Has Voluntarism been disproven?

16 Feb 2023

While it is not the sole aim of her writing, Christine Korsgaard’s The Sources of Normativity offers a critique of 17th century Voluntarism. Voluntarism is the thesis that moral obligation arises from the will of a legislator. For example, the reason we have the duty to not murder, is because a mind, whether that be a political sovereign, or God himself, has decreed a prohibition against murder. Voluntarism presents itself as an explanation for why humans have obligations. While right and wrong may be desirable concepts to pursue, being moral is not inherently obligatory. A mind must obligate me, or as Korsgaard writes ‘the legislator is necessary to make obligation possible’.[1] This paper will present voluntarism as a credible source of obligation by demonstrating that it can explain the reason I have civil and moral obligations. I will then explain how voluntarism passes Korsgaard’s test of justificatory and explanatory adequacy. Finally, I will examine and reply to Korsgaard’s objections to voluntarism, considering the literature of Pufendorf, Hobbes and Michel Foucault.  


1. The voluntarist account of civil obligation as imposed by a sovereign

It is important to define the legislator, that is, the sovereign in the voluntarist scheme. When Hobbes posited that a sovereign was the source of obligation, he, reflecting the time he was writing, was explicitly speaking of a monarch. The monarch functioned as an archetype, foreshadowing the relationship that all persons have with a divine legislator, God. Historically speaking, Hobbes would not likely approve of my redefinition of the sovereign, however, for the sake of clarity, his argument is no less efficacious if the sovereign reflects a modern understanding, and is defined as ‘any governing body’. We know that this is possible from Pufendorf who did not limit himself to a strict definition and used the word ‘superior’ instead of sovereign.[2] To him, being a sovereign was defined by one’s possession of authority, rather than a status such as ‘government’ or ‘Monarch’. Likewise, when I use the word sovereign, I will refer to whatever you observe as an authoritative body, whether that may be the Queen of the Commonwealth, or your nation’s Government. For the sake of simplicity, I will use ‘he’ as the personal pronoun for the sovereign and do not mean to imply that the sovereign is necessarily one person or male.


It can be reasonably observed that across all peoples in modern history, man is subject to a sovereign. Korsgaard’s first challenge to voluntarism is not that there is a sovereign, but rather, whether the sovereign is legitimate and has real authority. Whether a sovereign actually possesses authority is important in establishing whether a sovereign can obligate his subjects. In his infamous work Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes suggested that there were two ways a sovereign could come to possess authority over his subjects: (1) by generation, and (2) by conquest.


Firstly, authority can be acquired by generation. Using the example of the nursing mother, Hobbes argues that a mother has legitimate authority over her child for giving it life.[3] It is not the mere begetting of the child which grants a mother legitimate authority, rather, ‘dominion is in him that nourisheth it [the child].’[4] In other words, the person who preserves the life of the child, which is by default the mother who nurses, has legitimate authority over the child. Pufendorf echoes this argument, stating that authority is endowed when a sovereign provides ‘exceptional benefits’.[5]  This includes protection and nurture, similar to the Hobbesian nursing mother. A sovereign possesses authority when he protects and nourishes his subjects.


Secondly, authority can be acquired by conquest. Hobbes stated that a victor in war has dominion over the defeated, when they, to avoid death, agree to subject themselves.[6] This is what Pufendorf meant when he stated that an authority will ‘indeed terrify me, so that I think it better to obey him.’[7] Authority is established by the fact that the sovereign has the capacity to, by the threat of inflicting harm, cause others to subject themselves. Hobbes argued that it is not the act of harming that bestows the victor with legitimate authority, rather it is the contract by which this power relation is established. There is an agreement between the victor and the defeated; the defeated promises ‘not to run away, nor to do violence to his master’, and the master promises to not kill his subject. It is the fact that there is an agreement that gives the sovereign real authority.


It is important to note that the legitimacy of the sovereign-subject relationship does not require consent from the subject. The child is subject to his mother without consent, and the defeated must enter the victor’s contract (he cannot-do-otherwise). Thus, the sovereign’s acquirement of authority is established by what Korsgaard calls ‘irresistible power’. In summary, the legitimacy of the sovereign-subject relationship is not consensual, but rather, contingent upon whether: (1) the sovereign provides protection (by generation), and (2) the sovereign uses his power to impose an irresistible contract (by conquest).


2. The voluntarist account of moral obligation as imposed by a sovereign

Korsgaard provides a criterion for an ethical system to be a convincing source of normativity. Firstly, it must be able to justify moral action. Secondly, it must be able to explain how morality can deeply convict and motivate us. 


While my government may possess the power to impose civil obligations, how does that translate into morality? If a sovereign were to impose prohibitive obligations, he could give me reason to not murder my enemy. However, it seems I have other non-civil obligations such as telling the truth, and saving someone who is drowning. Since there are always limitations to political sovereigns, voluntarism lacks justificatory adequacy. The sovereign most people refer to in Hobbes’ framework was a monarch, which can only explain civil obligation. By doing as Pufendorf and Hobbes did, and substituting the sovereign with a divine legislator, voluntarism is able to explain moral obligations. Since God is a moral authority, he can enforce the moral obligation to aid your neighbour. In order to answer this objection, Hobbes only needs to posit that God provides us with moral obligations which exceed the earthly sovereign’s civil obligations. Doing so provides us with an explanation for our other non-civil obligations. The earthly sovereign imposes obligation in the civil realm, and God imposes obligation in the moral realm. It follows then that voluntarism has justificatory adequacy.


Is this just a god-of-the-gaps argument? One might accuse voluntarists of not knowing where non-civil obligations come from, and consequently, think that they have just inserted in an unjustifiable metaphysical claim to fill in the gap. We should not speculate that voluntarists utilise God in this way. Hobbes and Pufendorf did not just tack God on the end of their argument, but instead, originally offered their voluntarist schema under the presumption of a theistic account of obligation. In voluntarism, God is expected to function as the sovereign. Korsgaard is charitable, and accepts the premise that voluntarism consists of a legislator who commands obedience; and that they can be human or divine. To reject that the sovereign can be God, is to rule-out-in-advance a very strong case for voluntarism.


In order to satisfy Korsgaard’s demands, Hobbes must explain how the sovereign-subject relationship can provide motivation and conviction in moral matters. Korsgaard argues that the laws of a legislator do not intrinsically motivate; if they did ‘moral laws would be mere counsels, not commands.’[8] Korsgaard deviates from Hobbes by making ‘command’ and ‘counsel’ exclusive categories. This interpretation contradicts Hobbes in chapter XV, where he argues that a command is not against the benefit of the subject.[9]  Furthermore, Korsgaard does not acknowledge the next paragraph of her Hobbes reference (ch. XXV), ‘he should covenant to follow it [a counsel], then is the counsel turned into the nature of a command’.[10] Here, Hobbes states that it is possible for a counsel to be turned into a command, and in such a case, I could be motivated to follow a command. For example, when you are thirsty, I could command you to come to drink water. In Korsgaard’s view is that a counsel or a command? It cannot be a counsel, since not drinking is disobedience. It cannot be a command, since you, being thirsty, have a deep motivation. We must reject Korsgaard’s attempt to make these categories exclusive.


Moral obligations, which spring forth from commands, can contain motivation for the subject. I can delight in the command to drink water, not simply because I must obey my sovereign under the threat of punishment, but because it quenches my thirst. Hence, I can be deeply motivated to follow commands because the commands are good for me, and thus, I may be deeply convicted to obey them. Korsgaard’s claim ‘I am obligated to do what is right only because the sovereign can punish me if I do not (emphasis mine)’[11] is false; doing what is right also promotes my flourishing.  Korsgaard’s test for explanatory adequacy has been met. I can be deeply convicted and compelled to follow an obligation.


3. The voluntarist account for how obligation is maintained by a sovereign

Korsgaard’s main objection to voluntarism is: ‘the sovereign’s authority now consists entirely in his ability to punish us.’[12] In other words, the weight of our obligations lies directly in proportion to the sovereign’s power. If I am not punished for speeding, it implies that the sovereign was not able to punish me, and therefore, I was never obligated to follow the speed limit. This presents a problem for voluntarism since we can observe that obligations do not disappear when we are not punished for obeying them. There are at least four ways the voluntarist might respond.


Firstly, Hobbes explicitly indicated, in his discussion of authority by conquest, that it is not the sovereign’s ability to punish every crime that makes obligation stand. The slave does not only obey when his master has the ability to immediately punish him; a power relation could not be maintained if that were so. Instead, obligation stands because the slave has covenanted with the master that he will obey, and the master has promised in return that the slave will not be killed. It is the existence of these promises (a contract) which binds one with obligations, not the master’s ability to punish every crime. Hence, when I get away with speeding, I was still obligated to obey in light of a social contract, independent of the sovereign’s ability to immediately punish me.  


Ironically, Korsgaard recognises this fact in her proposal that normativity arises from dominance hierarchies. Emilian Mihailov summarises her argument thus:

what makes a dominated animal refrain from doing something that it needs or desires is not because the circumstances are unfavourable to the outcome of the action - for example when the animal is outnumbered by competition - but rather because avoiding a specific course of action is required due to his place in the group hierarchy.[13]  

Korsgaard believes that animals are obligated not because of a fear of immediate punishment, but rather because the dominance hierarchy obligates the animal to behave. This translates directly to this discussion; Hobbes argues that the subject is obligated, not because they fear immediate punishment, but rather, because a social contract obligates the subject to obey.


Secondly, Korsgaard’s own Wittgenstein argument undermines her objection. In her fourth Tanner Lecture, Korsgaard argues that reasons are inherently public.[14] If she were to ask me to think of a yellow spot, I will. She does not merely cause me to do so, but rather she has, with her words, obligated me.[15] She uses an example: when a person calls my name when I am walking by, I cannot continue as before, but now, I have an obligation to stop.[16] It can be observed by the voluntarist that if the sovereign has told Korsgaard to not speed, she has, by this command, become obligated to not speed. By Korsgaard’s argument, if she were to get away with speeding, it does not imply that she had no obligation. The fact that the sovereign has decreed laws, and that Korsgaard knows those laws, obligates Korsgaard to obey, independent of whether the sovereign could immediately punish her. Here, the voluntarist is able to adopt this Wittgensteinian argument to the sovereign-subject relationship in order to rebut Korsgaard’s objection.


Pufendorf writes, ‘for the law to exert its force in the minds to whom it applies, there must be knowledge of who the legislator is and of what the law itself is.’[17] A subject can know whether they have sufficient knowledge of an obligation imposed by a sovereign. This is evidenced by the existence of guilt. If I were to stand up my mother, that is, to not meet with her when we agreed to meet, I may feel guilty. Guilt is only possible if I have an obligation to meet my mother, and knowledge of that obligation. If I did not know that I was supposed to meet my mother (I am ignorant of that obligation), then there is no guilt. Likewise, I am obliged to not speed, and the fact that I may feel guilty, even if I get away with it, demonstrates that the obligation (to not speed) was still binding on me. It does not matter if a sovereign who created the law can immediately punish me. In conclusion, the knowledge that a sovereign has decreed commands can make me obliged to obey them.


Thirdly, Hobbes could undermine this objection by employing Michel Foucault’s conception of power. Foucault thought that power was not the actual exercise of punishment, but the potential to punish.[18] He illustrates this using a Panopticon, a building that stood in the centre of Millgate prison in 1821.[19] This tower consisted of large windows which were visible from every cell in the prison, so if there were guards posted in the tower, they could directly see the inmates at any time (see appendix 1). The building was designed so that the lighting made it impossible to see through the windows into the tower. No prisoner could know whether there was a guard posted, and whether he was being watched. Consequently, the prisoners, even though they were not watching all the time, behaved as if they were being looked at. It was not clear whether they were being watched. This caused every inmate in the prison to regulate his own behaviour. Obligations were given to the inmates, and the inmates obeyed them. The power was not maintained because they were punished for disobedience, but rather because they had the potential to be.


For Korsgaard, it is true that one can break the law and get away with it, however, I cannot guarantee it. Every time I break the law, there is the potential for me to be punished. It is not clear whether I am being watched by the sovereign, just as it was not clear whether the inmates were visible to guards in the panopticon. Something about the fact that they could be potentially punished, caused them to meet their obligations. This is Foucault’s thesis, that power lies in the potential to punish, not the punishment itself. If Hobbes were to take such a view of ‘irresistible power’, it would not entail that the sovereign must immediately punish them in order for people to obey a command.  Rather, the sovereign maintains power by the fact that they have the potential to punish. The reason we must obey the law is because we could be immediately punished by a sovereign; that is what gives me my obligation.

Finally, Korsgaard falsely assumes that there is such thing as a person who gets away with a crime.[20] If we were to suppose that the sovereign in question was God, it would follow that He, being omniscient, would know every instance one did not obey His legislative will. In this case, there are no real occasions where a subject ‘gets away’ with a crime. Instead, the divine sovereign would ‘render to each one according to his works… for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury (Rom 2:6-8). Considering the doctrine of hell, it would entail that at some point, whether in this life, or after the subject dies, God will punish anyone who has broken His commands. So, if I murdered my enemy and thought I got away with it, I would in fact be punished after I die, and thus, Korsgaard must say that the obligation (to not murder) remains. Furthermore, if Hobbes were to consider God as the sovereign, Foucault’s conception of power is no longer needed, as it would follow that I am always visible, and thus, there is no question as to whether God has the potential to punish me; a just God will punish me.


One could reply that this only applies to the domain of the obligations that the sovereign, God, requires of me. While God may obligate me to help my neighbour, he does not obligate me to follow the speed limit. That is done by an earthly sovereign. For Hobbes and Pufendorf in the 17th century, civil authority was considered to be divinely instituted. One of the moral obligations God gave to man was that he must obey civil obligations given by an earthly sovereign. Under this understanding, if I am to speed, and the earthly sovereign lacks the power to punish me, I will still be punished by God for not obeying God’s command to submit myself to civil authority. In other words, I would still be punished by God for speeding, because I disobeyed an earthly sovereign. In summary, if the voluntarist considers God to be the sovereign, no man ever breaks a law without being punished as Korsgaard suggests.



In conclusion, Korsgaard fails to undermine the voluntarist thesis. Firstly, Hobbes argues that the sovereign comes to possess a real sense of power by: generation, and conquest. This power is indeed irresistible. It is through this power relation that humans can have commands that are relevant to explaining civil and moral obligation. Secondly, it is because Korsgaard understands ‘counsel’ and ‘command’ to be exclusive categories, that she has falsely concluded that voluntarism fails at providing explanatory adequacy. Finally, Korsgaard incorrectly posits that punishment enforces obligation. It is Hobbes’ social contract, that is instituted by conquest, which upholds obligation. Even so, her critique – that obligation is proportional to a sovereign’s power to punish – can be rebuked in many ways. The voluntarist can indicate that the sovereign is God. Power is truly irresistible since no person ever gets away with a crime. One could also employ both Wittgenstein and Foucault’s theories to render obligation necessary when immediate punishment lacks. Conclusively, Korsgaard has failed to demonstrate that the voluntarist hypothesis is an inadequate source of normativity.



[1] Christine M. Korsgaard, ‘The Normative Question,’ In The Sources of Normativity (Cambridge University Press, 1996), 23.

[2] Samuel Pufendorf, On the Duty of Man and Citizen According to Natural Law, eds. James Tully, trans. Michael Silverthorne (Cambridge University Press, 1991), 28.

[3] Thomas Hobbes, ‘Chapter XX, Of Dominion Paternal And Despotical,’ In Leviathan (1660), 141.

[4] Ibid., 142.

[5] Samuel Pufendorf, On the Duty of Man and Citizen According to Natural Law, eds. James Tully, trans. Michael Silverthorne (Cambridge University Press, 1991), 28.

[6] Thomas Hobbes, ‘Chapter XX, Of Dominion Paternal And Despotical,’ In Leviathan (1660), 143.

[7] Samuel Pufendorf, On the Duty of Man and Citizen According to Natural Law, eds. James Tully, trans. Michael Silverthorne (Cambridge University Press, 1991), 28.

[8] Christine M. Korsgaard, ‘The Normative Question,’ In The Sources of Normativity (Cambridge University Press, 1996), 22.

[9] Thomas Hobbes, ‘Chapter XV, Of Other Laws of Nature,’ In Leviathan (1660), 101.

[10] Thomas Hobbes, ‘Chapter XXV, Of Counsel,’ In Leviathan (1660), 182.

[11] Christine M. Korsgaard, ‘The Normative Question,’ In The Sources of Normativity (Cambridge University Press, 1996), 24.

[12] Ibid.

[13] E., Mihailov, ‘Does the Origin of Normativity Stem from the Internalization of Dominance Hierarchies?’ In Symposion. no. 2 (2015). 467.

[14] Christine M. Korsgaard, ‘The Origin of Value and the Scope of Obligation,’ In The Sources of Normativity (Cambridge University Press, 1996), 88.

[15] Ibid., 91.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Samuel Pufendorf, On the Duty of Man and Citizen According to Natural Law, eds. James Tully, trans. Michael Silverthorne (Cambridge University Press, 1991), 28.

[18] Michel Foucault, ‘The Right of Death and Power Over Life,’ In The History of Sexuality. 136.  

[19] Michel Foucault, ‘Panopticism,’ In Discipline and Punish (1975), 200.

[20] Christine M. Korsgaard, ‘The Normative Question,’ In The Sources of Normativity (Cambridge University Press, 1996), 24.