Fleming, Sean. Leviathan on a Leash: A Theory of State Responsibility

In: Hobbes Studies
Robin Douglass Department of Political Economy, King’s College London, London, UK,

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Fleming, Sean. Leviathan on a Leash: A Theory of State Responsibility. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2020. xiii + 203 pages. isbn 9780691206462.

In Leviathan on a Leash, Sean Fleming reconstructs and defends a Hobbesian theory of state responsibility. The Hobbesian theory holds, in short, that “states are responsible for the actions of their authorized representatives” (p. 175). Authorisation and representation are thus the twin ideas we should examine to make sense of state responsibility, and to do so we are well advised to return to Hobbes. Why Hobbes? Fleming suggests a few reasons, the most compelling of which is that Hobbes’s account of state personhood (or personality) offers a more plausible yet largely neglected answer to the question of what it means to hold a state responsible than those available in contemporary scholarship on the topic.

One of the unique features of the Hobbesian theory is that, in the technical jargon, states should be understood as neither principals nor agents. States are not principals because they do not authorise their own agents; it is the subjects, not the state, who authorise the representatives that act in the state’s name. And states are not (corporate) agents because they do not have wills distinct from the wills of their representatives and members; it is the representatives, not the state itself, that are the agents. Crucially, however, the state – or the person of the state – owns the actions that its representatives perform. The personhood of the state, then, is about ownership of actions, not agency, and it is precisely Hobbes’s success in teasing these different concepts apart that “makes his idea of state personality novel and valuable” (p. 65).

Notice here that the concept of sovereignty is not required to explain the relationship between the subjects, the person of the state and the state’s representatives. Hobbes, of course, famously argued in Leviathan that it is the sovereign who represents (or bears the person of) the state, but we can identify the representatives of a state without signing up to anything resembling Hobbes’s theory of absolute and indivisible sovereignty. What matters is that we can distinguish between those who act in the name of the state and those who do not. It is worth emphasising this point as Hobbes was not actually a theorist of state responsibility himself, precisely because his account of sovereignty “precludes holding states responsible” (p. 69). Following David Runciman, however, Fleming maintains that we can jettison this account of sovereignty while reworking other aspects of Hobbes’s conceptual framework to understand the representative character of the modern state. A Hobbesian theory of state responsibility should part ways with Hobbes on questions of sovereignty.

Fleming evaluates the merits of the Hobbesian theory against two rival accounts of state responsibility: the agential theory, endorsed by many working in the disciplines of political theory, philosophy and international relations; and the functional theory, which is dominant in international law. The evaluation is organised around three questions that any theory of state responsibility should answer. First, how can actions be attributed to the state (the question of ownership)? Second, how can the state be identified as the same entity over time (the question of identity)? Third, how can the state discharge its responsibilities (the question of fulfilment)? Chapter 1 outlines and criticises the answers to these questions given by the agential and functional theories, thereby motivating the need for a more convincing account. Chapter 2 delves into interpretative debates on how Hobbes conceptualised the person of the state and distils the key points for developing a Hobbesian theory of state responsibility. Chapters 3 to 5 then elaborate that theory at length, arguing that it supplies better answers to each of the three questions than those proposed by the agential and functional theories.

Leviathan on a Leash is an impressive book. Fleming is as comfortable discussing the finer points of Hobbes interpretation as he is engaging in normative debates in contemporary political and legal philosophy. He also draws on a wide range of cases from international politics to illustrate and complicate the topics under discussion. In Chapter 4, for example, the difficulties in explaining how a state can be understood as a continuous entity over time are brought into sharp relief by examining present-day Baltic states such as Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, which are considered as continuous with the pre-Soviet Baltic states (but not with the Baltic Soviet Republics), or the “two Chinas” controversy where after the Chinese Civil War both the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of China (Taiwan) claimed to be the same state as pre-war China. Few works of political theory so deftly balance analysis of complex philosophical arguments and messy real-world empirical cases.

The most significant achievement of Leviathan on a Leash is that it sets out an original and persuasive theory of state responsibility, irrespective of its Hobbesian credentials, yet for present purposes I shall focus on its contribution to Hobbes scholarship. Chapter 2 alone constitutes an important intervention into debates about what type of person the state is, on Hobbes’s account, and Fleming’s argument involves revealing that many scholars have been looking in the wrong place.1 On the definitions set out at the beginning of Chapter 16 of Leviathan, it is not evident that the state should even be conceptualised as a person. We must instead turn to the discussion of the Holy Trinity in Chapter 42 for the clearest statement of the personhood that applies to the state, since there Hobbes used the term person to describe both that which is represented – the representee – and the representative. Although Hobbes’s theory is not as clear as we might desire, Fleming argues that the Chapter 42 definition in fact complements the Chapter 16 one; they are two sides of the same concept. Returning to the theatrical analogy from Chapter 16, the state (representee) is best understood as a fictional character and the sovereign (representer) as an actor. By decoupling personhood and agency, Hobbes’s account of authorisation and representation enables us to attribute actions to the state even though it is not an agent with its own distinct will. Where agential theories of state responsibility encounter (arguably insurmountable) problems with explaining how the state can possess a distinct will, Hobbes’s theory of the personhood of the state has the advantage of being “metaphysically thin and fairly innocuous” (p. 67).

While defending a Hobbesian theory, Fleming never shies away from highlighting the deficiencies of Hobbes’s own theory. Having set out his main interpretative contribution in Chapter 2, Fleming spends more time in subsequent chapters evaluating Hobbes’s arguments to identify precisely what should be discarded and what should be retained when constructing a plausible theory of state responsibility. To give a flavour of this approach I turn to (one aspect of) Chapter 3’s analysis of authorisation. We can only attribute actions to a state when they are performed by its authorised representatives, but how are those representatives authorised? Fleming identifies five problems with Hobbes’s view of authorisation and offers an alternative based on a Hobbesian reworking of Bernard William’s “Basic Legitimation Demand.” A government is authorised to act in the name of the state if a substantial number of subjects accept the government as the state’s legitimate representative. Acceptance is more demanding than the mere acquiescence or non-resistance that Hobbes seemed to think counted as an implicit sign of consent, but it is less demanding than accounts of explicit consent or endorsement.

The conceptual gap Fleming opens between acceptance and acquiescence seeks to remedy the difficulties he identifies with Hobbes’s position on voluntary action. We may acquiesce in the face of coercion, yet Fleming argues that such acquiescence is inauthentic; the authentic will required for acceptance is one “that follows from the agent’s own deliberation and judgment” (p. 80). Hobbes’s response would have been to claim that our will is no less voluntary (or authentic) if it is based on, say, fear of punishment than if it were based on hope of reward, or any other passion. Granting Hobbes’s point that “actions performed out of fear are not necessarily involuntary,” Fleming counters that what makes coerced authorisation involuntary (or inauthentic) is that the actions of the coerced subject “follow from someone else’s will” (p. 81). If someone else is threatening you then acquiescing to their threat does not count as a voluntary action. An action should therefore be classified as involuntary if the agent performs it “because of the direct influence of some other specific agent or agents, rather than a diffuse set of social and biological influences” (p. 85).

I would like to draw two general points about Leviathan on a Leash from this example of Fleming’s approach. First, I was not fully persuaded by some of the criticisms of Hobbes, or I could at least imagine replies that someone defending Hobbes could suggest. I would not be writing this review had I not been offered a complimentary copy of Leviathan on a Leash, but the direct influence of the offer I received from this journal’s Review Editor does not render my writing involuntary. This is by no means a knock-down objection to Fleming’s classification of involuntary action. My point, rather, is that more could be said on the matter. In this case, I think there is a more complex relationship between the influence of other agents on our decisions and the type of considerations that influence our decisions that needs to be analysed further when distinguishing voluntary from involuntary actions. Consider this more of an invitation than a criticism: of course more could be said about the nature of voluntary action than we can expect to find in a book on state responsibility, and I hope Hobbes scholars will engage with Fleming’s criticisms of Hobbes’s arguments on this and other topics in greater depth.

My second point is unequivocally positive. It is no easy task to draw on past thinkers to reconstruct a theory that holds its own in contemporary debates, and Leviathan on a Leash is exemplary in this respect. It should now be apparent that there is no danger of Fleming simply assuming that Hobbes was right and contemporary theorists mistaken. As he astutely observes, “we should be surprised—and sceptical—whenever someone claims that a thinker from a radically different time provides a grand solution to a contemporary problem” (p. 79). Many attempts to intervene in contemporary debates by drawing on canonical thinkers would do well to heed this caution. Fleming leaves behind at least as much as he takes from Hobbes, yet in doing so we confront the opposite danger that the theory we end up with does not bear sufficient resemblance to Hobbes’s own position to merit the label Hobbesian. Here it counts strongly in Fleming’s favour that his theory really is based on a conceptual framework recovered from a close and careful reading of Leviathan. Fleming’s Hobbesian theory, in other words, is clearly indebted to Hobbes’s original and distinctive contribution in conceptualising the personhood of the state. This makes Leviathan on a Leash an extremely refreshing and rewarding read; indeed, I struggle to think of any other work that so successfully draws on and revises Hobbes’s ideas to make such an important intervention into contemporary debates.


Chapter 2 extends the arguments originally published in Sean Fleming, “The Two Faces of Personhood: Hobbes, Corporate Agency and the Personality of the State,” European Journal of Political Theory 20 (2021): 5–26.

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