Hobbes says some confusing things about obligations in the Leviathan. His official position is that obligations only come about through an individual’s own actions—one must renounce or transfer a right (i.e. enter a contract). However, he talks of obligations that don’t seem to fit this “official” account. For instance, he talks about obligations to obey the laws of nature, even though these laws range over individuals prior to entering any contracts. Even more strangely, he says that infants are obliged to obey their mothers because they are completely dependent on the mother to stay alive (xx.5). Let’s call this latter type of obligation a “dependence-obligation”: an obligation that is grounded in the agent’s dependence on another being.
Given some descriptions that Hobbes gives of God’s power, it seems plausible to understand our obligation to obey the laws of nature as dependence-obligations. For instance, consider:
The right of nature whereby God reigneth over men and punisheth those that break his laws is to be derived, not from his creating them, as if he required obedience as of gratitude for his benefits, but from his irresistible power… To those therefore whose power is irresistible, the dominion of all men adhereth naturally by their excellence of power; and consequently it is from that power that the kingdom over men…belongeth naturally to God Almighty, not as Creator and gracious, but as omnipotent. (xxxi.5)
It looks like we are absolutely dependent on God, and (drawing out the parallel with the infant/mother) are thus obliged to obey him. He is also the source of the laws of nature, so we are obliged to obey the laws of nature. In this way, these two odd uses of “obligation” seem plausibly reduced to just one: dependence-obligations. However, this leads to some questions.
First, is what kind of obligation are these? The two most obvious choices are either rational or moral (is there a plausible third option?). It seems problematic to call them rational obligations, because Hobbes seems to say that the laws of nature are merely rational unless they are commands of God. “These dictates of reason men used to call by the name of laws, but improperly… But yet if we consider the same theorems as delivered in the word of God that by right commandeth all things, then they are properly called laws” (xv.14). Given that, on the present interpretation, the laws of nature are obligatory because commanded by God, it seems that this passage means that they must be understood as moral. (Yes, it’s absurd that infants have moral obligations to obey their mothers, but it’s just as weird to say that they have rational obligations, or obligations of any other kind. That’s going to be a problem for any interpretation, given that Hobbes explicitly says that infants have obligations.)
However, this is problematic, as we then have moral obligations that are independent of contracts. This will cause problems for Hobbes’s account of freedom. Russell (2011) convincingly argues that Hobbes is able to evade two objections to his mechanistic account of freedom by appealing to a contractualist account of moral responsibility. For instance, Hobbes is happy to grant animals and children the same amount of freedom as ordinary adults. This raises the objection that he will be unable to distinguish between moral and non-moral agents, such as animals. Russell argues, however, that this is not a problem for Hobbes, because the distinction between moral and non-moral agents is not based on liberty, but on contracts. Agents become moral agents through giving up some of their rights—because animals do not enter contracts, they are not moral agents (Russell 2011: 435-436). If our dependence on God grounds a moral obligation to obey him, though, independent of any contract, then this response may be unavailable. Animals are just as wholly dependent on God as ordinary adult humans, and equally free according to Hobbes, but surely they are not thereby moral agents.
In response to this objection, perhaps Hobbes could say that dependence-obligations and contractual-obligations are both distinctly moral obligations, but they are not the same. Moral agency depends on the agent entering into a contract, and dependence-obligations are distinctly moral, but not sufficient for being a moral agent.
This response strikes me as initially implausible given the intuitions that one can only have a moral obligation if one is morally responsible, and only moral agents are morally responsible. If this is right, then any being with a moral obligation must also be a moral agent. Thus, if infants have moral obligations to their mothers, then they are moral agents (outside of a contract).
However, I wonder if Hobbes can plausibly deny that having moral obligations entails being a moral agent. Could he say that the moral content of dependence-obligations comes from the type of character-appraisals that they make appropriate? For instance, an infant may act ungrateful to its caregiver, or we may be irreverent towards God—these are moral appraisals that seem appropriate given a dependence relationship. Nonetheless, these appraisals would seem out of place in the context of the state of nature outside of a dependence relationship. It would be unfitting for someone to say that another independent person in the state of nature acted ungrateful or irreverent towards her, given the context (namely, war). However, one need not be a moral agent in a robust sense in order to be appropriately assessed as ungrateful or irreverent, so these moral appraisals do not require that the agents be moral agents—thus they do not undermine the cogency of Russell’s response on behalf of Hobbes to libertarian objectors. Contractual agreements ground moral obligations of one sort, dependence relations ground moral obligations of another. Only contractual obligations ground moral agency.
Does this response seem plausible to anyone (else)? And/Or am I missing an obvious way of driving a wedge between moral obligations and moral agency that is open to Hobbes?