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)