More modern writers on sovereignty such as Alberico Gentili, Hugo Grotius and Francisco Suarez, while acknowledging the importance and relative inviolability of a state’s sovereignty, also nonetheless argue that certain descriptions ought to be placed on the sovereign, in order to prevent unaccountable despots from carrying out humanitarian atrocities(Philpott, 2010).
The two more important post-WWII critiques of an unrestricted modern sovereignty come from Bertrand de Jouvenel and Jacques Maritain(Philpott, 2010). Jouvenel acknowledges the importance of sovereignty as an essential element of contemporary political authority but condemns the idea of a sovereign who makes itself out to be a god and arrogates to itself total, unquestioned authority, particularly with respect to how sovereignty was understood by someone like Hobbes, who believed that the sovereign state exercised more or less unlimited and total authority, and was restrained by no transcendent moral order but himself represented sole authority as a kind of transcendent, deified civil order. Jouvenel’s appeal was to Christian political philosophers who condemned such a sovereign as idolatrously arrogating to himself power that belonged to God alone:
This was the understanding of authority held by the ancien regime, where effective advisers to the monarch could channel his efforts towards the common good. What can channel the sovereign will today? Jouvenel seems to doubt that judicial or constitutional design is alone enough. Rather, he places his hope in the shared moral concepts of the citizenry, which act as a constraint upon the choices of the sovereign(Philpott, 2010).
The critique of the modern understanding of political sovereignty undertaken by Jacques Maritain is even more extreme than that of Jouvenel(Philpott, 2010). Maritain believed that the word “sovereignty” should be jettisoned from the modern political philosophy arena because the concept is inherently misleading in its tendency to cause humans to think of sovereignty in terms of humans transferring their rights to a supreme political sovereign who is unaccountable according to anything external to himself and who exercises authority entirely according to his sovereign will, as a kind of transcendent god:
Bodin’s and Hobbes’ mistake was in conceiving of sovereignty as authority that the people permanently transferred and alienated to an external entity, here the monarch. Rather than representing the people and being accountable to it, the sovereign became a transcendent entity, holding the supreme and inalienable right to rule over the people, independently of them, rather than representing the people, accountable to them. Like Jouvenel, Maritain rues the exaltation of the sovereign’s will such that what is just is what serves his interest. This is idolatry. Any transfer of the authority of the body politic either to some part of itself or to some outside entity — the apparatus of the state, a monarch, or even the people — is illegitimate, for the validity of a government is rooted in its relationship to natural law(Philpott, 2010).
Maritain saw three central problems with the modern understanding of political sovereignty:
1) Ruling out an external dimension makes a sovereign impossible to incorporate within a world state; something Maritain saw as desirable(Philpott, 2010).
2) No sovereign can be allowed to have unconditional and unqualified authority over its subjects. Maritain objected to this because it prevented pluralism(Philpott, 2010).
3) The modern understanding of political sovereignty makes moral accountability impossible(Philpott, 2010).
Many of Martain’s argument is similar to that of other professing Christian political philosophers, whose desire it is to place limits on the state’s claim to absolute authority, while simultaneously acknowledging the duty to obey the state on the grounds that it possesses delegated authority from God, according to Rom. 13:1-7. It is, interestingly enough, Christians who, though oftentimes condemned for being totalitarian, are the descendants of those who were most strident in their opposition to the absolute rule of the state:
As a Catholic philosopher, Maritain’s arguments run similar to Christian philosophers of early modern Europe who criticized absolute sovereignty. Witnessing the rise of the formidable entity of the state, they sought to place limits on its power and authority. They are the ancestors of those who now demand limits on the state’s authority in the name of human rights, of the right to quell genocide and disaster and deliver relief from the outside, of an international criminal court, and of a supranational entity that assumes power of governance over economic, and now, maybe, military affairs(Philpott, 2010).
Philpott, Dan, “Sovereignty”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2010 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2010/entries/sovereignty/>.