Hobbes on punishment and hostility

Notes for Thursday, October 2, 2014

Main points

We started off with one question left over from last time. Does punishment put the sovereign into the state of nature (or war) with the person being punished?

I said that I did not think Hobbes believed this. Punishment is reserved for subjects while enemies are treated with hostility. However, it is not obvious that Hobbes could support this distinction.

Punishment vs. hostility

One curious thing about chapter 28 is that it is full of logical derivations from Hobbes’s definition of punishment. Among these derivations are the points that punishment can only be for violations of a published law, that punishment presupposes a public conviction, and that punishment must be inflicted by a sovereign who was authorized by the person being punished.

Patrick identified the significance of this. Punishment is a kind of violence that the victims have some control over. If you wish to avoid being punished, your best (though not perfect) bet is not to violate the law. By contrast, enemies can be attacked pre-emptively, before they have done anything threatening. This is the source of instability Hobbes described in chapter 13: everyone knows that everyone else is thinking about hitting them first and that massively increases the importance of hitting first yourself. There is a lot less that a person who is among enemies can do to avoid violence.

Why would the sovereign stick to punishment?

Bogdan and Michael both pressed the relevant question: why would the sovereign only punish? Why not treat subjects with hostility? After all, Hobbes himself said that sovereigns can kill innocent subjects without doing them an injustice: see the story about David and Uriah (Hobbes 1993, 21.7).

Sydney was right to say that sovereigns are still bound by the laws of nature. That did not help Uriah much. God’s enforcement of his laws is curiously inconsistent.

I said that the chief reason why Hobbes’s sovereign would want to stick with punishment, as opposed to hostility, is to prevent the state from collapsing into the chaos of the state of nature. I think that is what Hobbes was trying to get at: as long as the sovereign sticks to the law, the subjects will not feel forced to hit the sovereign first, so the sovereign has good reason to stick to the law.

Hobbes did try to have it both ways. He wanted the advantages that come from being a law-abiding sovereign and also those that come from having absolute, unaccountable power. I think that’s what’s going on when I compare chapter 28 with 21.7.


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 October 6, 2014.
Seminar on Punishment