Cudworth and basic obligations

In my previous post, I looked at Cudworth’s argument that good and evil (and other moral features) cannot arise from decision alone, for something good cannot simply be made good by decision, without being also given the underlying nature of a good thing. Of course, his opponents have some possible responses open to them. Not all obligations, they might well argue, arise from the natures of the things we’re obliged to do. For instance, if I promise to do X, there may be nothing in X considered alone that makes it obligatory. But it nevertheless is obligatory, just because I promised to do it.

Cudworth does respond to that argument. He concedes something to the objection, but thinks that enough remains of his argument to show that Hobbes et al are mistaken.

For though it will be objected here, that when God, or civil powers command a thing to be done, that was not before obligatory or unlawful … the thing willed or commanded doth forthwith become obligatory … And therefore if all good and evil, just and unjust be not the creatures of mere will (as many assert) yet at least positive things must needs owe all their morality, their good and evil, to mere will without nature (TEIM 18).

Cudworth grants that in some cases a command can make a thing obligatory, when before we were obliged neither to do it nor to refrain from it. However, he says, this cannot be the source of all obligations. A command to do X would not create an obligation to do the intrinsically morally neutral X unless one were already obliged to obey the command. Thus Cudworth continues from the above passage as follows.

Yet notwithstanding, if we well consider it, we shall find that even in positive commands themselves, mere will doth not make the thing commanded just or obligatory, or beget and create any obligation to obedience; but that it is natural justice or equity which gives to one the right or equity of commanding, and begets in another duty and obligation to obedience (TEIM 18).

So if, say, we have an obligation to obey the sovereign, and the sovereign commands that we do the intrinsically morally neutral X, then we become obliged to do X. This might appear to be a counterexample to Cudworth’s basic argument, in that X is obligatory, but X does not have the nature of an obligatory thing. Cudworth clearly does not think that it is a problematic case, however.

Cudworth’s view about that case is that, although some obligations may arise from commands or decisions, not all obligations may do so. And any obligation that arises from a command or decision must ultimately be grounded in an obligation that doesn’t so arise. In a simple case, the grounding will be easy to see. Suppose we are obliged to obey the monarch’s command because of the nature of the monarch, and the monarch commands that we do X. We become, thus, obliged to do X. The obligation to do X is grounded ultimately in the nature of the monarch.

We might even say – and this would at least superficially align the case better with Cudworth’s basic view – that the obligation is grounded in the nature of X, if having been commanded by the monarch, whose commands are genuinely obligatory counts as part of the nature of X. Thus Prior says that

Even this very qualified admission that commands and promises may give an ‘accidental’ goodness to what is neither good nor bad apart from them is regarded by Mr. Passmore as a concession to Hobbes and Descartes which is inconsistent with Cudworth’s general position; but I think this is only because Mr. Passmore attaches more importance to the difference between qualities and relations than Cudworth himself does, and fails to notice that relational characters are included among those which Cudworth calls ‘natures’ (Prior 1949, 21).

More complicated cases are possible, in which the obligation is connected to something with the nature of a genuinely obligatory thing by a longer series of connections. Consider for instance the case in which the monarch whose commands we are obliged to obey commands that we obey the prince, who commands that we do X. We are obliged to do X because X was commanded by the prince, and obliged to do what the prince commands because we were commanded to do so by the monarch, and obliged to do what the monarch commands because of the nature of the monarch. Still, says Cudworth, there must be that basic obligation, one not grounded in a mere command, for the whole scheme to work.

Moreover, the monarch cannot ‘bootstrap’ this first obligation by her own command: “it was never heard of that any one founded all his authority of commanding others, and others’ obligation or duty to obey his commands, in a law of his own making, that men should be required, obliged, or bound to obey him” (TEIM 18). And not only was it never heard of, it cannot be done – this in context is the clear implication.

This concession, however, may seem to leave room for the Hobbesian to reply to Cudworth’s criticism. For why not suppose that there is one basic obligation, grounded in the nature of the thing it belongs to, from which all other obligations derive? Cudworth pays little or no attention to this possibility. There are, however, various candidates for such a basic obligation: ‘You ought to do whatever is rational’, say, or ‘You ought to avoid pain’. And one could at least try to base a system of obligation on such basic claims.

The view I have in mind is that we have some basic obligation, which leads us to an obligation to obey the sovereign, which leads us to obligations to do the things the sovereign tells us to do. None of this is incompatible with what we’ve seen of Cudworth’s views about obligations and natures. But it would lead us to having a rather more Hobbesian system than Cudworth favours: decision would still play a key role, even if moral qualities and obligations were not grounded in decision alone; and it is at least arguable that introducing an egoistic basic obligation like this makes the system more Hobbesian than the one Cudworth argues against, not less.

That might seem to be an obvious sort of reply to Cudworth, one that an advocate of his criticism would have to worry about. However, Stephen Darwall suggests that Cudworth has little or no problem here.

It is consistent with this argument, of course, that there is a single background moral fact, or perhaps a few such facts, concerning the rightness of obeying God and other, earthly, sovereigns, and that all the rest of morality derives from these. But Cudworth may be right not to worry much about this possibility. Once readers have been convinced that the authority of a sovereign, earthly or divine, requires a basis in a background moral fact, they may be unlikely to think the set of moral facts can be restricted to that fact alone. If, for example, we ought to obey God out of gratitude, as Pufendorf urged, then it would seem that ingratitude must be wrong in itself, other things equal. Or, if, as Locke held, God’s authority derives from his creative act, then it seems it must be of the nature of creativity that it grounds some title to its products (Darwall 1995, 118-9).

Darwall might be right, as a matter of philosophical sociology, that few readers of Cudworth will want to restrict the number of basic moral facts severely. Maybe once one gets past the basic puzzle of how there could be any normative things at all, accepting a second one and a third might not seem so bad. Still, that’s not a reason to think the project won’t work. And the Pufendorf and Locke examples just show ways to think about what the basic fact or facts might be.

[Cross-posted from]


Cudworth, Ralph. Treatise Concerning Eternal and Immutable Morality, edited by Sarah Hutton (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1996). [TEIM]

Darwall, Stephen. 1995. The British Moralists and the Internal Ought. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Prior, A.N. 1949. Logic and the Basis of Ethics. Oxford: Clarendon.