Notes for March 11

Main points

Today was the day I paid off multiple promissory notes that I’ve been issuing. Specifically, I said that I thought Hobbes was more interested in justice than in obligation. I presented a problem with Hobbes’s understanding of justice, and I compared Martinich’s solutions to this problem with my own.

The problem and the solutions

I began with a problem. Hobbes said three things that cannot all be true.

  1. There is no such thing as justice or injustice in the state of nature.
  2. Injustice is, by definition, breaking a valid covenant.
  3. There are valid, obligatory covenants in the state of nature.

While Martinich did not analyze it this way, he has an answer. The first point refers to how things are in what he calls the “primary” state of nature. The second and points refer to how things are in what he calls the “secondary” state of nature. The primary state of nature is supposed to be an imaginative exercise: what would life be like without laws? The secondary state of nature is supposed to be more realistic because it includes God, who acts as a ‘common power’ and gives us the laws of nature. The upshot is that the references to “justice” in the first point cannot be compared with those in the second and third points, removing the inconsistency.

I didn’t see God as making much of a difference, so I didn’t see that there was a significant break in his description of life in the state of nature between chapters 13 and 14. But thinking about Martinich’s solution led me to my own.Strictly speaking, I only worked out my reasons for being dissatisfied with his solution after I had my own. You would think it would go the other way around!

My preferred solution to the problem involves a distinction between what I called the traditional definition of justice (giving to each his own) and what I called the contractual definition (performance of covenants). I think Hobbes was saying that there is no such thing as justice, traditionally understood, in the state of nature. As long as life is dangerous, no one has exclusive right to anything: there will always be someone who has equally good right to anything you have, including your body. That’s compatible with saying that there are valid covenants in the state of nature. So “justice” in the first point refers to the traditional definition while the second two points use it in Hobbes’s contractual sense. Thus, there is no contradiction.

The third paragraph in chapter 15 comes close to telling the story as I see it. But it also departs from my interpretation. Hobbes should have said there is a difference between the traditional and contractual definitions of justice in the state of nature. However, that paragraph says there is no such thing as justice in the state of nature on either definition. Grr. It’s especially frustrating because it’s immediately followed by the answer to the Fool, which includes a statement that there can be valid covenants in the state of nature.

So I capped off my presentation with some methodological remarks about working in the history of philosophy. It seems to me that we’re often doing three things that are sometimes in tension with one another.

  1. We’re trying to identify something you couldn’t get just from reading the original.
  2. We do so by analyzing arguments.
  3. And we claim to be interpreting the original rather than just criticizing it or making up something new out of parts found in the original.

I think that in this case we have to cut something in order to identify a coherent line of thought: otherwise there’s a big inconsistency. The passage from De Cive convinces me that this is a line of argument that Hobbes meant to follow, even if he didn’t do so as thoroughly as we would have liked. But whether I have stuck to the third task or not is a judgment call on which reasonable people could disagree.

Promissory notes paid

This is my promised answer to Charley’s point that Hobbes slid from saying that people have a right to anything to saying that they have rights to everything. If his point was that there are no exclusive rights in the state of nature, then he could make do with saying that everyone has a right to anything. Nothing could be my own in the state of nature because someone would almost certainly have an equal right to it.Tena is right to say that this rests on factual assumptions and is not a matter of logical necessity.

And I think I’ve also made good on several promises to Julio. Specifically, I drew a distinction between the sense in which there are no natural or pre-political moral rules and the sense in which there are natural moral rules for Hobbes. There are no exclusive, proprietary rights in the state of nature. So there is no such thing as justice, understood in the traditional way as giving each his own: there’s no “own” to give! However there are obligations established by covenants and the laws of nature may be morally binding too.

Where was Hobbes going with this?

I left out some historical detail. We know that Hobbes first became interested in political philosophy during the 1630s. One of the chief issues of the time was the crown’s attempts to raise money by imposing taxes over Parliament’s objections. Hobbes’s view was that there are no property rights against the sovereign and so the objections to the taxes were mistaken. Most royalists, by contrast, only held that the monarch could raise funds without Parliament in cases of necessity. So the absence of natural property rights was something we know he was interested in establishing.

His idea was that property rights are a product of the state. Here’s how the story was supposed to go. Due to the interaction of the right of nature and the pervasive dangers of life in the state of nature, there is nothing that is “one’s own” prior to the state. There can, however, be valid contracts. The social contract is one such contract. As part of the social contract, the subjects agree to obey the sovereign’s rules. Some of these rules concern ownership of things or “proprietary” rights. So property rights are a product of the state.

That’s how I did it

I said at the outset that one of my goals for the semester would be to walk you through the process of working out an idea. The actual process involves many unproductive paths and false starts, but today’s class is a fair representation of the steps I took. If you want to see the finished product, you can find it in Michael Green, “Justice and law in Hobbes,” Oxford Studies in Early Modern Philosophy, 1 (2003).

This page was written by Michael Green for Hobbes Seminar, Philosophy 185s, Spring 2013. It was posted March 12, 2013.
Hobbes Seminar