Class notes for 10 October

Two questions

Barry and Martinich agree that there can be valid contractual obligations in the state of mere nature. They disagree about:

  1. A narrow question: did Hobbes mean to reserve “obligation” for the contractual case, such that the laws of nature are not themselves obligatory but rather advisory rules about how to stay alive?
  2. A broad question: did Hobbes distinguish between being obliged and being in someone’s power?

I’m very much in Barry’s camp on the second, broad question. First, I think that is the position most consistent with his view of liberty (see last week). Second, if that were not what he thought, then he wouldn’t have insisted that obligations are generated only by voluntary declarations: a person in the state of mere nature could become obliged simply by being defeated or captured. But Hobbes explicitly said that isn’t so: see Leviathan Ch. 20, par. 10-11 and the quotation Barry gives at the very end of his article.

On the first, narrow question, I am coming to think that the debate has been miscast. It’s about Hobbes’s “theory” of obligation. But I find little evidence of a theory of obligation.

Hobbes did say that all obligations are voluntarily assumed twice. But one of these passages (Lev. 14.5) was withdrawn in the Latin edition and the other (Lev. 21.10) may well be about a narrower question, namely, how one person can come to have authority over another.

More generally, Martinich is right to say that Leviathan is strewn with passages in which the laws of nature are treated as literal, binding, obligatory laws. At the very least, if Hobbes had meant to reserve the term “obligation” for the contractual case, he seems to have had a broader concept of ‘requirement’ that applies to the laws of nature.

Contractual obligation is special

However, it seems pretty clear that contractual obligation is a special case for Hobbes. It gets the most attention by far. It is the subject of most of Ch. 14 and the beginning of Ch. 15. The other laws of nature get small, cursory paragraphs.

The third law of nature is also the only one that is described as being enforced in the state of nature. That is the point of the reply to the Fool (Lev. 15.4-7). According to the reply to the Fool, people in the state of nature rely on defensive confederacies to remain alive. If they are caught cheating on their voluntary agreements, they will be kicked out of their defensive confederacies and will have to face the state of nature on their own. Would people do something similar to those who were ungrateful (Lev. 15.16) or who molest mediators (Lev. 15.29)? There is no mention of anything like that.

So even if contractual obligation isn’t the only kind, there is something special about it. What is it? Here are three thoughts.

  1. It’s essential for justice: see this week’s reading.
  2. The possibility of “injury” (being treated unjustly) depends on being the recipient of a voluntarily transferred right.
  3. It’s the only way of giving one person authority over another. We saw this in the moral case, where A, the person to whom a right has been transferred can transfer it back to B, its original owner (Lev. 14.26). That means that A has a kind of control over B’s moral liberty: whether B has the right to, say, take the pencil, depends on A’s choices. It’s also the means by which political authority is established.

The nagging question is why those would be such special things for Hobbes. Here are four suggestions:

  1. The analysis of justice was a central concern. See the Epistle Dedicatory to De Cive (quoted in the paper we’re reading for the upcoming session).
  2. People react more strongly to being “injured” than they react to, say, ingratitude. See Lev. 17.11.
  3. The other laws of nature don’t make much sense without it. The rules about mediators don’t make much sense if there isn’t anything to mediate but that’s the case only if there is a question about what belongs to who. (I’m unsure about this, but thought I would toss it out there).
  4. The theory is about how authority can be established. This is, uh, obvious.