Laws of nature

Notes for February 18

Main points

We spent most of our time discussing Hobbes’s claim that the right of nature gives people in the state of nature the right to all things. That meant our discussion revolved largely around the first five paragraphs of chapter 14.

Our discussion

I said that I believed Hobbes had a specific target in mind: the traditional definition of justice as ‘giving to each his own’ (see the second part of the handout). In order for something to be your own, I said, you would have to have what I called an exclusive claim right to it. That means you would have to be the only one with a right to the thing (that’s the exclusive part) and that the right would have to impose obligations on everyone else to leave the thing alone (imposing obligations is the claim part).

Hobbes thought that people in the state of nature have rights, but they are not claim rights that are protected by corresponding obligations. Rather, they are liberties. That means that the people who have rights lack obligations. Liberties, unlike claims, allow for competition. If Corey and I both have the liberty to pick up the twenty dollar bill, then neither one of us does anything wrong by picking it up. By contrast, if the bill belongs to Corey, then she has a claim right to it and I am obliged not to pick it up.

So, according to Hobbes, people have the liberty to protect their own lives, meaning that they cannot be obliged not to take some step that they believe would preserve their lives.

Hobbes’s argument was that when people lack security, they gain liberty to take actions that they would not otherwise have the right to do. As the scope of one person’s liberty expands, other people’s claim rights contract. This is so because liberties mean the absence of obligations and claim rights exist only if by imposing obligations.

We can see this phenomenon in action with what I called rights of necessity and property rights (see the first part of the handout). A starving person has the liberty to take another person’s food. The starving person’s liberty comes at the expense of the other person’s property rights. Hobbes was, in effect, arguing that necessity gives people the liberty to use violence against others to protect their personal safety just as it gives them the liberty to take property in order to satisfy their hunger. In both cases, he maintained, the liberty comes from self-preservation.

Aiman and Adam made a strong case for thinking that Hobbes’s position was implausible. Can you really do anything you think is necessary for your own security? Would wiping out a village of innocents just to show that you mean business be OK if it would increase your security a tiny bit? A town? A whole country? For the definition of the law of nature to serve as an axiom, it has to be self-evidently true. But no one thinks it is self-evidently true that our need for security allows us to do literally anything.

Jiacheng made a good point on Hobbes’s behalf: weirdly aggressive behavior like that does not, in fact, improve your chances of survival. So it is not something that the Right of Nature gives you permission to do.

I think that is what Hobbes thought, but I have some reservations about taking it as a complete answer to Aiman and Adam. Hobbes did say you are allowed to do anything and that seems too strong.

However, I suspect he could get by with a much weaker moral premise, namely, the permission to use violence expands as insecurity increases. Following Maya’s suggestion, I suppose that what he needs to establish is that the permission to use violence would expand to include pre-emptive attacks; that would make his analysis of insecurity work. Suppose that were his moral premise: you can attack pre-emptively if you sincerely believe your life is at risk.

Is there a right to strike pre-emptively? I told a story about merchant ships last week: when forced into an unfamiliar port, they would open fire on the town first to avoid being boarded and sacked by the townspeople. Now, obviously, the sailors could not have known with certainty that this is what would happen to them. But they could be pretty sure that the risk was quite high. If so, I think we’re more inclined to think they were permitted to use force pre-emptively than we would if it was generally safe to land in an unfamiliar port (as it is now, for instance).

The liberty to use pre-emptive force is not the permission to do anything. But it is probably enough to show that there is no such thing as justice, understood as ‘giving to each their own,’ in the state of nature. For anything you have, someone else may have an equally good right to take it and use it, including your life. And if you do not have an exclusive right to a thing, it is not your own.


At the end of class, I said that Hobbes introduced an alternative understanding of justice. Justice is keeping your covenants or contracts.

Hobbes’s account of the state rests on a covenant made in the state of nature: the social contract. So we will need to establish that there can be such things.

Next time, we will talk about his famous reply to the Fool at the beginning of chapter 15. In that argument, Hobbes tried to show that people have good reason for keeping their covenants in the state of nature. We will talk about his reasons for thinking that.

Key concepts

  1. The difference between “liberty” and “claim right.”
  2. How Hobbes argued for the right to all things.
This page was written by Michael Green for Social and Political Philosophy, Philosophy 33, Spring 2014. It was posted February 18, 2014.
Social and Political Philosophy