In book 3 of Hume’s Treatise of Human Understanding, he talks about people’s motivation for action. I will be focusing primarily on section 10 of book 3 in which Hume discusses the objects of allegiance, or in other words, why we pledge our allegiance to a specific leader of governing body. In order for a government to rule effectively, they need to maintain the control of the population. Hume argues that the best way to do so is for the governing body, which he refers to as the prince, to win the allegiance of those who they govern. Hume gives five distinct reasons for which people pledge their allegiance to a governing body, which will be discussed later, but I will be assessing the legitimacy of his claims in the world today, which is, needless to say, very different from when Hume wrote his Treatise.
David Hume takes a contractarian approach to his understanding of government, society, and political philosophy. In his analysis, he is influenced by aspects of both John Locke’s Second Treatise of Civil Government as well as Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan. Hume says,
’Tis no less certain, that ‘tis impossible for men to consult their interest in so effectual a manner, as by an universal and inflexible observance of the rules of justice, by which alone they can preserve society, and keep themselves from falling into that wretched and savage condition that is commonly represented as the state of nature. (Hume 126.96.36.199)
Hume maintains a similar belief regarding the state of nature as Hobbes in that in the state of nature, life is of a lesser condition than by society. He supports this belief with the fact that people do not regard other’s interests equally to their own, and without a ruling body to maintain justice, there would be no justice amongst men. People, do however, hold moral beliefs of things that are considered good, and value justice even in the state of nature, there just simply is no institution in place to protect individuals from those who do not value the rights of others. Hume also shares a less pessimistic view with John Locke, at least insofar as people have natural rights.
“When men have once perceiv’d the necessity of government to maintain peace, and execute justice, they wou’d naturally assemble together, wou’d choose magistrates, determine their power, and promise them obedience. As a promise is suppos’d to be a bond or security already in use, and attended with a moral obligation, ‘tis to be the original sanction of government and as the source of the first obligation of obedience.” (Hume 188.8.131.52)
As is stated in this quote, Hume argues that the purpose of creating a government to rule over people is for the purpose of ensuring peace within a society and enforcing justice. Hume believes that given people’s passions towards agreeableness or favorableness, they are able to make moral distinctions. Given those distinctions, those whom the people put in charge (contractually) are to uphold the core values of the civil societies. In return for their role in enforcing justice, the people in return promise to remain obedient to their governors.
The first source of allegiance, according to Hume, originates in the original contract from the state of nature. “The first of those principles I shall take notice of, as a foundation of the right of magistry, is that which gives authority to almost all the establish’d governments of the world: I mean long possession in any one form of government or the succession of princes.” (Hume 184.108.40.206) Per long possession one comes to hold power via usurpation, and over time the taboo that is associated with the usurpation of power fades causing the governance of the usurper becomes custom and widely accepted within a society. Hume argues that the length of time to legitimize one’s claim to obedience differs based on comparisons we draw. Our sense of morality does not justify the actions of a government who takes power immediately at the time allegiance changes, for we consider their actions to be immoral. However, as we grow accustomed to the rule of new leadership, generations considerations change and accept the government in place as having a legitimate ethical claim to their obedience. Long possession then does not draw from a specific length of time; but depends upon how one comes to power, and similarity of that to other existing governments.
Hume’s second claim to obedience comes from the lack of a standing government having taken control via long possession he calls this present possession. “When there is no form of government establish’d by long possession the present possession is sufficient to supply its place, and may be regarded as the second source of all public authority.” (Hume 220.127.116.11) Like long possession, present possession stems from the common interest in justice, which is believed to not take place within the confines on the long-standing government. At the abandonment of those in control via long possession a new leader must take control. This new leader has earned the obedience of society having gained power through an ethical means, and the people of the nation don’t bother to question the legitimacy to their government’s claim to power. Hume says, “No maxim is more comfortable, both to prudence and to morals, thn to submit quietly to the government…” (Hume 3.2.10. 7) It is more comfortable to accept those in power, who are causing no harm to citizens, than to ensure the government’s origin stems from a legitimate source.
The third source of allegiance is the forceful taking of power. “The right of conquest may be consider’d as the third source of the title of sovereigns.” (Hume 18.104.22.168) According to Hume, if one comes to power through force, and is viewed as a superior force, they have a claim to obedience from the people living within the nation they conquer. So long as the conquering force is the sovereign of a different nation, they will be looked on with admirability rather than detestation because the act will be considered honorable. However, if a rebel force were to take control, they would not have a rightful claim to power because they would be considered unfavorably given their lack of right to obtain power.
Succession is the fourth means in which a person can come to obtain the allegiance of a nation.
“When neither long possession, nor present possession, nor conquest take place, as when the first sovereign, who founded any monarchy, dies; in that case, the right of succession naturally prevails in their stead, and men are commonly induc’d to place the son of their late monarch on the throne, and suppose him to inherit his father’s authority.” (Hume 22.214.171.124)
When a monarch who has come to power through any of the first four sources of allegiance comes to die, the next monarch in line to obtain power comes from the means of succession determined by the original monarch. Hume claims that frequently the case is that the son of a late monarch resumes the role of king, however, there are instances when a king chooses a different successor. The monarch’s successor has a legitimate claim to the obedience of the nation, and according to Hume, power transfers from the old monarch to the new.
The final way a government can legitimately obtain power is through a legislation’s creation of executive office. “This leads us to the fifth source of authority, viz. positive laws; when the legislature establishes a certain form of government and succession of princes.” (Hume 126.96.36.199) The legislature that establishes the new leader and governance must come to exist from one of the four prior sources of allegiance. Hume argues that positive laws have a less legitimate claim to obedience because those who lived in a society are less apt to accept the new form of government and as such will not adhere to the new laws.
Hume makes five distinctions about how monarchs come to obtain power, and gives legitimacy to each. In order to determine whether his claims continue to remain valid in society today, we must first determine if his arguments are as distinct as he writes them to be. His claims for short and long possession seem to be similar insofar as the difference relies on the time in which a government stands. Using time as a distinction to determine the legitimacy of a government does not seem to be a valid distinction. If a nation decides to follow a leader that comes to power through an original contract, and said government has held power for a thousand years, the government has earned the allegiance of the people, and they have created a custom in which they will continue to follow. However, the same can be said for a nation that follows a leader that comes to power through an original contract, but has only held power for a century. The longer lasting government was at one point had the same exact circumstance as the latter. Given the lack of genuine distinction between present and long possession governments, Hume’s claim is flawed. Hume’s third source would seem to be just a means in which to establish a present possession government, and his fourth source is a means to take a present possession government and make it a long possession government. The distinctions made are essentially simply parts of a whole picture.
However, Hume’s fifth source for allegiance seems to hold validity in the world today, more so than that of the other four. Positive law, would be source in which the government of the United States was established. The problem with my claim according to Hume would lie in the fact that the government established for the United States was not established on the grounds determined by Hume to be legitimate sources of allegiance. If Hume was right in how obedience came to be, early U.S. citizens would have looked upon the revolution with scorn given the fact that it formed through the rebellion against a long possession government. The government of the United States has however developed into its own long possession government, at least in comparison with many of the standing governments globally. If a country can build a long standing government from the rebellion of commoners against a long standing monarch, Hume’s theory for the source of obedience does not stand up against the test of time. There are aspects of government that we continue to observe in societies today; specifically that there is greater comfort in quietly accepting the rule of government than in fighting for what should be considered justice.
Hobbes, Thomas, and E. M. Curley. Leviathan: With Selected Variants from the Latin Edition of 1668. Indianapolis: Hackett Pub., 1994.
Hume, David, David Fate. Norton, and Mary J. Norton. A Treatise of Human Nature: A Critical Edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.
Locke, John, and C. B. Macpherson. Second Treatise of Government. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Pub., 1980.