There is a tendency in the modern age to turn the nation state into the ultimate authority and arbiter among people. Thomas Hobbes, the English philosopher who focused on political philosophy, remains deeply influential to this day. In his work, Leviathan, he proposes the “social contract” theory of governance in which basically sees the individual as ceding some powers to a controlling interest like the government in exchange for things like protection. What many fail to acknowledge is that Hobbes also felt this would be best implemented by an autocratic state with an absolute sovereign. Yet many modern political theorists continue to fall under this same spell of creating an absolute or ultimate authority of the nation state. Included in this is the presumption of secularism in which an alleged neutral secular government may arbitrate all governance and even international politics.
Moreover, as William Cavanaugh has rather convincingly argued in his The Myth of Religious Violence, what often happens in these cases is that violence is given over to the nation state and whatever violence is perpetuated by that nation state is sanctified as neutral and secular, therefore making it “right.”
Yet these concerns are not new. John Leland (1691-1766) addressed these concerns in his own discussion of Hobbes in his work, A View of the Principle Deistical Writers that Have Appeared in the Last and Present Century (1764):
In Mr. Hobbes we have a remarkable instance what strange extravagances men of wit and genius may fall into, who, whilst they value themselves upon their superior penetration, and laugh at popular errors and superstition, often give into notions so wild and ridiculous, as none of the people that govern themselves by plain common sense could be guilty of… Mr. Hobbes’ scheme strikes at the foundation of all religion… That it tendeth not only to subvert the authority of the scripture, but to destroy God’s moral administration…. it confoundeth the natural differences of good and evil… taketh away the distinction between the soul and the body, and the liberty of human actions…. [Hobbes’ deism] erecteth an absolute tyranny in the state and church, which it confounds, and maketh the will of the prince or governing power the sole standard of right and wrong… – 34-35.
Unpacking this point, we see that Leland argues that Hobbes’ system of government ironically does the very thing that he and many deistic writers of his time accused Christianity of doing–creating nation states where people were obligated to act or believe in certain ways by coercive force–while also going beyond it. Hobbes’ plan takes away any possibility of judging the nation state to be in the wrong. Instead, the “will of the prince or governing power” becomes the “sole standard of right and wrong.”
We see this problem today when nation states are given all authority to kill others. Vietnam, the war in Iraq, and many more examples could be raised. But criticism of such activities is often ceded to internal critique, and the ultimate arbiter is the decision of the nation state.
While some would argue that giving all power to the nation state makes a kind of neutral ground that allows for the flourishing of any worldview, the opposite is often the case, as nation states begin to thwart freedoms of the individuals in favor of the nation state’s supremacy. Though it is possible to arbitrate conflicts of worldview utilizing the nation state as a ground to do so, it also means that the nation state has final authority in such moral decisions.
Intriguingly, individuals often find themselves in the position of defending the actions of the nation state, even when they know that those actions may be wrong. Whether it is allegiance to a political party or person that becomes valued more highly than one’s own moral compass, people begin to dismiss or defend the nation state’s authority to determine right from wrong.
I believe Leland came out well on top of Hobbes and other deists throughout his exchange, and his warning ceding too much authority to the governing powers is well on point.
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