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A critical assessment of the ‘obligation’ to the Laws of Nature in Leviathan

This essay looks at the obligations that man has to obey the 'laws of nature' as set out in Hobbes' Leviathan- a book that argues for a social contract and rule by an absolute sovereign. Hobbes is a key figure in the world of Political Theory and acts as a cornerstone for analysis of state power and the duties of citizens.

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The objective of this essay is to assess the nature of the ‘obligation’ that man has to obey the laws of nature in Leviathan, focusing on the debate surrounding moral and rational obligations. On one side of this debate, some academics argue that man is bound to follow the laws of nature on a purely rational basis, as a means to maximise their own self-interest (Nagel, 1959; Raphael, 1977). Conversely, many scholars argue that the obligations which men have to the laws of nature are moral in character (Rhodes, 2002; Warrender, 1957), refuting the concept that men only obey when it is in their self-interest.


The paper is structured as follows: in the first section I will introduce and contextualise Hobbes’ work, before outlining the key concepts of the state of nature, the laws of nature and obligation. In the second section, I will provide a secular reading of Leviathan, arguing that self-interested actors are rationally obliged to follow the laws of nature as a means to ensuring their self-preservation. The third section will focus on the third and fourth chapters of Leviathan, showing that man can have both a rational and moral obligation when the laws of nature are treated as the commands of an omnipotent god. This theological argument will be refuted before demonstrating that men incur moral obligations when they assent to the laws of nature. I conclude by arguing that men, as rational, self-interested actors, are bound to the laws of nature as these dictates of reason allow men to achieve their self-preservation. I also argue that men incur moral obligations to the laws of nature when then divest themselves of some of their natural liberties and promise to abide by these articles of peace, but that such obligations are also grounded in self-interest.


Hobbes’ political thought and the concept of obligation


In 1651, during the English Civil War, a period of great political and religious radicalism, Thomas Hobbes published his work Leviathan. In this work, Hobbes aimed to outline how, from an anti-social nature (a state of nature), humans can develop and maintain a cooperative civil society (Baumgold, 2003: 164), whereby men live under the law and order of a civil sovereign. Such a political doctrine would, however, require that all men have an obligation to obey the laws of nature; dictates of reason which would compel men to seek peace and create a civil society.


In Leviathan, Hobbes provides a pessimistic view of the state of nature, arguing that it is a state of ‘war of every man against every man’ (Hobbes, 2008: 85). By nature, man is seen to be self-interested, focusing on the achievement of self-preservation and felicity (Wolff, 2006: 10). However, men are also relatively equal in mental and physical capacities, which means that every man has the power to kill another in the state of nature. This is coupled with the idea that there is a relative scarcity of resources; men will often desire the same things and have the power to kill another man in order to satisfy their desires. As a result, there is a general feeling of mistrust, resulting in a situation where men attack one another not to obtain some material object, but rather to protect themselves against potential invasion. Further still, men may also be driven by the passion of vainglory and pride, whereby they attack others in order to affirm their power and abilities (Cooper, 2010: 246). Similarly, there is no injustice in such a state of nature since each man is at liberty to exercise his right of nature to do whatever he deems necessary for his self-preservation (Hobbes, 2008: 86), including the killing of others. This means that the state of nature is a state of war; men live in constant fear of attack and life is ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short’ (Hobbes, 2008: 84).


Hobbes also argues that in the state of nature, there are certain laws of nature; such laws are ‘a precept, or general rule, found out by reason, by which a man is forbidden to do, that, which is destructive of his life, or taketh away the means of preserving the same’ (Hobbes, 2008: 86). In this sense, the laws of nature have the character of promoting peace between men; they are rules which tell men to cooperate when possible, instructing men to seek peace, lay down their rights to all things and honour their covenants (Rawls, 2007: 54). These ‘laws’ are distinctively moral in character and reflect the golden rule found in the bible, with the formulation 'do not do unto others what you would not have them do unto you' (Singer, 1963: 294).


By following the laws of nature, men would be able to achieve peace, escaping the state of war and the constant fear of death. Hobbes argued that all men are always obliged to follow the laws of nature in foro interno, meaning that we should always have the wish, and should always be ready, to follow the laws of nature. However, men are only obliged in foro externo, that is, to actually act on the laws of nature, when there is enough security (Ryan, 2012: 437). This feeds into Hobbes argument for a civil sovereign; men are required to give up their rights and make covenants with each other so as to create a civil sovereign. This sovereign provides security through enacting civil law, punishment and coercion, thus ensuring that men can act according to the laws of nature, allowing men to achieve peaceful and commodious living. However, the very basis of keeping to covenants in the civil society depends on man’s obligation to the laws of nature (Raphael, 1962: 345); it is crucial to understand whether this obligation exists and to also determine the nature of such an obligation.


Hobbes’ general definition of an obligation is to be bound, forbidden or to experience impediment (Oakeshott, 1955: lix), but scholars have disagreed on whether the obligation to the laws of nature is moral or rational. Oakeshott (1955) helps to shed light on the distinction between these two forms of obligation. Firstly, a rational obligation can be understood as a situation whereby man has not renounced any rights; he has an internal impediment where his power to act is constrained by fear and reason. This idea of rationality also embodies prudence, which is defined as using practical judgments and experience in predicting what will happen in the future (Zagorin, 2009: 109). Conversely, a moral obligation is understood to arise either when man grants away his rights and makes covenants with others or where there is an overwhelming power such as god (Martinich, 1992: 93). In this sense, morality is based on consideration for others, meaning that man does not simply act according to his own self-interests but considers the interests of others and acts according to what is ‘right’; this includes the keeping of promises, helping men who are in need and so on (Nagel, 1959: 74).


Secular reading of Leviathan


On a secular reading of Leviathan, scholars such as Hampton (1986) have denied that men have any obligation to the laws of nature prior to the existence of civil society. This is because for a law to be a law, and for a law to be obligatory, ‘it must be the command of an author to whom the subject of the obligation is previously obliged to obey’ (Warrender, 1957: 97). However, in the state of nature, all men are equal and there is no authority to whom men have an obligation to obey; all men have a right to everything and have not transferred their rights to another agent. In this sense, the laws of nature are hypothetical imperatives (Hampton, 1986: 89) which tell each man, who possesses reason, the best way to achieve peace and self-preservation. As a result, it can be argued that men in the state of nature are under no obligations; the laws of nature are normative in character but do not impose any duties on men to obey them (Byron, 2015: 50).


In turn, the only way in which men incur a moral obligation to the laws of nature is by falling under the will of a sovereign (Warrender, 1957: 334). In a godless state, this means that men can only have a moral obligation when they fall under the authority of the civil sovereign. Once the civil sovereign comes to power, he dictates civil laws to the men under his control. These civil laws contain the laws of nature (Bull, 1981); this means that man becomes morally obligated to follow the laws of nature in light of them being the command of the civil sovereign, whose subjects have formerly promised to obey him.


It must, however, be argued that even when we read Leviathan through a secularist lens, men can still be under an obligation to follow the laws of nature, even when in the state of nature. This is because the laws of nature, even when considered as mere dictates of reason, show men the best way to achieve their fundamental interest of self-preservation. Therefore, man has a rational obligation to obey the laws of nature in the sense that following such laws is a necessary means for man’s own good (Murphy, 1994: 286). This type of obligation is based on man’s self-interest and desire for self-preservation and cannot be thought of as a moral obligation; man is simply constrained by his reason and understands that violating the laws of nature will put his life at risk.


The argument that man has a rational obligation to the laws of nature, purely based on self-interest, is supported by Hobbes’ reply to the fool. In this exchange, Hobbes argues against a moral fool who acts from pure self-interest and rejects the idea that man has an obligation to keep covenants, which is one of the fundamental laws of nature (Zagorin, 2009: 110). In breaking covenants and acting contrary to the laws of nature, the fool would show himself to be untrustworthy, meaning that he would be left out of defensive agreements and may be subject to pre-emptive attacks from other men, thus putting his interests of self-preservation in danger (Murphy, 1994: 286). Therefore, the moral fool is bound by self-interest to obey the laws of nature as they are the best means to his self-preservation.


Theological reading of Leviathan


Whilst it has been shown that, on a secular reading of Leviathan, man only has a rational obligation to the laws of nature through his self-interested desire for survival, the nature of the obligation must be reconsidered if we acknowledge the existence of God. This argument, forwarded by Taylor (1938) and Warrender (1957), suggests that the laws of nature should not be treated as mere articles of counsel, but rather as ‘laws divine’ (Hobbes, 2008: 236): the commands of the Christian God. Understood this way, the laws of nature are proper laws because they are dictated by God, a deity to who all men have a natural obligation to obey, irrespective of whether they have granted away their rights or not (Martinich, 1992: 91). Men are therefore under moral obligation to follow the laws of nature because they are the commands of their creator, to whom they owe obedience. This demonstrates how Hobbes’ concept of obligation creates moral reasons for action: ‘it is a law of nature that contracts be kept, and since we are all obligated to obey God, the author of the laws of nature, we are bound to keep our contracts’(Murphy, 1994: 287).


However, whilst it may be the case that men follow the laws of nature out of a moral duty to their creator, it can also be argued that the obligations, which men have to the commands of God, are grounded in prudential concerns. Hobbes argues that the right which God has over men ‘is to be derived, not from his creating them…but from his irresistible power’ (Hobbes, 2008: 237). Due to this omnipotence, all men are bound to follow the laws of nature because failure to do so would put their life at risk; God has the power to threaten man’s existence (Gauthier, 1977: 435) and so it is prudent to obey God’s commands in order to achieve self-preservation. Therefore, man’s obligation to the laws of nature, when considered as the commands of god, has its foundation in self-interest and is of a rational character. Failure to abide by Gods commands, even in conscience, could result in the divine punishment of ‘torment eternal’ (Hobbes, 2008: 297) and so it pays Gods subjects to follow the laws of nature at all times.


The addition of God to the debate, therefore, shows that man can have a rational obligation (grounded in self-interest and fear), as well as a moral obligation (through respect for their creator), to the laws of nature. However, these obligations only apply to those who men who acknowledge and believe in God’s existence. As a result, the laws of nature would impose no moral obligations upon atheists (Plamenatz, 1957: 298); they would be viewed simply as prudential maxims, which men are bound to follow out of self-interest and fear. This would suggest that Hobbes does not have a universal account of man’s moral obligation to the laws of nature; only those who believe in God and respect God as their creator are said to have moral obligations.


Further still, the idea that God provides the fundamental basis for man’s obligation to the laws of nature must be refuted. Hobbes wished to focus his political doctrine on scientific knowledge, creating a political science based upon geometry, mechanics and arithmetic (Sorell, 1996: 50). Excluded from this list is theology; Hobbes did not set out to show that man only has an obligation to the laws of nature due to them being God’s command (Skinner, 1964: 328). As a result, the existence of God makes no difference to Hobbes’ system (Gauthier, 1977: 435); a belief in god simply reinforces the laws of nature, motivating people to obey through a fear of divine punishment and a moral duty to their creator. This puts into doubt the idea that man has a genuine moral obligation to follow the laws of nature; man simply has a rational obligation to the laws of nature based on self-interest.


However, it is possible for man to incur moral obligations to the laws of nature, even when we disregard the importance of God to Hobbes’ doctrine. For example, Rhodes (2002) argues against the idea that Hobbes is a pure egoist and claims that men have a true moral obligation when they assent to guide all of their actions by what the laws of nature prescribe. From this perspective, man is initially under no moral obligation to follow the laws of nature but understands that these rules are the best means to his self-preservation. The moral obligation arises when, having deliberated on the best ways to achieve self-preservation, man voluntarily renounces his natural liberty and commits himself to ‘limit his future action to doing only what is allowed by the laws of nature’ (Rhodes, 2002: 59). In assenting to follow these laws, man creates psychological constraints for himself and is bound by his conscience to follow the laws at all times, irrespective of whether they prevent him from achieving particular desires or prove disadvantageous in some situations. This view is supported by Gauthier (1977) who argues that moral obligation arises when man concedes some of his natural rights so as to secure their power against other men. These arguments separate the motivating force from the obligation itself, showing that while men initially grant away their rights in order to achieve their self-interests, a moral obligation arises whereby men must respect others and always act according to the laws of nature.


Concluding remarks


This essay has provided an assessment of the obligations which men have to the laws of nature, drawing upon different accounts in order to understand both the foundation and nature of such obligations. Starting with a secular reading of Leviathan, which critiques the idea that man has an obligation at all, I have argued that all men who possess reason and desire self-preservation are rationally bound to obey the laws of nature out of self-interest. These dictates of reason show men the best way to achieve peace, allowing man to secure his life and free himself from the fear which he feels in the state of nature. On this reading, man is still free to deviate from the laws of nature as he is yet to renounce his right to all things; he is under no moral obligation to obey.


Conversely, through a theological reading of Leviathan, it was shown that the laws of nature are to be treated as the commands of God. On this account, a belief in God can impose genuine moral obligations to the laws of nature, as man has a duty to respect the will of his creator. It was, however, demonstrated that even as the commands of God, man’s obligation is based on a rational calculation as to what will secure his personal interests. Man understands that failure to obey God’s command will result in divine punishment and so it is prudent to follow the laws of nature at all times. Despite this, God cannot be treated as the fundamental basis of man’s obligation when we consider Hobbes’ aims. God simply acts as a motivating factor, compelling pious men to obey the laws of nature.


Finally, it was demonstrated that man incurs genuine moral obligations when he grants away some of his natural liberty and binds his conscience to the laws of nature. Therefore, by assenting, man promises to live as a moral being and constrains his right to all things, so as to contribute to the general welfare of his fellow beings. The creation of this moral obligation is rooted in a self-interested desire for survival; this suggests that Hobbes’ doctrine is based entirely upon the rational calculations of self- interested individuals, who only morally oblige themselves to the laws of nature when it is in their best interest to do so.


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