Hobbes on justice Notes for February 22

Main points

I gave my answer to a question that has been bugging me since I first read Hobbes. My answer involves distinguishing two different things that Hobbes (might have) meant by the term “justice.”

  1. Justice means giving to each his “own”.
  2. Justice means keeping covenants.

I said that Hobbes maintained there is no such thing as exclusive or proprietary rights in the state of nature and, thus, no such thing as one’s “own.” But that’s compatible with holding that there are valid covenants in the state of nature.

Hobbes’s story, in my opinion, is that we use covenants to create the state. The state, in turn, lays down rules. Since everyone is obliged to obey those rules, it’s possible to have exclusive rights in the state. If the state says that Nathan owns the Gatorade, then everyone else is obliged to leave it alone. That’s how the Gatorade could be Nathan’s “own.”

Sam’s question

Sam asked why Hobbes didn’t say all that stuff himself. Well, he said some of it. But not enough. And some of what he said doesn’t fit my story at all.

So what is the status of what I said today? It isn’t exactly what Hobbes said. It’s an interpretation of the most consistent line of thought that he could have followed. But you might legitimately think that it’s too far from what he said to count as a presentation of Hobbes’s own thinking.

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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