Hobbes on justice and the social contract Notes for October 8

Main points

I described my solution to the problem about justice in the state of nature. Then we began talking about the relationship between the two versions of the social contract: the commonwealth by institution (ch. 18) and the commonwealth by acquisition (ch. 21).


The problem is evident from the first page of the handout. The solution I offered relies on a distinction between two definitions of the term “justice.”

  1. The traditional definition, according to which justice consists in “giving every man his own.”
  2. Hobbes’s contractual definition, according to which justice consists in keeping valid covenants.

In my opinion, Hobbes was trying to say that justice as traditionally understood could not exist in the state of nature. Justice according to his own contractual definition, however, is possible even in the state of nature. There are rarely occasions for behavior to be just or unjust in the state of nature since there are rarely valid covenants. But it’s possible. With this logical possibility in hand, the three points are consistent.

There’s a fair amount of textual evidence supporting my contention that Hobbes was interested in showing that justice, traditionally defined, had to be a human invention.

And there’s one big reason why he should have held that there can be valid covenants in the state of nature: the social contract is a covenant made in the state of nature.

But I have to confess, when he had the opportunity to put it together he didn’t do it this way. See the last section on the handout. I chalk that up to an error on his part: it’s a great big book and he didn’t always manage to keep all the pieces in order.

But you might reasonably conclude that he didn’t have my story in mind in the first place. If so, you can take what I said as amounting to “this is what Hobbes should have said,” rather than “this is what Hobbes did, in fact say.” It’s a judgement call.

Two social contracts

They’re different, but Hobbes wanted to insist that there is no moral or political difference between them. That is, you think that one is the product of duress while the other is not, but he wanted to show that they were equally valid. You also probably think that the one would give the government far more authority than the other, but he wanted to show that the government would come out with exactly the same powers, and individuals exactly the same rights, either way.

Next time, we’ll talk about whether he can actually show those things.

Key ideas

  1. The traditional and contractual definitions of justice
  2. Commonwealth by Institution
  3. Commonwealth by Acquisition
This page was written by Michael Green for Social & Political Philosophy, Philosophy 33, Fall 2012. It was posted October 8, 2012.
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