by Alexander Collin

Daniel Luban is an assistant professor of political science at Columbia University specializing in political theory. Luban is completing a book on early modern social theory entitled Children of Pride, under contract with Cambridge University Press. He is also in the early stages of a second book project on coercion and its role in social and economic life. Before entering the academy, he worked as a political journalist covering debates related to U.S. foreign policy, and he continues to write for a general audience in publications like Dissent, The Nation, and The New Republic. 

He spoke with Alexander Collin about his recent JHI article “Prisoner, Sailor, Soldier, Spy: Hobbes on Coercion and Consent,” (volume 85, issue 2).

Alexander Collin: It’s rare to see a historian engage so overtly with the way that our perception of “unpalatable” ideas affects our analysis. Is this unique to Hobbes for you, or is it a more general issue?

Daniel Luban: I don’t think it’s unique to Hobbes, but I do find Hobbes a particularly useful thinker to grapple with for clarifying our own ideas. It can be hard to get much of a critical foothold on thinkers whose ideas seem more reasonable and familiar to us. But with Hobbes, at least for those of us who don’t consider ourselves absolute monarchists, we’re rarely at risk of agreeing with everything he says. So then the question is how far we’re willing to go along with his logic.

The Hobbesian argument I examine in this article—with its implication that handing over your wallet to the highway robber is a kind of voluntary contract—looks at first glance like one of Hobbes’s most extreme. That’s why I think there’s a payoff to showing that it points us toward a view of coercion and consent that’s ultimately preferable to our more commonsensical alternatives.

AC: Do you think modern audiences find Hobbes’ views on coercion and voluntary action more unsettling than seventeenth-century audiences did? If so, why?

DL: Yes, I think so, because the rise of liberalism has made the whole question of voluntary action more central to our ethical intuitions. For Aristotle, who I show in the article was the most important precursor of Hobbes’s position, acting voluntarily is a necessary condition for moral judgment (we can’t be praised or blamed for purely involuntary actions) but it’s not the most important criterion for moral judgment. But as free individual choice becomes more and more important as an ethical ideal, the notion that we can act voluntarily even under coercive conditions becomes more disturbing, precisely because so much weight becomes attached to voluntariness.

Hobbes, writing in the middle of the seventeenth century, sits near the beginning of this shift. So his views might have seemed less unsettling to his contemporaries than to us, but perhaps they were already a bit jarring. And when Locke denounces the legitimacy of the coerced contract a generation later, we can see the counterargument that would eventually become hegemonic.

AC: Could you say more about what motivates Hobbes adversarial stance towards Aristotle?

DL: Hobbes’s rejection of Aristotelianism is one of the hinge points in the history of philosophy, in some ways the beginning of modern philosophy, so I couldn’t do more than sketch some outlines of a story that’s been told in greater detail by other scholars. In this story, the contrast between Aristotle and Hobbes often stands in for the broader contrast of ancients and moderns writ large. Some of the major themes include the shift from a purposive understanding of nature to a mechanistic one, from a view of human beings as political animals to a view of us as selfish individuals, and from a basically hierarchical conception of society (which comes through most notoriously in Aristotle’s discussion of natural slavery) to one based on the premise of human equality.

It’s worth emphasizing that Hobbes’s target is often Aristotelianism as developed by the medieval and early modern scholastic philosophers—the “Schoolmen,” as he calls them—more than Aristotle himself. So as is the case with contemporaries like Descartes, Hobbes’s anti-Aristotelianism is aimed at what he sees as the intellectual orthodoxies of his own day rather than just at a long-dead philosopher.

In any case, the fact that Hobbes is so strongly anti-Aristotelian in all these ways makes it more interesting that his account of coercion and voluntary action looks, as I argue in the article, so Aristotelian. Here at least, his position in Leviathan is closer to the Nicomachean Ethics than to most subsequent moderns. And again I’m tempted to say that this is partly because Hobbes still inhabits a pre-liberal world, in which the idea that freedom and coercion are compatible seems like less of a paradox.

AC: You note there are implications here for slavery. How influential were Hobbes’s ideas in shaping discussions about slavery?

DL: I’ve examined Hobbes’s ideas about slavery at greater length in an article published a few years ago. The striking aspect about his position, to our eyes, is his willingness to attribute what looks like a remarkably strong right of resistance to the enslaved: they’re entitled not just to escape but to kill their masters without committing injustice. The tricky thing is figuring out who counts as a “slave” for Hobbes’s purposes. On the narrowest understanding, slavery in his theory is just a kind of residual category, and his real point is to show that everyone we might consider a slave is actually a “servant” who’s bound to obedience. So that earlier article tries to untangle this puzzle. I conclude that—contrary to what the strict logic of his theory might imply—Hobbes does seem to attribute the status of slave to the people we would typically describe as such, with the maybe-surprising implication that all such people do indeed have a right to resist by force.

But I’m inclined to say that Hobbes’s ideas here were not very influential on later discussions. Perhaps this was because his notoriety made him an uneasy fit for all sides. His radically egalitarian streak didn’t suit the purposes of most defenders of slavery, who tended to be wedded to more traditional defenses of natural hierarchy, but the overall authoritarianism of his theory made him anathema to critics of slavery. And in fact Hobbes’s view of slavery as a relationship governed by pure force, in which both parties had an equal right to impose their will by violence, was by no means an abolitionist position or even a protest against the injustice of slavery. It was just a refusal to moralize the institution.

AC: Elsewhere in your work, you discuss the legacy of Hobbes in more recent times, for example in the work of Hayek and Nozick. Do you see this particular strand of Hobbes’ thought in their work or other twentieth-century writers?

DL: I see Hobbes’s legacy here not in the work of Hayek and Nozick but rather in the work of their opponents. Perhaps the most notable among them was Robert Hale, the American legal realist whose depiction of coercion as ubiquitous in economic life is quite reminiscent of Hobbes’s position (whether or not there was any direct intellectual influence). Other twentieth-century thinkers arguing along related lines included Max Weber (in a brief and mostly-neglected section of Economy and Society) and John Dewey.

The Hobbes-Hale position, if we can call it that, poses a challenge to many common philosophical defenses of the free market. It suggests that coercion is inevitable in economic life, so that our goal can’t be to eliminate coercion entirely and arrive at some set of truly free and voluntary economic relationships. Instead, all we can hope to do is to distribute coercion in a way that best realizes the common good. So Hale claims, in this vein, that neither capitalism nor communism can be understood as “freer” in the abstract sense of being non-coercive, and the real question is which system gives participants greater practical power to realize their goals and desires.

I’ve argued in a previous article that the theories of coercion that Hayek and Nozick each developed in the 1960s should be understood as attempts to counter this sort of view. We might call these attempts “neo-Lockean,” in that they aim to distinguish neatly between free and coerced action and thereby make everyday economic life appear morally innocuous. For reasons I outline in that article, I’m not persuaded by these attempts, and I remain sympathetic to something like what I’m calling the Hobbes-Hale position.

AC: I understand you are working on an ongoing book project about coercion; what can readers expect from the book? Do you have any other new work coming out soon?

DL: Before turning to the coercion project in earnest, I’m finishing my first book, which is about pride and self-interest in early modern social thought. I’m also working on a piece that’s thematically linked to that book, on the problem of envy in the work of John Rawls, which I hope will be out soon as well.

I’m still mapping the outlines of the coercion project, but I anticipate that it will combine both historical and theoretical strands, looking both at the history of attempts to theorize coercion and at what a viable social theory of coercion would look like for our own world. A lot of the philosophical literature on coercion is concerned with dyadic individuals—what are the conditions in which we can we say that person A is coercing person B?—but I’m interested in how we might think about coercion as a large-scale social phenomenon that’s not confined to dyadic relationships. Economic coercion will be one major theme, but I also hope to think about other domains such as the family. My starting premise is that many kinds of social interaction might begin to look different if we think of coercion as something that’s intimately involved in everyday life rather than as something that marks the outer boundary of everyday life.

Alexander Collin is a PhD candidate at the University of Amsterdam where he works on northern Europe from the 1490s to the 1700s. His doctoral thesis aims to test the historical applicability of theories of decision making from economics and organizational studies, considering to what extent we should historicize the idea of ‘The Decision’ and to what extent it is a human universal. The project has been funded by the Leverhulme Trust and the Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst. Alexander has written for The Historian magazine, Shells and Pebbles, The History of Knowledge Blog, as well as academic publications. Alongside his historical work, he also contributes reports to the Oxford Covid-19 Government Response Tracker. He studied at King’s College London, Humboldt University Berlin, the University of Cambridge, and Viadrina University Frankfurt.

Featured image: Thomas Hobbes, line engraving by W. Humphrys, 1839. Wellcome Collection via Wikimedia Commons. CC BY 4.0. via Wikimedia Commons.