National Sovereignty and Abuse of Authority

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I've been reading Jorge Gracia's recent book Surviving Race, Ethnicity, and Nationality: A Challenge for the Twenty-first Century. I came across a passage earlier today that, while largely irrelevant to my dissertation, caught my interest. Gracia presents a whole bunch of arguments in his first chapter against the notions of race, ethnicity, and nationality. He himself doesn't oppose these terms but simply wants to distinguish among them while acknowledging the role such categories play in reality. But he begins with these arguments to show what he's responding to.

One of the arguments against nationality struck me as particularly awful. When you have nations that aren't under some higher authority there's room for abuse, and there isn't a lot that other nations can do when countries like Saudi Arabia, China, or Cuba violate what everyone else sees as human rights. National sovereignty prevents enforcement of human rights. This is all true as far as it goes (although those who think a just war can be waged on humanitarian grounds will be less affected by this). The argument establishes, then, that this view of national sovereignty prevents nations from being held accountable. But what follows is strange. Gracia summarizes the conclusion: "The argument, then, points out the need to do away with the myth of nationality and to recognize that all humans are equal and deserve an inter-national, rather than a national, government." (Gracia, p.8)

I was following along (aside from the parenthetical issue above) until this point. Just how does making one absolute authority count as removing the potentiality for abuse? Isn't this removing accountability rather than providing more? Local leaders would have less chance of abusing their authority under a worldwide government, but those at the top would have a much easier time of abusing theirs. Abuse at higher levels is often much worse and much harder to deal with. Someone defending nations as good things will need to say more than this to overcome the argument, but what amazed me was that someone might use these considerations for this conclusion. They seem to me to point more toward anarchy than a global government.


One might well ask if Somalia has fewer human rights violations due to not having an actual national government. At least if one was inclined to be cantankerous about it.

His position sounds like an ultra-anti-Hobbesianism. How's that for a new word?

His position? Do you mean Gracia's? This isn't his position. He ultimately rejects all of the arguments he presents in this chapter. He doesn't attribute the position to anyone (as he does do for most of the arguments in this chapter), unfortunately, so I can't tell you who holds this view.

There's actually something very Hobbesian about the conclusion of this argument. Hobbes seems to me to be the sort who would like one sovereign over the whole world. He wouldn't have been able to imagine the possibility in his time, but the idea would appeal to him. He seems fine, however, with any human rights abuse that doesn't involve threatening someone's life, so I'm not sure he'd like that part of the argument.

Sorry, wasn't reading closely enough to see that this was just a hypothetical position. I suppose when I said "his position" you could just read that as "the position outlined".

It would be fun to get into a discussion about Hobbes and internationalism, but it would require a lot more expertise in Hobbes thought than I have. My experience is limited to reading Leviathan twice and a longish piece by Oakeshott (part of his Rationalism and Politics). I can't imagine how Hobbes would argue for, or account for, some sort of international authority, at least apart from divine authority. It would certainly require a significant variation to his narrative of how governments and social contracts are formed.

I am quite sure, though, that the concept of "human rights abuse" would have been entirely foreign to him altogether. Where, he might ask, do such rights come from if not from a governor to whom the people had already, in principle, ceded all their "natural" rights. The denial of "rights" language was the thing I found most appealing in Hobbes. I don't know what that says about me :)

You've spent more time in Hobbes than I have, and you've certainly read more of him than I have, but I probably spent more time in certain sections when I had to teach it.

One funny thing about Hobbes on rights is that he thinks you have a right to do anything you can bring yourself to do unless you've ceded that right to someone else. If you're in the contract (and we all are in the current state of things, unless we are threatened with death or imprisonment), we have only the rights the sovereign gives to us. But it does make sense to say that rights are being denied if they are rights the contract officially recognizes.

Also, if it would be irrationally to join the contract because the contract threatens your life or limb (and you can never rule that possibility out if you get imprisoned even), he says you reclaim all your rights, including the right to kill, to steal, and to do whatever else you feel like doing. So doing anything to someone that takes a life or locks someone up in some sense counts as violating rights, even if it's not rights in the contract.

Hobbes doesn't say anything about the scope of the government people contract together to have. He does assume it will be localized such that there are other governments elsewhere, because he assumes there will be the possibility of war with other governments, but that's just an assumption because he doesn't have any concept of a one-world government. It wouldn't have been achievable in his day. There's nothing in what he says that would rule it out, though, at least not as far as I can see.

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