Fremaux 2020

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

Christopher Fremaux


Thomas Hobbes and his German contemporary Samuel von Pufendorf stand out as two of the most influential natural law theorists of the 17th century. Within their respective theories, we see competing accounts of obligation, particularly with respect to the relation between reason and the sovereign.

Hobbes’s theory of obligation privileges reason to the sovereign insofar as the former is prior to the latter. Within the state of nature, absent any sovereign to enforce the law, obligation is grounded in the rational recognition that obedience to the law is the necessary condition for peaceful, social existence, which is in turn a necessary condition for happiness, or the fulfillment of one’s desires. However, within the social contract, this obligation is enforced by the sovereign’s rightful authority to punish anyone in violation of the natural law’s dictates. Thus, insofar as the natural law is obligatory prior to the social contract, it is not the will of the sovereign, or the sovereign’s authority, that finally grounds the natural law’s obligatory status. It is reason.

While Hobbes was undoubtedly highly influential upon Pufendorf, the German jurist flips Hobbes’s relationship between reason and the sovereign. For Pufendorf, the will of an external, sovereign power is the necessary condition for an obligatory law. Concerning the natural law, which transcends the distinctions among state constitutions and which is knowable through reason alone, Pufendorf identifies God as the relevant sovereign who, by His will, determines both the law’s content and it obligatory status. While Pufendorf agrees with Hobbes that the natural law—qua natural—is knowable by reason alone, he ultimately rejects his English colleague’s claim that reason alone, absent a sovereign, can account for an agent’s obligation to the law. For Hobbes, the sovereign enforces what reason commands, while for Pufendorf, reason commands what the divine sovereign wills.

This distinction between the Hobbesian and Pufendorfian natural law theories is fundamental to understanding the development of the voluntarism debate in the 17th and 18th centuries, in which thinkers such as Barbeyrac and Crusius adopted Pufendorf’s position, while others, such as Leibniz and Wolff, endorsed Hobbes. Therefore, comprehending the Hobbesian and Pufendorfian competing theories of obligation is essential not only for understanding the 17th century natural law tradition, but also for understanding the development of moral philosophy in the modern era.

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