The laws of nature

Notes for February 25

Main points

Hobbes’s moral philosophy consists in his account of what he called the right and laws of nature. Today’s class was supposed to give us a look at this as a whole before we drill down into specific parts in the next several sessions.

Broadly speaking

Danielle’s outline does an especially good job of identifying the relationship among the concepts in these chapters. I’m going to identify what I regard as the big chunks.

Chapter fourteen

  1. Definitions: right of nature, liberty, law of nature (1-3)
  2. First and second laws of nature (4-5)
  3. Clarification of the meaning of “laying down” rights (the chief part of the second law of nature). Definitions (6-7). Inalienability (8). More definitions: mutual vs. unilateral transfer (9-12).
  4. Transfers and merit. How transfers are done: explicit or implicit signs. (I think this is here for the point about merit). (13-16) Merit, having something as one’s due because of another’s transfer of right. Payoff: how salvation can be merited. (17)
  5. How covenants work. (18-30)

Chapter 15

  1. Covenants and justice (1-14)
  2. The other laws of nature (16-33)
  3. General remarks about the laws of nature (34-41)

The Fool

We spent most of our time talking about Hobbes’s reply to the Fool. In particular, Danielle pressed two problems that he faces.

  1. In the course of answering the Fool, he seems to say that some covenants can be valid in the state of nature. But he had earlier said that no covenants are valid in the state of nature.
  2. The reply to the Fool appears to be too strong. Hobbes claims to have shown that it is rational to perform second, after you are sure the other party to a covenant has performed his part. This appears to be a minor point, since you would think that first performance is rare. But be careful. If it is rational for the second party to perform, then it’s also rational for the first party to perform: the first party knows the second party won’t cheat, after all. Why is this a problem? Because it suggests that people could count on one another to keep their covenants in the state of nature. And if they could do that, they could just agree not to attack one another, without requiring a state.See Hampton, Hobbes and the Social Contract Tradition, 64-66; Kavka, Hobbesian Moral and Political Theory, 147–56; and Gauthier, “Hobbes’s Social Contract,” 126-33.

Julio pointed to ways we could investigate this: look at black markets, for instance.

I tried to show that first performance would necessarily be rare. My idea was that in an exchange of material goods, you’re counting on the first party to give you the thing now and not take it back in the future. So the first party has never fully performed and the second party always has a reasonable suspicion that the first party will cheat.

The problem is that the same thing is true of the covenants establishing the defensive confederacies. The Fool is supposed to keep his covenants because, if he doesn’t, he won’t be included in a defensive confederacy. This seems to mean that we ought to keep covenants like those involved in the defensive confederacy (“I’ll defend you if you defend me”). But those covenants always involve trust. So if the Fool, or any of the rest of us, are going to be admitted to one, we can’t get off on the excuse that other covenants are all invalid because the other parties might back out in the future. (Sorry, that’s compressed, but it’s getting late.)

Madison had a better answer for Hobbes, in my opinion. She said that the state of nature is so unpredictable that there will always be new things coming up that make covenants invalid. So even if the reply to the Fool shows it can be rational to keep your covenants, that won’t establish the kind of trust needed to break the cycle of violence in the state of nature.


  1. Jean Hampton, Hobbes and the Social Contract Tradition, (Cambridge University Press, 1986).
  2. Gregory Kavka, Hobbesian Moral and Political Theory, (Princeton University Press, 1986).
  3. David Gauthier, “Hobbes’s Social Contract,” in Perspectives on Thomas Hobbes, ed. G. A. J. Rogers and Alan Ryan (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988).
This page was written by Michael Green for Hobbes Seminar, Philosophy 185s, Spring 2013. It was posted February 28, 2013.
Hobbes Seminar