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Online Colloquium (1) Submission and Subjection in Leviathan: Good Subjects in the Hobbesian Commonwealth

This online colloquium has been established to discuss the recent work of Michael Byron (Kent State) Submission and Subjection in Leviathan: Good Subjects in the Hobbesian Commonwealth. We begin with an introduction to the text by Professor Byron himself. This will be followed by weekly responses by Michael Krom (St Vincent State), Deborah Baumgold (University of Oregon) and Johan Olsthoorn (KU Leuven), and finally a last reply by Professor Byron. Many thanks to Palgrave for supporting this colloquium.

Introduction

Note: the following essay is adapted from the Introduction of the book and aims to offer an overview of the argument. It is published here with permission of the copyright holder. Many thanks to Joanne Paul and the European Hobbes Society for the opportunity to discuss my work. –M.B.

And to do all this sincerely from the heart Lastly, [subjects] are to be taught that, not only the unjust facts, but the designs and intentions to do them (though by accident hindered) are injustice, which consisteth in the pravity of the will as well as the irregularity of the act. And this is the intention of the tenth commandment, and the sum of the second table, which is reduced all to this one commandment of mutual charity: Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself, as the sum of the first table is reduced to the love of God, whom they had then newly received as their king (Leviathan, chapter xxx).

In Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes famously characterizes the state of nature as a predicament in which life is ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.’ The only means of escape from that dire condition is to found a commonwealth, with its notorious sovereign. Hobbes invests the sovereign with virtually absolute power over the poor subjects of the commonwealth, and that vast and unlimited sovereign has drawn the reader’s eye for 350 years.

Yet Hobbes has a great deal to say about subjects in a commonwealth as well, and he articulates a normative conception of a good subject. For some, subjects are a foil for the sovereign: potentially rebellious, foolish, and criminal, subjects are best cowed and crushed under the sovereign’s oppressive hand. And this for their own good: only through such domination can people live together in peace. This essay, in contrast, begins from a seldom-remarked upon passage where Hobbes invites sovereigns to cultivate their subjects’ devotion. The people of a commonwealth should be taught to obey the law from love, not fear, though Hobbes generally encourages multiple and overlapping sources of motivation. Of course, every community has its problem children: the dupes who will do whatever anyone says, the criminals who take advantage, the zealots who stray from true religion. Hobbes is more aware than most of the problem elements, and he has his views of how to deal with them. But what does he think about the good citizens of the commonwealth? What of those who are content to obey the law and contribute their talents to the common good?

In the book, I develop a novel interpretation of the role of submission in Leviathan, and introduce the concept of subjection to explain the expectations Hobbes has for good subjects. The argument begins in the state of nature with a puzzle: in chapter 13, where he introduces the idea of a state of nature, Hobbes says that the concept of justice lacks application there. A state of nature exhibits neither justice nor injustice. Then, in the following chapter on the laws of nature, Hobbes explains the sense in which violating those laws in a state of nature constitutes injustice. In order to explain away the appearance of contradiction, I rehabilitate A. P. Martinich’s distinction between primary and secondary states of nature.

Martinich (1992) addresses the same puzzle by postulating two distinct conceptual moments in Hobbes’s composition of the state of nature. The primary state of nature, as he conceives it, is one without God; so, following Hobbes’s formula, there is in such a state no common power, so no law, and thus neither justice nor injustice. The secondary state of nature, in contrast, includes God, and it thus exhibits a common power and the laws of nature. The secondary state of nature therefore enables the application of concepts of justice and injustice based on obedience to or violation of law, which seems to be the relevant sense in chapter 14 of Leviathan. So what at first seems to be a contradiction in Hobbes’s text is in fact an application of his “compositive method,” moving from the relatively abstract primary state of nature without God, to the secondary state of nature with God, and ultimately to the commonwealth with the civil sovereign later in the book.

The problem with this approach is twofold. First, the primary state of nature seems to offend against the Christian priority of God over man: a conceptual moment without God? God is a necessary being, which seems to entail the impossibility of the primary state of nature so defined. Second, Martinich, as well as S. A. Lloyd (2009) for rather different reasons, regards the obligations imposed by the laws of nature as necessary, in the sense of applying to every person at all times. Doing so defeats the purpose of hypothesizing a primary state of nature: if the laws of nature impose obligations necessarily, then they impose obligations in the primary state of nature also, and in that case the concepts of justice and injustice seem to gain purchase there after all, thus undermining its point.

The solution is to redefine a primary state of nature. First, in order not to offend against Hobbes’s Christian commitments, God must exist in any state in which people exist. God must be conceptually, temporally, and in every way prior to people. Second, the laws of nature must not impose obligations necessarily. These views are possible given two claims. First, we must distinguish God’s existence from his sovereignty. Mere existence cannot entail that God is everyone’s sovereign, or there would be a common power, and so law and justice in a primary state of nature. Second, we must adopt a voluntarist conception of obligation. The obligations imposed by the laws of nature are undertaken only voluntarily, when one submits to God and makes him one’s sovereign. The primary state of nature must be a state without legal obligations of any kind, civil or natural, and conceiving of it thus explains how Hobbes can characterize it as a state in which the concepts of justice and injustice have no application. The secondary state of nature, in contrast, includes God’s subjects who have undertaken obligations under the laws of nature; their situation permits the application of the notions of justice and injustice. Rehabilitating the primary/secondary distinction allows us to explain away the apparent contradiction without stepping on any other Hobbesian commitment.

Next, I develop a normative analysis of the laws of nature, partly to understand better what Hobbes means to accomplish in distinguishing what he calls the ‘rational theorems’ from the ‘proper laws.’ One and the same set of precepts is both a set of rational theorems, derivable by reason and epistemically accessible to anyone, and a set of proper laws, which brings them under Hobbes’s generic definition of law and so treats them as commands issued to subjects who are obligated to obey those commands. Hobbes treats the precepts of the laws of nature differently, depending on their normative context, referring to them as rational theorems or proper laws as that context dictates. I locate my analysis within the general school of interpretation developed and articulated by Lloyd (2009), which she calls a definitional derivation. She shows that the function of the laws of nature is to promote the common good, rather than self-preservation or self-interest narrowly construed. I do not rehearse her arguments for these views, which I regard as conclusive. Instead, I seek to supplement and clarify the approach she develops on this point, and specifically to distinguish the normative role of the rational theorems from that of the proper laws.

Following Lloyd, I accept Hobbes’s claim that he intends the rational theorems to follow deductively from definitions, a priori propositions, and what Lloyd (2009: 212) calls ‘indubitable introspectables.’ Their function as laws of nature is to promote peace, but — moving beyond Lloyd here — in order to fit into Hobbes’s derivation the relation between following the precepts and peace must be conceptual, not causal. The normative form of the rational precepts is conditional and constitutes what Hobbes calls “counsel” rather than “command.” As the rational theorems are derivable a priori as the only path to peace, and because the desire for peace is a constitutive condition of practical rationality, their normative scope is universal for everyone who possesses reason. The normativity of counsel, as I call it, is rational justification with universal scope. Everyone has reason to seek peace.

The analysis yields different results when applied to the same precepts considered as proper laws. In virtue of the conceptual connection between following the precepts of the laws of nature and peaceable living, the function of the proper laws is the same as that of the rational theorems, namely to promote peace. Their form, however, is categorical rather than conditional, and they are ‘command’ rather than ‘counsel.’ Moreover, the proper laws are commands addressed to those who are obligated to obey. Again, presupposing voluntarism about obligation, not everyone is obligated to obey the laws of nature. The normative scope of the proper laws is thus generally smaller than that of the rational theorems. The normativity of law, as I call it, is obligation, and only God’s subjects are obligated by the laws of nature.

The fact that not everyone is obligated by the proper laws carves conceptual space for the primary state of nature as I conceive it. The primary state of nature is a situation without any legal obligations, including obligations under the laws of nature. In such a state, the rational theorems are still normative for all: the normativity of counsel is universal, but not obligatory. Only the proper laws, not the rational theorems, obligate, and in the primary state of nature nobody is God’s subject. Consequently, nobody has obligations under the proper laws, and Hobbes is able to claim without contradiction that the concept of justice does not apply. What remains to be defended is the commitment to a voluntarist account of legal obligation.

The defense of voluntarism considers three accounts of legal obligation. According to what Lloyd (2009) calls desire-based derivations of the laws of nature, such as that developed by Hampton (1986), the laws of nature comprise a set of hypothetical imperatives, the following of which is prudent because the imperatives embody true causal conditionals about how to promote self-preservation and (narrow) self-interest. On this view, the laws of nature are not in fact obligatory in any ordinary sense: following them is prudent in virtue of their causal efficacy, but that status does not constitute obligation. Although I follow Lloyd in rejecting this kind of derivation of the laws of nature generally, Hampton’s account manages to capture an important feature of the laws of nature inasmuch as she links the universal normativity of the precepts to their status as rational theorems. She is also correct to conclude that the rational theorems as such are not obligatory.

Martinich (1992) offers what Lloyd (2009) calls a duty-based derivation of the laws of nature, according to which the laws are universally obligating because of God’s irresistible power. In rejecting the connection between God’s power and obligation, I call attention to the distinction Hobbes draws between what he calls dominion, or the right to rule, and obligation. Hobbes consistently connects God’s irresistible power with dominion; but having the right to rule does not entail that God’s commands are obligatory for all, nor did Hobbes think so. Martinich’s view represents an advance over Hampton’s because it links the normativity of law to God’s will; but the account still falls short of being adequate because it generates necessary obligations and universal normative scope for the proper laws.

The third account of obligation under the laws of nature I consider is Lloyd’s own. She argues that the duties imposed by the laws of nature are Rawlsian natural duties, and so are normative for all. As we have seen, making the obligations imposed by the laws of nature universal for all generates a contradiction in Hobbes’s claims about justice in the state of nature. So although we have every reason to follow Lloyd’s definitional derivation of the laws of nature, we should not follow her in thinking that the duties imposed by the proper laws are Rawlsian natural duties.

The only suitable account of the obligations imposed by the laws of nature is voluntarist, according to which we have obligations under those laws only if we voluntarily undertake them. On this view, only the subjects of what Hobbes calls the kingdom of God by nature are obligated by the laws of nature. Indeed, Hobbes explicitly distinguishes such subjects from atheists and deists, whom he labels ‘God’s enemies.’ When we conceive of the normative scope of the proper laws as in practice narrower than that of the rational theorems, we can make better sense of the primary state of nature and solve the puzzle about justice in the state of nature. Commitment to voluntarism about obligation raises questions about submission, though: how exactly do we undertake obligations under law generally, and under the laws of nature in particular?

Next, I explore the ideas of submission and subjection. For Hobbes submission is the last act one performs in the state of nature. By transferring my right to govern myself to someone else, I constitute myself as a subject of a commonwealth and make the other my sovereign. Submission creates the obligation to obey that is the precondition of any command imposing legal obligations. Submission thus constitutes the normative basis of legal obligation, consistent with the voluntarist account defended earlier.

Once we are subjects of a commonwealth, the question turns from obligation to compliance. Assuming we are obligated to obey the law, why do so? Many attempts to address Hobbes’s ‘compliance problem’ turn on the motive of fear, including fear of punishment. But Hobbes himself thinks love is also available to explain compliance: good subjects, he thinks, obey the law because they want to do so, and all subjects, he says, should ‘do all this sincerely from the heart.’ In order to flesh out this notion of a good subject, I propose the idea of subjection: good subjects of a commonwealth subject themselves to their sovereign.

Hobbes defines crime as violation of the law by omission or commission. He defines sin more broadly  as criminal action or intent, and he thinks intent to violate can weaken a commonwealth even if it does not yield action. Although he does not follow Calvin in treating fleeting desires as sinful, he does think that dispositional desires for prohibited goods are a problem for the commonwealth. The sovereign builds into the civil law a partial value schema that represents what Hobbes calls the ‘public conscience,’ and when subjects cultivate and harbor desires that fail to conform to the public conscience they thereby express contempt for the sovereign that weakens the commonwealth. Indeed, Hobbes regards subjects’ attempt to preserve private conscience where the law has prescribed goods for the commonwealth as a seditious usurpation.

He is therefore committed to a conception that I call the value conforming desire (VCD). This higher-order desire aims at conforming one’s lower-order desires to the partial value schema prescribed in the law. Subjects are obligated to want what the sovereign prescribes in the law, and they must cultivate the VCD and promote its satisfaction in order to do so. Good subjects satisfy the VCD by monitoring their value schemata for conflicts with the judgments of good embedded in the law and expressed as the public conscience. This process is subjection: good subjects successfully subject themselves to the sovereign and cultivate the prescribed partial value schema, desiring what the law prescribes and eschewing what the law prohibits. Though he does not use this terminology, the cultivation and satisfaction of the VCD is what Hobbes has in mind when he requires subjects to ‘do all this sincerely from the heart.’ This notion of subjection is general and applies in both the civil commonwealth and God’s natural kingdom. Subjection operationalizes sincerity.

The idea of subjection facilitates the interpretation of some traditionally perplexing passages in Leviathan. One example is the claim that people in the state of nature must desire peace, as Hobbes says, in foro interno. This claim can be puzzling if we think that the purpose of the laws of nature is to promote something other than peace, but even assuming that their point is peace, why does Hobbes care about the contents of our desires, even or especially when we are not required to follow the law in foro externo? If the account of subjection is right, then it follows that subjects’ desires must generally conform to the values embedded in the law. In that case, this specific requirement emerges as simply a special case of a more general requirement for subjects to conform their values to the prescribed schema.

Another notorious passage concerns the Foole. I have little to add to the able treatment in Lloyd (2009), except that she does not explain Hobbes’s claim that the Foole who denies justice and the Foole from Psalms who denies God are the ‘selfsame Foole.’ This result falls naturally out of my interpretation. The Foole who denies justice locates himself in the primary state of nature, as only there does the concept of justice lack application. Only atheists inhabit the primary state of nature. Thus, the unjust Foole is identical to the atheistic Foole.

A third issue concerns submission to God. On my account, this topic is important because we acquire obligations under the proper laws only after submitting to God. Submission to another human being is quite clear in Hobbes: he explains it as a transfer of right – the right of self-governance – and power. That cannot be the account of submission to God, who already has infinite power and so dominion, or the right to rule, over all. I argue that theistic belief alone is sufficient for submission to God, and that this account accommodates voluntarism about obligation and the idea of subjection in God’s kingdom by nature.

I close the essay with a discussion of several issues pertaining to sovereigns. The main puzzle of the chapter concerns what Hobbes intends to do by claiming that the sovereign and the commonwealth are a “real unity,” which I take to be or imply identity. A thorny issue about sovereigns is authorization. Hobbes states that subjects authorize the sovereign’s actions, which seems to make the sovereign their agent or deputy. On the other hand, Hobbes also gives the sovereign nearly unlimited authority to command the subjects of a commonwealth, which seems to make the sovereign their superior. Hobbes’s claims on this topic have led Martinich (1992), among others, to conclude that he contradicts himself. A correct understanding of the right transferred in submission can clarify why he does not do so.

My reading of Leviathan offers a markedly less liberal Hobbes than some interpreters might like. Lloyd (2009), for instance, treats Hobbes as a proto-Kantian who prefigures Scanlon. But Hobbes places potent constraints on good subjects, and he allows little place for freedom of conscience, as we would call it, in the ideal commonwealth. Good subjects not only obey the law, they do so sincerely from the heart. That commitment demands not only conformity of action, but of motivation as well. Still, Hobbes imposes constraints on the extent of this sovereign power to dictate subjects’ values. One of these is the sovereign’s obligation to obey the laws of nature. The sovereign acquires this obligation under the proper laws just as anyone else does. We must understand the sovereign as an artificial person who believes in a providential God, and that theistic belief constitutes submission to God and creates obligations under the proper laws. Those obligations, including the duty to promote the safety and welfare of the commonwealth, constrain the sovereign. Moreover, sovereigns are obligated to subject themselves to God and thus to adopt the value schema embedded in the proper laws. This obligation imposes further constraints, as sovereigns ought to be motivated in ways that promote the common good.

Furthermore, the value schema embedded in the law is after all only partial, and allows subjects what Hobbes calls ‘harmless liberty.’ A good law must be strictly necessary for the realization of the end of law as such, namely peace. Dictating subjects’ every action is not required: Hobbes remarks that on this ground subjects are properly to be left the liberty to choose a career, wardrobe, diet, and so forth, all under the heading of ‘harmless liberty.’ He imposes a kind of feasibility constraint that justifies this allowance to some extent when he says that sovereigns simply cannot control everything their subjects might do. The obligation of sovereigns to obey the proper laws amounts to a success constraint as well, as a commonwealth that systematically fails to realize peace and prosperity for its subjects will dissolve. A failed sovereign is no sovereign at all, and such a commonwealth devolves to a state of nature, returning the right of self-governance to the former subjects.

The goal of this essay is modest and its focus tight: the objective is to draw on a range of interpretative resources in order to resolve a set of textual issues, especially concerning Hobbes’s idea of a good subject. I help myself to such resources without much defense – especially Lloyd’s rejection of what she calls the ‘standard interpretation’ of Hobbes – and do so without apology, in order to remain focused on the question at hand. I recognize that stronger assumptions weaken the argument; yet to the extent that I can offer superior interpretations and solve some textual issues based on those assumptions, the explanatory power of the result reinforces the assumptions. Leviathan is an enormous and rich book, and it is tempting to try to say something about everything. This temptation explains why so many books about Hobbes are big. Mine is a small book about Hobbes. Like Hobbes’s, my argument begins in the state of nature.

References

Hampton, J. (1986). Hobbes and the Social Contract Tradition. Cambridge.

Lloyd, S. A. (2009). Morality in the Philosophy of Thomas Hobbes: Cases in the Law of Nature. Cambridge.

Martinich, A. P. (1992). The Two Gods of Leviathan: Thomas Hobbes on Religion and Politics. Cambridge.

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