Hobbes’s moral theory

Notes for Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Main points

The idea of today’s class was to do a quick march through Hobbes’s moral theory with an eye to his discussion of our topic: punishment.

We began by comparing Hobbes and Grotius on human nature. We talked quite a bit about Hobbes’s argument that people in the state of nature have a right to all things. This led to a comparison of Hobbes and Grotius on whether there is such a thing as justice outside of the state. (That’s what “natural justice” means.)

Finally, we looked at Hobbes’s argument for the right to resist punishment.

Grotius identified three meanings of the term “right” (Grotius 2005, 136–39, 147–59, 86 is helpful too). Hobbes collapsed these down to a part of the second: a right, for Hobbes, consists in liberty, meaning the absence of obligation. Someone who has a right to X is free to do X or has no obligation not to do X.

Rights, for Hobbes, are compatible with competition. Both A and B can have the same right to something, meaning neither does anything wrong by using the thing they both have a right to use. Think of a race. Everyone in the race has the right to win, meaning none of them would do anything wrong by winning. This is so even though if one of them wins the others, obviously, cannot.

By contrast, when Grotius says that a right is a “Faculty of demanding what is due, and to this answers the Obligation of rendering what is owing” (second meaning) (Grotius 2005, 139) or that it is “a Rule of Moral Actions, obliging us to that which is good and commendable” (third meaning) (Grotius 2005, 147) he is articulating a view of rights that does not tolerate competition: if something is due to you and others are obliged to provide it, they do not have the liberty to withhold it from you. (Grotius’s second sense of “right” also includes liberty; that is where he and Hobbes agree.)

Hobbes on the right to all things

We talked about Hobbes’s argument that the right of nature (14.1) leads to a right to all things in the state of nature (14.4).

As we noted, Hobbes needs a moral premise in the argument from 14.4. The right of nature supplies it.

Michael was correct to say that it’s important for Hobbes that this sort of argument applies only in the state of nature. People are not supposed to have the right to all things within the state. If they did, then the spiral of insecurity described in chapter 13 would be repeated within the state.

Hobbes himself saw this. Later in the book he wrote that:

Nature gave a right to every man to secure himself by his own strength, and to invade a suspected neighbour, by way of prevention: but the civil law takes away that liberty, in all cases where the protection of the law may be safely stayed for. (Hobbes 1993, 26.44)

Hobbes expected the right of nature to expand and contract with personal security: as your security goes up, what you have the liberty to do in defense of your own life goes down and vice versa. It is not obvious that his premises are compatible with this picture of how rights work. Why can’t people take whatever they might need for protection should the state fail? Or why can’t they do whatever might be useful in defending themselves against the state?


We finished by talking about the argument from 14.8 (it’s largely repeated in 14.29).

Michael thought the premise about voluntary acts having one’s own good as their object was incorrect; others disagreed.

Bogdan thought the premise that giving up the right to resist punishment cannot be for your own good was questionable. (I think he’s right for lots of punishments; I suspect Hobbes had capital punishment in mind.)

Sydney correctly noted that, for Hobbes, the liberty to resist punishment is independent of guilt: the guilty are just as free to resist punishment as the innocent are. She also noted that Hobbes rejected Grotius’s assertion that criminals have voluntarily obliged themselves to accept punishment.

“he that commits a Crime, seems voluntarily to submit himself to Punishment, there being no great Crime that is not punishable; so that he who will directly commit it, is by Consequence willing to incur the Punishment; in which Sense some Princes have pronounced Sentence upon a Malefactor thus, Thou hast brought this Punishment upon thy own Head, and they that take wicked Counsel, are then said to be punished for their Demerit, that is, to lay themselves under an Obligation of being punished by their own will” (Grotius 2005, 954)

Grotius, like Hobbes, thought that people had a right of self-defense that allows them to kill even those who are justly threatening them (such as soldiers in an opposing army) (Grotius 2005, 397). Hobbes thought it was only consistent to say the same thing about self-defense where punishment was concerned.


Grotius, Hugo. 2005. The Rights of War and Peace. Edited by Richard Tuck. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund.

Hobbes, Thomas. 1993. Leviathan. Edited by Mark C. Rooks. British Philosophy: 1600-1900. Charlottesville, VA: InteLex Corporation.

This page was written by Michael Green for Seminar on Punishment, Philosophy 185B, Fall 2014. It was posted September 23, 2014.
Seminar on Punishment