Puzzling about Hobbes and obligation

by Chris Bertram on April 28, 2008

I gave a couple of lectures on Hobbes last week, having volunteered a long time ago when doing so seemed like a breeze, then remembering rather late in the day that I hadn’t taught Hobbes for a while. Anyway, it all seemed to go pretty well but then a smart first-year student asked me a question that I’ve been puzzling about ever since. No doubt *real* Hobbes scholars have the answer all sorted (and if so, please tell me) but I wasn’t quite sure what to say. The problem is below the fold.

Here’s the problem.

Hobbes says, in _Leviathan_ ch.21 there there is

“… no obligation on any man which ariseth not from some act of his own …”

The trouble is, he also says, in ch. 15 that

“The Lawes of Nature oblige _in foro interno_; that is to say, they bind to a desire they should take place: but _in foro externo_, that is to the putting them in act, not alwayes.” Then going on to explain that you’d be mad to abide by the Laws of Nature where you didn’t have assurance that others would do likewise.

Now even allowing that, in the state of nature the Laws of Nature (LoNs) are without practical effect and, in the civil state they are superseded by the sovereign’s command, it seems pretty clear that there’s a _prima facie_ contradiction. If _per impossible_ you _were_ to find yourself in an anarchy where everyone else were obeying the LoNs, you’d be under an obligation to do so yourself, and the source of that obligation would be something other than an act of your own (it would be the command of God, presumably).

OK, so here’s the “solution” I thought of whilst lying awake in bed this morning: we can distinguish between general and particular duties, and the ch.21 claim about obligation refers only to the latter. So we have a general duty not to harm, to keep promises, “seek peace and follow it” etc. whose source is God’s command/practical reason and special duties which oblige us to particular persons which can only be incurred voluntarily. We are excused from compliance with the general duties in the circumstances of the state of nature; our incurring of special duties by our voluntary acts can (among other things) get us out of that state and into a position where the required assurance obtains.

Possible alternative solution: there is no contradiction because our obligation to obey God’s command somehow derives from a voluntary act. I can’t see how this would work, though.

(Free associating a bit now, …. that general/special distinction — if defensible in the Hobbesian context — would also enable us to make sense of some puzzling things Hobbes says about the state of nature, sometimes suggesting that justice has no application in that state (because of the lack of a coercive power) but at other times saying clearly that a person can voluntarily acquire a valid obligation in that state, the breach of which would be injustice. )

Thoughts anyone?



Matt 04.28.08 at 11:14 am

It’s been a while since I’ve puzzled with Hobbes and this answer makes him seem less interesting than he might otherwise be, but the answer to the first situation would seem to be that Hobbes’s psychology doesn’t let you, in the situation where there’s no sovereign but everyone is following the laws of nature, expect that it will last. Since, on Hobbes’s account, you can expect that people will take an advantage as soon as they can you expect this situation to be unstable. It can only be thought to be a bit of good luck that it’s gone on so far. Such a situation might be one where it’s easier to set up a sovereign, but it can’t offer the assurance needed to make the laws of nature externally binding. Too much is riding on the question to risk it, especially since people are known, Hobbes thinks, to have extremely little other-regarding virtue (limited mostly to close family.) This answer makes Hobbes less interesting if you think his psychology is wrong, but it helps show, I think, how some modern Hobbits get more acceptable answers by adjusting the psychology a bit.


James Wimberley 04.28.08 at 11:19 am

If the LoNs are conditionals the problem has a solution: that is, if they have the form “Do x (keep promises etc) if others do so”. If your amiable anarchists do in fact behave well, then the marginal anarchist should follow suit; but Hobbes holds that there are no such amiable anarchies, so the only route to a reasonable expectation of reciprocity is state coercion.

This connects nicely with the reciprocity component of morality as propounded by ev. psych. But I’m not saying the reciprocity conditional is actually anywhere in Hobbes. Is this one of the difficulties that led to Locke’s contract theory?

Your first quotation is in Ch. 15 in my edition.

Comment preview still broken. As Hobbes would say to CT, you don’t have to offer a preview; but if you do, you are obliged to follow up. “Else he should not have let them run.” (Ch. 14)


Matt Weiner 04.28.08 at 12:16 pm

I like the current situation, where no preview appears, better than the previous situation, where a preview would appear but when you hit “post” it wouldn’t necessarily look like the preview (apparently this had something to do with Textile markup).


qb 04.28.08 at 12:22 pm

To my only-slightly tutored eye what seems strange is that Hobbes would claim that the LoN don’t always bind in foro externo, unless he means that sometimes people act irrationally. Because as James Wimberley suggests, it does appear that the LoN are conditional:

1. That every man, ought to endeavor Peace, as farre as he has hope of obtaining it; and when he cannot obtain it, that he may seek, and use all helpes, and advantages of Warre.

2. That a man be willing, when others are too as farre-forth, as for Peace, and defence of himselfe he shall think it necessary, to lay down this right to all things… (Lev Ch 14)

So stated, the LoN seem like they should bind in foro externo in both anarchy and civil society.

Chris, I like your alternative suggestion best, but I think I’m tempted to say that the “voluntary act” that imposes the obligations on us is our inevitable assent to the dictates of practical reason, a la the LoN.

On the other hand, after wrestling with Hobbes for many hours as a grad student, I think I’ve relaxed the principle of charity when it comes to him and just resigned myself to the fact that he contradicts himself on every other page.


qb 04.28.08 at 12:23 pm

Maybe “conditional” isn’t the way to put it; more “disjunctive.”


Glen Tomkins 04.28.08 at 2:04 pm

A hierarchy of needs and obligations

I would imagine that Hobbes believed that there is a hierarchy of needs and attendant obligations. The strongest need is to protect one’s self and one’s own. People also have a need for wider society, but since circumstances can be such, particularly if the order of that wider society has broken down, that the need for that wider society, and thus the attendant obligation to treat others in that society fairly, conflicts with the greater need and obligation to protect one’s own. One is thus only bound to civil behavior insofar as the current state of civil society creates no conflict between accepting that obligation and protecting one’s own.

It seems to me a cavil to claim a contradiction in the statement about obligations only arising by one’s own act. Hobbes clearly did not believe that human beings are self-created, in the sense of having needs and obligations only insofar as we will them out of nothing. We are born with a set of such needs and obligations. But the obligations to wider society only take force if one has deliberated, found them not in conflict with the greater obligation to self, and thus accepted the obligation to behave civilly.

Perhaps a practical example will help. My self-imposed obligation to not shoot Republicans on sight remains in force only insofar as their campaign to erode civil society and return us to a state of nature does not, quite yet, put their continued existence in clear conflict with my safety and that of my family. I have a natural obligation to not shoot others on sight, but I have to accept, after careful deliberation on the state of our civil society, that this rule, when applied to Republicans, does not conflict with deeper obligations, before I will accept that following this rule still applies to Republicans.


bartkid 04.28.08 at 5:22 pm

I thought Bart Simpson (no relation) addressed this when asked to provide an example of a paradox: “You’re damned if you do, and you’re damned if you don’t.”


Chris Bertram 04.28.08 at 7:50 pm

OK, thanks folks.

I’m wishing I could locate my copy Gauthier’s Logic of Leviathan at the moment, but anyway …

A number of people have pressed the same idea on me, namely that, given Hobbes’s psychology, the counterfactual involving amiable anarchists just isn’t a live possibility.

I can’t say I’m happy about that way of approaching things, since it makes the claim about no obligation without voluntary acts a universal but contingent truth rather than a deep fact about the nature of obligation. Maybe that wouldn’t bother Hobbes.

But I’m satisfied that the voluntarist claim is Hobbes’s core commitment here and that the use of the word “oblige” in the context of the LoNs is just an unhelpful muddying of the waters. The final para of ch.15 where he declares that LoNs aren’t laws, properly speaking, anyway looks fairly decisive too.


Sam C 04.28.08 at 8:00 pm

I’m late to this, but I also think that the solution is that laws of nature are doubly conditional: ‘if you want to survive, and if everyone else can reasonably be expected to play along, obey these rules’. (According to Hobbes, the first condition always obtains but the second condition will only ever obtain when there’s a sovereign). The obligation in foro interno is rational obligation, not the pseudo-legal obligation which comes from voluntary agreement.


abb1 04.28.08 at 8:27 pm

Dunno about Hobbes, but it’s true: most people would probably act reasonably, but they know that there will always be few who will fuck everything up for everybody, definitely. So, knowing that it’s destined be fucked up anyway, why would I act reasonably? Doesn’t make sense.


matt 04.28.08 at 10:03 pm

On various obligations in Hobbes, it’s too expensive for anything but a library to have but if you can get at a copy of the volume _Hobbes on Law_ edited by Claire Finkelstein there are several good papers in the section on contract that address the issue of obligations made in the state of nature. (Despite the fact that I worked on this volume a bit I don’t remember the answers well enough to offer them, but do remember the papers on contract were good on this point.)


virgil xenophon 04.29.08 at 1:58 am

Sam C: Wouldn’t Hobbs himself think that “quasi” rather than “pseudo” more accurately describes the
nature of the obligation, in that “pseudo” implies a
condition of illegitimacy about the entire social construct within which the “voluntary” agreement is made–a characterization about which Hobbs would dispute?


jk 04.29.08 at 2:16 am

You and or your student might want to check out the largely neglected Cambridge Platonist Ralph Cudworth on this question. If I remember correctly, he had a critique of this problem in Hobbes in his Treatise on Eternal and Immutable Morality. He is 1000x worse to read though (baroque does not begin to describe it).


Kieran Healy 04.29.08 at 4:16 am

the largely neglected Cambridge Platonist Ralph Cudworth

I think of Cudworth (wholly unjustly) in terms of that book review from the joke supplement to Mind a few years ago — the one of the Philosophy of Sir Thomas Clott, who (amongst other things) believed language to be the secretion of a particular sort of gland.


gr 04.29.08 at 5:35 am

It seems to me that there may be two different senses of ‘obligation’ in play in the two passages. In chapter 21, ‘obligation’ is perhaps best taken to refer to subjection to some other person’s authority: You are under an obligation to do what someone else tells you to do because he tells you to do it (and not because you anyways ought to do what he tells you to do), since he is entitled to tell you what to do. I take it that this form of obligation must always arise through consent of some kind.

In the earlier chapter, to say that the laws of nature bind in foro interno (leaving aside the God stuff) is to say that it would be irrational for someone not to keep promises or to harm others if he had assurance that others will abstain from such acts. I’m not sure whether this claim is true, but it seems that this is what Hobbes believed. So if, per impossibile, you found yourself in a state of nature where everyone else abstains from cheating, aggression, etc. it would be against reason for you to cheat, harm, etc. But of course, this does not entail that you’re obliged in the sense of being subject to any other person’s authority. You’re obliged to reason (if that makes sense). So far, then, no contradiction.

Of course, Hobbes also says that the laws of nature are laws of God, and that they are to be considered proper laws or impositions of some sort of personal authority once we understand them to emanate from God. It seems that this way of reading the laws of nature might indeed lead to the contradiction you’re talking about. Perhaps one could solve the problem here by saying that divine authority differs from human authority in not depending on consent (perhaps since God, unlike the Leviathan, is all powerful independently of any human authorization or recognition).


Sam C 04.29.08 at 9:20 am

GR’s nicely-put distinction in 15 is what I was clumsily gesturing at in 9:

You’re rationally obliged to obey the laws of nature, if you can expect everyone else to, because that’s the best way to get what you want (not to die). The LoN tell you what’s rational in a strategic situation (i.e. one in which the results of what I do depend on what you do and vice versa).

The obligation to the sovereign, in contrast, is an obligation incurred by a contract. This creates the problem that there can be no contracts until there’s a sovereign (because promises are only binding if you have a reasonable expectation that the other party won’t default, and you can’t have such an expectation in the state of nature). So, it looks like it’s impossible to contract to set up a sovereign (I’m always reminded of the student howler about Lincoln having been born in a log cabin he built with his own hands).

I don’t agree with GR’s last paragraph, though: Hobbes says that if the laws of nature are commanded by God, then they’re laws properly so called (last paragraph of Leviathan ch.15). He doesn’t say that the antecedent of that conditional is true. And there are good reasons to think that he’s doesn’t believe it.

Virgil Xenophon in 12: I don’t quite get the contrast between ‘pseudo’ and ‘quasi’, but there is no ‘entire social construct within which the “voluntary” agreement is made’ – there are no social constructs in Hobbes’s state of nature. Hence the Lincoln’s cabin problem noted above.


gr 04.29.08 at 9:31 am

Thanks for your response, Sam C! I overlooked your post before I submitted mine, not realizing you were making the same point.

I agree that Hobbes doesn’t say that the antecedent to the conditional is true, and probably didn’t believe in it. But it seems to me that his overall argument in Leviathan must address itself to people who believe in it to be successful. So the question whether the assumption that the laws of nature are divine laws creates a problem is a question one might reasonably ask about the text.


chyong 04.29.08 at 9:32 am

There is no contradiction since the Laws of Nature in Hobbes do not bind morally, but prudentially. Hobbes says at various points that the Laws of Nature ‘are not properly called laws’ but rather ‘theorems’, and elsewhere he says that the Laws of Nature are ‘dictates of reason’. They are prudential maxims as to what one should do to effectively preserve oneself.

This is particularly the case since in the state of nature there is no morality as commonly understood. The ‘right of nature’ is a ‘right to all things’; in the state of nature, in order to exercise one’s right to self-preservation one effectively has a right to do *anything*, including killing, raping, etc so there is nothing we can really identify as moral obligation in the state of nature.


abb1 04.29.08 at 10:31 am

That’s the problem with the God idea – it doesn’t allow for the societal evolution: “what has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” Nah, not necessarily so.


sisisi 04.30.08 at 3:15 am

I think Hobbes is arguing that individuals want “internally” to live according to the laws of nature and “seek peace” but the “external” contingencies and conditions around them dont always make it possible for them do to so. Obligation to obey requires our willful consent…a conclusion also paradoxical for Hobbes consideringhis deep ambivalence in regard to free-will.

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