Philosophy 433                         History of Ethics                                   Darwall                                    Winter 2008




I  Obligation and ought in Leviathan:  the problem.  As we began to see last time, there are two strands of thought in Hobbes concerning why we should keep covenants:

            A. An obligation to keep covenant follows analytically from the definitions of covenant, right, and obligation.

            B. A substantive law of nature, the 3rd, that men should keep their covenants made.

            C.  Another reflection of the tension between these two lines of thought, is that in the 2nd law of nature, Hobbes talks as though the right of nature is something that can be “laid down.”  But how is the right of nature something that can be laid down.  If it’s normativity is a function of the ‘oughtness’ or ‘goodness’ of my self-preservation, how can I do anything (covenant) that would alter that?  How, then, could I “lay it down”?


II  A solution? The reply to the fool.  The key to understanding how Hobbes must be thinking here is contained in his reply

to the “fool” in 15.4.  The fool’s challenge is that “there is no such thing as justice . . . that every man’s conservation and contentment, being committed to his own care, there could be no reason, why every man might not do what he thought conduced thereunto:  and therefore also to make, or not make; keep, or not keep covenants, was not against reason, when it conduced to one’s benefit.” 

            A.  The fool’s position.  The fool questions “whether injustice . . . may not sometimes stand with that reason, which dictateth to every man his own good.”  Or, as the fool also puts it, “if it be not against reason, it is not against justice; or else justice is not to be approved for good.”

            B.  The issue.  It is important to recognize the kind of case in question between Hobbes and the fool:

            “For the question is not of promises mutual, where there is no security of performance on either side; as when there is no civil power erected over the parties promising; for such promises are no covenants:  but either where one of the parties has performed already; or where there is a power to make him perform.” (15.5)

            The case is one where there is no question of whether the other person will perform.  The question is whether, in such a situation, one must do as one has promised.


            Now the fool’s position is that it can happen that it is sometimes not in one’s interest to perform and that one should perform only when it is for one’s good.  Notice that Hobbes does not disagree with the fool that it can sometimes be against one’s interest to perform.  Nonetheless, he holds that even in such cases one should perform (unless, that is, it would directly endanger one’s life—see Chapter 21).

            C.  Hobbes’s general position.  A central point is that an action’s turning out to benefit a person does “not make it reasonably or wisely done.” (15.5)  Why not?  Because the actual consequences of the action are not necessarily something a person can “recko[n] on,” that is, reason on. 


III.  Two interpretations of Hobbes’s specific position. Hobbes’s position is that covenant is of such great importance from the standpoint of self-preservation, both in the state of nature and in civil society, that it never makes sense to violate it.  But why?

            In large part, the answer has to do with the importance of establishing a reputation as a covenant-keeper, in particular, as someone who holds that making of a covenant is a sufficient reason for keeping it:  “he which declares he thinks it reason to deceive those that help him, can in reason expect no other means of safety, than what can be had from his own single power . . . [he] cannot be received into any society, that unite themselves for peace and defence, but by the error of them that receive him.” (15.5)  This holds true both in the state of nature, where without confederates a person must expect to die, and also once political society has been established.


            A.  Expected good interpretation. Now the importance of maintaining a reputation of covenant-keeping ups the ante in favor of keeping covenant, but Hobbes doesn’t rest his case on the assumption that this guarantees that it will always be most in a person’s interest to keep covenant.  He seems to admit that it may sometimes not.  But again, he urges that what matters is not what the actual consequences turn out to be, but what the person is in a position to “reckon on.”

            A natural conclusion, then, is that Hobbes thinks that what a person should do is not necessarily what actually is for his greatest good, but what will maximize his expectable good, where this is a function both of his interests and of his beliefs of the probabilities of various outcomes (or of the probabilities that would most reasonable given his evidence).  Then his position might be that while, as things turn out, it might sometimes be most in a person’s interest to have broken covenant, this could never maximizes his expected interest (or most reasonable expected interest).


            B.  Rule-egoist interpretation.  Greg Kavka argues that we should interpret Hobbes somewhat differently though.  When the stakes are sufficiently high it may not make sense to trust one’s own judgment.  Especially when the quality of evidence is low and things are sufficiently uncertain, it may make more sense not to make decisions of this sort on a case by case basis, but rather to adopt a general norm or rule:  I will keep covenant, except when doing so threatens my life.  (Compare n-barrel Russian Roulette for prizes, with sufficiently large n.)  This may be especially true if the good one wants to protect most is reputation and if others can have evidence of whether your deliberative character.  In such a situation, the only reliable way of acquiring the reputation of being a covenant-keeper might be to actually be a covenant-keeper, i.e., to be someone who treats the third law of nature as a rule or norm she accepts, rather than just as a rule of thumb in promoting her own interest and self-preservation.


IV.  Connecting ought and obligation with the rule-egoist interpretation.  Suppose that is right.  It will follow that when one covenants, one will have done something that makes it the case that one should not decide how to act with respect to it

(whether to keep it) by using one’s own judgment of self-interest and self-preservation.  But that means it will now be false that a person may do whatever “in his own judgment, and reason, he shall conceive to the aptest means” to self-preservation.  In this sense, then, by covenanting, he will have “laid down” the right of nature.  And, therefore, in Hobbes’s technical sense, he is no obligated.  Voilà, the two lines of thought coincide!


V.  Can this fit with projectivism about value?  Good (ought to be) vs. ought to do?  A remaining problem:  how to put together norm-acceptance with projectivism about value.  Imagine a case in which a person is convinced that he would do best to violate this contract even though he believes it is also best for him to be someone who inflexibly keeps covenant.

            Questions:  What is the relation between the question: What would be good to happen (or exist)? and What should I do? 

            Should a projectivist hold that there are two different states that are projected in these two different kinds of judgment, viz., good (ought to be) vs. ought to do?  Do these respectively project desire and some other psychic state—e.g., Gibbard’s “acceptance of a norm”?