Fremaux 2020

Title: "Reason, Sovereignty, and Obligation in Hobbes and Pufendorf"

Christopher Fremaux


In this paper, I explore the role of God and of obligation in the work of two of the most influential natural law theorists of the 17th century, Thomas Hobbes and Samuel Pufendorf. I begin by highlighting the central points of agreement between their two theories, paying particular attention to the role both thinkers assign to God as the divine sovereign who establishes and legislates the natural law in accordance with human reason. Hobbes and Pufendorf argue that the natural law derives its prescriptive power (and thereby its status as a law in the precise sense) from the fact that it is a command of the divine sovereign, thus making sovereignty the condition for lawgiving. Furthermore, any natural law theory must account for obligation to the law, i.e. for the fact that the law makes a rightful claim on our will; that the law commands and does not merely advise. At this point, Hobbes and Pufendorf part ways. Hobbes argues that the natural law obligates because an omnipotent being establishes it and brings His power to bear in punishing those who disobey. Given our finitude and weakness, reason concludes that we are obligated to obey God since disobedience can only result in punishment, impeding our happiness. Pufendorf critiques Hobbes on this point, accusing his English contemporary of illicitly conflating obligation with coercion. Pufendorf offers an alternative account in which one is obligated not by fear of punishment but by reason’s understanding that God has good reasons to command as He does, and so justly punishes disobedience. I conclude the paper by arguing that (1) Pufendorf’s critique of Hobbes is not as devastating as Pufendorf thinks it is, and (2) that Pufendorf’s account of natural obligation introduces an inconsistency into his natural law theory such that, if he is to maintain his position that God establishes the law by a free act of the will, then he in fact ends up much closer to Hobbes than he thinks.

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