“Even Your Own Deed Also”: Law and Corporate Moral Agency

How can we be free even in the midst of obedience to laws with which we do not agree?  In a recent post, I expored the conundrum of law and liberty in the Reformation, and how we might be free even in submission to law when we recognize that obeying the law is a means of loving the neighbor.  Hooker, in seeking to persuade Puritan consciences that the laws of the English church were edifying, rational, and had in their favor the approval of centuries of church practice, and of the wisest among the Church of his own day, seems to be smoothing the way for such a free and voluntary law-obedience:

“Surely if we have unto those laws that dutifull regard which their dignitie doth require: it will not greatly need, that we should be exhorted to live in obedience unto them . . . . The safest and unto God the most acceptable way of framing our lives therefore is, with all humilitie lowlines and singlens of hart to studie, which way our willing obedience both unto God and man may be yeelded even to the utmost of that which is due” (III.9.3). 

Nonetheless, what about when we don’t think the laws in question are edifying and rational?  What about when we, and others, heartily disagree with the decisions taken by those in authority?  Given the breadth and depth of the Puritan protest, it seems a bit audacious for Hooker to declare, “To them which aske why we thus hange our judgmentes on the Churches sleeve, I answer with Salomon, because two are better then one. . . . The bare consent of the whole Church should it selfe in these thinges stop theire mouthes who livinge under it dare presume to barke against it.”  After all, the “consent of the whole church” was precisely what was lacking, and had been for decades, as Puritans in the churches, among the gentry, and even in Parliament continued to oppose the judgments enshrined in law.  Indeed, not just some few, but “thousands, yea and even of those amongst which divers are in publique chuarge and authoritie,” as Hooker would quote Cartwright in his Preface.

To this Hooker responds, in a crucially revealing sentence, “As though when publique consent of the whole hath established any thing, every mans judgement being thereunto compared, were not private, howsoever his calling be to some kind of public charge.”  The distinction drawn here is one key to Hooker’s political thought, as well as that of many of his contemporaries, between singulis and universis, citizens considered individually and considered as “the whole.”  Neither the number nor the status of dissenting voices counts against the “consent of the whole” inasmuch as this has been enshrined in law.  

More, then, than merely an appeal to corporate rationality, to the wisdom found in tradition, underlies Hooker’s argument for submission.  Indeed, immediately after his remark in I.10 that laws must be made by wise men, he cautions, “Howbeit laws do not take their constraining force from the qualitie of such as devise them, but from that power which doth geve them the strength of lawes” (I.10.8).  This power is sovereignty, the moral agency exercised by a collective through its authorized representatives, as he discusses at length in Book VIII.  To be sure, laws thus made can be overturned, but only by the same exercise of corporate agency that created them, not by the dissent of individual members, no matter how numerous.  “Lawes that have bene approved may be (no man doubteth) again repealed, and to that end also disputed against, by the athors therof themselves.  But this is when the whole doth deliberate whtat lawes each part shal observe, and not when a part refuseth the lawes which the whole hath orderly agreed upon.”  For Hooker, to speak of our “consent” to these laws is no mere metaphor, but an expression of the fact that we really do act not merely through our private wills, but through others: 

 As in parliaments, councels, and the like assemblies, although we be not personallie our selves present, notwithstanding our assent is by reason of others agents there in our behalfe.  And what we do by others, no reason but that it should stand as our deed, no lesse effectually to binde us then if our selves had done it in person.” 

As members of a body politic, our agency simply is constituted by our participation in this public action, and it is meaningless to pretend that we can exempt ourselves:

“[It is] unmeet that laws which being once solemnly established, are to exact obedience of all men, and to constraine therunto, should so far stoup as to hold themselves in suspense from taking any effect upon you, till some disputer can perswade you to be obedient.  A lawe is the deed of the whole body politike, whereof if ye judge your selves to be any part, then is the law even your deed also.” 

This statement, though it comes at the beginning of the Lawes, could be considered the capstone of Hooker’s argument.  Here we have the logic of God’s own action—a law to himself, completely free although bound to observe his eternal law, because this law is the most perfect expression of himself, and of rationality—mirrored in the logic of the human agent: we remain free even in being bound by law, because this law is our own rational action.  This is Hooker’s final argument—if all else fails, if the Puritan conscience refuses to see the edifying value of the laws, refuses to see their basis in the law of reason, refuses to defer to the judgment and wisdom of antiquity, persists in stubborn conviction that these laws are badly-made, his obedience is still, Hooker maintains, congruent with Christian liberty because he is simply obeying himself.  


Of course, we will have some concerns about this line of argument.  To what extremity could this go?  Perhaps the particular laws that Hooker defends really were fairly reasonable, but could the same logic be applied to underwrite meek acquiescence to true tyranny and injustice?  Hooker does not wish to leave things quite this stark.  Certainly, this trump card is not one that he wants to play lightly: “Neither wish wee that men should do any thing which in their hearts they are perswaded they ought not to do,” he says in 6.3 of the Preface, and again, in 6.6, “Not that I judge it a thing allowable for men to observe those lawes which in their hearts they are stedfastly perswaded to be against the law of God.”  But he does not think that the present case is one in which this “Here I stand, I can do no other” can be legitimately invoked: “your perswasion in this case ye are all bound for the time to suspend, and in otherwise doing, ye offend against God by troubling his Church without any just or necessary cause.  Be it that there are some reasons inducing you to think hardly of our lawes.  Are those reasons demonstrative, are they necessary, or but probabilities only?”

A demonstrative argument, Hooker grants, “dischargeth . . the conscience, and setteth it at full libertie.”  But where is this demonstrative argument?  “But if the skilfullest amongst you can shewe that all the bookes ye have hitherto written be able to afford any one argument of this nature, let the instance be given” (Pref. 6.6).  In the absence of an utterly compelling reason to disobey the laws, the Puritans must be willing to suspend the judgments of their conscience for charity’s sake, for, whatever their concerns about the harm to be done by bad laws, they must surely recognize the greater harm that will be done by contentiousness and disobedience: “of peace and quietnes there is not any way possible, unlesse the probable voice of every intier societie or bodie politique overrule all private of like nature in the same bodie.”  

Hooker’s first route of reconciling law and liberty has been to show that the particular laws in question are such as to advance the common good, so that to support them and obey them is in fact to love the neighbor.  Failing this, however, he will advise the Puritans that disobedience, founded merely on probable private opinion, cannot but harm the commonwealth, so that neighbor-love requires suspension of judgment, since there will be “no end of contention without submission of both parts unto some definitive sentence.”

2 thoughts on ““Even Your Own Deed Also”: Law and Corporate Moral Agency

  1. Davey H

    Brad,Great stuff, as usual. As you can imagine, I'm attracted to many aspects of Hooker's project. Your concluding comment on the imperative to suspend judgment strikes me as particularly interesting. The concept seems to prefigure later notions of toleration (usually associated with the mature position of John Locke). What I'm wondering, though, is whether suspending judgment is primarily about preserving the "commonweal" in a negative or positive fashion. In other words, is Hooker primarily asking private parties to bracket their private commitments and loyalties, or is he appealing to a more positive conception of the social good which somehow trumps lesser goods of conscience?


  2. Brad Littlejohn

    Davey,Apologies for the tardy reply. This is really an excellent question. Of course, whenever anyone says that, what they're about to follow with is something like "I wish I had a good answer for it"; and indeed, one cause for my tardy reply was that I hoped I would find time to find a good answer. Certainly, the first option you give—the "negative" appeal to the commonweal—is what we tend to find happening in Hooker's predecessors. With folks like Whitgift to some extent, and far more with Bancroft, questions of conscience are simply subordinated to reasons of state. I like to think that there is a lot more positive conception of the common good going on in Hooker, and that is part of what I'm arguing in this chapter. If you saw my post below "Stirred Up Unto Reverence," it is about how Hooker sees the laws and ceremonies of the English Church as constituting a real source of social and spiritual edification for the church/commonwealth, and argues that they should be embraced on that basis. So that perhaps at least begins to get at what you are looking for. However, I don't know that I'm there yet, in terms of having worked through Hooker enough to say for sure if he sufficiently moves beyond merely "asking private parties to bracket their private commitments and loyalties."


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