Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

The Grounds of Right and Obligation in Leibniz and Hobbes

Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

The Grounds of Right and Obligation in Leibniz and Hobbes

Article excerpt

RIGHT AND OBLIGATION are concepts central to moral philosophy. Whether one is a utilitarian, deontologist, contractarian, natural lawyer, theist, or virtue theorist, one must give some account of these concepts, if only to explain them away. Examining Leibniz's and Hobbes's grounds for these concepts is illuminating for several reasons. Not only did these concepts undergo their most influential and dramatic development during the 17th century, but these philosophers differed on them in striking and informative ways. Furthermore, while Hobbes's views are rather well-known, Leibniz's are not. My basic argument is that Hobbes grounds right and obligation in self-interest, and while that should not be a surprise, my argument opposes a recent counter-argument that obligation is grounded in the agent's practical deliberation. I also argue that for Leibniz right and obligation are grounded in the moral-rational capacity of persons, but not in self-interest. This latter claim should come as a surprise to those who have long thought that Leibniz grounds normative claims in God's will, perfection, happiness, universal love, or in the motive of pleasure. Attention to an early, neglected, but important text will show otherwise. I also claim that Leibniz's account fulfills a condition for these concepts that I take to be essential, namely that they cannot be grounded properly in self-interest. Since one is already inclined to act according to one's self-interest, it makes little sense to speak of having an obligation for it. Neither can they be externally grounded, such as by the will of God or a sovereign. By "ground" I mean that which answers the question, what makes it that persons have rights and obligations? In sum, I suggest that Leibniz's account of obligation is closer to a Kantian intuition about obligation, namely that autonomous moral agency requires that obligations be freely imposed, that is, imposed by the agent's own rational capacities.

More specifically, my argument is this: Both Leibniz and Hobbes conceive of "right" (Latin, jus) as a kind of freedom, but they differ fundamentally on what kind. For Leibniz, right is fundamentally a moral concept, that is, the subjective freedom a person possesses to act according to an objectively just order of things, and that order is public utility. Thus right is a moral freedom, which Leibniz calls the "moral power" (potentia moralis) of a person (rational substance). Corresponding to right is obligation, which Leibniz calls "moral necessity," entailing restrictions in regard to the right of others. (1) Psychological motives, however, such as self-interest or pleasure, are not what make actions morally permissible or obligatory; rather, one's internal capacity to be a moral-rational agent does. Moreover, public utility consists of the maintenance of the material rights and obligations of all rational beings, but rights and obligations themselves are not grounded in the requirements of public utility. In this way, moral concepts such as right, obligation, just, and justice may be established a priori, that is, a priori by the rational nature of persons, not by their empirical/psychological nature; nor is the normative force of these concepts grounded in the coercive power of a sovereign, State, or God, as it is for Hobbes. For Hobbes, "right" contains no moral implications; it refers simply to one's subjective liberty to do what one will to preserve oneself. In this "right of nature" (jus naturale) obligations to others have no meaning or possibility. Obligations arise only by means of "the dictates of reason" (lex naturalis), which are laws of self-preservation--the most important of which is the laying down of one's right in the state of nature. (2) Thus the ground of right and obligation resides in the motive of self-preservation, not (as for Leibniz) in one's capability to be a moral person, that is, in one's capability to recognize that one's own right, one's potentia moralis, entails the preservation of the rights of others. …

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