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Thomas Hobbes on Obligation

In the 17th century, beginning with the work of Hugo Grotius, Protestant thinkers used scholastic natural law ideas to develop a new and very influential tradition of natural jurisprudence. This intellectual project was challenged by Thomas Hobbes whose ideas were criticized for apparently leading to atheism, political absolutism, and a moral theory based entirely upon self-interest. The Hobbesian challenge to the new natural jurisprudence was met by Richard Cumberland in the Treatise of Natural Law (1672) whose work profoundly influenced the Earl of Shaftesbury and Francis Hutcheson. Cumberland argued that Hobbesian self-preservation and self-interest was only the beginning of a development of one’s awareness of a natural duty of sociability with one’s fellow human beings. A deeper understanding of human nature reveals that the pursuit of the common good results in the greater fulfillment of human nature than just a narrow pursuit of self-interest.

For more information about the debate between Hobbes and Cumberland see the editor’s foreword to the Liberty Fund edition of Cumberland’s Treatise of the Laws of Nature:

  • Jon Parkin, Foreword, A Treatise of the Laws of Nature, translated, with Introduction and Appendix, by John Maxwell (1727), edited and with a Foreword by Jon Parkin (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2005).

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