Notes for March 6

Main points

We compared two “chains” of obligation that terminate in political obligations. According to Barry, the chain begins with contractual obligation. According to Warrender and Martinich, it begins with natural obligation.

Barry rests his case on two basic points:

  1. Hobbes’s official definition of “obligation” in Leviathan is contractual: obligations are generated when and only when rights are voluntarily surrendered (14.7, 21.10)
  2. While natural obligation is present in the earlier work, De Cive, Hobbes dropped it in Leviathan.

Martinich raises a number of textual questions about each of these points. We’ll discuss his positive views on Monday.

Our discussion

The main thing we talked about was an apparent problem with Barry’s position. Barry maintains that obligations come from contracts. But contracts are said to be obligatory in the third law of nature. And Barry holds that the laws of nature are not obligatory. So he’s saying Hobbes said it is obligatory to keep your covenants because the law of nature says so but that the law of nature itself is not obligatory. That strikes many people as inadequate: obligations are mandatory so how could they be derived from something that isn’t mandatory?

The way Barry sees it, the obligation to keep your contract is mandatory in the same way that any behavior governed by rules is mandatory. The rule that the fork goes on the left is mandatory: on the left is where the fork must go. But our customary rules of table setting don’t have their origins in something else that’s mandatory. They’re customary, that’s all. They’re mandatory because we treat them that way. Similarly, it could be mandatory to keep your covenants even if that requirement isn’t derived from something else that’s mandatory. It would be more important to keep your covenants than it is to put your fork in the right place because the laws of nature are rules for saving your life while the rules for table setting are just rules for good manners in our society.

Madison didn’t have a problem with this. But not everyone sees it that way. They think the gap between the mandatory nature of the requirement (keep your covenants) and the optional nature of the rules from which it is derived (save your skin, if that’s what you want to do) shows that the former cannot be derived from the latter.

Some of them try to fill the gap that they perceive with God’s power. Since it is inescapable, they think, it would do the job of explaining why obligations are genuinely mandatory in the stronger sense that they think is necessary. Others try to fill the gap by supposing the motivation of self-preservation is overwhelmingly powerful. The basic idea is the same: that would give the added force to obligations that they think is necessary to explain why they are genuinely mandatory.

I’ve already said that I don’t think everyone cares equally about peace. So the motive of self-preservation is going to fall short of the goal. Obligations are uniform, regardless of one’s motivation, but the interest in peace (and hence, the interest in complying with the laws of nature) is not. We’ll start by talking about whether God fills the perceived gap next time.

Speaking for myself, I think Madison is on the right track and that this is not a gap that has to be filled. But I see where the other side of this dispute is coming from.

My opinion about Barry vs. Martinich

I think Barry is right to say that there is something special about contractual obligation. I also see why he says that natural obligation was booted from Leviathan: Hobbes had decided that fear and liberty were consistent in the course of a separate discussion of free will. To see why this matters, look at the account of natural obligation in De Cive.

“… there are two species of natural obligation. One, when liberty is taken away by corporal impediments, according to which we say that heaven and earth, and all creatures, do obey the common laws of their creation. The other when it is taken away by hope or fear, according to which the weaker, despairing of his own power to resist, cannot but yield to the stronger.” (De Cive, 15.7)

But here is what he said about the relationship between liberty and fear in Leviathan.This is part of a summary of his side of a debate with Bishop Bramhall on free will.

“Fear and liberty are consistent; as when a man throweth his goods into the sea for fear the ship should sink, he doth it nevertheless very willingly, and may refuse to do it if he will: it is therefore the action of one that was free: so a man sometimes pays his debt, only for fear of imprisonment, which because nobody hindered him from detaining, was the action of a man at liberty. And generally all actions which men do in commonwealths, for fear of the law, are actions, which the doers had liberty to omit.” (Leviathan, 21.3)

The last sentence is odd because Hobbes tried to be too economical when talking about liberty: he thought he had a unified way of talking about both physical and moral/legal liberty. So the last sentence has to mean there is no physical barrier to violating the law and not that there are no legal obligations not to do so.Remember that law and obligation are described as inconsistent with liberty earlier in the book (Leviathan, 14.3).

Putting that aside, in De Cive Hobbes said that fear of a stronger power takes away liberty and that this is why it generates obligations. But in Leviathan he denied that fear of anything takes away liberty. So, it seems, fear of a stronger power couldn’t generate obligations.

At the same time, it would just be too weird for Hobbes to have said that people aren’t required to obey God, even if he had said that they aren’t ‘obliged’ to do so in the narrow, contractual sense. So while I see where Barry is coming from, I can’t see Hobbes having meant to say that God could not make the laws of nature genuine laws. Between that general feeling and Martinich’s more textual arguments, I have trouble going all the way with Barry here. At most, Hobbes seems to have given up on trying to explain how this was possible, which is a rather different thing from saying it cannot be done.

I suspect that what was happening is that Hobbes was working out an idea that the moral relationships among people are different in kind than the relationship between people and God. Here’s a rough sketch of what I mean.

We need obligations to sustain our social lives. We need some sort of mechanism of committing ourselves to courses of action that we otherwise wouldn’t have much interest in taking. And we need our commitments to be convincing, so others can rely on us to do what we are committed to without direct supervision or coercion. God doesn’t need society: he’s omnipotent and omniscient all by himself. And if God wants someone to do something he doesn’t have to offer anything or make a covenant in order to get it.

God’s relationship with us is much closer to the slave owner’s relationship with his slaves than it is to the master’s relationship with his servants. (See the last part of the handout.) Slaves are governed through physical contraints and threats of violence. Servants are governed by obligations. That means the masters trust them to do their tasks without direct supervision. Slaves, by contrast, have no obligations. It’s obviously cheaper to have servants than it is to have slaves, so that’s what people prefer. But God has no budget constraints.

Now I’m starting to wonder if I haven’t talked myself into agreeing with Barry that there really isn’t an obligation to obey God in Hobbes (though, of course, he held that you would be an idiot not to do so). Hmm.

This page was written by Michael Green for Hobbes Seminar, Philosophy 185s, Spring 2013. It was posted March 7, 2013.
Hobbes Seminar