Kavka on the right of nature

Notes for February 27

Main points

We spent about half our time spelling out the highly compressed arguments surrounding the first and second laws of nature in the fourth and fifth paragraphs of chapter 14.

We spent the rest of our time talking about Kavka’s discussion of the right of nature.

The first and second laws of nature

I don’t have much to add to what we said. Eliot is right that the arguments include both moral and empirical premises.

I find it very odd that the possession of the right to all things is said to be a cause of conflict and that laying down this right is supposed to be a solution. We had a fine account of the causes of conflict in chapter 13 that did not even mention rights. What are they doing here? To put it another way, would it make a difference if people did not have the right to attack one another but still reasonably feared that others would do so? This is what Kavka meant when he said that a “Lockean” argument would be good enough (Kavka, 321). Locke denied people have the right to attack one another in the state of nature. But he also held that this would not be enough to keep the peace without the state.

Maybe what Hobbes was thinking is that the right to everything is only successfully laid down when there is a higher power available to enforce the relevant covenants. So it’s not laying down the right to all things that stops the violence, it’s having the state that does this. The state, in turn, makes it possible and meaningful to lay down rights. That sounds OK, but there’s a problem. The state is created only when people lay down their rights in the social contract.

More problems

Charley noted that Hobbes slides from “people in the state of nature might need anything” to “people in the state of nature have rights to use everything.” That doesn’t follow.

Tena caught the apparent contradiction between the right of nature, which permits people to do what they judge necessary to preserve their lives, and the law of nature, which requires them to do those things.

And Danielle was confused about what the laws of nature are supposed to be. Are they laws or not? The last paragraph in ch. 15 doesn’t really help.

Finally, Charley asked an important question about the first law of nature: why is peace the preferred option? Shouldn’t winning the war and being the last one standing be the first option, with suing for peace a distant second? This one has an answer: Hobbes didn’t think you could win the war. Only God can decisively rule by power alone (see ch. 31). Even the most powerful person can still be killed (ch. 13). So winning the war isn’t a real option and most people’s best bet is peace.

I said “most” people’s best bet is peace and not that it’s everyone’s best bet. That’s because war is the best alternative for some people even when peace is a possible option.

“needy men, and hardy, not contented with their present condition; as also, all men that are ambitious of military command, are inclined to continue the causes of war; and to stir up trouble and sedition: for there is no honour military but by war; nor any such hope to mend an ill game, as by causing a new shuffle.” (Leviathan, ch. 11, par. 3.)

I’m going to go out on a limb here. I think that has to mean that some people are just strongly inclined to violate the laws of nature: they will sensibly prefer to run the risk of violent death rather than seeking peace. Remember that the laws of nature forbid acts that are inconsistent with self-preservation. That isn’t the same thing as requiring people to do what’s best for themselves. I should add that Hobbes himself generally wrote as if the two amount to the same thing, as most of us would. I just think his observations about the “difference of manners” points to cases where some people genuinely have little interest in seeking peace even though that would be the best way of preserving their lives. But I’m not sure Hobbes saw it that way.

Anyway, most of us are different: we want things that are best acquired through peace.

Desire of ease, and sensual delight, disposeth men to obey a common power: because by such desires, a man doth abandon the protection that might be hoped for from his own industry, and labour. Fear of death, and wounds, disposeth to the same; and for the same reason. … Desire of knowledge, and arts of peace, inclineth men to obey a common power: for such desire, containeth a desire of leisure; and consequently protection from some other power than their own. (Leviathan, ch. 11, par. 3–4.)


Madison and I were both confused about Kavka’s interpretation of what he called the first argument for inalienability. As Kavka wrote it out, Hobbes used the term “object” in two different ways in the first two premises of the argument, thus committing the fallacy of equivocation.What that means is that when a crucial term in an argument has different meanings in different premises, the conclusion won’t follow from those premises. But I think Hobbes’s actual argument is much simpler. Instead of Kavka’s second and third premise, I would substitute a single premise that laying down the right to self-defense can’t be personally beneficial.

It’s not obvious that such a premise is true, mind you. But I think that’s what Hobbes meant. And it would produce a valid argument.

We did not talk about the second argument for inalienability, the one involving the alleged psychological impossibility of failing to defend oneself. If we had, I would have said that I was confused by Kavka’s chief objection.But see the next paragraph. It’s true, as Kavka says, that some people prefer death to dishonor. But I don’t see why such motivations are relevant. Why is it honorable to accept death when one is being attacked? Maybe criminals should do the honorable thing by submitting themselves to the state for punishment, but it’s quite unlikely that they would be motivated to do so. So while Kavka was certainly right to say that it’s not impossible to fail to resist an attack, I don’t see how that’s relevant for the kinds of cases Hobbes had in mind.

I’m going to take that back.Added March 4, 2013. Having thought about it, I see what Kavka was doing. In §8-3, he criticized an argument that rests on the impossibility of complying with an obligation not to defend oneself. In §8-4, he said Hobbes could have derived the conclusions he needed using a much more plausible premise: that it’s very unlikely that people will comply with an obligation not to defend themselves.

I guess I wouldn’t have devoted a whole section to the impossibility argument because the first premise is too hard to establish: there’s always someone who can be motivated to do even the craziest thing. And Kavka is right to say that failing to resist can be quite sensible if it means avoiding torture as well as death or if it means your children will be spared. (Kavka, 331.) So I would have passed quickly to a more plausible premise rather than piling on. But that’s just my editorial opinion.

I closed with a speculative remark. I said that we use obligations for at least two purposes.

  1. To settle questions about blame and punishment: the person who violates an obligation deserves one or both.
  2. To make ourselves more predictable and reliable to others, especially when we would not have much interest in doing something without the obligation. (This is generally the case with exchanges.)

I think Kavka was concerned almost exclusively with the first use of obligation while Hobbes had the second on his mind. Hobbes’s point might have been that covenants not to defend oneself are too unreliable to be valid. (Remember, what makes a covenant invalid is a reasonable suspicion that the other party won’t perform his part.) Since that’s so, no one can actually transfer the right.

I need to mull that over for a bit before feeling confident about it. It doesn’t reflect Hobbes’s language as well as I would like. But I do think that something like this might explain why Hobbes made arguments that Kavka regarded as transparently bad.

This page was written by Michael Green for Hobbes Seminar, Philosophy 185s, Spring 2013. It was posted February 28, 2013 and updated March 4, 2013.
Hobbes Seminar