Finkelstein on inalienability

Notes for March 4

Main points

Finkelstein’s paper maintains that Hobbes employs two conflicting theories of rationality.

  1. His argument for the inalienability of the right of self-defense relies on what she calls the “welfare maximizing” theory of rationality. This tells us to choose the action that produces more welfare than the alternatives.
  2. His reply to the Fool relies on what she calls the “pragmatic” theory of rationality. This tells us to stick with plans that it was rational to make in the past, even if doing so is not the alternative that maximizes our welfare now.

Finkelstein resolves this contradiction by treating the reply to the Fool as Hobbes’s more fundamental commitment. It stays and Hobbes’s argument for the inalienability of the right of self-defense goes.

That would leave a hole in Hobbes’s political theory: he had tried to use the inalienable right to self-defense to explain why subjects have various rights in the commonwealth (see the references on the handout). Finkelstein proposed an alternative argument that would replace inalienable rights, thereby filling the hole in the political theory.

In presenting Finkelstein’s argument, I made a distinction between normative and descriptive theories of rationality. Having thought about it pretty much all day, this didn’t throw as much light on the article as I had hoped it would. That’s OK, not everything works. So I’m going to take another pass at it here with some smaller points.


Suppose A makes the following offer to B: give up your right of self-defense or I will kill you on the spot. Finkelstein correctly says that giving up the right of self-defense would benefit B in this sort of case.

So why does Hobbes insist that no one could do that? She reasons that he must have been employing the “welfare maximization” theory of rationality. When A comes to attack B in the future, B will decide that resistance produces more welfare than non-resistance.

A won’t believe that B won’t defend himself as long as A believes that B thinks like a ‘welfare maximizer.’ So even if B could give up the right of self-defense, that would not be enough to get A to accept the deal and let B go. And if A would not accept B’s offer to give up the right of self-defense by giving B something in return (like, not killing B on the spot), B has no reason to give it up.

I think that’s the chief point. But I have to confess that I found the arguments in §5 very hard to follow. Finkelstein seems to say that it’s impossible for people to make insincere promises or covenants and that those who give up rights are literally prevented from doing what they have no right to do (Finkelstein, 343–44). Since those points seem clearly false to me, I’m struggling to understand her thinking here. Maybe I missed something.

My own opinion about inalienability

In any event, I think there’s too much emphasis on this particular case of A and B. Even if it’s impossible to give up the right of self-defense in this case, it’s quite possible to give it up in others. Here are some very real cases.

  1. Martyrdom.
  2. Resistance means a long and painful death rather than a short, painless one. E.g. Kavka’s example of a choice between (a) death without resistance and (b) torture followed by death. Or consider how execution works: if you struggle, the axe might hit you in the back.
  3. Failing to enter a plea in order to avoid forfeiture of your family’s estate. Note that the consequence of failing to enter a plea was peine forte et dure, which was not a nice way to go. Not at all.

So neither psychological necessity nor rationality force us to resist death.

On the other hand, Hobbes could pose some challenges to my examples.Added March 5. For instance, he could rightly note that martyrs believe that their death will be at most a temporary thing: they will be resurrected and rewarded for their martyrdom. And in the other two cases death is inevitable, it’s only a question of how it will happen. Going passive as a way of influencing your inevitable death is one thing. Failing to put up resistance when doing so might mean you live quite a bit longer is another. Maybe it isn’t as clear as I thought it was.

In any event, what is true is what I suspect Hobbes was really trying to get at. Covenants not to defend oneself are almost always void because the second party will almost always have a “reasonable suspicion” that the first party won’t do its part.

Concerning the reply to the Fool

Finkelstein maintains the reply to the Fool has to employ the pragmatic theory of rationality, thus setting up a conflict. I don’t see it that way. I think Hobbes’s argument aims to establish a rule of thumb: it’s generally a bad bet to break your covenants because you can’t be sure enough that you’ll get away with it given the risks you run if you’re caught.

That’s obviously not going to show that reason always favors performing your covenants. What if you could get away with it? Or what if the chances of getting away with it are very high? You might have good reason to do what you are obliged not to do, namely, break your covenant.

I think Hobbes could accept that. What he says in reply to the Fool is that, yes, you might get away with it, but since you can’t know you’ll get away with it, it can’t be “reasonably or wisely done” (Leviathan, 15.5). I also don’t think Hobbes had a rationalist account of ethics. (I’ve been tipping my hand all term.) Finkelstein does think he had a rationalist ethical theory and so she thinks he had to show how reason always favors doing your duty.

Why would you think Hobbes had a rationalist ethical theory?Added March 6. Well, for starters, Hobbes said that “reason suggesteth” the laws of nature (13.14), he described the laws of nature as “found out by reason” (14.1), and he characterized them as “dictates of reason” (15.41). Finally, the reply to the Fool tries to establish that the Fool’s “specious reasoning is nevertheless false” (15.4); that suggests Hobbes thought he could show that ethical behavior, such as keeping covenants, is based on sound reasoning. So I’m not saying my understanding of Hobbes here is obviously correct. On the contrary, I think I have to do a lot of work to make my opinion convincing.

Where does Hobbes get his premises?

Julio threw me another fastball. Where does Hobbes come up with all these claims about the right of nature, law of nature, and what is or isn’t alienable?

The two places to look are the first paragraph of Part III and the end of ch. 15. In the latter, Hobbes compares his moral philosophy with Aristotle’s. He claims that he can do a better job of explaining why the moral rules and virtues are valued than Aristotle can: showing that all of the laws of nature are rules for the preservation of one’s life (that is, they all have the defining feature of a law of nature) better explains why they are valued than showing that they are a “mediocrity of passions”, which was Hobbes’s term for Aristotle’s doctrine of the mean.

Of course, as Julio was quick to point out, there is more to Aristotle’s ethics than the doctrine of the mean. There’s the so-called function argument that the best life for a person consists in perfecting the qualities unique to human beings.

Hobbes identified a number of qualities unique to human beings. Most had little to do with ethical behavior. They include things like superstition, anticipatory violence, and falsely portraying good and evil. I don’t know if Hobbes took the function argument seriously, but that’s his answer to it.

This page was written by Michael Green for Hobbes Seminar, Philosophy 185s, Spring 2013. It was posted March 4, 2013 and updated March 5 and March 6, 2013.
Hobbes Seminar