A Realist Critique of Vicente Rafael’s Duterte’s Hobbesian World

A Realist Critique of Vicente Rafael’s Duterte’s Hobbesian World

- in Opinion

Filipino historian Vicente Rafael recently published a commentary in Inquirer entitled “Duterte’s Hobbesian World” (http://bit.ly/1PoLTfe). In that article, Rafael points out the seeming non-existence of the idea of “universal human rights…in the local-regional world of Duterte.” And in Duterte’s world, these principles, Rafael argues, are “abstract impositions by the West that infringe on the sovereignty of nations.”

It’s a thoughtful piece that contextualised Duterte’s vision of justice. Duterte, Rafael said, was shaped by a “Hobbesian world,” i.e. the Davao of the 1990s. A world of various violent groups and corrupt journalists. A world where “human rights are translated into highly particularized notions of honour and revenge where my freedom depends on my right to take yours away.” The last paragraph ends with these stirring words:

“But what about those who do not share the same notion of honour and the desire for revenge? They are left vulnerable and unsafe. Human rights, as contradictory and hegemonic as they are, remain our best hope for protecting each other from this parochial world of revenge and the spiralling fear and violence they bring forth. Doing so requires that we claim those rights and insist on their protection, not by a strongman or a tatay, but by the laws that we ourselves agree to abide by, however imperfectly and unevenly their enforcement might be. Otherwise, it’s back to Hobbes. Or forward to Stalin.”


I’d like to begin my critique by questioning Rafael’s use of “Hobbesian World.” What does he mean by that? Thomas Hobbes is the author of The Leviathan, one of the canonical texts in Political Theory. In the Leviathan, Hobbes envisioned two kinds of states: the state of nature and the state of civil order.

The state of nature is an anarchic world, no higher authority exists to impose and maintain order. Since there’s no order, no law is possible. Everyone is equally free to do what they want to do. It’s a world full of rights but no obligations. The latter is absent because there’s no authority that would “constrain those that would otherwise violate their faith.” The state of nature is not the mere absence of the rule of law but the absence of an enforcer of the law: the hand that maintains order. As a way out of this anarchic world, Hobbes recommended that individuals submit themselves into a central authority that would regulate their rights and enforce their obligations. Thus, the Hobbesian solution to the state of nature is the presence of a strong central authority that can “keep everyone in awe.”

Rafael cautions us about devolving into a Hobbesian World. However, it’s not clear which world is that: The state of nature or the state of civil order?

By projecting himself as a strong authority, Duterte is presenting himself as the Hobbesian solution to the state of nature. Duterte wants to bring back order, so that the rule of law can work its magic.

But Rafael doesn’t see the significance of what Duterte is trying to do. Rafael’s article is about a world of rights. He said that we will escape the state of nature, of war of all against all, if we “insist on their protection, not by a strongman or a tatay, but by the laws that we ourselves agree to abide by, however imperfectly and unevenly their enforcement might be.” The question is WHO will enforce those laws?

The rule of law is not self-enforcing. The rule of law only becomes effective if it’s obeyed. Obedience doesn’t come cheap: you obey the law either because you believe in it or out of fear of punishment. However, that fear only works if the law is strongly enforced and the punishment is harsh. Without strong enforcement, following the law, as Duterte would say, becomes optional. You cannot do away with a strongman, if by strong man you mean someone who has a strong political will to enforce the law. Even the darling of political science, i.e. institutions, needs leaders with strong political will in order to be effective. Institutions are only as strong as the people helming them.

Even if we live under the regime of human rights, strong political will is necessary because our rights aren’t just contradictory, as Rafael acknowledged, they are also “not compossible, that is, the implementation of one human right can require the violation of another, or the protection of a human right of one person may require the violation of the same human right of another” (Michael Freeman, Human Rights). Institutions need leaders with strong political will in order to enforce laws that would protect the rights of some people at the expense of others. That is an inescapable political reality.


The problem for me is not the contradiction of rights nor that they are hegemonic, as Rafael called it. Rights require order and every order is hegemonic, as Mouffe said. The problem for me is characterising “human rights” as our “best hope” to anything. In Rafael’s article, it is “our best hope for protecting each other from this parochial world of revenge and the spiralling fear and violence they bring forth.”

First of all, the doctrine of human rights cannot protect you in the face of an attack from someone for whatever reason. Period. That is the point Duterte wanted to convey: How can the Constitution or the notion of Universal Human Rights protect a journalist from the moment that s/he is being killed? The constitution and the lofty notion of humans rights only work after the fact OR they might be effective if the constitution and human rights doctrine arouse enough fear that could deter your attacker from committing violence against you.

When I was still living in the Philippines I was almost killed. One night, while I was on my way home from a speaking engagement, a gang of teenagers who were hanging outside a 7-11 convenient store saw me and started debating among themselves whether I was a girl or a boy. One of them settled it and shouted, “Putang-ina walang suso! Bakla yan! (Fuck! No breasts! That’s a fag!)” Then they started running towards me, shouting “Bakla! Takbo! (Run faggot!)” Terrified, I ran as fast as I could. I screamed for help but there was not much people in the road, only cars and jeepneys speeding by. Luckily, I saw an empty cab. I immediately hailed it. I locked all the doors and asked the driver to drive fast. Then I saw that the teenager closest to me was carrying a steel pipe. He banged the trunk of the cab with it. The driver was furious and tried to stop to confront the guy. But I pleaded for him to just go and hurry up. Only fate knows what would have happened to me if I had been too slow or if there had been no empty cabs that happened to be there.

How could the UN Human Rights Commission or the Philippine Commission on Human Rights protect me at that moment when I needed my right to life be protected? These institutions would come after the fact, sometime after the sad fact. But, as how we say it in Tagalog: Aanhin pa ang damo kung patay na ang kabayo? What exactly do I need during that time? It’s not the absence of human rights that was on my mind at that time but the absence of police officers with strong political will that could face my attacker. Yet the police cannot be everywhere. I also have a duty to protect myself from these attacks and to avoid places where these attacks are likely to happen. I cannot debate with my killer and stop him with an eloquent speech about human rights. If someone would kill me, they would kill me.

This is the reason why I understood what Duterte meant. I’ve been in a lot of situation where my life was in peril. I can preach that killing is wrong, but people will still be killed; I will still be killed. If preaching could stop violence, we would have been living in paradise already with all the preaching against violence that has been going on since time immemorial.

It is not human rights that is our best hope “for protecting each other from this parochial world of revenge and the spiralling fear and violence they bring forth,” as Rafael put it. Our best hope is the cultivation of self-restraint.

We are at the receiving end of revenge because we did something worth avenging about. And some people, a hell lot of them, find their dignity, yes the wellspring of human rights, worth killing for.

The Maranaos in Mindanao have this concept called “maratabát.” As Robert Day McAmis explained in Malay Muslims: The History and Challenge of Resurgent Islam in Southeast Asia, maratabat guides the “life and conduct of the Maranao in his daily life. A Maranao will go to great lengths to build a ‘good’ maratabat. Having a bad community image is considered ‘having dirt on his face,’ and this will provoke a Maranao to go to any extreme to remove any ‘stain’ from his maratabat.” It’s a very compelling sense of dignity; when it is ruined by somebody else, it “demands retribution that often takes the form of violent retaliation” (Thomas McKenna, Muslim Rulers and Rebels: Everyday Politics and Armed Separatism in the Southern Philippines).

If you mess with their dignity, destroy their reputation, you effectively ruin their lives. Human rights will never ever protect you from someone avenging their dignity that you destroyed. Your best hope from being at the receiving end of a violent retaliation is to stop ruining people’s dignity. It’s not more rights that can help you from someone’s revenge but the maturity to restrain yourself from destroying their dignity. Your best hope is not some lofty principle but yourself. Yes, your killer would be sent to jail, but what’s its use to you? You are already dead.


Certainly, political will can be excessive and destructive. But this risk doesn’t mean we should strive for a “rule of law” doing its magic without strong authority enforcing its content. Rafael identified the polar ends of excessive political will: Hobbes and Stalin. As he used it, Hobbes refer to the state of nature while Stalin to the state of excessive State authority.

But why these two non-Asian choices? Why not Lee Kuan Yew? If one would carefully study Duterte’s rhetoric, one could hear Lee: the cruel stance against drug lords, the frank attitude towards the press, the boldness against international institutions, including the UN, and human rights organisations. It’s not a surprise: Duterte has repeatedly mentioned Lee as one of the statesmen he considers as his mentor.

It’s interesting to note that the Philippines has consistently ranked higher than Singapore in the Press Freedom Index of Reporter’s Without Borders. In  2016 the Philippines’ rank is 138, while Singapore’s rank is 154. Unlike the Philippines, Singapore isn’t a signatory to the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights or even the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Singapore doesn’t even have its own Commission on Human Rights. Singapore has repeatedly received a bad press, criticised by international human rights organisations, portrayed as a repressive regime.  But which country has a better quality of life?  However, it’s not because of the absence of a strong human rights culture that made Singapore as what it is now but the presence of leaders who have the political will to do what’s needed to be done in order to create a safe, prosperous, and disciplined society, which could serve as a fertile ground for the cultivation and flourishing of one’s self worth.

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About the author

Sass Rogando Sasot
A transpinay based in The Hague, Sass Rogando Sasot is studying at Leiden University, pursuing an MA in International Relations, working on a thesis on how a systemic change led to the rivalry of the coastal States of the South China Sea. In 2013, Sass became the first Filipino to receive the ECHO Award, given annually to excellent migrant students in academic and higher professional education in The Netherlands. In 2014, she graduated magna cum laude at Leiden University College-The Hague, with a Combined Major in World Politics and Global Justice, minor in International Development, with courses on U.S. Foreign Policy and International Relations of China take at UCLA. She has at least 10 years of practical international experience.

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