Hobbes and Possessive Agency

There is an intimate connection between Hobbes’ views on property and Hobbes’ moral philosophy (LV 18.10). Hobbes is explicit that there cannot be any morality in the state of nature because there is no property: no mine or yours (LV 13.13-14; 18.10; 21.8). I’ve been thinking about the ways in which Hobbes could avoid saying that liberty is sufficient for moral agency and, in light of Russell’s reading of Hobbes, how issues concerning moral agency, the contract and, now, property are related. For Hobbes, the social contract involves each individual submitting their wills to the sovereign: in particular, this submission needs to be of a particular kind. It must authorize the actions of the sovereign. How? For Hobbes, this involves a particular kind of proprietary relationship: individuals need to own the actions of the sovereign. They need to be, in other words, authors of the sovereign’s actions (See Ch.16 and 17.13).  The ownership, or property, of actions (or words) Hobbes calls authorship (16.4). Natural persons, according to Hobbes, are those that own their own actions (or words) (16.1). Thus, persons are authors of their own actions. I will call this view possessive agency. Natural persons are possessive agents.

Consider, then, what Hobbes argues with respect to inanimate objects and non-rational creatures like children and madmen. First, Hobbes notes that inanimate objects cannot be authors and, therefore, cannot authorize the actions of their representatives (16.9). In the Latin edition, Hobbes writes that inanimate objects are not persons (16.9, fn.5). Since a person is that which is said to own her own actions or words,  I think Hobbes is committed to the following: inanimate objects are not authors in general: they cannot own their actions (or words). It follows that they cannot own the actions (or words) or another and, so, they cannot authorize the actions of their representatives. They are not possessive agents, therefore they cannot authorize the actions of a sovereign.

Likewise, Hobbes continues, children or madmen cannot authorize the actions of the sovereign, at least during the time in which they are not reasonable (16.10). Should I be right about how Hobbes argues his point, then it seems Hobbes is equally committed to the view that children and madmen, during their `folly’, are not authors in general. They cannot, thereby, authorize the actions of their representatives. They are not possessive agents, so they cannot contract with the sovereign.

If one is a moral agent only in in so far as one has contracted with a sovereign and entered a commonwealth, then it follows that possessive agency is at least a necessary condition for moral agency. That is, Hobbes may be committed to the view that only those who are considered authors of their own actions could be moral agents. Since animals, children, madmen, etc., are not possessive agents, they are incapable of authorizing a sovereign’s actions and thereby incapable of being moral subjects.

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