This week’s PTRG session discussed ‘The Tory Consequences of Whig Foundations’ by Chandran Kukathas. In this paper, Chandran defends David Hume’s critique of social contract theory and demonstrates the broader implications this has for certain strands of liberalism today. He begins with a historical account of the emergence of the modern nation state before discussing attempts at its justification by social contract theorists. What unites the disparate theories provided by thinkers such as Thomas Hobbes, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Immanuel Kant is the idea that the legitimacy of the state comes from its embodying the abstract, collective will of the citizens who comprise it. Chandran contrasts this with the approach taken by Hume who rejects the idea of such a will and bases the endurance of the state on its ability to satisfy particular interests. This latter perspective is beneficial in outlining a more realist account of politics which acknowledges the sectional nature of society as a contest between competing interests. In attempting to justify the state in terms of the collective will of the governed, social contract theory can serve to obscure the particular interests which underpin the governance and institutions of the state.
Our discussion considered the relationship between will and interest and how one might draw a clear distinction between these concepts. On a related point, the character of various social contract theories was raised, with particular emphasis on whether Hobbes’s philosophy ought to be construed as premised on will or interest. The extent to which Hume was or was not offering a normative justification of the state was also discussed.
Written by Andrew Drever
Chandran Kukathas is Professor and Chair in Political Theory and Head of the Department of Government at The London School of Economics and Political Science.