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From Obligation to Loyalty: Gateway to New Political Thinking

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It was the high mark of Hobbes’ genius to elevate the concept of political obligation to serve as the cornerstone of his political theory: its main function, to spell out the necessary relationship between the subject and the sovereign. To drive in the final nail, Hobbes had to ensure the ensuing kind of obligation be a moral one rather than merely prudential, not therefore subject to an individual whim or a haphazard circumstance but forever binding. The foundations were laid.

To be sure, the idea of obligation, purportedly underlying most of our social structures, whether expressly political or not, is hardly surprising. In ancient Greece, for instance, the cradle of democracy and the birthplace of city-states, it was considered a solemn duty for every citizen to take active part in the life of the political community. In the Middle Ages, marked as they were by conspicuous absence of any type of political structure of note, let alone a durable one, political and social stability was maintained nonetheless by a complex set of reciprocal relations: serf to vassal, vassal to lord, lord to overlord. And underlying each of these relations there was the concept of personal obligation, a concept of duty; that’s what the Middle Ages were about. Indeed, even if we look further back, to our primitive or pre-political stage, to the life of a clan, a tribe, or an extended family, we’re still drawn to the very same conclusion: it’s our sense of obligation that made each of these possible.

In other words, the concepts of obligation and of duty were always present, albeit implicitly so, in all social structures with any degree of permanence, spelling out the conditions of said permanence; and they were implicit in the set of complex personal relations which in effect constituted those structures. It is arguable therefore that the subject’s sense of duty and obligation to a reigning monarch, let’s say, wasn’t just to the institution of monarchy as such but also to the person or the personality of the king. Well, with Hobbes, sovereignty and personality undergo an irrevocable break. Hobbes’ idea of a sovereign, the rudiments of what was soon to become a modern state, is as impersonal as it gets. Hence the need to reposition these concepts front and center, to make explicit what previously was only implicit. Hobbes is merely following here the dictates of his grand project.

This movement in Hobbes “from motivation to obligation,” the manner of Hobbes’ “deduction” of the latter from the former, is captured by Macpherson:

Once Hobbes has established that the general inclination of all men is the search for ever more power over others, he is easily able to show that if there were no power able to overawe them all, their lives would necessarily be miserable and insecure to the utmost degree. He has already postulated that men necessarily seek to live, and to live commodiously. It follows that rationally men who fully calculate the consequences must shun such a condition by acknowledging a power able to overawe them all. To do so they must make, or act as if they had made, a covenant with each other by which they all simultaneously transfer to some man or body of men the rights they would have to protect themselves if there were no common power to protect them. It is this transfer of rights which creates their obligation to the sovereign. And since this covenant is a restraint on the appetites, it cannot be binding without a power to enforce it; hence men must transfer their natural powers at the same time as their natural rights. This gives the sovereign absolute authority, and sufficient power to wield that authority effectively. Only by acknowledging such authority can men (a) hope to avoid constant danger of violent death and all the other evils which they would otherwise necessarily bring upon themselves because of their otherwise necessarily destructive search for power over each other; and (b) hope to ensure the conditions for the commodious living which they necessarily desire. Hence every man who understands the requirements of men’s nature, and the necessary consequences of those requirements, must acknowledge obligation to a sovereign.

Whether the obligation in question can truly be said to be a moral one is a matter that needn’t concern us. Suffice it to say, Hobbes thought that it was, and his best argument to that effect rested on another one of his postulates: an equal right to life. To cite from Macpherson again, “Hobbes is able to treat his political obligation as a moral obligation because it is derived from a transfer of rights which he treats as moral rights.” Besides, too much has been made in philosophical literature of the allegedly inviolable distinction between fact and value, and the purported fallacy of deriving therefore “ought” from “is,” as the writings of Elizabeth Anscombe and Philippa Foot attest.

For the duration of these essays and until proven otherwise, I propose to treat all obligations and duties which happen to derive from the nexus of personal relations as essentially moral obligations. To wit, even the obligations and duties of, say, a slave to his master, or a battered wife to her husband, shall be considered “moral,” provisionally at least, until, that is, the relationship in question shall be deemed and recognized by the injured party as essentially exploitative or immoral; and when that time comes, all bets are off. But until then, and not until then, I think it’s right-headed to consider the slave or the battered wife as “morally bound” to their “betters”; at the very least, that’s how they see themselves.

Granted, this operational definition may strike us as being hopelessly subjective and unduly offensive, but it has the distinct merit of bypassing the utilitarian turn of mind to which even Hobbes, it seems, was susceptible: there’s no calculation here, only sentiment. Meanwhile, another question suggests itself: Are we justified to extend the same kind of logic and rules of procedure to impersonal relations as well, such as those which obtain between the subject and the impersonal state? Are we morally bound to the state in the exact same way that we’re morally bound to persons? I suspect this is the right kind of question, but then again, we don’t have to decide right now.

In any case, Hobbes was on to something when he posited the concept of political obligation as the central concept of political theory. More so than individual rights which merely presuppose, and consequently arise only in the context of, some preexisting political entity that is expected to guarantee them, only after the fact, as it were, political obligation is more central because it’s a priori: it spells out the preconditions. Thus, not only must we surrender our natural rights to the sovereign (as most social contract theorists would have it), which is synonymous with acknowledging the obligation as a kind of quid pro quo for services yet to be rendered; what’s more, it’s only by virtue of said obligation, sustained, that there can be such things as the sovereign, the subject, or the state. Needless to say, individual rights fall by the wayside in the greater scheme of things. They’re not a cutting-edge concept in the theory of the state. Political obligation is.

In what follows, I intend to expand on this insight and develop this concept to the extent possible. However much on the right track, I find Hobbes’ notion of political obligation much too restrictive if it’s to take us beyond the political configuration limited at present to the liberal state; that’s in fact its greatest weakness, that it was conceived with no other form of polity in mind. In particular, I find the contractual basis of Hobbes’ idea of political obligation its weakest link. Not only is it the case that, for this very fact, it is unduly beholden to some utilitarian picture of Everyman, a truncated version at best of how humans qua moral agents tend to behave; it’s also false as an account of how we typically form and sustain most of our relationships. It’s time, I say, to dispel the philosophers’ myth which, under the guise of utilitarianism and social-contract theories, appears to have crept in and, ever since Hobbes, contaminated our thinking about politics and the state.

As part of this program, I intend to disentangle the concept of obligation from its typical, overly legalistic/contractual framework. I suspect that moral philosophers have added to the confusion and share some of the blame, especially insofar as their treatment of rights and responsibilities, as a set of reciprocal concepts, is concerned. It’s not that rights and responsibilities aren’t reciprocal in the sense that they both feed off one another, the one legitimizing the other, and vice versa; that goes without saying. But the concomitant result was, the concept of obligation, already a related concept, was even further implicated, by association, in the legalistic/contractual framework: it’s become too compromised in the process to help us effect the kind of radical break we were hoping for.

The long and the short of it is, we need a brand new concept of political obligation, a more or less stand-alone concept, unencumbered by old associations and vestiges from the past, if we are to move beyond the liberal state and the typically contractual basis of its operations. Likewise with rights. They, too, must become divorced, to the extent possible, from their typically legalistic context, as something to be guaranteed by the state by virtue of contract, to approximate rather a meaning that would be more germane to a purely moral type of discourse: to connote the general worthiness of the individual qua individual, along with the underlying assumption as to the moral equivalence of persons, rather than the specific gains that may have already been won, or are yet to be won, as a result of a bitter struggle against the reactionary elements of the state. Only thus, by forging a linguistic environment capable of supporting these concepts and a new form of polity, can we hope to overcome the obvious limitations of the liberal state and its contractual basis of “doing business,” its modus operandi, and move beyond.

I alluded earlier to the weakness of all contract-dependent accounts as to the origins of most our social structures, accounts of how we typically form and sustain the relationships which are the lifeblood of those structures. And although the notion of obligation or of a set of reciprocal obligations, to be more precise, does form an integral part of those relationships, it’s not always or necessarily an obligation that is born of any kind of contract. Again, the life of a clan, a tribe, or an extended family; none of them are contingent on anyone signing their name on the dotted line but come about naturally.

As part of the program to free the concept of obligation and related concepts from their usually restrictive, contract-laden language and bearings, I propose to trace back the beginnings of all our social formations to their natural habitat. And here, the notion of loyalty, as a kind of affinity which comes to us naturally, readily suggests itself. It’s certainly both logically and psychologically prior to mere acknowledgment of an obligation, moral or otherwise: indeed, once we get to consider the larger context, obligations do come to be seen as a byproduct, as a formal acknowledgment of, or a testimony to, a set of loyalties already in place. Loyalty is the springboard, the fertile source of all manner of us coming together as humans; everything else follows.

In articles to follow, I intend to examine the concept of loyalty, (an articulated) form of social impulse which manifests itself, it seems, in all manner of groupings, social formations, what else have you; the likely impetus behind those groupings if not their very source. Right off the bat, it has two things going for it: a certain affinity we all share in common, which make us huddle together and form a group, coupled with the functionality of the group; and it’s a powerful combination, I daresay. Also notice that with loyalty at the helm, nowhere are we led to infer the need for a contract in order to reinforce the preexisting arrangements. Granted, the kind of groupings entertained thus far, a clan, a tribe, an extended family, all stand out for their high degree of informality, which may be one reason why the idea of contract is out of place in cases of this sort. Indeed, perhaps the contractual basis of social arrangements goes hand in hand with the degree to which these arrangements are formal, their necessary aspect.

Must the state, by its very nature, partake of a degree of formality so as to require a contractual basis for its foundation? Can’t we conceive of a state that would be less demanding in the aforementioned respect? Alternatively, can we think of a polity that would be just as comprehensive as the state happens to be, or nearly so, but without the added requirement; namely, the dubious benefit of a contract? And if not, must such a polity be as comprehensive as the state in order to serve us in an undiminished capacity? Can’t we do with less for more?

Needless to say, we may have to tackle some of these questions as we embark on our project. Meanwhile, lets enjoy the ride.

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About Roger Nowosielski