was born, my mother gave birth to twins: fear and myself”. That remark provides some psychological insight into Hobbes’ fixed preoccupation with the fact that public order is the necessary condition of peaceful, civilized life. The psychological fact that Hobbes was a timorous man does not, however, account for the theoretical structure which he formulated in the effort to provide the moral and rational grounds for public order.
To provide that structure required philosophic and logical insights of the highest order. That modern political philosophy in the form in which we recognize it is almost single-handedly Hobbes’ creation, attests to his ability. The form which it has, moreover, it will likely retain indefinitely, or if it does not then we are the probable losers.
It is Hobbes great distinction to have seen more clearly than others that political problems center around the concept of purposive authority, not of power or habit. To lose sight of that central fact is to risk everything. Since he saw so clearly, he framed the problem once and for all in terms of individual obligation, not in terms of force or habit. He traced the authorization of political power and procedure to individual human acts, which themselves arise out of common concerns or purposes. The act of authorization being purposive creates for the authorizing individual a personal moral and political responsibility for certain behavior and for the pursuit of certain goals. The person or persons authorized by the act become thereby what Hobbes sometimes called “sovereign.” “Sovereignty’ is a concept which he deepened and other times called “agency” or “agent.” In the latter capacity these persons assume at least an implicit responsibility for public order and welfare; they act for and in the name of the over-riding, general interests of the total body of citizens. Thus, in brief, did Hobbes create a simple and clear conception of “public authority,” and distinguished its purposes and the role of its agents from those of its members, as private individuals.
During these discussions many views imputed to the ghost of Hobbes are such as Hobbes explicitly held. That is particularly true with respect to the early discussions, which were chiefly concerned with the problem of and necessity for, obedience to public authority. Other ideas imputed to Hobbes during these discussions were not explicitly held by him. Certain liberties were taken. I think, however, that the liberties taken were of a kind as follow by implication from his position. He might well have held such views and in fact might well be arguing them today, especially with respect to democratic civil communities.
And now to consider some questions, comments or criticisms. This first one, a criticism, arrived after the second broadcast and is mentioned only because it bears heavily on the underlying theme of the discussions. The letter, having a distinctly religious orientation, objects to the broadcasts as not being “constructive.” In a confused world, it notes, “surely something better can be done that to stand before a microphone confusing peoples’ minds.”
The criticism could easily be dismissed as “cranky”, but that would be a mistake. The writer admits that the world is confused, and by implication admits that part of the confusion is political. Yet the writer objects to this effort to help dispel confusion. The inconsistency there is so obvious that it surely cannot be real. There must be an explanation. What beliefs could underlie such a view? Perhaps it is believed that our problems are obvious, and the solutions likewise. Only a very narrow view could admit such a proposition, and then only by denying the intelligence or goodwill of those of us who view our problems in other ways. Rigid intolerance or bigotry alone recommend the position, and such characteristics are, of course, a major source of our trouble.
Or it might be believed that our problems and confusions are so serious as to be hopeless. In some long-range, cosmic sense that proposition may be true. However we don’t know it to be true. But in any case and in the meantime, before cosmic doom descends on us, we have an immense stake in acting on another proposition: namely, that the use of reason and goodwill offers a hope of improving the lot of men by clarifying and solving at least some of their common problems.
A more likely interpretation of the objection to the kind of discussions which have been presented is found, I think, in the popular view that politics, and some other things, are private and controversial matters. Thus, they are not to be discussed, much less argued. It is a sign of poor breeding, of bad manners, to hammer away on such topics. Men’s opinions on politics, as on religion cannot be changed, and since politics is so controversial it is better left alone. Such a view is both foolish and pernicious, since it deepens our difficulty. To the degree it operates, it provides considerable confirmation of the sentence with which the discussions began, namely, that as citizens, most of us most of the time are not so much virtuous and enlightened, as we are simply lucky. Any view which discourages rational discussion and argument about political affairs makes stupidity and evil more likely. Moreover, it plays neatly into the hands of those who will quite happily assume political power for their own ends, if others do not assume it for enlightened public benefit.
The last sentence leads nicely into the next question. A correspondent notes that such terms as “justice,” “legitimate use of authority,” “good law,” and the like, have no genuine moral significance. Though naïve people may believe otherwise, such expressions designate no more than whatever policies the rulers manage to impose, and these policies are always imposed in order to serve their own interests. The politically stronger manipulate the remainder and call policies by names which invoke moral approval. But the language is mere rhetoric, behind it lies a nakedly self-serving and exploitive system of power, imposed on the weak by the strong. And the correspondent was happy to name various persons, interests, or organizations which occupy the power role in our community. You would all recognize the names, and perhaps also admit the facts.
This question, or comment, is first-rate. It is incisive and of very ancient origin. It is difficult to analyze, however, since it admits of several interpretations, and in any case much more attention should be given it than can be attempted here. One classic form constitutes a bedrock issue in the philosophic subject called “ethics.” In that form the comment involves the claim that there are no cognitively objective standards of morality; that the concept of moral goodness or right (and thus of political right also) cannot be given an independent, confirmable meaning. That doctrine in that form leads directly to amorality or to conventional moral relativism.
Volumes and more volumes have been devoted to it, and the outcome is still in doubt since the view is difficult to refute, but equally difficult to defend. The doctrine cannot be analyzed here, so I turn to another interpretation of it. It is the form in which the comment that “justice is what is in the interest of the stronger” really amounts to a description, perhaps carrying an added recommendation of the practice. As a description of the course of political affairs it is remarkably accurate. Political power has throughout history been used as a means by which those in control of it exploit the remainder. There are not many lasting exceptions. Men, ever since Plato, but especially including Rousseau and Marx have observed, confirmed and lamented the fact. One would surely have to be deeply ingenuous not to recognize that it is very often true in our own community.
But if that description of the political system carries a recommendation of the practice, then more can be said. It by no means follows from the fact that men use political authority in an exploitive and discriminatory way, that they should or must use it in that way. And it particularly doesn’t follow from the debatable proposition that moral concepts lack cognitive significance. If there are no objective or valid moral standards then no behavior is a bit more obligatory in a moral sense than any other behavior. Thus the recommendation, if there is one, to use civil order to satisfy one’s own interests, if necessary by exploiting other citizens, is only another recommendation. At the very most it expresses a mere preference of the one who holds it.
The more important question is, however, can there be a reasonable alternative to an exploitive and discriminatory use of civil authority? The burden of argument in these discussions has been that there is an alternative, but that it does not lie where many people think it does. The reasonable alternative does not consist in substituting merely another set of discriminatory and exploitive interests for the old set. No, not even one’s own. Many who loudly decry an unfair and illegitimate use of public authority do not recognize what is required to make its operation better. If there is to be a genuine, long range improvement in the quality of public policy then significance must be given to the concept of common or public purpose, and the citizens at large must consistently, intelligently, and appropriately act on that conception.
One final question and we will have done. A correspondent wonders what system will work, if, as was argued, the present party system and policy dictated by private pressure groups is not satisfactory. The correspondent suggests that a solution may be found in smaller social units, “face to face” democracy, in which genuine deliberations and unanimous decisions can take place.
That suggestion may be an answer to something, but I don’t think it’s an answer to the problem we face. Large, heterogeneous political systems are a fact, and there is much to recommend them since they can provide benefits which smaller systems cannot. But even if there weren’t those advantages, we would still be saddled with large systems; nothing seems likely to alter the tendency to develop fewer, but larger ones. Thus we must make these systems work. Small, relatively homogeneous democratic units, which could conduct their business on a face to face basis, are things of the past.
Size and heterogeneity, moreover, do not themselves constitute the basic problem, though they complicate its solution. Small political systems, even villages, have seldom been noted for their exemplary, legitimate use of public authority, nor have they distributed benefit with a greater degree of impartiality and wisdom than have much larger and more complex political entities.
Pious and unsatisfactory though it may sound, the solution as I see it, will only be found in a different conception of civil society, its common purpose and appropriate operation. The hold of private and sectional interests simply must be broken, for it inevitably leads to a discriminatory, exploitive, and stupid operation of civil society. To say it may seem trite, but the job is one of education, and it needs to be widely and effectively undertaken, on both a formal and informal basis. That task, which has as its goal equipping citizens to assume their enlightened public role was the chief factor, after all, which prompted the creation of a system of mass, public education. We have for a long time overlooked that primary task of public education. Continuing to overlook it may well prove disastrous for democracy.
Return to all the writings of Bob Rowan
I will be attending a conference at Berkeley this summer and looked to find news about Bob because I would like to resume our lifelong conversation. I am not surprised to see that he is still with us and look forward to possibly seeing him and to receiving more news about him. Please feel free to write me at my work email address: Stephen Block [email protected]. With many thanks for this.