Hobbes on justice and rights Notes for 11–13 September

Main points

I’m trying to show that Hobbes’s moral theory contains the material for a distinction between mere force and legitimate political power. That is, I’m trying to show that “rights”, “obligations”, “justice” and the like are not just different terms for the application or absence of force.

The difficulty is that Hobbes has provided enough material to make his position ambiguous. So I have to do some work.

Ramy’s question

Ramy pushed me on the relationship between some of the fancy, more modern distinctions I’m introducing and Hobbes’s text. Roughly, his question was “What did Hobbes do to help us understand our political lives?” while I’ve been pursuing a different one, namely, “what can we do to understand Hobbes?”

Great question! I have been doing the latter while claiming to be doing the former. Let me take a more extended shot at it.

I think that there are at least two big ideas in chapters 13-15.

One is that what unites the different virtues and rules of morality is their relationship to self-preservation. By contrast, Aristotle had said that virtues all consist in a ‘mediocrity of passions’. This is something I noted in the handout [pdf] I distributed but it is not a point that we discussed explicitly. Hobbes clearly thought this was a big deal, but you might be excused for not sharing his enthusiasm.

The other big idea is that the moral rules play the role that we take for granted only under specific conditions, namely, when there is safety guaranteed by political power. You might say that this is obvious and, in a sense, you have a point. But people get carried away with the words and ideas of political rhetoric and Hobbes’s relentless and methodical way of laying out his terms is a useful antidote to that.

So, for instance, I don’t know of a better way of pointing out the error of celebrating Iraq’s new liberty than going through at least chapter 13 of Leviathan. Here’s Hobbes’s summary of what he thought he showed about liberty:

if we take liberty, for an exemption from laws, it is no less absurd, for men to demand as they do, that liberty, by which all other men may be masters of their lives. And yet as absurd as it is, this is it they demand; not knowing that the laws are of no power to protect them, without a sword in the hands of a man, or men, to cause those laws to be put in execution. The liberty of a subject, lieth therefore only in those things, which in regulating their actions, the sovereign hath praetermitted: such as is the liberty to buy, and sell, and otherwise contract with one another; to choose their own abode, their own diet, their own trade of life, and institute their children as they themselves think fit; and the like. (Leviathan Ch. 21, par. 6)

Contrast the British military on liberty, from the LA Times in 2003:

Britain’s international development minister, Clare Short, suggested today that U.S. forces weren’t doing enough to restore order in Baghdad. “There must be a much bigger effort to stop all this looting and violence,” she told BBC radio.

However, a spokesman for British forces in Iraq, Group Capt. Al Lockwood, said trying to crack down on looters too quickly could prove unwise.

“The last thing that we want is to be seen to be oppressing them when they’re just having their first taste of freedom,” he said.

Or Donald Rumsfeld, around the same time:

“Freedom’s untidy … Free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes and do bad things. They’re also free to live their lives and do wonderful things, and that’s what’s going to happen here.”

If we had access to what I thought about the Iraq war before it happened, we would see that I didn’t think the US could install a government that was worse than Saddam Hussein’s. It didn’t occur to me that the result would be no government at all. But that’s the first thing Hobbes would have looked for.

You don’t have to read Hobbes to realize these things. But you don’t have to read any one author to realize just about anything. Hobbes made his points especially well. He also gave superb expression to some the ideas and problems of his time that have left their traces, for good or ill, in ours.

Let me say two more things about the point of working through analytical puzzles in an older text.

First, working through puzzles is a way of exploring the intellectual pressure for progress. So while you can’t find an explicit statement of those distinctions concerning “right” in the text, you can see why the different senses in Table 1 in the rights handout [pdf] are all needed by looking carefully at the text.

Second, we would do well to look in the mirror before complaining too much about some of the gaps we find in Hobbes. Taking the laws of nature for granted, as he does, leaves some important questions unanswered. But do we have a better story about the origins of moral rules that we find fundamental to our social order? Or any story at all? Finding certain “truths” “self-evident” doesn’t count.

Sometimes we see these things in ourselves best after we have found them in a distant source.

This is verging on defensiveness. Hey, it’s not an easy question to answer. But it’s time to stop. Onward!


This has bugged me for years. How could there be no such thing as right and justice in the state of nature and also, well, such a thing as right and justice in the state of nature? I have no intention of claiming that Hobbes saw what I said. All I want to convince you of is that there is a consistent story based entirely on what he wrote. (There’s some biographical and historical material that swings things more my way, but I haven’t presented that here).

There is no such thing as justice, understood as “giving each his own” because there is no such thing as one’s “own” in the state of nature. So long as everyone has rights (= liberties = no contrary obligations) to everything in the state of nature, I don’t have exclusive rights to anything.

But there can be such a thing as justice, understood as keeping one’s covenants. In a society, covenants are often used to transfer property. But they need not do that. I may covenant with Ty and still not have the water as my ‘own’.



We need powers as well as liberties to make sense of what Hobbes said about right. The abilities to lay down rights, forgive obligations, and to authorize representatives do not consist in liberties (= absence of contrary obligations). Since those abilities go with having rights, according to Hobbes, he implicitly used a notion of power in addition to his official definition of rights as liberties.

This isn’t merely a point about rights. It’s going to be necessary to understand the social contract. That’s our next task.

In particular, we have already cleaned up one problem. The social contract involves both authorizing the sovereign to act on our rights and giving up our rights. But how can the sovereign act on my rights if I have given them up?

The answer has two steps.

First, rights are relational. I may give up my right of governing myself to the sovereign without thereby giving up my right of governing myself to everyone else. That means the signatories to the social contract retain lots of rights. The social contract doesn’t leave us all morally incapable of doing anything.

Second, authorizing the sovereign means I bear the moral consequences of the sovereign’s actions. If the sovereign signs a contract for a house on my behalf, I’m obliged to pay the price in the contract. I lost the right to keep my money, though, of course, I gained the right to the house.

More generally, if the sovereign lays down any of my other rights to others, I lose my rights with respect to others. Remember that I still had all of my rights with respect to everyone but the sovereign after agreeing to the social contract.

So, for instance, the sovereign may stipulate rules for acquiring property. These rules will amount to giving up the rights to take things that we have not acquired as property.

Follow-up: Robin’s answer

It occurred to me, in the middle of the night, that Robin had a more elegant way of answer the question, “how can we authorize the sovereign to act on our rights and give up our rights”. What’s more, it was an answer that I thought I was about to make. But, for some reason, I didn’t. Weird-o. So all credit to Robin and none to me, despite my protestations to the contrary yesterday.

Here’s the answer. When you authorize the sovereign to act on your behalf, you haven’t given up your rights to compete with him or her. When you give up your rights to the sovereign, you give up your rights to compete with the sovereign.

Let’s illustrate that. If I authorize Sam as my real estate agent, I have made it so that he can buy a house in my name: I’ll be liable for the costs and, of course, I’ll get to live in it. But I haven’t given up my right of buying a house on my own. I might find a house I want and buy it by myself. Maybe I want to snap it up before someone else gets it or maybe I want to avoid paying Sam’s commission. Why I would do this isn’t as important as the fact that I can. Authorizing Sam doesn’t involve giving up my right to compete with him.

Now, the sovereign. Authorizing the sovereign means that I’m liable for the moral consequences of his actions. If he gives up my right to take the water in front of Ty, then I lack that right. But I still have the right to compete with the sovereign. Giving up my rights puts an end to that.

Of course, you might wonder why the sovereign needs both. If I authorize all of the sovereign’s actions, then his first act would be to surrender all of my rights to him. At least, that’s what a smart sovereign would do. So “authorize and give up” is probably a redundant formulation. But it isn’t contradictory.

This page was written by Michael Green for Social and Political Philosophy, Philosophy 33, Fall 2006.
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