Thisessay will argue that, although Hobbes says we are responsible for our actions,his reasoning is flawed, or at least his interpretation of responsibility isskewed to such an extent that when he talks of responsibility he is talking ofa completely different concept that that which we understand Hobbesand his naturalistic account attempted to explain how moral value statementsare simultaneously practical and rational with relation to his mechanistic viewof the universe. He wanted to provide an ethical theory that was coherent with whatwould become the enlightenment’s value of an emphasis on scientific rationalismwhich stated that everything is made up entirely of physical matter (ie atoms)(chapter six).
Hobbes was convinced that everything in the universe can bereduced to this materialistic framework (reductionism) and thus can beexplained in terms of rational scientific language. It follows then that humannature is fixed and determined because everything in the universe is linked incausal chains, including the psychological/physiological processes whichprecede human action/thought. The will is determined in pursuit of theappetites (Van Mill, 1995, 456) and this leadHobbes to assert that the only real good is pleasure as it is the only think wepursue for its sake and not for any other reason . However,despite this seemingly hard determinist stance, Hobbes maintains that somehuman action is free. For this reason he is often labelled a (classical) compatibilist,a position which holds that determinism and free will can coexist.
In order tomaintain this position, Hobbes writes that liberty in his eyes, rather thanbeing the radical freedom that is posited in libertarian free will theories, issimply the absence of any exterior factors which would impede the agent inacting in accordance with their will. For this reason, Hobbes’ concept of freedom is sometimes called ‘negativefreedom’ in that is predicated on the ‘silence of the laws’ and the lack of impedimentsfrom the external world. (Van Mill, 1995, pp444). Essentially this means that every event or action isdetermined but one can nevertheless call an action free if one is motivated toperform it because of something internal to them. Only the internal processes ofone’s mind can determine our actions and therefore they are responsible forthem. Consequently, Hobbes’ conception of liberty is what leads many scholarsto call him a soft-determinist (reference).
While an analysis of Hobbes work leavesus in no doubt as to whether he believed we were free or not (reference), hissoft determinism stance raises the question of how meaningful the notion of moralresponsibility really is in this sense. It seems that, despite the causes ofour actions coming from within, we are still determined in that the chain of materialistic(psychological/physiological) causes leading up to our action is in no wayunder our control, in what sense then are we ‘morally’ responsible for it? Hobbesconception of liberty does not seem to allow for any real kind of moralresponsibility in that it makes no distinction between moral and non-moralagents. We would tend to look at people suffering from mental illnesses such asschizophrenia who have performed would-be morally reprehensible acts and assumethat they have at least some form of diminished responsibility for theiractions as they stem from something internal but beyond their control.
If one cannot derive an account of moralresponsibility from Hobbes’ account of individual liberty then it is perhapsbest that one look to his ethical treatise surrounding, not the individual, butsociety at large. An analysis of punishment in Hobbes’ society shows us thatall moral agents should be subject to punishment, therefore the criteria whichdetermine whether we should be subject to punishment must also be how wediscern if we are indeed responsible for our actions. However, in accordance with Hobbes’contractarianism, a moral agent can only be subject to punishment if they havefreely assented to giving up their natural rights (reference). Therefore, oneis only responsible for their actions if they have assented to the law they aretransgressing. In the state of nature therefore there is no such thing as moralresponsibility in this hypothetical state, similarly those who are incapable offreely assenting to give up their natural rights (such as the mentally ill,children, animals etc) cannot be held morally responsible in this normative framework.This reformulation establishes a place for morality as a “conventionalconstraint on our natural behaviour” (Gauthier, 1979,pp547) and thereby avoids some of the problems of Hobbes’ definition ofliberty as being a result of internal processes as it states that in order tobe held responsible for ones actions one must assent to the moral law.
Althoughboth normal human adults (those who we assume or moral agents) and the mentallyill/children etc (those who we assume are not moral agents) have liberty, onlythe former can assent and therefore be held responsible However, the introduction of moral lawwhich the morally responsible individual must assent to brings about problemsof its own. The materialistic laws which, in Hobbes soft determinism theory,govern all events in the universe, must also surely dictate whether or not anagent acts in accordance with the newly introduced moral law. Therefore it follows that if someone isto be responsible for their actions, they cannot simelatenously adhere to thematerialistic and moral laws as the concept of reward and punishment in thisscenario is nonsensical and unjust. If we are determined by the materialisticlaw then how can we be praised or blamed for following/disobeying the moralone? In order to be coherent as concepts, reward and punishment rely on a moreradical concept of liberty, one which goes beyond merely assenting to aconventional moral law and is not bound by materialistic conditions. Hobbes seems to be trying to marry twologicaslly inconsistent concepts with one another. He wants to argue that byassesnting to a social contract we are morally obliged to follow conventionalmoral law and are therefore responsible for our actions if we do not but thisdeparts from his theory of determinism which states that all we do is respondin a determined manner to external stimuli. How can someone be determined”in pursuit of the appetites” but also have the capacity for moralagency when agreeing to a contract? Hobbe leaves us with tensions between hismoral and political philosophy.
One could argue that Hobbes’ theory of negativefreedom means that his conception of freedom is nothing more than the will forthe action coming within and the absence of external impediments and that responsibilityin this view is to be understood in less of an ethical and more in anaturalistic and arguably nihilistic way. However, this is itself called in todoubt because of inconsistencies within Hobbes discussion of his so called scienceof motion which is dependent on determinism and freedom being compatible.Hobbes at first argued that there is no contradiction between the twoaforementioned states because internal processes of the moving object are notrelevant to the discussion of liberty and therefore we cannot say that themovement was unfree, on this reading freedom is not concerned with the thingitself but rather with external impediments/lack of But after considering internal factorswhich seemingly affect freedom such as fear and moral obligation, surely he canno longer claim that his concept of freedom and determinism are compatible. Ouractions are not solely dictated by external factors but are also subject to theinternal processes of a thinking mind. Hobbes deterministic view of the worldis gradually eroded as his own arguments of freedom in a society show thatfreedom and therefore moral responsibility must inextricably linked to choice. Therefore Hobbes had to adapt his theoryfrom one which choice has no role to play at all to one which is a theory of”action rather than movement” which incorporates choice,neccessetating a deprature from the strict determination of human actions. This view of freedom also differntiatesbetween coerced and what Hobbes calls authoratative acts, authoritative actsare those acts previously mentioned that legitimise his social contract.
Wecannot be morally obligated except through anything other than a voluntary act of the will “for no man isobliged by a Coveneant. wherof he is not the Author” Hobbes, in defining contracts in societyin terms of authority rather than coercion, is inconsistent because legitimateauthority needs the agent to be morally responsible for their action, asopposed to being forced into by someone else Authority then depends on being able topick out those who have moral responsibility. This is only possible if Hobbesdraws a distinction between movements: i.e. appetites/aversions and voluntaryacts. The extended theory of freedominterpretation, in conrtrast to the hard determinism and soft determinismstances that have been discussed, argues that Hobbes opts for an interpretationof the self as being able to make rational and free choices. However, in addition to forcing hobbes toabandoning his strict determinist view, Hobbes view that one is morallyobligated to adhere to the conditions of a societal contract is alsothreatened. Only voluntary contracts are authoritative and legitamate butcontracts made through fear and intimidation, like the one Hobbes was proposingin Leviathan limit freedom and therefore are not obligatory.
Hobbes’ theoryof morality and responsibility are undermined by this as it means thatcontracts made in the state of nature through fear are not mandatory as theyweren’t created in a way which conforms to Hobbes’ definition of authoritativecontracts. Hobbes then is left with “a more coherent theory of contract andconsent” but which no longer supplies “the obligation he demands” (Van Mill, 1995, pp458). Therefore the notion ofresponsibility cannot be defined in only in terms of promise keeping.
Although Hobbestries to create a promise keeping framework in which we could be heldresponsible for our actions, if one takes into account his previously stateddeterminism then at best his theory of responsibility is something necessary forsocial utility and cohesionThroughout Leviathan, Hobbes has to make adjustments in histheory of freedom in order to show that in a society we have less freedom thanwe would in the state of nature but that this limiting of freedom is very muchbeneficial to us. However he cannot do so while maintaining his negativefreedom position which holds that only external object limit our freedom.Consequently Hobbes is “forced into a duality” (Van Mill, 1995, pp458) in which’freedom’ has a different meaning in society and nature respectively.
Toconclude, in trying to maintain a position of determinism while retainingresponsibility for our actions, Hobbes has makes errors which undermine otheraspects of his argument and therefore although he believes that we should beheld responsible for our actions, he is unable to demonstrate why this is.Although Hobbes