Hobbes on justice Notes for February 23

Main points

I’ve been tardy with the notes, so I hope to cover the past three sessions here.

Hobbes believed that the purpose of the state is to provide security. The material we discussed on the 16th of February gave his reasons for thinking that human beings would be horribly insecure in a state of nature, that is, in anarchy, without a state.

The 18th and 23rd of February were about what he called the laws of nature, and the following series of terms defined by those laws: rights, obligations, contracts, and justice.

I closed the session on the 23rd by saying why I think this matters. We draw a distinction between the legitimate uses of power and mere power. One thing we would like our political philosophy to enable us to do is to apply this distinction to the state. Do states as we know them exercise legitimate power or not? If not, could any state do so? We want to know if it’s possible to have a political system distinct from Spartan helotry. Hobbes won’t help if he is interpreted as saying that everything boils down to coercion and the use of power.

Causes of conflict

What we talked about on the 16th was a fairly narrow question. Did Hobbes think the causes of conflict were completely general, arising from the structure of people’s relationships in a state of nature? Or did he think that conflict was caused by some people whose desires for glory and the like lead to conflict. The answer was: both.

Most people are willing to live peacefully, but the structure of their relationships in the state of nature gives them strong incentives to attack one another. The fact that some people are not willing to live peacefully amplifies the effect. Very roughly, even the peacefully inclined will be willing to attack when uncertainty about others’ intentions is too high. This can happen between people who are peaceful. It’s even worse if there is doubt about whether a person who seems peaceful really is.

What are rights?

Our discussions on both the 18th and the 23rd hinged on different meanings of the term “right.” Hobbes officially defines “right” as liberty; what he means is that a right (liberty) means that the person who has the right lacks some obligaiton. We use the term this way when we’re describing legitimate competition. Thus, I have the right to win the footrace and so do you. Neither one of us would do anything wrong if we won.

The ‘proprietary rights’ that we saw introduced on the 23rd involve more than liberty. These are rights that give the person who has them exclusive access to something. What establishes the exclusivity is that everyone else has an obligation to leave the relevan things alone. We use the term “right” this way when we’re talking about most of the human rights and property rights. Thus, my right to my watch means that everyone else in the world is obliged to leave the watch alone without my consent. And my right to life and limb means the same about my body.

So in describing proprietary rights, Hobbes is departing from his official use of the term “right,” which, to repeat, means liberty or the absence of obligation. Now, we call rights with corresponding obligations, such as Hobbes’s proprietary rights, “claim rights.”

We saw how Hobbes thought obligations are created through contracts in chapter 14. And we walked through a little case to illustrate it: my trade of an ax for a couple of barrels with Jennifer.

My point was that our trade would have established injustice in the contractual sense (see premise #2 in the first section of the handout). But it would not have established that either of us have any proprietary rights or anything as “our own” (see section two). So, I concluded, it’s possible for there to be valid contracts in the state of nature and injustice as defined in the second premise, even if there is no such thing as injustice, defined as having things as “one’s own” (again, see section two).

Next time, we’ll introduce yet another distinction concerning rights. We’ll talk about powers, how rights enable a person to do things. This is most relevant to Hobbes’s talk about authorization in chapter sixteen. But it’s implicit in the material we have already gone over too. What explains our ability to lay down our rights by making contracts, covenants, and the like? It can’t just be that we have liberty, meaning we lack obligations. Children lack obligations but they can’t make valid contracts. There has to be more to it. And there is. There are powers. That’s what we’re going to talk about next time.

This page was written by Michael Green for Social & Political Philosophy, Philosophy 33, Spring 2009. It was posted February 23, 2009.
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