Avoiding the Dual-Law Objection

Russell argues that Hobbes can respond to the dual-law objection by noting that desert and punishment only apply to agents that voluntarily consent to enter into a social contract that subjects them to the judgements of the sovereign (437–8). Since the civil law only applies to agents who have voluntarily consented to be bound by such law it cannot be unjustly applied to anyone, much less unjustly applied to an agent whose actions are determined. Either the law applies because the agent voluntarily consented to the civil law or it doesn’t apply because they did not consent. In former case all applications are just and in the latter there are no unjust applications because there are no applications.

Part of what is doing the work here is that the voluntary consent makes an agent a moral agent (as Russell puts it, a rejection of the “voluntariness claim” (433)) (435). But I wonder if, and to what extent, Hobbes trades on normative notions in the act of ‘voluntarily consenting’? It seems that we have ideas about what parties are obligated to do if there were to voluntarily enter into an agreement even before such an agreement is made. So it seems we have some moral expectations prior to forming agreements. So does defining a “moral agent” as someone who voluntarily consents to be governed by the civil law already build in notions of moral agency? If so, does this undermine Hobbes ability to maneuver around the dual-law objection?

Civil Law vs. Eternal Moral Law

There’s something very odd, at first blush, about the notion of moral agency that Paul Russell attributes to Hobbes in his chapter “The Free Will Problem.” On Hobbes’s account as described by Russell, humans only “become moral agents” when they “perform a distinct kind of act”—specifically, the act of consenting to the laws of a society (443). This claim raises (at least) one obvious question: in what sense, if any, can humans who don’t consent to the laws of a society ever be morally responsible for their acts?

Russell approaches this question by drawing a distinction between civil law (the moral law to which we consent) and eternal moral law. Russell clarifies that the latter is not “strictly ‘law’ until the Commonwealth makes it so” (439). Prior to being declared law by the Commonwealth, the rules of eternal moral law are simply natural facts. They’re a very specific set of natural facts, though; they’re the facts about which actions will (and will not) bring about human well-being. Russell clarifies that it’s perfectly possible for intelligent, non-madman, non-fool adult humans to simply “ignore” the facts about eternal moral law, and to act contrary to it. But, he notes, such people will “suffer the (natural) consequences accordingly”; a wicked sovereign, for instance, “will surely suffer harm nonetheless” (440).

I’d like this spelled out a little more. It seems perfectly possible, on this reading of Hobbes, to have people (like the wicked sovereign, or extra-societal robbers) who:

1)      are not moral agents in the sense of being beholden to civil law

2)      acknowledge, but act in flagrant disregard of, “eternal” moral facts

There certainly seems to be some important difference, when it comes to moral responsibility and punishment, between this sort of person and an animal or a madman. Does Hobbes have the necessary tools to draw the distinction? Perhaps he could retreat to the claim that the mere ability to consent to civil law is sufficient to make a person into a moral agent.  But such a move seems to force a revision of the story that Russell tells about the connection between justified punishment and participation in a society. It’s all well and good to say that Commonwealth A is justified in punishing moral transgressions from Agent B when Agent B is a murderous robber on the outskirts of town. But what about when Agent B is a well-behaved member in Commonwealth B, whose civil laws contradict Commonwealth A’s?  I’d like to hear and discuss more about the most defensible line for Hobbes to take on these matters.

Concerns about the Will

In Section 27 of “Of Liberty and Necessity”, Hobbes states that he conceives “that in all deliberations, that is to say, in all alternate succession of contrary appetites, the last is that which we call the will, and is immediately next before the doing of the action, or next before the doing of it become impossible.”  Since Hobbes has classified the will as an appetite, it makes sense that he believes it comes and goes.  An appetite for food is only occurrent when a person is hungry.  Yet to say that the will is only occurrent when a person is deliberating is rather unsettling, and I am concerned by this notion for three reasons.

My first concern regarding Hobbes’ account of the will is that he seems to present an individual as having multiple wills instead of just one.  Suppose that person X is deliberating about making herself lunch.  She thinks about how hungry she is and how making herself lunch would solve that issue.  She then considers the fact that making herself lunch takes some effort (she would have to get off the couch, and she is feeling particularly lazy).  Ultimately, her hunger wins out and she decides to head into the kitchen to make herself lunch.  Hobbes would argue that person X had the will to make lunch since “making lunch” was the appetite she decided to act upon.  Later that same day, person X is engaged in a new deliberation.  This time she is deliberating going for a walk or going for a bike ride.  She weighs her options and decides to take a walk.  In this instance, Hobbes would claim that person X had the will to go for a walk.  The will to make lunch and the will to take a walk are completely distinct, and a person will have as many wills as they have results of deliberation.  This picture of the will is a drastic reduction from the more standard view of the will as the faculty that determines an individual’s course of action.  It may be the case that this is only unsettling because I am used to discussing the will in the more standard way, but it seems wrong to talk about a person having multiple wills.  We typically think of the will of the individual propelling them to do X or Y instead of “will X endorsed action X” and “will Y endorsed action Y.”  I think I have trouble with the latter picture because I associate the will as a part of a person’s character, and separating the will into multiple smaller wills seems to completely change that idea.  Instead of talking about a person’s strength of will, you would have to discuss each individual will in part which allows you to look at pieces as distinct entities instead of a whole.

My second concern regarding Hobbes’ account of the will is that claiming that the will is the result of a deliberation implies that a person is devoid of a will when he or she is not deliberating.  The standard view of the will is that it is the faculty that chooses a course of action and, as a faculty, the will sits idly by when not actively choosing a course of action, but it does not fade away.  Does a person sitting on the couch inactive have a will?  Do I have a will while I am asleep?  Hobbes seems to think that the answer here is “no.”  I am honestly not sure if I have a problem with this idea.  Again, the notion is unsettling, but it might only be unsettling because it is not the standard view I am used to hearing.

My third concern regarding Hobbes’ account of the will considers the person who decides not to act.  If the will is the appetite that happens right before an action is taken or right before an action becomes impossible, is there a will if the person decides not to act?  Let us look again to person X as she deliberates whether or not to make lunch.  Let us suppose that this time she decides that getting off the couch is an arduous task and she would rather be a bit hungry.  This time, person X has decided NOT to make lunch.  She chooses not to act.  Did she have a will not to act?  Do we want to say that she choose the action “staying on the couch”?  That does not seem to be what she was deliberating, however.  The initial prompt did not have her debating between “stay on couch” and “make lunch.”  She was debating between “make lunch” and “not make lunch.”  The fact that “not make lunch” entails “stay on couch” does not make the two the same.  To make the point more easily understood, let us have person X choosing whether to phi or not phi.  Let us suppose that “not phi” is not an action at all (it is simply not partaking in the action phi).  If the deliberating person decides “not phi,” do we say that this person has a will?  Hobbes claims the will is the appetite immediately before the doing of the action.  Since there is no action, there is no decision that occurs immediately before the doing of the action.  Hobbes also states that the will can be that which occurs right before the doing of the action becomes impossible.  Let us suppose that doing phi is not impossible, but rather the deliberator simply decided not to engage in phi.  In this scenario, we cannot say that the decision happened before the action became impossible.  It seems that Hobbes would have to say that “not doing phi” is an action, and it is the action of “not partaking in phi,” but this does not seem to be exactly the same picture he presented when he claimed that the will is that which “is immediately next before the doing of the action.”  Is it?

Animate Objects

In Chappell’s introduction to Hobbes and Bramhall on Liberty and Necessity, Chappell seems to point to a distinction between two possible kinds of beings for Hobbes when briefly discussing Hobbes’ definition of liberty, or freedom. Hobbes, Chappell tells us, defines liberty as: “the absence of all the impediments to action that are not contained in the nature and intrinsical quality of the agent.” (Treatise §29) Moreover, Chappell points us to the fact that Hobbes recognizes that “inanimate” objects, such as water flowing down a river, exhibit this type of freedom. However, Chappell further tells us that in Hobbes’ characterization of “animate creatures–those which have appetites and thus are voluntary agents-Hobbes includes a reference to their wills, that is, to their acts of willing”. (Chappell xviii) Chappell’s discussion prompted two questions for me: (1) is the distinction between an “inanimate” and an “animate” creature really intelligible within Hobbes’ metaphysical framework, that is, given Hobbes’ materialist commitments and rejection of the possibility of a self-determined “agent”? And (2) how does Hobbes delineate or individuate agents themselves, especially in a way such that some agents are capable of “voluntary acts” and others are not?


With respect to (1), it seems that all beings in Hobbes’ ontology could be understood as “inanimate” given that each being is moved to undergo change, whether it be water flowing down a stream, or a man performing some action, only if it is moved by “some other immediate agent without itself” (§30). Moreover, to me at least, it seems that referencing the wills of “animate creatures” isn’t very satisfying given that these wills are nothing more than sensitive appetites for Hobbes, comparable to feelings like hunger.  Is there an intelligible difference, according to Hobbes, between being moved to eat bread because one is hungry and water flowing down a river because of gravity, that is, if we don’t count the man moved to eat as self-determined? Are both the body of water and the man “inanimate” beings on Hobbes account?  If not, why not? But, perhaps Chappell’s characterization of “inanimate”/”animate” objects  is not meant to be taken too seriously. This leads me to consider (2). What stops us from saying that the water flowing, like the man who eats, “acts voluntarily”? Perhaps I just need a more fine-tuned understanding of how human motivation works for Hobbes.

Freedom with Voluntarism?

I am wondering if others had thoughts on the importance of the success of Hobbes’ defense of compatibilist freedom, given his other commitments.  It seems to me that because of his moral voluntarism it makes little difference, at least with respect to moral responsibility, whether we are free in any sense.  If “[God’s] doing a thing makes it just and consequently no sin” (“Treatise ‘Of Liberty and Necessity’” 23), then it seems that the preconditions of moral responsibility are up in the air as much as anything.  If “there is no independent standard of right apart from the lawmaker’s will” (“Introduction” xiii), then God (or the sovereign) is not unjust for punishing an action whatever its psychological source: simply in virtue of it being God doing the punishing, the punishment is just.  As such, does it really matter if Hobbes is successful in grounding any kind of freedom?

I’m not sure what Hobbes would say here, because he does seem to believe that there are some necessary preconditions in order to make punishment just: otherwise, there seems to be no reason to distinguish forced actions as non-voluntary compared to actions that are compelled, but remain voluntary.  Are we to understand the distinction here as one that is relevant only given God’s will, i.e. that God arbitrarily chose that forced actions are ones for which we cannot be held responsible?  This doesn’t seem to fit well with the tenor of Hobbes’ argument, as he provides reasons for including one and excluding the other (“Treatise ‘Of Liberty and Necessity’” 30-31).  As such, it seems that he believes that there is a deeper ground for it being unjust to punish an individual for the forced movements of their body than merely ‘it turns out that’s how God does things.’  Is there a tension here in Hobbes’ thought, or am I missing a way to make sense of his project in a way such that it can be integrated with his ethical and political theorizing (as briefly and “baldly” presented in Chappell’s introduction, page xiii)?