Authorization and rights

Class notes for 24 October

Class notes

I have a different way of putting the main point I tried to make today.

There are two differences between A’s transferring a right to B and C’s authorizing D to act on C’s authority.

  1. A’s transferring a right to B does not alter what B is morally capable of doing. It does not give B any greater rights than B had before the transfer. By contrast, what D is morally capable of doing does change as a result of being authorized to act for C. “Moral capability” covers two cases: moral liberty (which is limited by obligations) and moral powers (which are limited by moral disabilities).
  2. A’s transferring a right to B reduces what A is morally capable of doing. It means that A is obliged not to do whatever it was that the right governed. By contrast, C can authorize D without suffering any loss of moral liberty. C does nothing wrong in signing a contract even though that is what D was supposed to do for C. C certainly does nothing wrong to D.

Finally, to reiterate, moral liberty is not the same thing as power, even though obligations can limit both liberty and power. Moral liberty is the absence of obligation. Power is the ability to alter rights and obligations.

Here’s a quick argument showing that the two are different: people in the state of nature have no obligations. This means their moral liberty is unlimited. But their moral powers are sharply limited. One person cannot lay down another’s rights, for example. Therefore, moral liberty and moral powers cannot be the same thing.


Gauthier changed his story: as of 1988, he had decided that Hobbes had to have alienation of rights in the social contract. I haven’t read enough to see how he thinks alienation and authorization are related, though.

Huh. I thought that the original looked pretty good.

Here’s the citation:

Gauthier, David. “Symposium Papers, Comments and an Abstract: Hobbes’s Social Contract.” Noûs 22, no. 1, 1988 A.P.A. Central Division Meetings (1988): 71-82. [JSTOR]