Pretenders to the Social Contract
Hobbes, the State of Nature, and Contract-Troublemakers

In Leviathan, Hobbes speculates about the "natural condition" of man. All men (and women as well, if we wish to modernize our discussion a bit) are roughly equal - that is, there is no one endowed with such superior strength or intellect that he or she will necessarily dominate others. Some are stronger and/or brighter, of course, but as the saying goes: "even the strongest must sleep."

Since everyone is roughly equal in the Hobbesian state of nature, there is competition for food, land, mates, and everything else a person might desire to possess. There is no morality, no restriction on the means employed in competing for resources. It is the war of all against all, and all are in "continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short."

In the state of nature, everyone has a right to everything since there is no morality of injustice. For the sake of safety and peace, it is necessary that all people give up some of these rights. This, Hobbes thinks, is the legitimate basis for government. Individuals agree to give up their rights to a sovereign, which could be an individual, a group, a government, etc. Hobbes says this of giving up rights:

Right is laid aside, either by simply renouncing it, or by transferring it to another. . . By transferring, when he intendeth the benefit thereof to some certain person or persons. And when a man hath in either manner abandoned or granted away his right, then is he said to be obliged, or bound, not to hinder those to whom such right is granted, or abandoned, from the benefit of it: and that he ought, and it is duty, not to make void that voluntary act of his own: and that such hindrance is injustice. . . So that injury or injustice, in the controversies of the world, is somewhat like to that which in the disputations of scholars is called absurdity. For as it is there called an absurdity to contradict what one maintained in the beginning; so in the world it is called injustice, and injury voluntarily to undo that which from the beginning he had voluntarily done. The way by which a man either simply renounceth or transferreth his right is a declaration, or signification, by some voluntary and sufficient sign, or signs, that he doth so renounce or transfer, or hath so renounced or transferred the same, to him that accepteth it. And these signs are either words only, or actions only; or, as it happeneth most often, both words and actions. And the same are the bonds, by which men are bound and obliged: bonds that have their strength, not from their own nature (for nothing is more easily broken than a man's word), but from fear of some evil consequence upon the rupture. Whensoever a man transferreth his right, or renounceth it, it is either in consideration of some right reciprocally transferred to himself, or for some other good he hopeth for thereby. For it is a voluntary act: and of the voluntary acts of every man, the object is some good to himself.


There being no morality, duty, or injustice in the state of nature, the idea of an individual in that state creating a contract that he or she is legitimately bound to seems problematic. After all, you can do anything you please, including actions like saying "I transfer ___ rights to ___." But what about such a state would actually create an obligation? As Hobbes says, "nothing is more easily broken than a man's word." It would surely not be absurd to "break" a contract that you never sincerely made in the first place, and in the state of nature with unlimited rights you undoubtedly have the right to deceive others if you so wish. Hobbes tries to overcome such an objection to his theory by claiming that individuals receive something in return for sincerely agreeing to give up their rights: security, among other benefits. It has nothing to do with integrity or a choice to be truthful; people form the social contract for their own good. And it is absurd to contradict yourself by going back on such a choice later on.

It is important to note that this is a contradiction of an individual's own will. It is not absurd merely to contradict your own statements - after all, in the state of nature there is no prohibition against lying, and lying might benefit you. In such a case, lying would make perfect sense. The absurdity comes in when you sincerely agree to something, sincerely willing that you come under an obligation, and then later acting otherwise; in this case, it is as if you are willing a contradiction. You will yourself to be bound by the social contract so that you might benefit it, yet you also will that you be outside of it if you choose to break it by murdering, stealing, or doing something else it prohibits. In this lies injustice, and the arrangement is the beginning of morality for Hobbes.

It's probably evident by now where I'm going with this. Individuals enter into the social contract because it benefits them to be a member of the society bound by that contract. But what if an individual could benefit from the social contract without sincerely agreeing to it? If everyone else simply believed that this individual had accepted the contract and entered into society with them, that individual would gain all of the benefits of the contract even if he or she had not actually willed him or herself to be bound by the contract. There is no restriction of deceit in the state of nature, and this individual is doing no more than wide-scale deception; she wills that she remain in the state of nature secretly, deceiving the others with whom she is still "at war" with.

Our pretender to the social contract cannot, of course, openly violate the contract. If she steals and kills in public, it will be no defense to say "Ha! I lied when I told you I gave up my rights - in fact, I have retained them, and thus have done no injustice to you." Once the cat is out of the bag, everyone else is at liberty to do whatever they please with our pretender. Though she has not actually done any injustice, she is not protected by the social contract - she is "at war" with the society, so its members are allowed to do what they will to her without violating their contract or engaging in any injustice.

But we have no reason to assume that the pretender will be so foolish. She will, for the most part, go along with society just like everyone else. But there will be two differences, the second following from the first. She will not really be bound to the contract or obligated to follow the rules of society, though doing so will generally be in her best interest, and she will know it. And since she knows this, any time she has a chance to break the rules without getting caught, there is absolutely no restriction to her doing so if it will benefit her. When no one is looking she can acquire less-than-legal copies of music, pocket a candy bar or Rolex, drive above the speed limit, etc. Her only real restriction will be practical concerns of what she can get away with, and what risks are worth taking - she has no reason at all to feel obliged to adhere to the law for the sake of the law. It simply doesn't apply to her (in Hobbes conception, remember).


Does this made-up scenario present any substantial problems to the social contract theory as promoted by Hobbes? It has no real effect on the administration of law through punishments and the like - "pretenders" like the one I mentioned are technically "at war" with everyone else, even if this is unknown, so there is no reason that they couldn't be thrown in jail, fined, executed, etc. Everyone else did really commit to the contract, so punishing them for violations is warranted as well.

When it comes to issues of morality and personal motivation, however, the possibility is a real problem. Those who argue that morality somehow arises from Hobbesian social contracts will have to admit that the moral code/law does not truly apply to such pretenders. And individuals who feel themselves to be "pretenders to the social contract," those who generally follow the rules only out of fear of punishment rather than any sincere commitment to them, have no internalized motivation to follow the rules when no one is looking. If a great number of people only followed the rules when a police officer was watching over them, the rules would be vastly ineffective. For the most part, people in a society need to feel a true duty to adhere to societal rules. Or, lacking that, society must at least be mainly composed of people who adhere to some set of morals or internal guidelines that is not too far removed from the rules of society. Individuals might not choose to refrain from murdering simply because of the laws against it, but as long as they don't commit murder because they think it is wrong, society could still get by. But those like our pretender are not motivated by the rules, nor are they motivated by morality; they know they are in the state of nature, where everything is permitted.

Are there practical implications? Maybe, maybe not. It could be said that there really are such pretenders; perhaps the intentionally criminal who care nothing for the law could accurately be described in this way by the Hobbesian picture. Hobbes justifies the punishment of criminals by arguing that they have themselves agreed to be bound by the social contract, so their punishment for breaking it is in a way self-willed. Now, if confronted with the possibility (or actuality) of these pretenders, he couldn't make such an argument - though he could of course say that since pretenders are not protected by the contract, they can be punished just like anyone else.

But it is not just that they could be punished like everyone else - they could, in fact, be punished in any way we chose to punish them. Pretenders are "at war" with society, and if morality emerges from the social contract, pretenders are not true moral agents and must not be treated according to either the social contract or to moral rules. Unlike criminals who remain within the social contract and are perhaps less likely to break it, as they still presumably feel at least some obligation to the rules they have sincerely accepted, pretenders are more dangerous. They can be expected to break the rules when they have the chance and it benefits them. So not only would it be permissible to punish them severely, even to kill them, within a Hobbesian framework - it might be wise to do so.

I'm not recommending that all frequent criminals be killed, of course. Even if we accepted the Hobbesian framework, and I'm not suggesting we do, we would still have the problem of figuring out when an individual was really a pretender to the social contract. If we had a policy of killing these renegades, few would likely admit their positions. But for those who do accept something like the Hobbesian framework, it is a possibility that could be considered.

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