Hobbes on rights Notes for March 3

Main points

Hobbes defines rights as liberties, the absence of obligations.

But at least some rights are also what I called powers, the ability to change rights and obligations. Powers are different than liberties.

Having drawn this distinction between liberty and power, we can make sense of Hobbes’s version of the social contract.

Powers: where and what?

Powers come up in at least three places:

  1. The second law of nature, specifically, the idea that there is such a thing as “laying down” a right.
  2. The theory of artificial persons in chapter 16.
  3. The social contract in chapter 17 and the associated arguments about the rights of sovereigns in chapter 18.

In all three cases, people are said to be able to do things with rights but their ability to do them is not explained by their lacking obligations. You can lack these abilities despite having complete liberty. For instance, you cannot lay down my rights or authorize someone to act on my behalf even if you have the most extensive liberty possible, namely, no obligations at all. Or you might gain the ability to represent me or to change my obligations without changing your own liberty.

Therefore, the abilities listed above involve something other than liberties. Since having the abilities goes together with having rights, it’s fair to say that Hobbes’s definition of rights as liberties is too narrow even for his own purposes. People with rights have powers as well as liberties.

Why? So what?

First, power and liberty are distinct and yet our term “right” often covers one or both. You have learned a distinction and are now equipped to identify a wide range of misunderstandings and equivocation involving the term “right”. If you listen carefully when people talk about rights, you’ll hear those errors quite a lot. Heck, if you attend to your own thoughts about rights, you’ll catch those errors. I did!

Second, the distinction between power and liberty is what underlies the distinction between two parts of the social contract: alienation (“I give up my right of governing myself”) and authorization (parties to the social contract “own” and “acknowledge themselves the authors” of whatever the sovereign does).

Hobbes’s distinction between alienation and authorization is tricky. It trips up even expert scholars who haven’t done the work we did on the theory of rights. Now, you won’t trip.

This page was written by Michael Green for Social and Political Philosophy, Philosophy 33, Spring 2008. It was posted March 19, 2008.
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