Social contracts

Notes for February 20

Main points

We finished a topic from last time: covenants and the fool. Then we talked about Hobbes’s two social contracts: the commonwealth by institution and the commonwealth by acquisition.

Covenants and the Fool

What people need to do in order to escape the insecurity of the state of nature is commit themselves not to attack one another. As Hobbes puts it, they need to lay down their right to all things (14.5).

Hobbes introduces the covenant to explain how this would be done. A covenant is a kind of contract in which at least one party is trusted to perform its part in the future. So what people need to do is covenant not to attack one another.

Alas, such a covenant would be invalid outside the state. Covenants are valid only if none of the parties to them has a reasonable fear that the others will do not do their part. That condition is not met for covenants to abstain from theft or attacks in the state of nature.

(You might have noticed something odd about all this. What people need to do is convince others that they will not attack unprovoked. That is not exactly the same thing as laying down their rights to attack unprovoked. In other words, what is needed is a sociological change in people’s expectations, not primarily a legalistic change in their rights. The two come together because Hobbes insists that covenants and obligations are valid only under the right social conditions, namely, when people are actually likely to comply with their covenant and obligations. That said, Hobbes’s emphasis on legalistic terms is awkward at times.)

In any event, while it is true that covenants are usually invalid in the state of nature, this does not mean that they are always invalid. In fact, we can have pretty good reason to keep our covenants, even in the state of nature. That is the lesson of Hobbes’s reply to the Fool in chapter 15. In essence, the Fool is posing Glaucon’s question. Hobbes’s answer is that the effects of injustice on your reputation are good enough reason to be just. As Ziqi noted, that is not much of an answer to Glaucon (or the Fool). Glaucon and the Fool had asked why you should be just when you can get away with it. Hobbes said you can’t get away with it, which is changing the question.

As it happens, this is good news for Hobbes. As Sam saw, if Hobbes had shown that it always makes sense to keep your covenants, the people in the state of nature could solve their problems by just agreeing to a system of rights covering property and personal safety. There would still be some irrational characters to worry about, as Ziqi pointed out, but you could do a reasonable job of giving people security without a state if you could count on all the rational ones to keep their covenants. So it is fortunate for Hobbes that his answer to the Fool leaves it open that it would be rational to cheat if you can get away with it.

Two social contracts

There are two social contracts: the commonwealth by institution (ch. 18) and the commonwealth by acquisition (ch. 20). The social contract in the commonwealth by institution is formed after a peaceful process and is made among the subjects without including the sovereign. The social contract in the commonwealth by acquisition is formed after a violent process and is made between the subjects and the sovereign.

Why are there two? I believe Hobbes thought the commonwealth by acquisition story was the one that is accurate: that is the one that describes how states actually get their power. What he tried to show is that the two commonwealths are morally equivalent. The social contract is motivated by fear in either case and the rights that would be granted to the sovereign are identical.

If he made good on this point, he would have an answer to people who complain about the violent origins of existing states, namely, there is no alternative in which things would be significantly different.

We will return to the rights of sovereigns, as laid out in chapter 18, next time.


We had a brief digression about families. Maya and Sam brought up a point from another class to the effect that Hobbes does not describe family relationships as based on affection. I see the point, but I don’t think you should make too much of it.

It is true that Hobbes’s description of family relations in chapter 20 is weird. He says that parents have authority over their children because they did not kill them when they could have done so. This is, to say the least, odd. But it is also the source of a surprising kind of feminism in Hobbes: he says that mothers are the natural authorities over children, not fathers (20.4-5).

The reason why Hobbes said this odd thing is that he wanted to assimilate two cases of authority: the authority that parents have over their children and the authority that political sovereigns have over their subjects. I suspect that he wanted to assimilate those cases because so many of his contemporaries thought of the state on the model of a family: “you should obey the king because he is the father of your country,” etc. Hobbes rejected that view; he held that the relationship between sovereign and subject is contractual, not natural. Nonetheless, he thought he could recreate the parallel between the family case and the political case using his own theory. The difference is that the analogy goes the other way: family relationships are understood on the model of political relationships rather than the other way around. I think that is why these remarks about families are in the book at all: he thought he could cleverly invert a traditional theory.

Aside from this, Hobbes did not say a lot about family relationships because his book was about politics. In fact, there is very little about personal morality at all because, in his opinion, it wasn’t relevant (see 15.34, for example).

Nonetheless, there are points where he indicates that he actually does understand that people care about their families. We tend to miss them due to the seventeenth-century English. For example, here is Hobbes’s description of family life among people in the state of nature, specifically, the American Indians.

“the savage people in many places of America (except the government of small families, the concord whereof dependeth on natural lust) have no government at all” (13.11)

It sounds as though Hobbes is saying that people form families only because of sexual drives. But that is probably not what the word “lust” means here. If you look in the Oxford English Dictionary, you’ll see lots of obsolete uses of “lust” to mean things like “Pleasure, delight” or “Liking, friendly inclination to a person.” “Concord,” in turn, means, “Agreement between persons; concurrence in feeling and opinion; harmony, accord.”

So we should translate that phrase like this: the harmony of small families depends on the natural friendly feelings of their members. And that is a perfectly normal thing to say.

There are other places where Hobbes acknowledges the obvious.

“And though he [the sovereign] be careful in his politic person to procure the common interest, yet he is more (or no less) careful to procure the private good of himself, his family, kindred and friends, and for the most part if the public interest chance to cross the private, he prefers the private” (19.4)

“Of things held in propriety, those that are dearest to a man are his own life, and limbs; and in the next degree (in most men,) those that concern conjugal affection; and after them riches and means of living.” (30.12)

The first passage says people love their friends and family so much that it’s a source of public corruption. The second says most men care more about their wives’ fidelity than they do about money. Again, these seem to me to be pretty normal, accurate observations about human psychology.

Key concepts

  1. What covenants are
  2. The reply to the fool
  3. The commonwealth by institution
  4. The commonwealth by acquisition
This page was written by Michael Green for Social and Political Philosophy, Philosophy 33, Spring 2014. It was posted February 20, 2014.
Social and Political Philosophy