Online Colloquium (5): Reply to Critics by Abizadeh

This online colloquium has been established to discuss Arash Abizadeh’s recent book, Hobbes and Two Faces of Ethics. We began with an introduction to the text by Professor Abizadeh, followed by responses from Sandra Field, Michael LeBuffe, and Daniel Eggers. We conclude this week with a reply by Arash Abizadeh. Many thanks to Cambridge University Press for supporting this colloquium.

 

What a pleasure to have one’s work scrutinized so seriously and intelligently. My sincere thanks to Sandra Field, Michael LeBuffe, and Daniel Eggers for their critiques, and to Robin Douglass for bringing us together.

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Hobbes in his political works claimed that the first and “fundamental” law of nature prescribes seeking peace; the rest prescribe the means to peace. The question is what, according to Hobbes, makes natural laws normative: Why do individuals have a reason to (be disposed to) do as they prescribe? I claim that what grounds the normativity of natural law for Hobbes is a foundationally normative principle prescribing that one desire and pursue one’s own ongoing good or felicity. The laws of nature are normative because they prescribe what conduces to one’s ongoing good—even in the face of imprudent or self-destructive desires, whose realization would be noxious to one’s felicity. These laws are intrinsically prudential normative precepts.

LeBuffe has qualms about this prudentialist interpretation, because “whatever Hobbes takes to be a principle,” we should expect him to state it “explicitly.” I agree with LeBuffe: it would be “contrary to his [Hobbes’s] account of science” to rely on “a fundamental principle that he does not mention.” (‘Principle’ denotes the starting point for a chain of reasoning.) But I do not agree with LeBuffe’s claim that Hobbes failed to indicate this foundational normative principle. Hobbes did so rather clearly by incorporating it into the very definition of natural law, which in the English Leviathan he defined as “a Precept … by which a man is forbidden to do, that, which is destructive of his life … and to omit, that, by which he thinketh it may be best preserved” (L 14.3). Natural laws by definition consist in precepts that proscribe what conduces to self-destruction and prescribe the means to self-preservation. They are normative because self-preservation is normative. This is typical Hobbes: stating a particular science’s “principle” or starting point—here, the prescription to (be disposed to) pursue one’s own preservation—by incorporating it into the definition of a fundamental concept of that science. Hobbes stated his foundational normative principle precisely where LeBuffe says he should have: at the beginning of chapter 14 of Leviathan in his definition of a law of nature.

One might of course object that what Hobbes incorporated into his definition was a precept to pursue, not one’s good in general, but self-preservation. Yet Hobbes explicitly and frequently indicated that he meant by self-preservation not just bare survival, but the preservation of a life worth living, i.e., the preservation of “a life, as not to be weary of it,” not just “a bare Preservation, but also all other Contentments of life” (L 14.8; 17.1). This is why in the Latin Leviathan Hobbes could reformulate natural law’s definition in terms of a proscription against what tends to harm one’s good (“quod ad damnum suum sibi tendere”). Hence it is a mistake to say, as LeBuffe does, that “Abizadeh claims that for Hobbes the first normative principle which grounds natural law is “desire and pursue your own good,” rather than the explicit definitions and fundamental precepts of Leviathan 14” (my emphasis). I take ‘desire and pursue your own good’ to be, not a rival, but a gloss on the foundational principle incorporated into Hobbes’s definition, viz. desire and pursue your own preservation.

True, the “fundamental” law of nature as Hobbes stated it in his political works prescribes seeking peace (rather than self-preservation itself). But Hobbes treated the laws of nature themselves not as “principles” or the foundational starting point of reasoning, but as precepts “found out by Reason” (L 14.3, my emphasis)—on the basis of the foundational principle incorporated into their definition. Indeed, for Hobbes, as for Aquinas, the foundational “principle” of a particular science may itself be grounded in and derivative of some other principle outside the scope of that science. (Philosophia prima, the science lying at the foundation of all other sciences, is an exception.) Seeking peace is the first precept of Hobbes’s “moral” laws of nature, by which he meant those precepts that prescribe the social means to self-preservation. But although in his political works Hobbes was only concerned with precepts regulating social interaction, he also acknowledged, as relevant to ethics more broadly construed, other natural laws (such as temperance) concerning the non-social means to self-preservation. Both the social precepts of reason Hobbes treated in his political works, and the non-social precepts he mentioned but left aside, are grounded in a common normative foundation: self-preservation in the broad, Hobbesian sense of one’s own ongoing good.

LeBuffe is also worried about my claim that, although Hobbes took the laws of nature he specified to be epistemically accessible to every rational creature, he thought some may nevertheless fail to know them, i.e., some may not be aware of those precepts or, if aware, may not take them to be normative (“precepts of reason”). LeBuffe suggests that, according to Hobbes, although we may “easily misinterpret” the laws of nature, we nevertheless “all do know” them as precepts of reason. Presumably this means, for example, that although all rational creatures know that they ought to perform their covenants—i.e., although everyone takes the third law of nature to be normative—some misinterpret what this means, perhaps because they misapply the law in failing to understand the particular circumstances in which an undertaking counts as a valid covenant.

Hobbes certainly did envision that some who in principle know the laws of nature misinterpret them in practice. For example, Hobbes asserted that one reason why some “are prone to violate the Lawes” is because they are misled by “false Teachers” who “mis-interpret the Law of Nature” (L 27.11). Yet Hobbes asserted that people might also violate the laws of nature not because they misinterpret the laws they know, but because they fail to know them in the first place. This can happen in two ways: either because they are simply ignorant of the law (without believing anything false), or because they have positively false beliefs about which precepts are normative. The former consists in “some defect of the Understanding,” which “is Ignorance”; the latter consists in “Erroneous Opinion” stemming from “some errour in Reasoning.” When Hobbes asserted here that “Ignorance of the Law of Nature Excuseth no man; because every man that hath attained to the use of Reason, is supposed to know,” he was speaking about people who violate the laws of nature because (contrary to LeBuffe’s suggestion) they are ignorant of it. The colonial subtext of the example he immediately used to illustrate inexcusable ignorance—of “a man come here from the Indies” who would “perswade men here to receive a new Religion or teach them any thing that tendeth to disobedience of the Lawes of this Country” (L 27.4)—makes his view crystal clear.

There are “three wayes,” according to Hobbes, in which one may come to have positively false beliefs about natural law. One way I already mentioned: some are simply taken in by false interpretations (as LeBuffe suggests). The other two, however, consist not in misinterpreting known laws, but in failing to know the laws, in virtue of false beliefs about which precepts are normative. First, one may draw “Erroneous Inferences from True Principles.” Second, one may begin one’s reasoning “by Presumption of false Principles,” for example by taking as one’s initial premise “That Justice is but a vain word” or “That whatsoever a man can get by his own Industry, and hazard, is his own” (L 27.10-12). Hobbes’s most famous example of a person who in virtue of “specious reasoning” fails to know the law of nature is, of course, the Foole who claims “there is no such thing as Justice.” The Foole does not deny that violating one’s covenant “may be called Injustice,” but “he questioneth, whether Injustice … may not sometimes stand with that Reason, which dictateth to every man his own good,” i.e., he denies that Hobbes’s third natural law is normative (L 15.4). (Note the premise Hobbes shared with the Foole, and which LeBuffe says Hobbes never stated explicitly: reason “dictateth to every man his own good.”)

LeBuffe cites one passage that might at first glance seem to run counter to Hobbes’s numerous discussions of people who are unaware of, or indeed have positively false views about, which precepts are normative: “all men agree on this, that Peace is Good, and therefore also the way, or means of Peace” or “the rest of the Laws of Nature” (L 15.40). We should already be sceptical of LeBuffe’s interpretation of this passage, however: it is gainsaid by the Foole and, more generally, the fact that people sometimes reason erroneously. The problem is that LeBuffe has severed his quotation from the scope restriction Hobbes had imposed on “all men” immediately before. The fuller passage reads: “so long as a man is in the condition of meer Nature, (which is a condition of War,) as private Appetite is the measure of Good, and Evill: And consequently all men agree on this, that Peace is Good…” (my emphasis). Hobbes was talking about people living in a state of war (“so long as…”). The Latin predecessor in De Cive contains the same restriction: “All men easily acknowledge this state [of war], as long as they are in it, to be evill, and consequently [per consequens] that Peace is good” (DCv 3.31). Once in society, however, many people lose sight of the evils of war and hence fail to recognize the normativity of peace and its means: for “by nature,” human beings are “destitute of those prospective glasses (namely Morall and Civill Science,) to see a farre off the miseries that hang over them” in the state of nature (L 18.20). It is the job of Hobbesian science to provide these prospective glasses so we can know the normativity of peace and its means via philosophical reasoning—whatever our empirical circumstances.

Let me go further: the point of the paragraph from which LeBuffe’s quotation is extracted is that even in the state of nature not everyone immediately recognizes that peace is good. People at some point (for example, after catastrophe) will become united in agreeing that peace and its means are overriding goods. Hobbes was saying in this paragraph that in the state of nature people initially call ‘good’ whatever happens to be the object of their variable appetites (so that even “the same man, in divers times, differs from himselfe; and one time praiseth, that is, calleth Good, what another time he dispraiseth”), but that, subsequently, they all come to agree that peace is good. True, Hobbes wrote “consequently,” not subsequently, but we should not be fooled by twenty-first century usage. If today ‘consequently’ is used exclusively as a quasi-conjunctive (like ‘therefore’), in the seventeenth century, consistently with its Latin etymology, the term also meant subsequently or consecutively, i.e., following in time or order (see OED first entry). When Hobbes wrote that “consequently all men agree on this, that Peace is Good,” he didn’t mean that everyone always already knows this truth; he meant that in the state of nature people will come to agree on it (and nothing else).

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My argument here of course relies on a distinction between the capacity to know laws of nature and actually knowing them. This is the distinction Field calls into question. On her reading, since Hobbes was a materialist determinist who denied free will, a putative capacity one is never caused to exercise is no capacity at all: for Hobbes the capacity to do something is a function not merely of one’s “inner properties,” but of the entire web of causes that determines how one acts. If one is not caused to reason properly, then, on this view, there is no sense in which one could be said to have had the capacity to do so. Field thinks, moreover, this pulls the rug out from under normativity and normative practices—such as holding others attribution-responsible (e.g. criticizing them for violations) and, especially, holding them accountable-responsible.

I have reservations about both claims. First, all the textual evidence I called on to show that Hobbes thought some rational creatures fail to know the laws of nature despite the capacity to do so also serves as evidence that Hobbes did distinguish a capacity from its actual exercise. There is, moreover, a straightforward way in which determinists can make this distinction: one has the capacity to do something if, given the right external circumstances, one would do it—even if, under the actual external circumstances, one does not do it. This is the sense in which a rational agent has the capacity to reason and a stone does not: there are no circumstances in which a stone would reason. The distinction relies on the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic properties, on the one hand, and hypothetical and actual external circumstances, on the other. (This is, I take it, what Hobbes was up to in his distinction between absolute and conditional impossibility and potentia in AW 37.5-6).

So Field’s real point must be, not that the distinction cannot be made, but that it is not normatively relevant (of no “salience,” as she puts it). This is just her second point: that a determinist is not entitled to deploy notions of normative responsibility and blame. That’s an old intuition, one Field shares with scholastics such as Bramhall. Field may or may not be philosophically correct about this, but hers’ was not Hobbes’s view, and I do think Hobbes’s view (whether true or false) is compelling enough to merit attention. I suspect that what might drive Field’s disagreement with Hobbes here is being in the grip of a conception of normative blame from which Hobbes meant to release us (what she calls “deep moral responsibility”). The question is: What is involved, for Hobbes, in normatively blaming someone in the reactive, accountability sense? It does not involve attributing to agents the ability to have done otherwise under their actual, causally determined circumstances; nor does it involve attributing to them any retrospectively determined theological status, such as being in a state of deserving punishment. This was Bramhall’s, not Hobbes’s, conception. Hobbes’s view is prospective. Normatively to blame someone in the accountability sense is to demand of them that they henceforth acknowledge a normative demand and to seek to vindicate the demand by condemning and sanctioning violations by demanding excuses, justification, or apology, or exacting compensation. But the point of the practice is not to give agents what they deserve in some theological sense, or to rectify an imbalance in the cosmic order. The point is to prevent violations in the future. Rational creatures are the appropriate object of such blame because they have the capacity to respond under the right circumstances, and practices of holding responsible are an attempt to furnish some of those (causal) circumstances. I take it that this is what Hobbes was trying to argue against Bramhall in Liberty and Necessity.

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Eggers raises two sets of concerns. The first centres on  my division of Hobbes’s ethics into reasons of the good and reasons of the right, corresponding to two distinct concepts of normative obligation: a (traditional) eudaimonistic concept, which specifies what is conducive to one’s felicity; and a (new) juridical concept, which specifies what one owes to others, i.e., that to which others have the normative standing to hold one accountable. The laws of nature “oblige” rational creatures in the first, eudaimonistic or prudential sense; contracts give rise to obligations in the second, juridical sense. (As Eggers notes, D. D. Raphael has also distinguished between two senses of obligation in Hobbes: natural and artificial. But his notion of artificial obligation does not correspond to what I call juridical obligation. Raphael’s notion is of a purely “logical” obligation—a precept of rationality; he provides no account of why logical requirements would be normative for agents; and he does not explain why others would have the standing to hold one accountable to them, i.e., the sense in which logical obligations are owed to others.)

Eggers tries putting pressure on the division between eudaimonistic and juridical obligation by asking, “what entitles us to pay such disregard to Hobbes’s own repeated application of the term” (‘oblige’) to characterize the normative force of natural law? I confess to being puzzled by this charge of disregard, since much of the book regards Hobbes’s use of ‘obligation’ to characterize the normative force of natural law. I suspect Eggers might think we disagree here because he has slightly misunderstood my position: I did not intend to claim (as he puts it) that “only the obligation arising from agreements is ‘true’ obligation” or that “obligation towards the laws of nature is not ‘really’ obligation.” I agree with Eggers: eudaimonistic obligation is a kind of obligation in Hobbes’s usage. It is a “true” kind of obligation precisely in the sense that it is normative. (In fact, I argue that this was what ‘obligation’ exclusively meant prior to the early modern period.) My point was that Hobbes used ‘obligation’ in two distinct senses: one in the “proper” sense, i.e., which accords literally with his official, juridical definition (at L 14.7); and another in a “deviant” sense, i.e., which departs from his explicit definition. Part of the misunderstanding might stem from Eggers perceiving more similarities between my view and Bernd Ludwig’s than is warranted (which I cannot judge: my linguistic skills are not good enough to read German without a translation to hand). But on reflection, I also think the misunderstanding may partly stem from my use of ‘proper’ in Hobbes’s now obsolete sense to mean literal: a term’s “proper signification” for Hobbes is its literal meaning (in contrast to its extended, metaphorical meaning), i.e., strictly in accordance with his own explicit definition. This is the sense in which juridical (but not eudainmonistic) obligation is obligation proper. And although Hobbes’s non-literal use of ‘obligation’ departs from his official definition, I don’t think it is “in contradiction” with it: the two meanings are different, not contradictory; nor do natural obligations “contradict” conventionally acquired ones. They simply have a different kind of normative force.

I take it our true disagreement lies in this last claim: that natural (eudaimonistic) and conventionally acquired (juridical) obligations for Hobbes have a different kind of normative force. Eggers argues that Hobbes’s distinctions between broad and narrow peccatum, counsel and command, and the non-literal and proper senses of law are no evidence for this claim. The reason is that, as Eggers puts it, the “normative authority” of juridical obligations “ultimately derives from prudential considerations.” Eggers does not provide an argument for this assertion, and it faces an unanswered challenge. Hobbes’s juridical notion of obligation reduces to two components: (1) a normative reason one has to φ plus (2) the normative standing others have to hold one accountable for φ-ing. The first part might be explicable in terms of prudential considerations in favour of one’s φ-ing. But the second part is not: the fact that it would be good for me if others were to have the normative standing to hold me accountable does not amount to their having this standing. (I argue in the book that the normative standing to hold accountable is not reducible, for Hobbes, to the non-normative fact of holding accountable.) Eggers’s suggestion that adopting the second-personal standpoint “might only be needed for determining the content and scope of our directed obligations, without these obligations therefore acquiring a non-prudential normative status” therefore fails to explain the normative standing to hold accountable (and, relatedly, Hobbes’s distinction between punishment proper and “hostility”).

Nor do I think Eggers’ assertion reflects Hobbes’s view. Hobbes was clear that the prudential reasons one agent has cannot by themselves provide to other people the normative standing to hold the agent accountable. Thus, Hobbes repeatedly claimed that natural laws themselves provide “no place for Accusation” (L 14.30; 27.3; cf. 30.30). Another important piece of textual evidence that Eggers passes over concerns the relation between natural right and natural law. Hobbes characterized the full right of nature, in the “pure” state of nature, as implying the absence of any obligation. Yet he also characterized rational creatures, even in the pure state of nature, as already obliged by natural law. The only explanation for how one could be free of all obligation while simultaneously obliged is that there are two different kinds of obligation at stake: natural right corresponds to absence of obligation in the juridical sense, while natural law imposes obligation in the eudaimonistic sense. Failing to distinguish the two dimensions of normativity implausibly saddles Hobbes with an obvious contradiction at the heart of his ethics—and this, with respect to his two most central ethical concepts.

Egger’s second set of criticisms again concerns the second dimension of normativity I read in Hobbes. If Field argues that normative obligations and responsibility are in tension with Hobbes’s determinism in general, Eggers argues that juridical obligations and accountability-responsibility are in tension with Hobbes’s deterministic egoist-hedonist psychology in particular. His first argument to this effect is that juridical obligation may conceptually require that one outwardly conform to it for the “right” motivational reason, viz., simply because one is obligated. On Eggers’ suggestion, for example, if one were motivated to conform to a juridical obligation simply because of prudential considerations—such as fear of punishment—then one would fail to fulfil the obligation. But if, given Hobbes’s psychological egoism, Hobbesian individuals are always wholly motivated by prudential considerations of self-interest, then they could never, even in principle, fulfil their juridical obligations—which, Eggers suggests, violates “ought implies can.”

The thought that fulfilling juridical obligations requires being motivated by justice itself is, however, wholly alien to Hobbes’s conception of juridical obligation and accountability. To be sure, this is not because no people are ever motivated to conform to their juridical obligations from recognizing the obligation’s normative force. Hobbes was a psychological egoist and hedonist, but (as I argue in the book) not a strong one. He held that all action is prompted by desire and that we desire things only if we represent them as pleasant to ourselves, but he did not think that only considerations of self-interest can motivate people (or that the object of all desire is pleasure). He acknowledged, for example, benevolence or “Desire of good to another” (L 6.22). Hobbes also acknowledged the desire to conform to one’s obligations: there exist “Righteous” or virtuous individuals whose “Manners” or “disposition” of character are aptly called “Just” precisely because they are motivationally disposed to fulfil their obligations because they are averse to violating covenants. Such individuals possess “a certain Noblenesse or Gallantnesse of courage, (rarely found,) by which a man scorns to be beholding for the contentment of his life, to fraud, or breach of promise. This Justice of the Manners, is that which is meant, where Justice is called a Vertue” (L 15.10-12). This is the sense in which, as David Boonin has argued, Hobbes was a virtue theorist: virtuous individuals are motivationally disposed to act for the “right” reasons, i.e., because they recognize the justice of an action.

Yet for Hobbes, questions of desire or motivation in foro interno, dispositions of character, and virtue fall exclusively under the auspices of the first, attribution-responsibility dimension of normativity governed by natural law. Others may have the standing to criticize one for an unjust or vicious character—it is an imprudent character to have—but there is no question of others having the normative standing to hold one accountable for unjust dispositions or motivations. There are no grounds, for example, for punishing (or demanding an apology or compensation from) those who outwardly conform to the laws but are motivated to do so solely because they fear punishment. Hobbes was resolutely opposed to allowing inquisitorial practices to infect accountability relations: he considered it a grave “Errour” to “extend the power of the Law, which is the Rule of Actions onely, to the very Thoughts, and Consciences of men, by Examination, and Inquisition of what they Hold, notwithstanding the Conformity of their Speech and Actions” (L 46.39). There is no basis for punishing a non-virtuous individual who performs just actions out of “feare” or “because his Will is not framed by the Justice, but by the apparent benefit of what he is to do” (L 15.10). This is the point of Hobbes’s distinction between just men and just actions in paragraphs 10-12 of chapter 15: the justice of “Manners” or character is a eudaimonistic obligation prescribed by natural law as conducive to felicity; but juridical obligations owed to others concern solely the “Justice of Actions.” So not only can Hobbesian individuals be motivated by justice, not being motivated by justice does not itself imply a violation of their juridical obligation. Juridical obligations do not require any particular mental states. We may, of course, decide to cut off relations with people of a vicious character—or, as Hobbes warned the Foole, we may refuse to enter into society with them in the first place—but we should be doing so, on Hobbes’s view, for prudential reasons. Resentment or revengefulness is out of place.

(It is true that, as I note in the book, Hobbes deemed it appropriate to punish unjust actions differentially on the basis of the person’s imputed mental states. For example, the punishment for murder may be different than for homicide because the former involves malicious intent. But there is no sense in which the justice of an action—i.e., fulfilling one’s juridical obligations—requires specific motivations.)

Eggers’ second argument about the incompatibility of Hobbesian psychology and juridical obligation suffers the same fate. Here is the argument as I understand it: First, if we hold people accountable for their actions, but all action derives, as Hobbes believed, from the will, then “within the Hobbesian framework, we can only hold someone accountable for his will.” Second, if “all that can ever motivate Hobbesian individuals are considerations of self-interest, then this means that in holding someone accountable for violating his contractual obligations, we ultimately blame him for not acquiring the appropriate self-interested motivation, that is, for not behaving prudently.” But then it looks as if one is reduced to holding individuals accountable for actions because they were imprudent, i.e., because of a violation of eudaimonistic obligation—which appears to collapse the distinction between the two dimensions of normativity.

There are three problems with this argument. First, as we have seen, Hobbes did not think that only considerations of self-interest can motivate people. Second, even though all action is for Hobbes caused by the will (desire), it does not follow that in holding people accountable for their actions we thereby “ultimately” hold them accountable for their will or desires. Again, as we have seen, on Hobbes’s view we sanction people for their actions, not for the will that caused the action—nor, indeed, for the opinion that caused the will, nor for the food they ate that caused the appetite that became their will, nor for the rain that nourished the food they ate, etc. The normative force of blame and accountability does not always retrace whatever paths had been forged by empirical relations of causation. Third, there is a difference between holding people accountable for actions that are imprudent and holding them accountable for actions because they are imprudent. For Hobbes, because violations of juridical obligation are also imprudent, when people are held accountable they are held accountable for actions that turn out also to be imprudent. Nonetheless, one has the standing to hold them accountable for violations on the basis, not of the actions’ imprudence, but of their being violations of juridical obligation.

Arash Abizadeh (McGill University)

Online Colloquium (4): Eggers on Hobbes and the Two Faces of Ethics

This online colloquium has been established to discuss Arash Abizadeh’s recent book, Hobbes and Two Faces of Ethics. We began with an introduction to the text by Professor Abizadeh, followed by responses from Sandra Field and Michael LeBuffe. We now have a response from Daniel Eggers (Köln), and will conclude with a reply by Arash Abizadeh next week. Many thanks to Cambridge University Press for supporting this colloquium.

 

One of the main ideas running through Abizadeh’s impressive book, Hobbes and the Two Faces of Ethics, is the idea that Hobbes’s doctrine of the laws of nature and his theory of contractual agreements are largely independent of one another and that agreements give rise to strict moral obligations that can neither be reduced to nor be derived from the purely prudential obligation towards the laws of nature.

To be sure, neither of these two claims is new. They have previously been defended, for instance, by D. D. Raphael and by Bernd Ludwig whose book Die Wiederentdeckung des Epikureischen Naturrechtes provides their most systematic and comprehensive defence. Yet, Abizadeh clearly goes beyond these earlier discussions and arguably improves upon them.

Firstly, Abizadeh does not forward the evolutionary reading defended by Ludwig according to which the independence of the two elements of Hobbes’s overall system is only achieved in Leviathan.

Secondly, and again unlike Ludwig, Abizadeh does not go as far as to claim that the laws of nature are not obligatory at all—and therefore does not have a similar problem with the fact that Hobbes explicitly and repeatedly describes the laws of nature in these terms, both in the earlier works and Leviathan.

Thirdly, Abizadeh locates the relevant claims within the context of some broader conceptual distinctions informed by modern metaethics. According to Abizadeh, Hobbes distinguishes between two different spheres of normativity: normativity in the ‘attributability sense’ and normativity in the ‘accountability sense’. While the former only requires that one can legitimately be criticized for one’s behaviour, as is already the case when one behaves imprudently, the second sense presupposes an interpersonal practice of assuming a second-person standpoint and holding one another accountable. Corresponding to this latter distinction is a distinction between two different types of normative reasons: eudaimonistic reasons of the good on the one hand and genuinely moral reasons of the right on the other.

Fourthly, Abizadeh introduces additional evidence for this supposed ‘chasm’ in Hobbes’s theory. Though some of his key evidence is already drawn upon by Raphael or Ludwig (such as Hobbes’s ‘official definition’ of obligation (L 14.65), his claim that there is “no obligation on any man, which ariseth not from some Act of his own” (L 21.11) and Leviathan’s table of the sciences in which “ETHIQUES” and “The Science of JUST and UNJUST” appear as separate enterprises), Abizadeh also appeals to Hobbes’s distinction between a narrow and a broad sense of ‘sin’ (peccatum), his opposition of counsel and command and his claim that the laws of nature fail to qualify as proper laws.

Fifthly, Abizadeh ultimately infers from his analysis a specific claim about Hobbes’s place in the history of moral and political philosophy. According to Abizadeh, Hobbes revolutionizes ethical theory by transforming the traditional notions of obligation and natural law, and their mutual relation. As a result, Hobbes’s theory is viewed by him as marking a watershed in the history of both normative ethics and metaethics.

There can be no doubt, then, about the originality of Abizadeh’s way of articulating and defending the two ideas under consideration. This is not to say, however, that his discussion does not give rise to some of the same worries that are raised by Raphael’s and Ludwig’s interpretations.

For one thing, though Abizadeh may not go as far as claiming that the laws of nature impose no kind of obligation whatsoever, he does emphasize that only the obligation arising from agreements is ‘true’ obligation, and the question is: what entitles us to pay such disregard to Hobbes’s own repeated application of the term? The strongest support seems to be provided by the passage from the chapter ‘The Liberty of Subjects’ already referred to above. Yet, if we read this passage in the way Abizadeh suggests, then Hobbes’s claim is simply incompatible with his own use of the term and many of his relevant statements. However, if we read it in a way compatible with this use—for example, by taking the statement to refer, more narrowly, to ‘The Obligation of Subjects’—they provide no support for denying that the obligation towards the laws of nature is proper obligation, too.

Similar considerations apply to Hobbes’s ‘official definition’ of obligation. That the passage has a definitory nature is hard to deny. However, the concession that large parts of Hobbes’s discussion of obligation are in contradiction with his own ‘official definition’ of the term is by no means a tempting one. Moreover, there are other examples where definitory statements provided by Hobbes do not have the comprehensive application they intuitively seem to have, as with Hobbes’s definition of liberty as the absence of external impediments which is inapplicable to the liberty constituting the right of nature. Rather than taking Hobbes’s statement to mean that the obligation towards the laws of nature is not ‘really’ obligation, therefore, we should perhaps better take it to mean that it is importantly different from the one arising from contractual agreements.

It is important to emphasize that this view does not yet commit us to the interpretive claim Abizadeh ultimately defends. According to Abizadeh, the obligations are not only different, they are of an entirely different kind. What distinguishes them is that they do not have the same normative status: while the obligation towards the laws of nature is purely prudential, the obligation generated by agreements is entirely independent of the negative consequences that might redound to the agent.

Yet, in my opinion, the textual evidence cited by Abizadeh does not sufficiently support this specific claim. For example, the fact that obligations arising from agreements are directed obligations, i.e. obligations in virtue of which I specifically owe something to someone, is fully compatible with the idea that their normative authority ultimately derives from prudential considerations. Likewise, Hobbes’s distinction between the broad and narrow senses of peccatum and his distinction between counsel and command are entirely neutral with regard to the question of what grounds our obligation towards contractual agreements. The same applies to the related claim that the laws of nature are not properly laws. The laws of nature are not properly laws because they do not have a law-giver (unless we conceive of them as expressions of God’s will). However, the question of whether the laws of nature express the will of someone with the authority to make laws and command certain behavior is neither here nor there with regard to the question of whether the normative status of the obligation towards these laws differs from the normative status of contractual obligations.

This leaves Abizadeh’s more explicit arguments on why the obligation towards contractual agreements is neither reducible to nor derivable from the prudential obligation towards the laws of nature, which are provided in chapter 6.2. In discussing the first point, Abizadeh rejects S. A. Lloyd’s ‘reciprocity interpretation’ of the laws of nature. With regard to the issue under consideration, however, this rejection does not have any real import since the question thereby being answered is not whether the obligations towards contractual agreements might not really be prudential, but the opposite question of whether the obligation towards the laws of nature might not really be non-prudential. Similarly, the way in which Abizadeh tackles the second issue, namely by distinguishing between the prudential reasons we have for assuming the second-person standpoint and the properties in virtue of which we have the normative power to take on contractual obligations, does not suffice to show that there must be such a thing as strictly moral, non-prudential obligation in Hobbes. For all Abizadeh tells us, the interpersonal practice of assuming a second-person standpoint, from which our directed obligations are said to emerge, might only be needed for determining the content and scope of our directed obligations, without these obligations therefore acquiring a non-prudential normative status.

In my view, then, the positive evidence provided in support of Abizadeh’s reading falls short of supporting his crucial claim—even if it may show quite impressively how keen Hobbes was on discussing the normative realm created by contractual agreements in its own right. Moreover, any interpretation of Hobbes that wants to drive a wedge between the two types of obligation needs to come up with a plausible explanation for the existence of the third law of nature and for the fact that Hobbes repeatedly discusses contractual agreements from a prudential perspective, as in his famous ‘reply to the Foole’. According to Abizadeh, what explains the link between prudence and contractual obligation is that Hobbesian individuals can only ever be motivated to fulfill their strict moral obligations in virtue of prudential considerations and that the self-interest of an agent serves as a general constraint on the obligations we can possibly attract by means of contractual agreements.

In my view, this attempt of reconciling the two spheres of normativity creates further problems, if not for Abizadeh, then for Hobbes. One question is whether the above account is compatible with the principle ‘ought implies can’ to which Hobbes obviously subscribes (see also Abizadeh’s discussion of the conditions of moral responsibility in chapter 4.1). Abizadeh’s treatment suggests that the principle is respected if there is some way for individuals to act in accordance with their contractual obligations or some way for them to be motivated to act in the relevant manner. However, one might think that the principle actually requires something stronger, namely that we can fulfill our strict moral obligations as strict moral obligations and be motivated by the fact that we are obliged in this specific sense.

Furthermore, it is not clear that Abizadeh’s solution sits well with the idea of accountability in terms of which he explicates strict moral obligation. According to Hobbes, it is impossible for us not to act on our will (unless, of course, we are hindered by some external factor). This suggests that, within the Hobbesian framework, we can only hold someone accountable for his will, that is, for that which the individual was overridingly motivated to do. If we hold someone accountable for not fulfilling his contractual obligations, then, we really hold him accountable for not being sufficiently motivated to fulfill these obligations. Yet, if all that can ever motivate Hobbesian individuals are considerations of self-interest, then this means that in holding someone accountable for violating his contractual obligations, we ultimately blame him for not acquiring the appropriate self-interested motivation, that is, for not behaving prudently. However, this suggests that the position Abizadeh ascribes to Hobbes, namely a combination of a modern accountability conception of contractual obligation and a “egoist-hedonist psychology” (229), is internally unstable. In fact, something similar seems to follow from the concession that our self-interest provides a general constraint for our strict moral obligations since the resulting view suggests that, after all, the fundamental normative value of Hobbes’s theory is self-interest and that we are only ever obliged by our own good, that is, prudentially.

The least we may say of Abizadeh’s analysis, therefore, is that he tends to treat Hobbes overly charitably and keeps quiet about some serious problems that are attached to the supposed enterprise of separating reasons of the right from reasons of the good—problems that fully come to the fore in the works of later moral philosophers, most famously in the works of Immanuel Kant.

Daniel Eggers (Universität zu Köln)

Online Colloquium (3): LeBuffe on Hobbes and the Two Faces of Ethics

This online colloquium has been established to discuss Arash Abizadeh’s recent book, Hobbes and Two Faces of Ethics. We began with an introduction to the text by Professor Abizadeh and a response from Sandra Field. We now have a response from Michael LeBuffe (Otago), which will be followed by one from Daniel Eggers and then a reply by Arash Abizadeh. Many thanks to Cambridge University Press for supporting this colloquium.

 

I would like to begin by congratulating Arash Abizadeh. Hobbes and the Two Faces of Ethics is a splendid book. Even where I have disagreed with Abizadeh, the book has been a great help to me in framing central issues and in setting out pressing questions for different interpretations. I am sure that it will be a valuable resource for students of Hobbes for many years.

Here I will discuss Abizadeh’s views on the science of morality in Hobbes, and I will focus on his Chapter 3. I will begin from the principles that form the basis of that science and proceed to its conclusions, the laws of nature. In both cases, although I recognize the difficulties that Abizadeh has presented for what he calls subjectivism, I am also concerned about the alternative interpretation that he defends. On that interpretation, prudentialism, the view that one ought to desire and pursue one’s own good, is a foundational principle of moral science, which gives us reason to follow the laws of nature. The principle is distinct from any particular desire or knowledge, but its practical importance is guaranteed by epistemic access to the laws of nature: any sane adult can easily know the laws of nature.

Science, Hobbes writes in Leviathan, proceeds from definitions of words; to general affirmations; to syllogisms; to conclusions (L 7.4, cf. L 5.17). In the familiar case of the “science of virtue and vice” (L 15.40), Hobbes defines ‘right of nature’, ‘liberty’, and ‘law of nature’ (L 14.1–3); makes general affirmations in the right to everything and the fundamental law of nature (L 14.4); and proceeds by something recognizably like syllogistic reasoning to arrive at conclusions in the laws of nature (L 14–15).

Neither in Hobbes’s definition of ‘science’ nor in Leviathan 14–15 does the vexed term ‘principle’ arise, but I do not think that this is a significant problem for Abizadeh’s claim that the first normative principle is “desire and pursue your own good” (110). Hobbes does use ‘principle’ immediately before the L 5.17 definition of ‘science’ (see also the account of first philosophy at L 9). Moreover, where Hobbes does use the term ‘principle’ (or principium) more freely, as at De Corpore 15, he seems happy to have both definitions, such as the definition of ‘motion’, and also results of argument that are somehow fundamental, such as his version of the law of inertia, count as principles (DC 15.1).

I do think, however, that whatever Hobbes takes to be a principle he states explicitly and straightforwardly. Reason requires such transparency if it is to proceed on a solid footing. Where, then, Abizadeh claims that for Hobbes the first normative principle which grounds natural law is “desire and pursue your own good,” rather than the explicit definitions and fundamental precepts of Leviathan 14, I think his view is problematic. Considering the moral argument of Leviathan in parallel with the physical argument of De Corpore, it seems likely that Hobbes would have been happy to call his definitions, the right to everything, and fundamental law of nature “principles” in Leviathan. It seems quite unlikely, though, and contrary to his account of science, that he would have a fundamental principle that he does not mention.

Compare the case of Spinoza, whose psychology and method are similar in many respects to those of Hobbes. At the outset of his dictates of reason, Spinoza writes: “Because reason demands nothing contrary to nature, it therefore demands … absolutely, that each person should strive, as far as it is in him, to preserve his own being.” On the basis of this passage, one might argue that “desire and pursue the preservation of your being” is a principle of Spinoza’s dictates of reason. He starts with this emphatic statement about what we should do in general and other dictates of reason follow from it. Similarly, to take Abizadeh’s own comparison case (97), Thomas Aquinas explicitly and at the outset of his account of natural law makes it his first principle that the good is to be done and pursued and evil avoided (ST I–II q. 94 a. 2). If Abizadeh is right about Hobbes’s first principle, the case with Hobbes is quite different. He never does claim that one ought desire and pursue one’s own good. Notably, there is no such claim where one would expect to find it, at the beginning of Leviathan 14.

This point matters, I think, to Abizadeh’s assessment of interpretations of Hobbes that make him a subjectivist about reasons. If Hobbes were somewhere to assert as self-evident or to derive in argument the claim that one ought desire and pursue one’s own good, then the normativity of the laws of nature might well inherit their normativity from this principle: one ought to pursue peace because it is a necessary means to one’s good, and one ought to pursue necessary means to whatever ends one ought to pursue. The fact that Hobbes does not explicitly present this principle, though, is an impetus to take subjectivism and the deflationary sense of the normative that it presents seriously.

Turning now from the foundations to the conclusions of moral science, on Abizadeh’s view, we ought to understand Hobbes’s laws of nature as giving us reasons to act in particular ways that are independent of our particular desires or knowledge. Alternatively, if some subjectivist view is correct, then we ought to take them to give us reasons that are dependent upon our desires and knowledge. For example, on Watkins’s very simple “doctor’s orders” interpretation, I want to live, and I know that peace is means to survival (Watkins, 76–77). That knowledge gives me a motive (and so, in that sense, a reason) to seek peace. Textual evidence that may be relevant to the broader issue, then, is evidence concerning Hobbes’s views about whether human beings desire the ends secured by his laws of nature and whether human beings know that the laws of nature help to secure those ends. On the first topic, Abizadeh offers an excellent, nuanced account of Hobbes’s views about human desire. If subjectivism about reasons were to work, it would have to accommodate something close to desire as Abizadeh presents it. On the second topic, Hobbes’s views about human knowledge of laws of nature, however, I do have reservations about Abizadeh’s argument.

Abizadeh contends (122, 131) that, according to Hobbes, we need not know the laws of nature. If that were so, it would be a strong point against most varieties of subjectivist interpretation. The textual evidence that Abizadeh raises in support of this view, however, does not, to my eyes, do the job. One passage is Leviathan 30.4, where Hobbes writes that the grounds of sovereign rights need to be taught. Abizadeh paraphrases: “those who could know the laws of nature but do not, ‘need to be diligently, and truly taught’” (122). Perhaps one might work one’s way to the laws of nature from the rights of sovereigns, eventually, but the notions—and Hobbes makes this point emphatically (L 14.3)—are not simply intersubstitutable. Later, Abizadeh cites Leviathan 26.21, where Hobbes writes that the laws of nature need interpretation because we are frequently blinded by self-love and other strong passions. This also seems to me not directly related to the question of our knowledge of the laws of nature. The passage, I think, is naturally understood as one in which Hobbes notes that, although we all do know the laws of nature (perhaps because we all have a minimal degree of reason), we nevertheless easily misinterpret that law. The paragraph, after all, concerns the need for interpretation of all law. If knowing the law at all were a problem, that would be a more fundamental problem and would need to be addressed prior to the problem of misinterpretation.

A prominent passage in Leviathan states explicitly that all sane adults do know the laws of nature. At the conclusion of Hobbes’s moral science, Leviathan 15.40, he writes: “all men agree on this, that peace is good; and therefore also the way or means of peace … justice, gratitude … and the rest of the laws of nature.” Abizadeh’s contention that Hobbes defends a condition of epistemic access to natural law does offer a clear alternative reading of other passages (such as, L 15.35 and R&C 13) that a subjectivist might too quickly take to be equivalent to this passage: they do, read closely and without the context of 15.40, suggest that all can know the laws of nature and not that all do. In the light of 15.40, however, it seems to me that the subjectivist reading of these passages is better after all: all of us ought to know the laws of nature in the same sense that my socks ought to be in the drawer where I left them. In any case, the assertion that all minimally rational adults do know the laws of nature is perfectly consistent with the assertion that all minimally rational adults can know the laws of nature. Evidence that Hobbes maintains the latter, if that is what these other passages are, is not evidence that he does not hold the former.

Abizadeh’s analysis and criticism of subjectivist interpretations is excellent. In summary, I do worry that the alternatives he presents face pressing difficulties also. With respect to prudentialism, it is not what Hobbes would call “good and orderly” proceeding in science to have fundamental principles that are not explicit, and I do not think that Hobbes would have slipped this badly in his moral science. With respect to the view that we all must be able to know but need not know the laws of nature, it seems to me that Hobbes’s view is simpler: sane adults know the laws of nature. It is the enormously difficult function of the sovereign to create broader agreement and then fruitful cooperation from this small shared ground.

Michael LeBuffe (University of Otago)

 

Abbreviations of Historical Texts

L: Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan. I have freely modernized Hobbes’s English, and have typically followed the edition of Edwin Curley (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1994). I also follow Curley’s paragraph numbering.

DC: Thomas Hobbes, De Corpore.

ST: Thomas Aquinas. Summa Theologicae.

Also cited

John Watkins, Hobbes’s System of Ideas (London: Hutchinson, 1965).

Online Colloquium (2): Field on Hobbes and the Two Faces of Ethics

This online colloquium has been established to discuss Arash Abizadeh’s recent book, Hobbes and Two Faces of Ethics. We began with an introduction to the text by Professor Abizadeh. We now have a response from Sandra Field (Yale-NUS), which will be followed by responses from Michael LeBuffe (Otago) and Daniel Eggers (Köln), and finally a reply by Arash Abizadeh. Many thanks to Cambridge University Press for supporting this colloquium.

 

Abizadeh’s Hobbes and the Two Faces of Ethics is an ambitious book. It seeks to provide a comprehensive interpretation of Hobbes’s ethics, and to make that interpretation speak equally to historians of ideas as to contemporary metaethics and normative ethics. There is much to admire in the execution of this project. Abizadeh is relentless in parsing fine distinctions amongst contemporary readings of Hobbes, and in deploying textual evidence from across Hobbes’s oeuvre to support his favoured view. And the ends to which this rigour and precision are deployed are intellectually significant. Abizadeh identifies a bifurcation between the good and the right in Hobbes’s normative ethics—on the one hand, a natural law representing an ethics of individual prudence; on the other hand, a model of justice representing a juridical morality of interpersonal obligation—claiming that both are genuinely, but independently, normative. This interpretation is controversial but ultimately compelling, and historically illuminating. I found his analysis of the genuine normativity of the ethics of individual self-interested prudence particularly useful; Abizadeh diagnoses a certain narrowness of current philosophical conceptions of morality as the obstacle to appreciating this normativity (10, 219–23).

My critical comments focus on Abizadeh’s central metaethical claim: that Hobbes offers a sophisticated ethical naturalism, one which is neither reductionist or noncognitivist (17–19, 61). While the bulk of Abizadeh’s discussion is devoted to exegesis, at no point in the book does Abizadeh indicate finding the position to be problematic or incoherent. Thus, I take it that Abizadeh’s goal is not merely to establish that Hobbes held this view, but also to commend such a view as being sufficiently philosophically compelling and appealing to merit our present attention. I will try to articulate the enduring difficulties facing such a view, both on Hobbes’s own terms and for us.

Abizadeh’s starting point is the puzzle of the apparent incompatibility between Hobbes’s materialist mechanistic metaphysics and his normative philosophy (7–8). One might think that in a materialist metaphysics, lacking free will, there can only be causal responsibility and instrumental sanctions (like rewards and punishments for animals), not genuine moral responsibility. But to the contrary, Abizadeh argues that this is a medieval scholastic prejudice: aligning Hobbes with the earlier Aristotelian view, we see that the possibility of attributing genuine moral responsibility relies not on the possession of free will, but on the capacity for reason (183–87, 213). Might one then object that that in a materialist metaphysics, reason itself is deflated, becoming a merely passive mental process? Again, to the contrary, Abizadeh argues that it is possible for one’s reasoning to be active, by which he means capable of reflecting on and being guided by reasons (62–65, 93).

Abizadeh’s response to worries about Hobbes’s naturalism ultimately relies on identifying a capacity for active reasoning. Hobbes and Abizadeh distinguish having a capacity for reason from exercising that capacity: there are people with weak understanding, unclear thoughts, countervailing motivations, and so on, and correspondingly people often fail to fulfil their moral responsibilities. But how is the distinction between possessing an unexercised capacity versus simply lacking the capacity to be specified? And given Hobbes’s determinist view of causation, how can the salience of such a distinction be upheld?

Abizadeh does not provide an explicit account, so let us turn to Hobbes’s general metaphysics of bodies. Hobbes makes clear that at a fundamental level, nothing is truly contingent: an act is either determined to occur, or it is not. The possibility of an act does not mean its contingency, but rather that the act is not impossible: at some point of time a full set of determinate causes will converge such that it will in fact occur (AW 37.5). This view of possibility generates a fundamentally un-Aristotelian understanding of capacity. As Hobbes explains in the course of criticising his Aristotelian opponent’s view: ‘We may say … that an axe can cut because there is nothing in the axe that stops it from cutting. Yet there may well be, in the nature of things, causes that make it impossible for the axe—or anything else—ever to be picked up, and as a result the axe cannot cut’ (AW 37.11). Thus, it is not the inner properties of a thing which specify its capacities, but its place in an actual web of deterministic causes: if determinate causes mean a putative capacity is never exercised, it turns out that it is no capacity at all. In our ignorance of the future, more loosely and derivatively we might call an act possible when it may (for all we know) occur; correspondingly we might attribute a capacity or power to produce that act. (DCo 10.5; AW 35.6–10). This is harmless enough, so long as we bear in mind the strict meaning of possibility: if there are reasons to think that the act will not occur, then it is not permissible to attribute capacity or power for that act.

Is Hobbes’s discussion of the human capacity for reason, and correspondingly of the human capacity to feel the rational force of obligations, compatible with this anti-Aristotelianism? At face value, it is compatible. After all, Hobbes and Abizadeh are careful not to attribute a capacity for reason in certain cases where it predictably will not be put into practice (19, 122, 136). Children and the mad are ruled out; and even amongst sane adults, the attribution of normative obligations requires that the relevant reasons are epistemically and motivationally accessible (in particular, ruling out normative obligations to act in extreme contravention to one’s own wellbeing, for instance any purported obligation to obey a command to kill oneself or one’s parent). And outside of these cases, individuals (for all we know) may reason and act well, so we may permissibly attribute full capacity for reason and full moral responsibility, which is exactly what Abizadeh proposes doing.

However, against appearances, I would suggest that Hobbes’s ethics’ extensive reliance on the human capacity for reason and corresponding rational action is deeply problematic on his own terms. The problem comes into view once we shift the analytical lens from humans considered individually to the domain of sociological reflection. At the scale of society, we can see poor reasoning and poor behaviour arising predictably from certain aspects of the social domain, even when subjects are not facing the kind of extreme threat to their wellbeing outlined above. Under certain social conditions, it is predictable that a proportion of the population will steal (for instance, when law enforcement is imperfect and there is a stark gap between rich and poor). Under certain social conditions, it is predictable that a proportion of the population will rationalise unjust conduct (for instance, when gratifying rhetoric connects with feelings of grievance or dissatisfaction). (See DC Chapter 12; L Chapter 29). In this light, while it may be fair to say that for all we know, a particular individual will behave rationally and fulfil their obligations, it is not fair to say that for all we know, everyone will do so. Thus, to say that all sane adult members of a population have the Hobbesian ‘capacity’ to reason aright and to fulfil their obligations seems untenable.

The tension is brought to the fore in the discussion of punishment. Abizadeh wants to reject the view by which materialist metaphysics requires a merely strategic attitude to practices of blame and punishment (in terms of salutary sociological and political effects, not in terms of genuine moral responsibility). On Abizadeh’s reading, certainly, for Hobbes it is necessary that such practices do have salutary effects (this explains his opposition to vengeful punishment). But strategic usefulness alone is not sufficient: those breaking the law are truly morally responsible for their action, in light of their rational capacity. Therefore punishment is also morally important mode of expressing this second-person holding responsible (21, 203–9). Perhaps this is textually accurate (although it seems to me that Hobbes’s own defence of blame and punishment rests rather more heavily on its salutary strategic effects than Abizadeh’s reconstruction would suggest, see LN 248–55). But I want to underscore the unappealing, and perhaps incoherent, commitment this kind of naturalism involves. It seeks still to blame people for bad behaviour, even if it is the sociologically predictable result of certain social conditions. It lays deep moral responsibility on the individual and obscures the larger web of causes in which individual action occurs. The political consequence is holding communities responsible for sociologically predictable dysfunction.

Perhaps Abizadeh’s moralised naturalism, with its concomitant individualisation of responsibility and refusal of the ambiguities of agency, is the genuine legacy of Hobbes’s political philosophy, and the correct all-things-considered interpretation of his texts. But first, I wonder about its coherence: it is not clear to me that it fully addresses the challenge of a materialist metaphysics. Abizadeh comprehensively addresses one possible tension (how naturalism fits with the possibility of moral truths and the possibility of active reasoning) without addressing adequately another tension (how complex causal determinism fits with the attribution of moral blame). And second, it is far from clear why Hobbes’s moralised naturalism merits being promoted over the thoroughgoing materialist undercurrent of Hobbes that Abizadeh rejects. According to this more subversive undercurrent, political and sociological reflection on the determinate causes of human conduct should complicate the easy attribution of a capacity for moral and just action, and give us pause to reflect on the broader determinate causes helping or inhibiting the development of such capacity.

Sandra Field (Yale-NUS College)

 

Abbreviations

AW: Thomas Hobbes, Thomas White’s De Mundo Examined, trans. Harold Whitmore Jones (London: Bradford University Press, 1976).

DC: Thomas Hobbes, On the Citizen, ed. and trans. Richard Tuck and Michael Silverthorne (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014).

DCo: ‘De Corpore’, in Thomas Hobbes, Thomæ Hobbes Malmesburiensis Opera philosophica quæ latine scripsit omnia, Vol. 1, ed. William Molesworth (London: John Bohn, 1839).

L: Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan: with selected variants from the Latin edition of 1668, ed. Edwin Curley (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1994).

LN: ‘Liberty and Necessity’, in Thomas Hobbes, The English Works of Thomas Hobbes of Malmesbury, Vol. 4, ed. William Molesworth (London: John Bohn, 1839).

Online Colloquium (1): Introduction to Hobbes and the Two Faces of Ethics

This online colloquium has been established to discuss Arash Abizadeh’s recent book, Hobbes and Two Faces of Ethics. We begin with an introduction to the text by Professor Abizadeh himself, which will be followed by weekly responses from Sandra Field (Yale-NUS), Michael LeBuffe (Otago) and Daniel Eggers (Köln), and finally by a reply from Arash Abizadeh. Many thanks to Cambridge University Press for supporting this colloquium.

 

Eudaimonia was the Greek term for the ultimate good of a human life, what the Latins translated as felicitas and in English is often translated as well-being, happiness, or flourishing. The central question of Greek ethics had been: How should I live? The nearly unanimous answer was: Live the best life, the life of eudaimonia, and cultivate the character conducive to living such a life. What the eudaimonist philosophers disagreed about was what the good life consists in: a life of pleasure, of virtue, of bodily and external goods, or some combination thereof. But they agreed that practical reasons are ultimately all grounded in one’s own good. Perhaps one should be beneficent or just to others, but if so, ultimately it is because being beneficent or just is good for one’s own self, a constituent of—or at least the means to—one’s eudaimonia or felicity.

Hobbes stood at a watershed in the history of ethics, a moment in which the eudaimonist model rooted in ancient Greece began to give way to a distinctly modern, juridical model of morality. If Greek ethics focussed on the dispositions of character conducive to eudaimonia, modern ethics took the form of a juridical code specifying moral laws and obligations that could in principle conflict with one’s own good. It is in the works of Grotius and Hobbes in particular that we see the emergence of a juridical notion of obligation. The traditional eudaimonistic notion of ethical obligation just amounts to a reason one has whose normativity is grounded in one’s own good or felicity. Thus for Aquinas to say one is obligated by natural law was simply for him to say that conforming to natural law is conducive to one’s own felicity. Although for Aquinas natural law is intrinsically oriented to the common good, the reason one should act for the common good is that it is a constituent of one’s own good. Hobbes dropped the assumption that the common good is a constituent of the individual’s good, but he nevertheless retained a eudaimonistic notion of obligation: it is in this eudaimonistic sense that Hobbesian laws of nature “oblige” each rational creature. (Hobbesian laws of nature are intrinsically oriented to the individual’s own good or “self-preservation,” not the common good as in classical natural law). But Hobbes also deployed ‘obligation’ in a distinct, new, juridical sense to name what one owes others, that is, obligations to which others have the normative standing to hold one accountable (just as, under the Roman law, others had the legal standing to hold one accountable to one’s legal obligations). Hobbes thought that by right of nature human beings are free of all obligations in this strict, juridical sense: if one violates natural laws prior to conventionally acquiring juridical obligations, others have the standing to criticize one for being imprudent, and are free to protect themselves as they see fit, but no one has the standing to hold one accountable. One does not owe it to others to act prudently to secure one’s own felicity. But once one acquires obligations by contract, one is accountable to those to whom the obligation is owed.

These are the two faces of ethics in Hobbes, represented on the book’s cover by the figures of Prudentia on the right and Justitia on the left (in a seventeenth-century engraving by the Dutch artist Hendrick Goltzius). The first face comprises reasons of the good: reasons for which we are responsible, but for which we are not accountable to anyone. It paradigmatically consists for Hobbes in the precepts of natural law, which prescribe the means of self-preservation. We are responsible in the sense that, qua rational creatures, the actions or passions these reasons govern are attributable to us: we may be correctly counselled or warned, and justifiably commended or criticized, in their light. But we do not thereby owe anyone any excuse, justification, or compensation. The second face comprises reasons of the right: reasons for which we are second-personally accountable to others. It paradigmatically comprises the obligations arising from contract. Here others have standing to demand our conformity to such reasons in ways that reiterate and seek to vindicate the demand in case of failure to conform, that is, to condemn and sanction failures by demanding excuses, justification, or apology, and exacting compensation. Failing to heed reasons of the first kind renders us an appropriate target for criticism or critical blame, but failing to heed the second kind renders us an appropriate target for vindicatory or reactive blame or sanction.

Recognizing these two faces of Hobbesian ethics is indispensable for resolving several apparent puzzles plaguing Hobbes scholarship. One puzzle concerns the relation between natural right and natural law. Hobbes asserted that by nature humans are free from obligation: obligation arises only by voluntary conventions such as contract. Yet he also asserted that by nature humans are obligated by natural laws. How could people prior to giving up their full right of nature be free of all obligation while at the same time obligated by natural law? The answer becomes clear only once we recognize the two faces of ethics: by right of nature people are free of juridical obligations, whereas the laws of nature impose merely eudaimonistic obligations. The two faces of ethics are also reflected in Hobbes’s distinction between rational agents and persons. In virtue of their capacity for reasoning, rational agents have normative reasons: they “own” or are attribution-responsible for their actions. But to be accountable to others—to occupy the second-personal standpoint—one must also be a person to them, which requires being intersubjectively recognized as a person by them. The artificial category of personhood is central to Hobbes’s ethics.

For Hobbes, these two dimensions of normativity are neither reducible to nor derivable from each other. Whereas the science of the good concerns natural laws and eudaimonistic obligations, the science of justice concerns artificial laws and juridical obligations. To be sure, fulfilling contractual obligations is also prescribed by Hobbes’s third law of nature, but this is because in Hobbes’s view we have prudential reasons to heed reasons of the right—not because natural law furnishes or grounds reasons of the right. Prudence coincides with justice, as Hobbes insisted in his reply to the Foole, but it does not ground justice. In repudiating natural sociability, Hobbes was denying that conventional, juridical obligations derive from or reduce to natural, eudaimonistic ones. He was also denying that the common good is constitutive of one’s own good: Hobbes repudiated the classical assumption of an underlying harmony of interests. Hobbes confronted the ensuing spectre of fundamental clashes of interests by appealing to a common social good—peace—constructed from the overlap between each individual’s antecedent good. And he obviated the possibility of divergent eudaimonistic and juridical obligations by building prudential constraints into the content of the latter (via what I call his sign theory of consent). Prudentia and Justitia are distinct figures, each with their own face, but locked in intimate embrace.

The book has two overarching ambitions. One is to identify—at the level of normative ethics—the two dimensions of normativity I have just sketched and their relation to each other. The second is to provide a sustained treatment of Hobbes’s implicit metaethical commitments—in particular, to show Hobbes’s commitment to genuine, irreducibly normative truths. This is the topic of Part I and the book’s concluding chapter. Hobbes was at the forefront of the new, mechanistic model of science gripping the seventeenth century. He claimed the only real entities are bodies in motion and all real properties reduce to extension and motion. Many of his readers have consequently assumed he was ultimately a nihilist about genuine, irreducibly normative properties and truths. Some have read him as a kind of ethical-naturalist reductionist (according to which all normative properties and facts reduce to non-normative ones, concerning, for example, the means for fulfilling one’s own desires), as an error theorist (according to which, because there are no genuinely normative properties, all positive, genuinely normative judgements and propositions are erroneous), or as a prescriptivist (according to which normative judgements and discourse are not truth apt, because they do not purport to represent anything, but merely prescribe what to think, feel, or do). The most promising interpretation construing Hobbes as a nihilist about irreducible normativity, however, is a hybrid view, according to which normative discourse consists in (a) a prediction about what people would do upon reasoning properly along with (b) the prescription that they do it. Yet even this hybrid view ultimately falters: it is gainsaid by Hobbes’s account of deliberation, reasoning, and counsel, which presupposes genuine, irreducibly normative truths. In the book’s concluding chapter I return to his metaethics to argue Hobbes is best read as a naturalist who denied that normative properties are real (they have no causal standing) but who nevertheless took irreducibly normative propositions to be truth apt and many of them—viz. his own—to be true.

Part II is devoted to the first, attributability dimension of normativity (reasons of the good). Hobbes was not a subjectivist or instrumentalist about reasons: he was a prudentialist who (like the ancient eudaimonists) held that even those who do not properly care for their ongoing good or felicity ought to do so. Many readers have thought that Hobbes either denied the existence of an ultimate good for human beings, or at least denied felicity any role in determining what one ought to do. They have thought that the normative foundation of Hobbes’s normative theory, and hence of his laws of nature, is a notion of bare survival or death-avoidance that makes no reference to a substantive conception of the good. I demonstrate this is a mistake: Hobbesian laws of nature are grounded not in survival, but in “self-preservation” in an expansive sense that includes the constituents of a minimum level of felicity. The normative foundation of Hobbesian natural law is not life per se, but a life worth living. (This is why under some extreme circumstances, suicide might be reasonable.) And felicity consists in a life of ongoing pleasure: Hobbes was a hedonist about the good. But he departed from classical, Epicurean hedonism in two important respects: neither felicity nor pleasure is a “final” end in the sense of being the aim of all valuable action; and felicity does not come from the termination of desires. Hobbes took felicity primarily to consist, not in pleasures of satisfaction, but in ongoing anticipatory pleasure: the pleasure we take when we imagine and hope for the satisfaction of our desires (where hope is nourished by repeated past success in satisfying desires). It is true that which particular desires people have and what they take pleasure in differ from one person to the next. In this sense Hobbes did not advance a “thick” conception of the good life. But it is still substantive: it consists in ongoing pleasure. (In the book I clarify Hobbes’s theory of the good and felicity in part by mining the rich evidence found in Hobbes’s manuscript Anti-White. The manuscript has unfortunately been unduly neglected by anglophone scholars, partly because it is a recent, mid-twentieth-century discovery and partly because the only available English translation is so atrocious. I provide retranslations of all quoted passages.) Hobbes was also alive to the role of language in not just describing, but determining what is instrumentally good. In prescriptively self-fulfilling circumstances, calling something ‘good’ may actually make it good (by helping to bring about the social preconditions in which the thing actually serves as a means to the good). This is what the Hobbesian sovereign does.

Part III is devoted to the second, accountability dimension of normativity (reasons of the right). Being owed an obligation does not reduce to the naturalistic relation of holding someone accountable; it consists in the normative standing to hold accountable, i.e., the standing to censure in second-personal, reactive ways demanding a response. Hobbes used the juridical vocabulary of “accusation” and “condemnation” to distinguish these reactive forms of blame from mere criticism. It is true that Hobbes defended a prospective theory of punishment: punishment should always be for the sake of some future good such as deterrence or reform; inflicting pain on others solely with a view to the past, or simply to take pleasure in exacting revenge, is a mode of imprudent cruelty forbidden by natural law. Nevertheless, he also viewed reactive punishment, which expresses revengefulness, as a mode of prospectively deterring and reforming recalcitrant behaviour: in punishing criminals, the commonwealth acts prospectively not merely by providing material incentives for future conformity; punishment also dialogically reiterates the initial legal requirement and seeks to elicit from the accused a normative response acknowledging the requirement.

Hobbes’s role as a watershed in the transition from the ancient, eudaimonist conception of ethics to the modern, juridical conception of morality—and the question of whether Hobbes advanced a genuinely moral philosophy in the modern sense—has been obscured by the fact that Hobbes himself continued to use the word ‘moral’ in its older senses. In the aftermath of the seventeenth century, philosophers today typically use the term in one of two ways: to denote reasons grounded in a requirement to take others’ interests impartially into account; or to denote reasons for which one is accountable to others. Both the impartialist and accountability conceptions raise the anti-eudaimonist possibility that morality may sometimes require acting against one’s own interests, i.e., against prudence. For classical writers, by contrast, the Latin term moralis, which translated the Greek ēthikos, simply referred, in its most generic sense, to the actions of normatively responsible agents, i.e., actions meriting praise or blame. As a result, mores could also refer to the customary norms regulating social interaction amongst responsible agents—what in French became ‘moeurs’, in English ‘morays’ and ‘manners’, equivalent to what today we call social. To call norms moral in this sense is not even to claim they are genuinely normative, but merely to say they are social norms, i.e., customarily followed in social interaction. By extension, genuine reasons are moral in this sense insofar as they govern social interaction. Here, moral reasons neither require impartially considering others’ interests, nor are owed to others; they are moral in the sense they govern social interaction and what foreseeably affects others’ interests. Classical authors also used ‘moral’ more strictly to denote what serves interests others share with oneself, that is, the common good. Yet moral reasons in this sense are not, as in impartialist theories, grounded in the common good: for the eudaimonists, one’s practical reasons are all grounded in one’s own good.

Hobbes used the term ‘moral’ in the inherited classical sense. In calling natural laws “moral laws,” he meant they govern social interaction; indeed, he meant they prescribe means to one’s own preservation that are also means to others’ preservation, i.e., that are also conducive to a common good. Natural laws are not, however, intrinsically moral in the modern, impartialist or accountability, senses: they are essentially prudential precepts articulating merely eudaimonistic obligations. Thus the set of precepts articulated in natural law that compose what Hobbes called “Moral Philosophy,” which “is nothing but the Science of what is Good, and Evill, in the conversation, and Society of man-kind” (Leviathan 15.40), is not a genuinely moral philosophy in either the impartialist or the accountability sense. But it would be a mistake thereby to conclude Hobbes did not advance a moral philosophy in any modern sense. He did—not in the impartialist sense, but in the accountability sense. His label for that part of ethics concerning what we owe each other was not “moral philosophy” or “ethiques” but—as he put it in Leviathan’s table of sciences, “The Science of JUST and UNJUST.” Reasons of the right are reasons of Justitia.

Prudentia and Justitia are locked in intimate embrace because reasons of the good, according to Hobbes, shape the content of reasons of the right. Reasons of the right are acquired by convention, through voluntary acts of consent signifying to others one’s intention to obligate oneself to them. But Hobbes did not ground consent in one’s actual intentions; he grounded it instead in the intersubjective signs of consent. He therefore grounded consent in the intention others could reasonably impute to one in social interaction, on the basis of semantic and syntactic conventions and pragmatic context, but also on the assumption that one acts in a minimally reasonable and prudent fashion. This is why, Hobbes argued, some aspects of our right of nature are inalienable: no one could ever reasonably understand us to be intending to consent to an obligation to refrain from preserving for ourselves a life worth living. It is also why a developed legal system inherently incorporates the laws of nature: judges must interpret the sovereign’s legislative will (as expressed in civil law) by imputing to him the prudential intention to conform to natural law. Reasons of the good shape the content of reasons of the right at both the individual-ethical and the political-legal levels. Prudentia is locked in not merely an intimate but also a rather public embrace of Justitia.

Arash Abizadeh (McGill University)

Online Colloquium (5): Reply by Boucher

This online colloquium has been established to discuss David Boucher’s recent book, Appropriating Hobbes: Legacies in Political, Legal, and International Thought. We began with an introduction to the text by Professor Boucher, followed by responses from Howard Williams, Eleanor Curran, and David DyzenhausWe finish this week with a reply by David Boucher. Many thanks to Oxford University Press for supporting this colloquium.

Response to my critics

I am honoured and extremely grateful that three such distinguished scholars have taken the time to consider my arguments and selectively respond to different aspects of Appropriating Hobbes. I began my career examining and criticising the ‘Cambridge School’ of intellectual history, concluding that methodological pluralism enabled us to draw-out different aspects of a thinker’s arguments, enabling us to evaluate them against the various criteria that have emerged to shape our different academic disciplines.[1] I had hoped to escape the necessity of returning to methodological justifications, but selectively examining how Hobbes has been received and manipulated in different contexts necessitated a justificatory framework to hold the whole project together, which two of my critics use to hoist me by my own petard. The principal claim that there is no Hobbes independent of our interpretations of him, is I admit contentious, but at least to me it seems obvious. David Dyzenhaus is the most disappointed that I do not by-pass Hobbes’s interpreters and spend more time attending to Hobbes’s actual arguments. He then seems unwittingly to confirm my contention by using Oakeshott and Kelson as interpreters of Hobbes who are said to help us a good deal to understand the complexity of Hobbes’s theory of law, which funnily enough looks very like their own theories of law. There is a certain irony in directing me to Oakeshott in that he too was accused of ignoring what Hobbes actually said.[2] Howard Williams appears sympathetic to my claim that each generation, each discipline, reinterprets Hobbes anew, each having to do their own thinking for themselves. He begins, however, by telling us what Hobbes’s authentic argument is, presumably independent of interpretation. Eleanor Curran, too, expresses sympathy with my project, but is disappointed, if that is not too strong a word, with my apparent inability to remain faithful to my methodological precepts. Just like Schmitt detected a fatal flaw in Hobbes through which the light of liberty shone, Curran detects in me the flaw of intruding some of my own opinions into the debates, particularly in responding to Schmitt. Let me respond, as best I can to some of their criticisms.

Dyzenhaus makes some telling and substantive points. First, why didn’t I use Oakeshott as an interpreter of Hobbes’s theory of law. I did consider reintroducing him again into the chapter on legal positivism, but on balance decided that the book was in danger of becoming more about Oakeshott than Hobbes, having invoked him as a protagonist in the ideology versus philosophy debate, and in the individualist versus collectivist debate. I also resisted the temptation to include him in the Hobbes among the idealists’ debate, about which Williams writes in this symposium. Secondly, I should have given much more emphasis to the content of the laws of nature. The difficulty in writing a book that comes at Hobbes from so many different angles is that the same material can easily be repeated over and over to the annoyance of the reader. Hobbes’s use of the laws of nature is drawn upon extensively throughout the book, one of the most important uses he makes of the idea, which is recognised by the classic international jurists, is its complete identification with the law of nations, an aspect of Hobbes that the legal positivists tend to ignore. Thirdly, my claim that law is made by the sovereign and not by judges and lawyers, is taken to be an overstatement that ignores the fact that, as Kelson tells us (alluding to Hobbes), sovereignty is institutionally complex, and subordinate judges themselves participate in sovereignty by interpreting enacted law through their understanding of the laws of nature. I do not wish to deny the complexity of sovereignty in Hobbes as his interpreters see it, but I would want to insist that whatever the process by which laws, and especially the common law, acquires legitimacy, the authority that confirms their legitimacy, if even by the silence of the Leviathan, derives by whatever circuitous route, from ‘the’ Sovereign. I have left Dyzenhaus’s most telling point until last. He appears to think that I believe Hobbes is a blank screen upon which we project ourselves, and if this claim were true engaging with Hobbes, or with the many debates that invoke him, would be a surreptitious form of intellectual narcissism, ‘because we would be no less projecting our prejudices onto these appropriators of Hobbes than we would onto Hobbes himself’. When I said there was no ‘it’ independent of interpretation (echoing Oakeshott and other Idealists), I simply meant that it is meaningless to try to separate them, they are mutually dependent, and this is what I take Gadamer and Ricoeur to be saying, and why I use them in justification. Interpretation is not a direct engagement with the text. There is a tradition of interpretation which frames our initial responses (prejudices), but which by means of the hermeneutic circle (Gadamer), or arc (Ricoeur), are modified within the constraints of our own horizons, and those projected by the text. The text doesn’t have an independent existence, despite what Kant says about the much ridiculed idea of ‘things in themselves’, and even he conceded that although they have an independent existence we cannot know them independently of the a priori categories that structure our thought.

Curran is puzzled by the status of a particular intervention I make regarding Schmitt’s regret that Hobbes allowed the subjects of Leviathan freedom of conscience, which ultimately opened the way to the corrosive influence of liberalism on modern European politics. I suggested that Schmitt could have made a much stronger case by focusing on Hobbes’s argument for the retention of the natural right to self-preservation which allowed for the individual to flee justice if it threatened his or her life. I mentioned that Jean Hampton also emphasised this point. Curran suggests that I appear to be pronouncing on what Hobbes actually meant which undermines the status of my methodological claims to see Hobbes through the eyes of his appropriators. Leo Strauss was a contemporary of Schmitt and indeed, as I pointed out in the text, accused Schmitt of missing this more glaring element of liberalism in Hobbes’s text.[3] My remark has to be seen in the context of the hermeneutic tradition of interpretation, and the criticism of Schmitt emanating from Strauss in the context in which Schmitt read Hobbes. This, however, does not wholly absolve me of the charge, and if the book had been primarily about methodology I would have argued, following Charles Taylor, that the interpreter cannot wholly suspend judgment, or belief, when an author says something that appears ludicrous by our own standards. Indeed, identifying it as ludicrous is to apply those standards. There are other ways in which the interpreter cannot wholly stay above the fray. Again, following Taylor, but more so Hayden White, and tangentially J. H. Hexter, my choice of words, tempo of the narrative, and particularly the literary ‘trope’, influences how the reader understands, or perceives the incidents portrayed. Therefore, the way in which I have subconsciously portrayed Schmitt as something of a tragicomic figure, a modern king Cnut the Great, ordering the tide of liberalism to abate, is bound to influence a reader’s impression of him, especially if he or she is unfamiliar with his work.

Williams seems to ‘get’ what I was trying to do and appreciates its importance and partial novelty. Or, perhaps I was able to get my point across better in the chapter on Idealism, with which he is primarily concerned. What he particularly likes is the demonstration of the way the works of major philosophers develop over time, as they are read and re-read in different contexts. The novelty of a philosophy may be experienced anew, and differently by each audience. This is something that Croce understood all too well, that is, the importance of the interpreter in passionately breathing new life into dead and petrified texts. The text must resonate for the person who, and the age which, reads it. Otherwise the account given is mere chronicle. Those familiar with my work on R. G. Collingwood will see the impression he has made on the way that I conceived this book, but it also demonstrates that there is no Collingwood independent of interpretation, and that my Collingwood in today’s context is very different from Quentin Skinner’s version of Collingwood. Skinner also claims to have been heavily influenced by him.

Since I am among friends, and on the subject of Idealist interpretations, I hope I may be allowed to indulge myself by repeating what I consider to be one of the most eloquent and profound sentences on Hobbes. In The Philosophical Theory of the State Bernard Bosanquet argues:

For Hobbes, then, we might venture to say, political unity lies in a will which is actual, but not general; while for Locke it lies in a will which is general, but not actual. If the two are pressed to extremes, the former theory annihilates “self,” and the latter annihilates “government.” [4]

 Professor David Boucher (Cardiff University and the University of Johannesburg)

 

[1]  David Boucher, Texts in Context: Revisionist Methods for Studying the History of Ideas (Dordrecht, Martinus Nijhoff, 1985).

[2]  J. M. Brown accuses Oakeshott of ‘a singular lack of interest in what Hobbes actually said.’ ‘A Note on Professor Oakeshott’s Introduction to the Leviathan’, Political Studies, 1 (1953), 55.

[3]  Furthermore, the individual’s retention of the natural right to self-preservation ‘sets the path to the whole system of human rights in the sense of liberalism. . .’ Leo Strauss, ‘Notes on the Concept of the Political’ in Heinrich Meier, Carl Schmitt and Leo Strauss: the hidden dialogue (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2006), 101.

[4]  Bernard Bosanquet, The Philosophical Theory of the State (London, Macmillan, 1899), 93.

Online Colloquium (4): Dyzenhaus on Appropriating Hobbes

This online colloquium has been established to discuss David Boucher’s recent book, Appropriating Hobbes: Legacies in Political, Legal, and International Thought. We began with an introduction to the text by Professor Boucher, followed by responses from Howard Williams and Eleanor Curran. We now have a response from David Dyzenhaus (Toronto) and will finish with a reply by David Boucher. Many thanks to Oxford University Press for supporting this colloquium.

Response from David Dyzenhaus

In Appropriating Hobbes, David Boucher provides a fascinating account of the ways in which Hobbes has figured in the thought of later political and legal theorists. But for those like me who turn to his book to further illuminate our understanding of this great philosopher’s political and legal thought, the book will prove disappointing. Its most striking feature is Hobbes’s absence from most of the text. Hobbes is of course mentioned frequently. But his arguments as he himself made them figure hardly at all, though perhaps most of all in the chapter on which I shall focus in this comment—‘Hobbes among the Legal Positivists: Sovereign or Society’.

Boucher might well retort to the disappointed that where we go wrong is in supposing that there are arguments as Hobbes himself made them. He suggests that Hobbes is a kind of blank screen onto which we project our preconceptions or ‘prejudices’ in Gadamer’s sense, that is, our prior judgements about the point of political theory. If he were right about this claim, it might seem at first plausible to focus on what people have made of Hobbes, without much regard for Hobbes himself. But only at first. For if this methodological claim were true, there would be little point in engaging in the debate between those who have made use of Hobbes, because that engagement would also be with a chimera. We would be no less projecting our prejudices onto these appropriators of Hobbes than we would onto Hobbes himself.

Boucher, of course, does not fully accept his own suggestion. He agrees with Gadamer that we cannot wholly remake texts in our own image. Indeed, Gadamer’s point about prejudice as pre-judgement is that such judgements are always provisional. It is through their engagement with the text in a way that is always open to finding out that the text brings us up short, resists our interpretation, that the hope of an authentic interpretation lies.  But the way he approaches the reception of Hobbes’s thought largely neglects Gadamer’s point.

Another response might be that among the classic political philosophers. Hobbes’s political thought is peculiarly open to appropriation.  I think something like this thought underpins Boucher’s project. But that response is ambiguous between two views: the first that Hobbes’s political thought is so riven with contradiction that later interpreters can make of it what they will; the second that Hobbes gives a particularly rich and insightful account of modern politics, one that contains arguments that while made in his own political and social context remain highly pertinent to our own.

I think the second view sometimes tempts Boucher as he does spend some time both on correcting misappropriations and remedying neglect of what Hobbes in fact said. Indeed, it even tempts Quentin Skinner, who, as Boucher notes, argues that there is a real Hobbes out there, but one whose thought can be reduced to context-bound, political advocacy. For Skinner often departs from this stricture about context and engages fully with the merits of Hobbes’s arguments as arguments in political philosophy, and not as mere political advocacy, and he even occasionally hints at their relevance for our present concerns. My claim here is not that Hobbes’s arguments have some transcendent quality. Rather, as Thomas Nagel recently pointed out, it is important not to exaggerate the distance of figures such as Hobbes from us on the basis that it is not clear that they are speaking the same language as us. It ‘isn’t’, he says, that they speak our language, but that we speak their language, because our world has been significantly formed by them’.[1]

However, Boucher manages for the most part to avoid succumbing to this temptation, with the main exception his chapter, ‘Hobbes among the Legal Positivists’. But even here so little is provided by way of Hobbes’s account of the laws of nature and their role in the construction of a civil society in which legal subjects interact within the public order of the sovereign’s enacted law that the reader will come away with little sense of Hobbes’s highly nuanced critique of the common lawyers’ conception of law. In neglecting this aspect of Hobbes’s thought, Boucher perpetuates the strange inattention of Skinner to the details of Hobbes’s picture of the appropriate functioning of the modern legal state.

A singular omission here is Gerald Postema’s fine work, Bentham and the Common Law Tradition (OUP, 1989). Even more striking, given the place of Michael Oakeshott in his book, is Boucher’s neglect of Oakeshott’s wonderful, Hobbes-inspired essay ‘The rule of law’ in which Oakeshott shows how Hobbes’s political and legal thought provides a conception of legality that, he claims, ‘hovers over the reflections of many so-called “positivist” modern jurists’.[2] And it is clear that the jurist he has in mind is Hans Kelsen. Oakeshott’s insight in this line is profound. While Hobbes and Kelsen are not often linked, and while Kelsen never acknowledged any debt to Hobbes, both saw clearly what follows once one makes the decision to try to explain law as a matter of authority rather than as a matter of unmediated coercion. They understood that to explain law as a matter of authority is to explain it as a matter of de jure authority and so they focused on the way in which legality plays a crucial role in transforming might into right.

Kelsen (as ‘Kelson’) barely receives a mention in Boucher’s book. But had he pursued this insight, he might have seen how problematic his claim is that for Hobbes ‘law is made … by the sovereign and not by the judges and lawyers’ (158). For in Kelsen, as in Hobbes, the sovereign is an institutionally complex entity in which subordinate judges play a role in the exercise of sovereignty through interpreting enacted law in light of their understanding of the laws of nature. The ‘Science’ of the laws, Hobbes said, is ‘the true and onely Moral Philosophy’ and Oakeshott observed that they amount to ‘no more than an analytic break-down of the intrinsic character of law, … the jus inherent in genuine law …’. That science, as Hobbes understood things, underpinned his discussion of the themes not only of Boucher’s ‘Hobbes among the Legal Positivists’, but also of the themes in the surrounding chapters on law—3, 5 and 6. More attention to Hobbes’s actual arguments would, in my view, have made this study of the appropriations of Hobbes an even more worthwhile undertaking.

Professor David Dyzenhaus (University of Toronto)

 

[1]  Thomas Nagel, ‘How they Wrestled with the New’, (2016) 63: 14 New York Review of Books 7, his emphasis.

[2]  Michael Oakeshott, ‘The Rule of Law’ in Oakeshott, On History and Other Essays (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1999), 129, 175.

Online Colloquium (3): Curran on Appropriating Hobbes

This online colloquium has been established to discuss David Boucher’s recent book, Appropriating Hobbes: Legacies in Political, Legal, and International Thought. We began with an introduction to the text by Professor Boucher and a response from Howard Williams. We now have a response from Eleanor Curran (Kent), which focuses on chapter 3 of the book (on Schmitt and Oakeshott). This will be followed by a response by David Dyzenhaus (Toronto) and a reply by David Boucher. Many thanks to Oxford University Press for supporting this colloquium.

Response from Eleanor Curran

I enjoyed reading this chapter which has interesting commentary on the interpretations of Hobbes’s political theory by Carl Schmitt and Michael Oakeshott. I am also sympathetic to Boucher’s point that Hobbes has been subject to many conflicting interpretations and that those interpretations have often seemed to reflect the times and views of the commentators.

In the introduction to Appropriating Hobbes David Boucher says ‘the contention of this book is that interpreters of Hobbes should not be understood as penetrating into the depths of his mind, but instead gazing into a mirror in which they see their own reflections as the shadowy presence of Hobbes looks back.’ (11). And this, Boucher tells us, is to apply the method, broadly characterised as hermeneutics, to the study of Hobbes (12) to show that ‘there is no one perfect context that enables us to get at what Hobbes really meant, because he becomes almost indistinguishable from the context in which he is read’ (2).

In Chapter Three Boucher says that he wants to ‘explore the ideological appropriation of Hobbes, by Oakeshott and Schmitt, in order to demonstrate the capacity that they both display for portraying Hobbes as very much like themselves’ (89).

He discusses first, in some detail, Schmitt and Oakeshott’s own responses to political events and theory including what they both saw as the ‘degeneration in the theory and practice of the modern European state’ (91) and what they regarded as the importance of myth in providing a society with a sense of identity binding individuals together. ‘For each, myths played an essential role in bolstering the state apparatus and sustaining order’ (103). During this substantial part of the chapter (91-109), Hobbes is mentioned only intermittently and usually in the form of biographical asides or isolated remarks such as, ‘for Schmitt, Thomas Hobbes’s genius was to recognise the necessity of myth.’ (103) In the next two sections subtitled ‘Schmitt’s Hobbes’ and ‘Oakeshott’s Hobbes’ Boucher does discuss Schmitt and Oakeshott’s interpretations of Hobbes’ political theory. For reasons of space I will restrict my comments to the section on Schmitt.

Boucher recounts that Schmitt reads Hobbes, at least initially, as the theorist of absolutism par excellence. He sees his own theory of decisionism (according to which the sovereign may decide on the state of exception which allows him to suspend all laws and rights in defence of the state, in a time of emergency) in Hobbes’s theory. And so, Schmitt ‘recognised Hobbes as a potential ally.’ (109) In this early interpretation, Schmitt sees Hobbes as both an ‘anti-individualist’ and someone who thought that the state was ‘by constitution, essentially a dictatorship’ (ibid.). This co-opting of Hobbes’s theory by Schmitt, to support his own theory of sovereignty and the state is fairly well known and certainly seems to support Boucher’s claim of the appropriation of Hobbes by, in this instance, Schmitt. What happens next in the chapter is a little confusing. Boucher outlines Leo Strauss’s criticism of Schmitt’s interpretation as missing the significance of the individual for Hobbes and particularly of the individual’s retention of the right to self-preservation. These elements of Hobbes’s theory support the view that he is a proto-liberal, Strauss argues, rather than the anti-liberal of Schmitt’s reading. Boucher also tells us that Schmitt himself came to regard Hobbes as introducing a fatal flaw into his theory when he allowed freedom of conscience in religious matters. This individualist proviso, according to Schmitt, opened a crack that would later be exploited by Spinoza and which ‘contained the seed of death that destroyed the mighty Leviathan’ (112-113, quoting Schmitt).

What strikes me as puzzling is that the discussion has moved from describing the appropriation of Hobbes to support Schmitt’s own view to something more like an analysis of Hobbes’s arguments and statements and what theoretical viewpoints they either support or don’t support. In other words, this part of the chapter reads more like the usual sort of discussion and debate about what Hobbes actually said and what theoretical implications this has. The judgements about Hobbes’s theory here seem to have a different status from the contextualised interpretations Boucher sets out as his subject matter. For example, Boucher criticises Schmitt’s interpretation of Hobbes as undermining his (Hobbes’s) theory of absolute sovereignty, as above, saying ‘Schmitt may be overreacting . . . Hobbes undermined his theory of sovereignty however, in a different way.’ The politically fatal flaw, according to Boucher, is the retaining by individuals of the right to self-preservation. He then says, ‘this was something that Jean Hampton noticed, and which undermined any claim Hobbes may have to be the philosopher of absolutism.’ (113)

What is the status of this part of the discussion? If Boucher is arguing that, taking something from the text, one can state definitively that Hobbes undermines any claims that he is an absolutist then it sounds very much as though Boucher is providing his own considered view of what Hobbes actually wrote and the implications of what he wrote. And he makes no mention here of the context within which his comments may be evaluated. In other words, the implication is that there is a text, which says one thing rather than another and therefore has some independence from interpretation.

I am puzzled that Boucher does not expand on this. He does, in Chapter Six, finally include himself as an interpreter on the subject matter of international relations but maintains his claim to a position within a context and denies being a ‘free floating’ intellectual ‘above the fray’ beyond accepting ‘current standards of scholarship’ which mean that ‘the argument presented is what the evidence obliges me to believe.’ (187) This latter remark does little to clarify the status of the claims he makes that I refer to above.

If Boucher is right that there is no text independent of its interpreters then it is hard to see, without further argument or explanation, how he can at the same time argue, as he seems to, that particular statements or arguments by Hobbes, preclude a theory of absolutism on his part. It may be that I have taken too literally some of Boucher’s statements about the lack of a text independent of interpretation but some more explanation of how we can still legitimately make judgments about the text itself would have been welcome.

Dr Eleanor Curran (University of Kent)

Online Colloquium (2): Williams on Appropriating Hobbes

This online colloquium has been established to discuss David Boucher’s recent book, Appropriating Hobbes: Legacies in Political, Legal, and International Thought. We began with an introduction to the text by Professor Boucher. We now have a response from Howard Williams (Cardiff), which will be followed by responses from Eleanor Curran (Kent) and David Dyzenhaus (Toronto), and finally a reply by David Boucher. Many thanks to Oxford University Press for supporting this colloquium.

Response from Howard Williams

This is a bold an intriguing book. One of its central claims is that there is no one political philosophy of Thomas Hobbes. Rather there are very many political philosophies by him that emerge in the varying debates that have occurred around his work over the centuries. I find this an appealing thesis since it demonstrates how the work of major philosophers develop over time, as they are read and re-read. One other way of seeing the thesis is to hold that the novelty of the philosophy can be experienced anew by each generation. There is a kind of flexibility built into great texts that makes them apposite in all ages. I’ll now briefly test this thesis, first by looking at how Hobbes saw his own project and then looking at a small number of Boucher’s illuminating claims.

Hobbes was an essentialist philosopher. He believed that the truth about the world was singular and it could be discovered by one single individual. He believed that his works would stand for all time as eternally true. So convinced was he of the truth of Leviathan that he believed that it should be taught in schools and universities to all young people. And he was not immodest about this. He held that his book should be taught rather than all other texts! Hobbes’s essentialism arose from his materialist metaphysics. The world, including the human individuals that inhabited it, was but matter in motion. God for him was nothing other than the final cause that could be followed back from the things around us through a chain of cause and effect relationships. God was in this metaphysics itself no more than matter. Hobbes was a great admirer of the advances in natural science in his day. Two of his heroes were the physician Harvey and the Italian astronomer Galileo (9). Hobbes sought to emulate in the science of man what they had achieved in their chosen fields: he wanted to lay bare the laws that conditioned the activities of human individuals, and like Harvey in medicine he wanted to prescribe sure paths through which society might preserve its health.

His materialist approach inevitably led to a determinist view of the human individual. Free will was largely a delusion. It was but a name that we adopted for the final step in the series of causes that brought about our actions. We may like to think this final aim as chosen, but it is in fact entirely presaged in the preceding series of causes. Dismissing free will allowed Hobbes to advance a theory of politics which contained natural laws (165) that predetermined how we should act and could be deployed by the skillful political leader to bring about the best results. The Leviathan was born from a dream of a perfectly determined political universe that had its best form to which wise subjects should shape their lives. In Leviathan he adopted an approach which was powerfully psychological. He believed he had examined the main characteristics of human behavior, set them in an order of priority and had established the laws that conditioned our responses to what we encountered in our experience. The main precept he believed that we could conclude from this psychological study is that men would always do what was in their power to avoid a violent death. Fear therefore presented a key emotion that could be invoked in bringing about a more settled polity. As Boucher points out by the time he came to write Leviathan (78-9), Hobbes had drawn the conclusion that, as well as the mechanical laws that determined our behavior, rhetoric might also provide the philosopher with an important weapon in the erecting of a stable and lasting commonwealth. Nevertheless, Hobbes never took his gaze away from the key psychological laws he saw as being in play in human behavior.

In keeping with the theme of the book, Boucher makes the valuable and unusual attempt to set Hobbes’s political philosophy first within the context of Idealist philosophy. By Idealist philosophy Boucher has primarily in mind the British Idealist philosophers of the nineteenth and twentieth century on which he specializes. This is a good antidote to the usual interpretational context in which Hobbes is set of British empiricist philosophy, of which of course Hobbes is an important part. One of the further focusses of the book is the relationship between Hobbes and Carl Schmitt which is, in contrast, a more fashionable area and here again Boucher offers something new in approaching Schmitt from an idealist angle – a background which Schmitt would no doubt himself been aware of from those neo-Kantian philosophers who in the early part of his career were a dominating feature of academic German philosophy.

In the succinct chapter on Hobbes and the philosophical idealists Boucher provides intriguing assessments of the varying reputation Hobbes enjoyed within the school. Kant’s assessment is seen as rather cool and lacking in detail (though Kant struggled throughout his career with the philosophical paradigm Hobbes adopted which he took to be dogmatic.) For Boucher Hegel goes further than Kant in appreciating Hobbes’s worth as a political philosopher. Boucher interprets, with some justice, the master and slave dialectic which figures in Hegel’s earlier Jena writings as a way of moving on from the traditional state of nature model whilst incorporating some Hobbesian insights. Green straightforwardly gets it wrong, seeing too much that is dark in Hobbes’s materialism and political realism. Ritchie and Bosanquet make good some of these deficiencies and some of the less well-known idealist writers (39, Sorley for example) writers begin to give Hobbes a prominent place in the history of political philosophy. Most noteworthy of all in this improving trend is Collingwood’s rehabilitation of Hobbes in the New Leviathan, written at the time of the Second World War. Collingwood realizes the power of Hobbes’s view of language as shaping reality and the precariousness of civilization which always rests on a struggle against barbarism. Instead of opposing barbarism in the manner Hobbes had envisaged the twentieth-century state was advancing its cause under the weight of technological advance and mass democracy. Oakeshott appears throughout as a judicious and fair interpreter of Hobbes who appreciates the true standing of his work. Oakeshott sought to bring out what was of lasting philosophical value in Hobbes’s work in contrast with Skinner’s historical approach which relegated Hobbes to a time-limited political controversy. If anything Boucher comes out more on the side of Oakeshott in this debate, whilst always respecting the intellectual context in which the doctrines arose and were later discussed.

In his interlocutors Hobbes ran into an infinite variety of interpreters from authoritarians to liberals and from the moral to the amoral. None of the interpreters is without his appeal though some approximate more to the vision Hobbes himself had of his enterprise. Boucher briefly takes the essentialist line in presenting Hobbes’s ideas on international relations in advancing his own account. In this one area Boucher seeks to appropriate Hobbes, whilst in all other matters he leaves it in the hands of his interpreters. An unavoidable conclusion of the book is that we must all do political theory for ourselves.

Professor Howard Williams (University of Cardiff)

Online Colloquium (1): Introduction to Appropriating Hobbes

This online colloquium has been established to discuss David Boucher’s recent book, Appropriating Hobbes: Legacies in Political, Legal, and International Thought. We begin with an introduction to the text by Professor Boucher himself, which will be followed by weekly responses from Howard Williams (Cardiff), Eleanor Curran (Kent) and David Dyzenhaus (Toronto), and finally a reply by David Boucher. Many thanks to Oxford University Press for supporting this colloquium.

Contextualizations of Hobbes

The aim of Appropriating Hobbes is not to trace the changing fortunes of the interpretation of one of the most sophisticated and famous political philosophers who ever lived, but instead to take soundings here and there to determine his place in different contexts, the manner of his appropriation, and how his interpreters saw their own images reflected in him, or how they defined themselves in contrast to him. The main claim is that there is no Hobbes independent of the interpretations that arise from his appropriation in these various contexts and which serve to present him to the world. There is no one perfect context that enables us to get at what Hobbes ‘really meant’, despite the numerous claims to the contrary. He is almost indistinguishable from the context in which he is read. This contention is justified with reference to hermeneutics, and particularly the theories of Gadamer, Koselleck, and Ricoeur, contending that through a process of ‘distanciation’ Hobbes’s writings have been appropriated and commandeered to do service in divergent contexts such as philosophical idealism; debates over the philosophical versus historical understanding of texts; as well as in ideological disputations. In addition, Hobbes has been particularly prone to emblematic characterisations by various disciplines such as law, politics, and international relations. This book illustrates the capacity of a text to take on the colouration of its surroundings by exploring and explicating the importance of contexts in reading and understanding how and why particular interpretations of Hobbes have emerged, such as those of Carl Schmitt and Michael Oakeshott, or the international jurists of the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

The methodological thrust of the argument is that text and context are inseparable and that Hobbes takes on the character and persona of those who appropriate him for purposes of exploitation, or denigration. Appropriating Hobbes begins with a brief introduction to Hobbes’s immediate historical context and the controversies to which he responded and to which he contributed. For the justification of the approach I have taken I refer to the body of literature broadly termed hermeneutics. The contention, in brief, is that epistemological hermeneutics does not adequately account for the situatedness of the interpreter and, like Hobbes himself, whose theory of interpretation from the Elements of Law is rarely noticed, holds out the hope of overcoming the difficulties of attaching the meaning a of text to the psychology of the author. Referring to Dewey, Heidegger, Gadamer, his disciple Koselleck, and Ricoeur, it is contended that the inevitable distancing of the text from its author, from its context and from its time, both facilitates appropriation, but also acts as an impediment to retrieving authorial intentions. It is contended that this does not require us to concede a fatal relativism to interpretation. In other words, interpretations are not arbitrary. They have to conform to recognizable conventions that regulate, but not determine, what a community of scholars regard as a contribution to a genre of interpretation.

The book begins with an exploration of philosophical idealism, which rejected the fundamental principles of that tradition of thought that claimed Hobbes as one of its most significant progenitors, utilitarianism. Philosophical idealism came to dominate British philosophy in the latter part of the nineteenth century and still held considerable sway in the early part of the twentieth. Idealists provided an important corrective to interpretations, especially in the 1930s, that Hobbes was both an absolutist and a proto totalitarian.

Hegel identified clear deficiencies in Hobbes’s ‘scientific empiricism’, but he admired his logic and emphasis on the subjective power of the will. In Hegel’s own characterisation of individual self-consciousness the importance of the master/slave relationship owes a great deal to Hobbes. He was, for Hegel, an original perceptive thinker who tried, but ultimately failed to raise ‘scientific empiricism’ to the level of philosophy. We cannot hold Hegel responsible for the relative lack of interest and hostility to Hobbes among the early British Idealists. It was in fact Green’s almost wholly negative assessment that led such thinkers as Bradley and Seth more or less to ignore Hobbes. We find in Bosanquet, however, an altogether more qualitative nuanced assessment. His famous characterization was that in Hobbes we find a will that is actual, but not general. The reassessment by idealism of Hobbes culminates in R. G. Collingwood’s appreciation. He claims that Hobbes’s greatest discovery was that language was not the device by which we communicate pre-existing knowledge, but was prior to it and without which knowledge could never come into existence. Collingwood reformulated Hobbes’s argument, but he is also responsible for establishing the autonomy of historical knowledge, along with Oakeshott, in the English-speaking world, against the proprietorial claims of positivism. Collingwood not only inspired Gadamer, but also Quentin Skinner, one of the foremost interpreters of Hobbes over the last fifty years. Skinner distances himself from philosophical idealism, but not from the philosophy of history of Collingwood. Skinner’s contextual history is Collingwoodian in origin.

Oakeshott and Skinner are both concerned to emphasise the importance of context in the interpretation of Hobbes. What is at issue is the appropriate context for work such as that of Hobbes. Skinner wishes to deny any special character to political philosophy that differentiates it from written interventions of other genres. They are, in his view, all ideological, and require for their elucidation the reconstruction of political debates, such as those surrounding the Engagement Controversy; the importance of rhetoric in persuasive argument; and, the extent to which citizens are free under an absolute monarch. The immediate historical context, Skinner claims, is the most important context if we are to achieve an adequate understanding of what Hobbes was doing in writing his tracts of political philosophy. Their character as works of political philosophy is irrelevant to such an endeavour. Oakeshott does not deny that placing Hobbes in his historical context may illuminate aspects of his thought that may otherwise remain obscure or unintelligible. Political interventions, or attempts to influence political outcomes, are nevertheless, in his view, incidental to philosophy, which is an enterprise released from considerations of conduct, and which has no practical bearing when it is consistent with its character as philosophy. Philosophy operates at a different and higher level of discourse from ideology, and requires a more inclusive context for its elucidation, and this is nothing less than the history of political philosophy as a whole, philosophically conceived.

The twentieth century was defined by an endless stream of books claiming that European Civilisation was in crisis, and the First and Second World Wars were seen to be symptomatic of these crises. Hobbes in relation to the twentieth-century crisis of civilisation is explored through the writings of Schmitt and Oakeshott. The nature of the crisis as they see it is explored, and it becomes evident that the pernicious elements that one perceives as the contributory factors in the decline, are what the other claims are the strengths which are being undermined by the crisis. Both Oakeshott and Schmitt are critics of liberalism, but whereas Schmitt sees parliamentary democracy as a weakness emanating from liberalism, Oakeshott believes that parliamentary democracy predates modern liberalism, and is one of the strengths of contemporary politics with the potential to resist the decline of civilisation. Individuality, pluralism, the secret ballot, and the rule of law are for Schmitt unnecessary constraints contributory to the depoliticization of the political, undermining the capacity of the sovereign to determine, or decide who are friends and enemies. Schmitt is the prophet of homogeneity, collectivism and power, whereas Oakeshott recoils at the very idea that the mentality of the masses may subdue that of individuality. The rule of law, authority and individuality provides the bulwark against the type of collectivist state Schmitt advocates. Both Oakeshott and Schmitt make much of the power of myth, and each presents anti-Pelagian remedies for their diagnoses. Each has a radically different conception of politics, and each a resolution to the problems of civilisation at odds with each other.

The classic foundational status that Hobbes has been afforded by contemporary international relations theorists is largely the work of Hans Morgenthau, Martin Wight and Hedley Bull. They were not unaware that they were to some extent creating a convenient fiction, an emblematic realist, a shorthand for all of the features encapsulated in the term. The detachment of international law from the law of nature by nineteenth century positivists opened Hobbes up, even among international jurists, to be portrayed as almost exclusively a mechanistic theorist of absolute state sovereignty. If we are to endow him with a foundational place at all it is not because he was an uncompromising realist equating might with right, on the analogy of the state of nature, but instead to his complete identification of natural law with the law of nations. It was simply subject-matter that distinguished them, the individual for natural law and the state for the law of nations. Anachronistic assumptions constantly permeate our understanding of ‘classic’ thinkers. Because international jurists do not figure prominently in contemporary histories of political thought, that does not mean that they were never of any significance, nor had anything of importance to contribute to the understanding of politics.

Hobbes, of course, has been identified as an important legal theorist and was a prominent interlocutor in debates on the source of obligation in the common law, and while customary international law was not capable of attracting sovereign authority, it did not mean that that there could be no moral constraints in relations among states. While justice and injustice are the creation of the sovereign, Hobbes narrowly confined those terms to the honouring of contracts. The content of the law does not determine our obligation to obey it, nor our judgment about justice and injustice, but instead it is whether we have broken faith with a covenant that determines injustices. Natural law has intrinsic to it moral concepts which differ from those of justice and injustice, namely equity and reason, which impose obligations upon the sovereign. Furthermore, the sovereign is not at liberty to enact superfluous laws. Whereas the definition of law is that it is the will of the sovereign is authoritative to those who are formerly obliged, the justification of particular laws has to be with reference to the common good. Here is a clear understanding in Hobbes between the problems of obligation and compliance. The positivists in international law, in partial conformity with naturalists, made obligation in international law dependent up the consent of the community, or society, of sovereign states, rejecting Hobbes’s reliance on the conflation of the law of nature with the law of nations.

Among philosophers and historians of political thought Hobbes has little or nothing to say about relations among states. For modern Realists and representatives of the English School in contemporary international relations theory, however, caricatures of Hobbes abound. There is a tendency to take him too literally, referring to what I have called the unmodified philosophical state of nature, ignoring what he has to say about both the modified state of nature and the historical pre-civil condition. They extrapolate from the predicament of the individual conclusions claimed to be pertinent to international relations, and on the whole find his conclusions unconvincing. There is, however, a much more restrained and cautious Hobbes, consistent with his timid nature, in which he gives carefully weighed views on a variety of international issues, recommending moderation consistent with the duties of sovereignty.  Hobbes’s detractors among Idealists (in the international relations sense), and admirers among Realists (not in the philosophical sense), in international relations, take what Hobbes has to say about the ideas of justice and injustice too narrowly. Justice and injustice relate only to the making and breaking of contracts, and as earlier indicated, the principles of equity and reason constitute moral constraints in addition to honouring compacts, including desisting from gratuitous violence.

In conclusion, the contention is that Hobbes is constituted by the interpretation imposed on him, making text and interpretation inseparable. That is not to say, again agreeing with Gadamer and Ricoeur, that we are compelled to accept that one interpretation is as good as another. We belong to a tradition of interpretation, and have no option but to begin with certain prejudices which we may modify, but not so completely that no one recognises the activity in which we are engaged. There are limits to what, as an intellectual community compelled to adhere to some standards, we are willing to accept as an interpretation, rather than a fabrication. There are contestations of interpretation and the possibility through them of the equivalent of Karl Popper’s refutations.

Professor David Boucher (Cardiff University and the University of Johannesburg)