Thomas Hobbes

John Bramhall


a position on their debate regarding the nature of freedom and its relationship with the possibility of punishment

This writeup can be separated into two parts. First, I will argue that Bramhall’s numerous objections to Hobbes are based on a misconception of what Hobbesian freedom is. Rather than attacking Hobbes’s own position, Bramhall seems to be attacking a Bramhallian version of Hobbes. Which is to say: the definition of freedom he ascribes to Hobbes is, in fact, his own. His objections do make sense when applied to his own discussion of freedom, but given the Hobbesian conception of freedom they make little sense. Second, I will agree that Bramhall’s misgivings about the possibility of Hobbesian punishment hint at a problem, though for vastly different reasons than Bramhall suggests. I will discuss punishment as it relates to Hobbes’s conception of rationality and argue that given this definition, the Hobbesian political theory cannot provide anything more than a radically individualistic foundation for punishment. Before this discussion of punishment, however, I would like to elaborate on Bramhall’s objections to Hobbes.

Bramhall begins his Discourse of Liberty and Necessity with (what he sees as) a devastating attack upon the Hobbesian conception of freedom determined by necessity. He states that:

Either I am free to write this discourse for liberty against necessity, or I am not free. If I be free, then I have obtained the cause, and ought not to suffer for the truth. If I be not free, yet I ought not to be blamed, since I do it not out of any voluntary election, but out of an inevitable necessity (Bramhall, 1).
So, Bramhall believes that he is either free to write (that is, to choose to write) his discourse, in which case his freedom is not necessitated but voluntarily elected, or he is not free, but necessitated, in which case he cannot choose to write such a discourse. For him, the very fact that he has written this discourse is a proof of its argument. He has chosen to write; his choice was not determined. Thus, he is free. For Bramhall “the proper act of liberty is election, and election is opposed not only to coaction but also to… determination to one. Necessitation or determination to one may consist with spontaneity but not with election or liberty…”(Bramhall, 9). Thus, Bramhall’s objection to Hobbes rests on two grounds. First, he conceives of freedom as the ability to ‘will what one wills,’ the freedom to choose. And second, he believes that freedom (thus conceived) is incommensurable with necessity. For Bramhall, one is either free to choose from a number of options (to write, or not to write) or one is necessitated to choose one particular option (not to write). There is no possibility of a freedom that is also necessitated.

Unfortunately, this objection (that a free election cannot also be necessitated) cannot stand when applied to Hobbesian freedom. This is precisely because Hobbes does not conceive of freedom as the ability to ‘will what one wills’. For Hobbes, freedom is not a property of the will at all, but the unobstructed exercise of the will. He holds that:

For he is free to do a thing, that may do it if he have the will to do it, and may forbear if he have the will to forbear. And yet if there be a necessity that he shall have the will to do it, the action is necessarily to follow; and if there be a necessity that he shall have the will to forbear, the forbearing will also be necessary. The question therefore is not whether a man be a free agent, that is to say, whether he can write or forbear, speak or be silent, according to his will; but whether the will to write and the will to forbear come upon him according to his will, or according to anything else in his power. I acknowledge this liberty, that I can do if I will; but to say I can will if I will, I take to be an absurd speech (Hobbes, 15-16).
Thus, for Hobbes, Bramhall’s objection that he is free to will what he will is ‘absurd speech’; he is only free to act on his will (which is itself determined). He defines freedom simply as the freedom to act, without obstruction, upon one’s will. This definition of freedom relies heavily on Hobbes’s definition of the will itself, which also differs greatly from that of Bramhall. While Bramhall holds the opinion that the will is radically separate from the world and is able to adjudicate between the options it is presented with in an almost Cartesian sense, Hobbes holds that the will is simply the last in a series of deliberations, which are not exempt from the causal, material world. Hobbes believes that:
…deliberation is nothing else but so many wills alternatively changed, according as a man understands or fancies the good and evil sequels of the thing concerning which he deliberates, whether he shall pursue it; or of the means, whether they conduce or not to that end whatsoever it be, he seeks to obtain. So that in deliberation there be many wills, whereof not any is the cause of a voluntary action but the last… (Hobbes, 86-87).
The will, for Hobbes, is nothing more than the final deliberation in a series. When considering possible courses of action, numerous ‘wills’ (deliberations) pass through one’s mind, weighing the possible pain and pleasure, good and evil, in the outcome. Rather than a free election, the will itself, the final deliberation and subsequent cause of action, is as necessitated as any other deliberation. Thus, “…the will itself, and each propension of a man during his deliberation, is as much necessitated and depends on a sufficient cause as anything else whatsoever” (Hobbes, 21). This necessitation is not directly caused by a single solitary cause, but rather, a myriad of causes some of them dispositions towards certain actions, some of them memories, etc. Rather than the will being necessitated by a single action (God’s will or a single mental process, for example) the necessitation is the result of a ‘concourse of causes’.

I believe that this complicated definition of necessity, involving an indefinable number of causes, is what trips up Bramhall’s understanding of Hobbesian freedom and Hobbes in general. Bramhall conceives of necessitation as consisting in “antecedent determination to one…” (Bramhall, 43). He elaborates on his definition of precisely how ‘determination’ occurs earlier on:

…all the causes, being joined together and subordinate one to another, do make but one total cause, if any one cause (much more the first) in the whole series or subordination of causes be necessary, it determines the rest, and without doubt makes the effect necessary. Necessity or liberty is not to be esteemed from one cause, but from all the causes joined together. If one link in a chain be fast, it fastens all the rest (Bramhall, 7).
The picture Bramhall paints here of causality is an extremely simplified version of the more complicated materialist causal story that Hobbes gives us. Rather than seeing a concurrence of both conflicting and complementary causes (for instance, the impulse to do a thing and the impulse to avoid the doing of that thing…), Bramhall sees causality as a single chain, set out by the will of God. The Hobbesian story does not necessarily disagree with the notion of God as the primary cause of all things, but it does not entail that there is a unified chain proceeding from that original will directly to the moment at hand. Instead, there is a dispersion of different causal chains that interact almost chaotically with each other; any one effect can have thousands, even millions, of causes conflicting with each other as well as complementing each other.

Given Bramhall’s fundamental misconception of Hobbesian freedom, it seems that his objections concerning punishment are likely to fail as well. He pictures punishment as a sort of correction of the errant will. If the will is not free to choose what it will, he believes there is no justification for punishing it. It would be like punishing a rock for falling, though it cannot do otherwise. This objection fails, however, because Hobbes’s formulation of punishment is, unsurprisingly, not based on the notion of a freely elected will; rather it is situated within his materialist framework. Thus, as we have seen, the notion of necessity does not conflict with Hobbes’ notion of freedom nor does it conflict with (as we shall see) the Hobbesian conception of punishment.

Hobbesian punishment is not based on the correction of an errant will. It functions instead as a deterrent cause. For Hobbes, punishment serves to deter future crime by ‘causing’ criminals to rethink their potential crimes (if they see a crime punished, that punishment becomes an important consideration in their chain of deliberations). He states that

…the necessity of an action does not make the laws that prohibit it unjust. To let pass that not the necessity but the will to break the law makes the action unjust, because the law regards the will and no other precedent causes of action. And to let pass that no law can possibly be unjust, inasmuch as every man makes, by his consent, the law he is bound to keep, and which consequently he must be just, unless a man can be unjust to himself. I say, what necessary cause soever precede an action, yet if the action be forbidden, he that does it willingly may justly be punished. For instance, suppose the law on pain of death prohibit stealing, and there be a man who by the strength of temptation is necessitated to steal and is thereupon put to death; does not this punishment deter others? Is it not a cause that others steal not? Does it not frame and make their wills to justice? (Hobbes 24-25).

Thus, Hobbes conceives of punishment as a cause that deters further criminal actions, rather than as an attempt to exact justice upon the will of the criminal. Hobbes seeks deterrence rather than retribution. So, through his reformulations of both freedom and punishment, Hobbes is able to avoid both Bramhall’s criticisms. Or rather, Bramhall misses both these reformulations in his objections to Hobbes and attacks a straw man.

Though I disagree with the specific content of Bramhall’s misgivings regarding Hobbesian punishment, I do think that they are defensible in spirit. My discussion of punishment and Hobbes will center, not on freedom and the will, but on the nature of rationality and truth in Hobbes’s thought, and how these may conflict with the provision of an adequate foundation for punishment (divine or human). Through an elaboration and reflexive application of Hobbes’s definition of rationality, I hope to problematize the any possible Hobbesian foundation for punishment. But first, Hobbes’s definition of rationality (reason):

When a man reasoneth, he does nothing else but conceive a sum total from addition of parcels, or conceive a remainder from subtraction of one consequence of the names of all the parts to the name of the whole, or from the names of the whole and one part to the name of the other part. … For REASON, in this sense, is nothing but reckoning (that is, adding and subtracting) of the consequences of general names agreed upon for the marking and signifying of our thoughts; I say marking them when we reckon by ourselves, and signifying, when we demonstrate or approve our reckonings to other men (Hobbes, Leviathan, 22-23).
Thus, reasoning is, for Hobbes merely the faculty of organizing our thoughts. Rather than a faculty that determines our very nature (as it is for someone like Kant, and in some ways, Bramhall) reason is the addition or subtraction of various causal consequences in our heads. In effect, reason is merely the weighing of causes and effects, or, more correctly, the weighing of the names of our thoughts of causes and effects. As such, reason has no particular claim on ‘truth’; it can err, it can lead one to falsehood. Hobbes states that
…as in arithmetic, unpractised men must, and professors themselves may, often err and cast up false, so also in any other subject of reasoning, the ablest, most attentive, and most practiced men may deceive themselves and infer false conclusions; not but that reason itself is always right reason, as well as arithmetic is a certain and infallible art, but no one man’s reason, nor the reason of any one number of men, makes the certainty, no more than an account is therefore well cast up, because a great many men have unanimously approved it… (Hobbes, Leviathan, 23).
Thus, reason is based on the fundamental uncertainty of the future. Hobbes, like Hume, believes that any conjecture we make regarding the future is subject to error.

Given this uncertainty and ability to err, I would like to question just how Hobbesian reason functions in the specific case of Hobbes’s own philosophical and political system. How can Hobbes’s theory of the state of nature and, indeed, of the material nature of reality itself be seen as anything more than the ordering of one man’s thoughts? Can Hobbes’s claims about the position of punishment be situated in anything other than a radically individualistic relativist framework? My contention is that they cannot, and thus the Hobbesian political system (in relation to Hobbes’s definition of reason and rationality) can provide no real basis or justification for punishment.

Hobbes states that “A law of Nature (lex naturalis) is a precept or general rule, found out by reason, by which man is forbidden to do that which is destructive of his life or taketh away the means of preserving the same, and to omit that by which he thinketh it may be best preserved” (Hobbes, Leviathan, 79). Thus, Reason discovers the natural law that guides our thoughts: the law of self-preservation. Reason itself is the ordering of our thoughts in a particular manner, but that manner is always predisposed to afford us the highest possibility of self-preservation. For Hobbes, our reason is separate from this drive to self-preservation (and, indeed, ‘discovers’ that drive in some sense) but given this natural law (to seek out self-preservation) reason is also subjected to the dictates of that law. Thus, while reason is not coterminous with the law of self-preservation, its function is always to weigh between possible outcomes and maximize the level of self-preservation. So, reason is always enslaved to the dictates of the natural law.

The problem, for me, seems to be that if reason is simply the ordering of our perceptions (in order to afford us the highest possibility of self-preservation), how can Hobbes’s description be seen as ‘true’ or in any sense valid? If it is not an objectively derived truth (or at least one devoid of self-interest) how can we use it as a solid basis for punishment? Rather than a universally (or even interpersonally) valid system, should we not consider Hobbes’s philosophical and political system merely as a tool born of his own striving toward self-benefit? For Hobbes, punishment is only to be submitted to if we accept the rule of the sovereign. Ostensibly, we are only to submit to the law of that sovereign in order to increase our own chances for self-preservation (by getting out of the brutish cycle of the ‘state of nature’). However, if this state of nature and the right of the sovereign (and indeed the entirety of Hobbesian theory) are merely productions of Hobbes’s mind in order to ensure his own self-preservation, what possible reason can be given to accept the law of the sovereign? It seems that in order for Hobbes to posit his system of government, and thus his system of punishment as well, he needs to escape his own definition of rationality (as a principle guided by the drive for self-preservation). Otherwise, if we accept the Hobbesian account of rationality, there can be no justification for punishment, as it is derived solely from a single will to self-preservation; Hobbes’s own.

Works Cited

  1. John Bramhall and Thomas Hobbes, Hobbes and Bramhall on Liberty and Necessity, edited by Vere Chappell (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1999).
  2. Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, edited and introduced by Edwin Curley (Hackett Publishing, Indianapolis, 1994).

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