Hobbes’s laws of nature Notes for February 17

Main points

Hobbes’s moral philosophy is contained in his presentation of the laws of nature. Where do these laws come from? The obvious source is God, though Hobbes himself was quite cagey about that (see the end of ch. 15). In any event, we have clearly moved into a Christian intellectual world.

We talked about questions surrounding Hobbes’s definition of rights and what he said about the first three laws of nature.


Hobbes’s official definition of a right is as a liberty, meaning the absence of obligation. This is both familiar to us and a little odd.

On the one hand, we have rights that are just liberties. Whenever we think that competition is legitimate, we think that the competing parties both have the liberty to win, meaning they would do nothing wrong if they won. This is so even though, of course, they can’t all win.

On the other hand, Hobbes’s definition is a little odd. Some of the very important rights that we believe in are claim rights, meaning that they have correlative obligations. My right to life, for instance, imposes an obligation on you, namely, that you not kill me (except for very good reasons, etc.). It goes beyond saying that I do nothing wrong in continuing to live, though that’s true too. Hobbes seems to have left these rights out.

That’s both true and false. It’s true that Hobbes denied that there are any “natural” claim rights. For him, that means that there are no claim rights prior to contracts, where one party creates an obligation that is owed to another. But I think the thrust of his philosophy is not to deny that there are such things as claim rights but, rather, to explain how they are possible. In particular, he claimed that the most important of these, the proprietary rights that I will discuss when we talk about justice, are possible only in the commonwealth.

Finally, I said that Hobbes also treats rights as involving something else which I called power. A right not only includes the liberty to do things but also the ability to lay the right down. The latter part is what I called a power. I proved that it’s not the same thing as liberty by pointing out that everyone in the state of nature has unlimited liberty, but everyone’s powers are sharply limited. You can’t lay down my rights, for instance.

Steve pointed out that my use of the term “power” is different than the one we used earlier. Power can mean the ability to get things: that was the earlier meaning. It can also have a more legalistic meaning: the ability to alter rights and obligations. You can see how they are similar but Steve is right: they’re quite different.

The reply to the fool

The first law of nature tells us to seek peace. The second law of nature tells us to lay down our rights in order to seek peace, provided that this can be done safely. The third law of nature tells us to keep our covenants, where covenants are the most important vehicle through which rights are laid down.

Immediately after presenting the third law of nature, Hobbes took up a challenge from a character he called the Fool. The Fool’s question is very close to Glaucon’s: if you could get away with breaking your word, why shouldn’t you? Hobbes’s answer, roughly, is that you can’t ever be certain you’ll get away with it and so it’s too risky to try.

Hobbes found this satisfactory while Plato did not. I think Hobbes’s primary target was Aristotle’s theory of the virtues. By showing the virtuous behavior is linked with peace, Hobbes thought he had given a better explanation of why people think virtuous behavior is important than Aristotle had. You’ll have to decide for yourself if his story is good enough.

I ended the day by saying that there’s at least one reason why Hobbes should have welcomed an incomplete answer to the Fool. If he had really proven that it’s overwhelmingly in your interest to do your part in a covenant, even if the other party has already gone first and you can get away with cheating, then he would have proven too much. He would have shown that it’s possible for people to make reliable agreements in the state of nature, without the state. If so, why couldn’t they agree to live peacefully among themselves? And if they can do that, they don’t need the mighty LEVIATHAN. In other words, a more successful answer to the Fool would have undermined the thrust of his political philosophy. So it’s just as well that it only goes as far as it does.

This page was written by Michael Green for Social & Political Philosophy, Philosophy 33, Spring 2010. It was posted February 26, 2010.
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