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Does the notion of self-preservation constitute sufficient ground to justify the state’s authority?

el Lun Nov 20, 2017 10:06 pm
Os dejo por aquí un ensayo que he hecho para la asignatura que tengo de libertarianismo. Es sobre el tema de la justificación del Estado, la pregunta es si el principio de auto-preservación es suficiente base para la justificación de la autoridad del Estado, pero si queréis aportar sobre la justificación del Estado en general lo veo genial. Está en inglés porque la uni es en inglés, y no he borrado los numeritos de las citas porque soy perezoso, pero seguro que no os molesta Wink

1. Introduction.
The question about the justification of the state has always been crucial in political theory.
David Hume, when referring to the doctrine of the social contract, famously stated: “If
the reason be asked of that obedience, which we are bound to pay to government, I readily
answer, because society could not otherwise subsist”1. Although indisputably intuitive
and straightforward, this answer only raises more dilemmas to solve: is society actually
unable to last in time without a state? If so, what are the conditions of this “subsistence”?
What kind of society is built? Which are the powers of this state? If not, which are the
alternatives? What do we understand as a society without state? What does a state provide
that we cannot enjoy in a pre-state society?
Given the smallness of our demanded task, the multiplicity of theoretical constructions
developed by different schools of thought to approach this issue cannot be reviewed in
this essay. Nevertheless, the object of our further philosophical and political reflection
does not lack of interest: we have been asked to consider if the notion of self-preservation
is enough by itself to justify the state’s authority. Our position defends a categorical denial
of this statement, considering that the duties of a state towards the subjects/citizens
include some other obligations. It is mandatory to point out that, provided the nature of
the essay’s question, we are not trying to defend the existence of state, just to show that,
if existing, it cannot be only grounded in self-preservation. Through the following pages
we will present our arguments and, finally, we will conclude with a recapitulation of the
developed ideas.

2. Early contractualism and Hobbesian hypothesis.
Firstly, to properly demarcate the theoretical discussion it is necessary to focus on the
main concept, the principle or notion of “self-preservation”. Before presenting a
definition, we can recognize it from the texts of the early authors of the contractualist
school, basically the Englishmen Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) and John Locke (1632-
1704) in their books Leviathan and Two treatises of government, respectively. Anyway,
although both place self-preservation of individuals as the condition which the sovereign
must accomplish to keep the obligations of the subjects towards him, just Hobbes
considers it as “sufficient ground” to justify the state. Since Hobbes theory will be revised
later, let us explain why Lockean doctrine does not fit with the question.
John Locke defines state of nature as “a state of perfect freedom to order their [humans]
actions, and dispose of their possessions and persons as they think fit, within the bounds
of the law of nature”2, defined as “no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty
or possessions”3. We can easily relate this law with the principle of self-preservation, and
take it as a first definition. Unlike Hobbes, Locke justifies a limited government,
“constrained by natural rights including property rights”4. In Hobbesian theory, the
sovereign has no constraints to dictate law apart from the right of nature, defined as “the
liberty each man hath to use his own power as he will himself for the preservation of his
own nature; that is to say, of his own life”5. We will call this principle the one of “limited
self-preservation”. Given the difference amongst both definitions of the principle, and the
proposed question, which talks about self-preservation as “sufficient ground”, with no
further duties (as defense of property) for the state, we consider that the limited principle
is the one to be taken into consideration. For that reason, from now on, we will abandon
Lockean theory and will focus on Hobbes.
Now we are capable to say that, according to Hobbes, assuring the liberty that every man
has to defend himself and safeguarding every man’s life is sufficient ground to justify the
state’s authority, and since authority is an essential state’s feature, to justify the existence
of the state itself. This minimalistic understanding of the state’s functions is supported by
the assumption that there is no worse possibility for human beings as living in the state
of nature. Karl Widerquist and Grant S. McCall have named it “the Hobbesian
hypothesis”, characterized as follows: “everyone under a sovereign government is better
off (or no worse off) than they could reasonably expect to be outside of that authority”6.
We will criticize this and other aspects of Hobbesian state of nature and justification of
state in further points.

3. Hobbesian state of nature, justification of state’s authority and criticism.
According to Hobbes, “it is manifest that during the time men live without a common
power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called war; and such a
war as is of every man against every man”7. This state of war assures a human condition
of “continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty,
brutish, and short”8. For that reason, humans, rational beings who act in their own interest,
decide to make a contract, “mutual transferring of right”9, and give up their natural liberty
to get something in exchange, for “of the voluntary acts of every man, the object is some
good to himself”10. Therefore, people give absolute power to the sovereign in exchange
for self-preservation because of fear of violent death, which, for Hobbes, “is the most
powerful force in human life”11. From this we can conclude that, for example, a rational
person would prefer (or would be indifferent) to become a slave within a commonwealth
with a sovereign rather than being free in the state of nature.
Let us start with a practical critique: there is nothing that assures that the sovereign is
going to protect subjects’ lives apart from his word and a covenant in which he does not
take part but by enforcing it. Hobbes relates contracts with human nature and morality,
establishing its performance as the third law of nature and stating that, if contracts are in
vain, we are still at war12. However useful could it be socially or however much we would
desire to establish it as universal rule (Kantian categorical imperative), it is a fact that
there no exist absolute security about the performance of any contract, so in some cases
people would be transferring their freedom and they would not be safe. This argument
follows the classic anarchist theory: already in Bakunin we have the idea of the state as
possessor of arbitrary power and the one of corruption of the political elites, state is a
“necessary bad”, but in practice “they [political leaders] want […] anarchy only for
themselves” and, even the government conformed by the most virtuous of men “soon and
invariably would finish in his own moral and intellectual corruption”13.
Two counter arguments could be used against this piece of criticism. On the one hand, if
we accept that fear of a violent death is, as Hobbes assumes, the most powerful force in
human life, people who made a pact would not do it because of the security of safeness
but for the feeling of safeness. As an answer, we simply refer to a quote from Leviathan:
“The obligation of subjects to the sovereign is understood to last as long, and no longer,
than the power lasteth by which he is able to protect them”14. On the other hand, some
could philosophically argue that political theory is not an appropriate place to look for
absolute truth or certainty. If all the proposed axioms, conditions and measures that
construct the political theories had to be fulfilled, we would not have political theory at
all. To those we answer: there are schools, normally consequentialist, as utilitarism that
do not focus on certainty but on closeness: a person can be better or worse in terms of
pleasure and pain, but there is a possibility of measurement, most people are not in
extreme positions. On the contrary, deontological schools are binary, everything is about
right or wrong, truth or falseness, and contractualism is of this kind. For example, when
the Hobbesian hypothesis states that everyone must be better or equally situated under the
authority of sovereign in comparison with the state of nature, he means it. If he would
refer to “the most people” or “many people”, contractualism would be a theory of
imposition and not of consent. For that reason, we can and must demand true security
from the sovereign.
Our second and last piece of criticism and argumentation is related to the principle of
“full preservation”. Authors like Eleanor Currant, following the idea of further duties to
demand from the sovereign that we found in Locke (property rights), say that “not only
do we have a right to what is necessary for survival but also to 'all things else without
which a man cannot live, or not live well’”15. Arguments like this are direct inheritance
of a long line of authors who find in the state the possibility of emancipation of human
beings and of fulfilment of their own freedom, amongst whom stand out Jean-Jacques
Rousseau and Karl Marx. Both republicanism and Marxism criticize the Hobbesian axiom
which states that there is neither society nor morals in the state of nature: for this schools,
humans are social beings who cooperate in pre-state stages of society, having their own
moral codes (mostly religious) and political organization. Consequently, the state must
assure that we humans improve our conditions of life when we are willing to be under its
authority, but not just by preserve our lives, but also by providing moral excellency and
fulfilment of the human most elevated capabilities (Rousseau) and the necessary material
economic conditions and the entire fruits of work (Marx)16. From our point of view, and
given that exist evidence of pre-state societies with hierarchies and codes of law and
religion and that human beings, as a gregarious species, are essentially social and
cooperative, this criticism against Hobbesian justification of the state is very strong. In
addition to this, historical experience show that it is impossible to keep social piece just
assuring self-preservation: the liberal revolutions demanded a reduction of the privileges
of the nobility and individual rights, working class struggle demanded better salaries and
labor conditions, decolonization movements demanded autonomy, etc. Also from an
empirical and practical point of view, the state cannot work without further concessions.

4. Conclusion.
In the light of the above, we can state that the notion of self-preservation, understood as
limited in Hobbesian terms, cannot constitute by itself sufficient ground to justify state’s
authority. Although states must undeniably protect the lives of the subjects/citizens, there
must be some other duties to fulfil. At first, we defended that total security is impossible,
neither in the state nor in the state of nature, so we need some other motivation to join the
contract. Then, we presented the principle of full preservation, which includes the
protection of the community members’ life and assuring certain conditions to make life
easier. To conclude with, we finally took Marxist and republican schools to show
examples of governmental concessions to the population: even Aristotelian eudaimonia
included a bit of money within its conditions, is not possible to protect the lives of people
or to keep social peace if the population has not the conditions to live as humans.
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