Does Hobbes Understand Political Obligation as a Moral Obligation to Abide by the Covenant?

In what follows I shall outline what Hobbes means by ‘political obligation’ and the role of morality in the state of nature.  I will examine the relationship between morality and reason by analyzing natural rights and the laws of nature.  I will also look at Hobbes’ arguments on contract theory and thus determine whether a covenant is a necessity to the sovereign state.  Finally, I shall establish whether there are moral obligations and their connection to our political obligation.

Hobbes understands our political obligation as the giving up of all our natural rights to a sovereign except the right of self-defense, which is inalienable.  Hobbes comes to this conclusion via his account of human nature and prudential behaviour.  Human nature is such that each individual will always seek out their own preservation, this is evident in the state of nature where there are no institutions or political authority to create and enforce law and anything goes.  The state of nature is a thought experiment in which Hobbes plays out his account of human nature showing human behaviour and psychology when, despite our natural unsociability, we are forced to live together.  Hobbes identifies five elements of our nature as key.  First, the idea that people’s motivation for action comes from their self-interested desire for self-preservation, or egoism.  Also, that we are competitive because resources are scarce and because we are glory seeking and desire to be better than our neighbours.  Most controversially, Hobbes contends that there exists a natural equality, what someone may lack in physical strength they make up in intelligence.  Hobbes does not see this as a basis for the moral argument that everyone ought to respect others and treat them with care and concern; rather he argues everyone has the ability to kill anyone else.(Wolff 2006, 10)  Our natural equality and competitiveness results in diffidence and a general suspicion of all others.  In the nature of man, “we find three principall causes of quarrell.  First, Competition; Secondly, Diffidence; Thirdly, Glory.” (Hobbes 1985, 185) Thus, the resulting condition is that of war – of all, against all.  Prudence, learning from the past and inferring into the future, arises from reason.  Reason is a universal; it directs us to concern ourselves with long-term goals like the avoidance of death, pain and disability. (Honderich 2005, 394) From it Hobbes derives the ‘Right of Nature’, that one is entitled to do anything to ensure their survival. It justifies the way we act in the state of nature as prudential behaviour.  However, Hobbes also derives from reason a separate set of rules applicable to all, the ‘Laws of Nature’.  These laws suggest it is in our interest to leave the state of nature and found a sovereign state where order can be imposed.  Importantly, everyone should preserve himself or herself, seek peace and keep their covenants or contracts.  The right of nature focuses on the individual’s preservation, the laws of nature concern the conservation of all.  Peace is the best strategy for the preservation of humanity and consequently the best tactic an individual can employ for their personal survival.  Given the grim life on offer in the state of nature and our natural instinct of self-preservation we all have a motive to co-operate and set up a political authority.  If all individuals relinquish their natural rights to a single authority (the sovereign) peace can be achieved.  The individuals contract with one another agreeing to give up their rights and judgments, establishing an absolute government.  They promise, or make a free-gift, of their obedience to that government.  The right to defend oneself against immediate threat is not renounced as this would directly violate reason and the fundamental law of nature, preserve your-self.  The obligation (and necessary condition) of anyone wanting to live under the protection of a sovereign is therefore to give up their natural right to decide what is best for their long-term preservation to that sovereign and follow his judgment and will as their own.

Morality in the state of nature can be viewed in two ways.  First, that there is no morality only reasoned, prudential behaviour that will lead to the preservation of the individual.  Second, that such prudential behaviour and following the laws of nature is itself moral, people have a duty to preserve themselves and obey the dictates of reason.  One can either collapse the distinction between morality, egoism and prudential behaviour or oppose morality to prudence. (Baumgold 2003, 172) The natural right of liberty, to do anything to survive, would suggest Hobbes means there is no right or wrong in the state of nature, no justice and no application for moral ideas: “The notions of Right and Wrong, Justice and Injustice have no place.” (Hobbes 1985, 188)  In contrast the laws of nature could be interpreted as a set of moral rules:

“They have been contracted into one easie sum…Do not that to another, which thou wouldest not have done to they selfe.” (Hobbes 1985, 214)

This contraction appears to be a “negative formulation” of the Christian doctrine, ‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you’ which is the fundamental moral law. (Wolff 2006, 14) `However, Hobbes does not depict natural law as moral law but as a conclusion of reason.  In following these laws individuals give themselves the best chance of survival. There is a conflict between the right of nature and the natural law directing people to seek peace.  Hobbes has already established that the state of nature will be all out war because it is reasonable to attack others if it gives you a better chance of self-preservation.  Rationality cannot require both war and peace, we must make a distinction between collective and individual rationality. (Wolff 2006, 14-15) Whilst in our natural state we are guided only by our individual rationality and thus behave as if in a state of war.  Collective rationality is expressed in the laws of nature and can be thought of as the level above the state of nature being the best for each individual concerned as it assumes everyone will act similarly.  It allows people to live without fear and in peace. Individual and collective rationality tend to be seen as separate from the individual’s perspective, which makes collective rationality unstable because there is always the incentive to defect to individual rationality even when the consequences of everyone defecting are known to be destructive.  Rational choice thinkers call this ‘The Prisoners’ Dilemma’, it is demonstrative of the difficulty to achieve co-operation to some collectively rational end.  For example, a wood owned by several farmers.  It is in the best interests of these farmers to form an agreement to never fell more than 25% of the trees in their patch each season, as this will prevent soil erosion and the loss of nutrients from the ground so the trees will be healthy and reach their optimum height.  However, each farmer, having made this agreement, has the incentive to cut down a few more trees.  The actions of one individual will not damage the land and that farmer will be able to sell more timber at a cheaper price than the others.  But if all the farmers chopped down a few more trees the result would be disastrous, all could loose their livelihood.  Hobbes is contending that every individual in the state of nature should aspire to collective rationality and obey the natural laws, he does not claim we have a duty to do so whatever.  Morality is not reason, or even collective rationality.  There is no morality in the state of nature and it is foolish to hold to the laws when no one else is, but everyone should desire the laws take effect and consider this when making their individual decisions. (Wolff 2006, 16)  We do have a duty to obey the laws of nature when others also observe them.

Hobbes’ contract theory is threefold.  Firstly, it addresses authorization.  Consensuses are unlikely to ever be achieved because individual judgments are self-referential and therefore vary as much as the individuals themselves, thus, consent and the idea of political covenant is identified as an alternative.  Subjects authorize the sovereign’s acts and are to regard him as their personal agent. (Baumgold 2003, 173) Secondly, incipient subjects promise not to resist the ruler, because he is not involved in the contract he cannot be held accountable. (Baumgold 2003, 174) Individuals do retain their right of self-defense and can therefore resist singularly without undermining the peace.  The third line of argument is a little more ambiguous, Hobbes seems to discard his contractarian principles and imply one ought to obey any sovereign with the power to protect his subjects.  However, the Lockean concept of tacit consent can be applied to view this also as a series of agreements and contracts: “If he live under their Protection openly, hee is understood to submit himselfe to the government” (Hobbes 1985, 721) and the government may presume to have received his promise of obedience. The covenant acts as a safeguard enabling us to live together despite our natural diffidence and as such is necessary for the state.

Hobbes seems to suggest that our political obligations are based on a promise of obedience and hence moral duty to keep a promise.  Although, he does not say that one is obliged to keep a promise made in the state of nature.  Political power and security are a necessary condition for performance, without them the contract is void, “if there be a common Power set over them both, with right and force sufficient to compell performance; it [the promise/contract] is not voyd.” (Hobbes 1985, 196)  However, under such authority and if at liberty to consent a person has a duty to keep their promise, “he Ought, and it is his DUTY, not to make voyd that voluntary act of his own.” (Hobbes 1985, 191)  This interpretation does beg the question, ‘why should individuals keep promises when its not in their interest?’  If some people retract their political obligation everybody else should also retract because this gives them the best chance of preservation.  However, it will always be to the individual’s advantage to break their political obligation because it will always be in their interest to take advantage of others who have not broken their obligation.  Hobbes addresses this with reason; someone who breaks their promise can’t be received into any society, which is obviously against their desire to survive: “He therefore that breaketh his Covenant…cannot be received into any society…[which is] against the reason of his preservation.” (Hobbes 1985, 205)  What Hobbes has actually done is to redefine morality as prudence, although we have a moral duty to keep a promise it is also in our interest to.  This idea is not entirely satisfactory, as it does not account for any situations when selfishness and moral notions do not comply.  Also, this version of morality seems incomplete; it provides reasons why we should behave a certain way (because we want something) but it does not stand up to any notions people have that simply say ‘do this’ without any ulterior motive for such action.  In fact it is just as easy to say there is no morality only reason and perhaps Hobbes’ theory would be easier to digest if he did not bring up the duty to keep a promise – his theory does not require it as relying only on one’s reason accomplishes the same result.  Hobbes subtly suggests that one motive for not breaking our political obligation is a person’s moral duty to keep their promises.

In conclusion, in the state of nature there is no right or wrong only individual rationality and the right of nature.  Although it is possible to interpret a form of immorality in the state of nature in that what is immoral is what is contrary to lasting peace.  Individuals want to leave the state of nature because this will give them a better chance of survival.  To do this they must cooperate and work towards a collective rationality and covenant with one another to give up their natural rights to a single authority, this is their political obligation.  The people promise their obedience to the sovereign in return for his protection.  It is in every person’s interest to keep their promise but also to break it, there is an additional moral obligation to keep a promise and covenant.  Thus primarily political obligation is grounded in reason and prudential behaviour with our motivation being self-interest and personal conservation.  However to combat the clear incentive we will all have to break our covenant Hobbes suggests that moral obligation to keep a promise also plays a role, tipping the balance in favour of holding to our political obligation.



•Hobbes, Thomas.  1985.  Leviathan.  Penguin Group.

•Wolff, Jonathan.  2006.  An Introduction to Political Philosophy.  Oxford University Press.

•Ed. Honderich, Ted.  2005.  The Oxford Companion to Philosophy.  Oxford University Press.

•Baumgold, Deborah.  2003.  Hobbes, in ‘Political Thinkers From Socrates to the Present’ Ed. Boucher, David and Kelly, Paul.  Oxford University Press.

•Kelly, Paul.  2009.  Hobbes Lecture Series.  January 12th and 26th.

•Blackburn, Simon.  2005.  Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy.  Oxford University Press.