Hobbes on authorization

Notes for Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Main points

We went through Hobbes’s short chapter on authorization very carefully.

The most important point was at the end. That’s where I said we have to draw a distinction between using authorization to take ownership of someone’s actions and using it to extend your rights to another person.

The big distinction

Authorization can be used in at least two ways:

  1. To extend the author’s rights to the representative (aka actor).
  2. For the author to take ownership of the representative’s actions.

We have a couple examples of the first way of using authorization: see Hobbes 16.5 and the passage from Grotius on the handout (Grotius, 253). Hobbes describes using authorization to give a representative the power to make a contract on the author’s behalf. (I’ll explain “power” presently). Grotius describes using authorization to give a liberty to make a war.

We also have an example of the second use: see Hobbes 16.7 and 27.27 (on the handout). In these cases, the author has authorized the representative to violate the law. The author cannot extend the right to violate the law since the author does not have that right. So authorization in these cases has to involve taking ownership of the representative’s actions, where “taking ownership” means the author is responsible for what the representative does.

I also said that Hobbes made a mistake in describing authorization. He wrote that “by authority, is always understood a right of doing any act; and done by authority, done by commission, or license from him whose right it is” (16.4). That would rule out the cases where the representative is authorized to violate the law since there is no right of acting contrary to the law, which we know Hobbes did not intend to do.

I think the root of the mistake lies in Hobbes’s analysis of ownership. He thought there was one sense of “own” that is common to property ownership and ownership of an action. Just as those who own property have rights over things they own, those with authority to act have the right to act. But that does not follow. Ownership of an action involves responsibility, not rights. The proof is that it is possible to own an action that is wrong, or, in other words, an action that no one has a right to do.


What, you didn’t find authorization fascinating? Well, it is interesting. But there’s a reason why we’re doing this.

Hobbes is going to say that the subjects authorize the sovereign to punish them. Given what he says about the right to resist punishment, that looks like a contradiction. I don’t think it is. In order to explain what I think Hobbes was doing, I have to go over authorization.

Meanings of “right”

I said that we can distinguish four different meanings of the term “right.” These will prove very useful.

  1. Liberty: the person with the right to do X is free from any obligation against doing X. E.g. A is under no obligation to B not to win the race.
  2. Claim: there is another person who owes an obligation to the person who has a right. E.g. A is obliged to leave B’s property alone.
  3. Power: the person with the right has the ability to do something that those who lack the right cannot do. E.g. A can give up A’s rights in a contract; A has that power.
  4. Immunity: the inability of someone else to alter A’s rights. E.g. B cannot give up A’s rights in a contract; A is immune from B’s attempts to alienate A’s rights.


There was a handout for this class: 06.Hobbes.handout.pdf

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