Hobbes and the Two Faces of Ethics by Arash Abizadeh
Arash Abizadeh's main thesis is that Hobbes severed juridical obligation—a covenant-created practice of second-personal accountability—from allegedly prudential natural law, marking a "watershed" separation of the right from the good. Daniel Eggers ("Liberty and Contractual Obligation in Hobbes," Hobbes Studies 22 : 70–103), Mark Peacock ("Obligation and Advantage in Hobbes' Leviathan," Canadian Journal of Philosophy 40 : 433–458), and David D. Raphael ("Hobbes on Justice," in Perspectives on Hobbes, edited by G. A. J. Rogers and Alan Ryan, Oxford, 1988, 153–70) fruitfully explored that thesis. The proposed independence is doubtful because natural law both underwrites and constrains covenant: "a covenant, if lawful, binds by the force of natural law . . . if unlawful, binds not at all" (Latin Leviathan, xiv.33). If Hobbes had justified covenanting by this practice's promotion of our good, Rawls's classic "Two Concepts of Rules" explains how a practice (like promising) can entail owing things to particular others who have authority to demand them, even when/ if justified by appeal to the good. It would be a mistake to construe a goodness-justified practice of covenanting as an entirely independent ethics of rightness, as Abizadeh proposes.
What this conspicuously-erudite, contemporary-distinction-packed effort ultimately provides is the familiar view that Hobbes's laws of nature are precepts of prudence directing individuals toward their alpha-good of commodious self-preservation. Abizadeh implausibly claims that interpreters widely suppose Hobbesian prudence includes only bare avoidance of death, not of misery, the deprivation of a "commodious life" (135). He rebrands this latter notion "felicity," which, in line with the "egoist-hedonist psychology" he attributes to Hobbes (229), is the mental pleasure experienced in hopefully anticipating (imagining) the satisfaction of one's future desires based on past successes. His differentiation of Hobbes's notion of felicity from related historical conceptions echoes James Hamilton's "Hobbes on Felicity" (Hobbes Studies 29 , 129–47).
All prudential interpretations are hard-pressed to explain how laws of nature—if self-preservation-centric—can have purchase on the many ordinary, rational citizens with (often politically destabilizing) transcendent interests, making them willing, if necessary, to lose their lives for loved-ones' welfare, personal honor, salvation, posthumous fame, or righteous causes. S. A. Lloyd's Morality in the Philosophy of Thomas Hobbes (Cambridge, [End Page 174] 2009) extensively documented textual evidence, and developed arguments against any inescapable, overriding concern for bodily self-preservation, in favor of understanding the natural desire for self-preservation as merely morally blameless. Abizadeh reproduces much of this. David Johnston, in The Rhetoric of Leviathan (Princeton, 1986), recognized that people often do not prioritize self-preservation, and hypothesized that Hobbes sought to debunk all religion as superstition so that governments could retrain humans to become the self-preservation-centered rational egoists needed for a state's threat of capital punishment reliably to compel their obedience. Famously, Bernard Gert ("Hobbes on Reason," Pacific Philosophical Quarterly 82 : 243–57, and elsewhere), argued that Hobbes offered an objective morality whereby reason requires that we pursue our preservation and broader prudential good regardless of our desires. Abizadeh adopts Gert's position. A serious difficulty is that Hobbes nowhere states any normative requirement to desire and pursue one's own good or preservation.
On Abizadeh's account, the laws of nature become precepts for securing self-preservation and felicity (137, 188). Felicity may include pleasures from anticipatorily imagining satisfaction of a desire to preserve honor at the cost of capital punishment, or for suicidal relief from misery. This incoherently renders laws of nature prudential precepts for both self-preservation and voluntary self-destruction. Problematically, pursuit of felicity can, depending on desires, license vicious actions forbidden by natural law. Abizadeh cannot establish that natural laws bind only those whose felicity does not require violating them, because Hobbes insists they bind everyone with reason enough for self-government. Abizadeh needs the strategies for self-preservation and felicity never to diverge, so he stipulates it: "felicity can be realized only by directly desiring and pursuing the conditions of survival" (162). Ta-Da! The Christian's transcendent interest in obtaining salvation magically transforms into desire to currently enjoy imagining salvation; experiencing such pleasure requires not being dead, therefore one must desire and pursue temporal bodily survival. Ditto honor. Abizadeh's version of Gert's prudential account denies rather than addresses politically problematic transcendent interests, and, crucially, disables Hobbes's moral philosophy—laws of nature—from providing any means to do so.
More plausibly, Hobbes derives natural laws as theorems of right from an axiom of rationality requiring consistency, not just in beliefs, but also in the individual's reactive attitudes toward an act under a fixed description, and her ensuing action. If she faults others' refusal to seek peace, submit to government, or keep covenants, then she must also fault and refrain from such behaviors in her own case. She must, qua rational agent, fault others' such behaviors because those create an environment in which she cannot reasonably hope to effect her own ends, whatever they be. Duties unrelated to the conditions for effective agency may vary with individual attitudes. Abizadeh's assumption that "modern" moralities will require full impartiality or accountability to others (219) precludes his appreciating the distinctive modernity of Hobbes's natural law morality (223). Hobbes pioneers a constructivist and perspectival account of the content of practical reasons, and a constitutivist account of the authority of practical reason. One's good figures indirectly in both natural law's requirements of right, and the right-based covenanting practice natural law constrains, but not as a requirement of reason or inescapable desire. Morality is not two-faced. Rightness rules. That marks Hobbes's "watershed" break from eudaimonism.