Rights in Hobbes

I started off by trying to explain why Hobbes wrote the way he did: he was trying to come up with a political philosophy that mirrored Euclid’s geometry. Euclid started with definitions of lines and circles and then showed how you can use those definitions to make things such as equilateral triangles.

I used an illustration of Euclid’s first proposition: that an equilateral triangle can be constructed based on any straight line using only the definitions, postulates, and common notions that Euclid laid out.

Hobbes started with definitions of rights and tried to show how we can use them to make the state.

In today’s class, I focused on two things:

  1. How Hobbes reached the surprising conclusion that there is no such thing as justice (or human rights, as we understand them) in the state of nature.

  2. Why Hobbes needed to treat rights as powers even though he did not appreciate this fact himself.

You will want to be sure that you are familiar with the distinctions concerning rights listed under point 2 on the handout.

No justice in the state of nature

Hobbes begins by saying that everyone has a natural right to do what they think is necessary to preserve their own lives. By the fourth paragraph, this has turned into the claim that everyone has a right to “all things,” apparently including the right to kill everyone else. How did he reach that conclusion?

One possibility is that he just thought that there are no claim rights prior to the state. He certainly made no provision for them! So one way of getting that result is just to leave out claim rights prior to the state. (I think Aaron said this. Or maybe Max. Someone else? Sorry, my notes are poor.)

I suggested he had something closer to an argument in mind. Roughly, if you begin with the premise that people are allowed to do anything necessary to preserve their lives and the premise that life in the state of nature is extremely dangerous, then there are not going to be many claim rights.

The reason is that claim rights exist only if others have obligations that are owed to the person with the right. For instance, you have a claim right against me that I not kill you. Your claim right consists in my obligation not to kill you. If, for whatever reason, I lose that obligation, as Semassa noted, your right would be gone as well.

In short, if everyone is at liberty to kill others in defense of their own lives, no one has claim rights against being killed.

Or, to put it in a slogan, for Hobbes, my claim rights depend on your safety.

I also offered my opinion that Hobbes was trying to show that a traditional definition of justice, that justice consists in giving everyone “their own,” does not apply in the state of nature. That is a more elaborate consequence of the phenomenon I just noted. As the danger in the state of nature increases, so does the range of things that people are permitted to do in order to save their own lives. And as the range of things people are permitted to do increases, the range of things that anyone might have exclusive rights to as “their own” shrinks.

I should note one more thing. Samuel, who is sitting just outside my field of vision, had an excellent point. It is that Hobbes’s initial premise, that people are allowed to do whatever they think necessary to preserve their lives, is open to dispute. That is certainly right: Hobbes did not argue for it and I can think of cases where it is not accepted by people in our society. For example, you can’t kill people ahead of you on the organ transplant list in order to increase your odds of getting a life-saving transplant for yourself.


In 14.5 Hobbes introduces the idea of laying down rights. His idea is impeccable: there cannot be peace until people do not pose a threat to one another and that requires that they give up the right to attack one another. The problem is that he has not made any provision for that. It would have been as if Euclid had neglected to explain how to construct a circle: if you can’t do that, you can’t make an equilateral triangle in the way described in the first proposition.

Here is what I mean. Hobbes defined “right” as liberty, meaning the absence of obligation. Everyone in the state of nature has equal liberty. But they are not equally capable of laying down rights. I cannot lay down your rights and vice versa. So rights have to involve something more than liberty. I said they involve what I called powers.

There are two powers: the power to surrender or lay down rights and the power to authorize a representative. Both play important roles in the social contract.

Key concepts

  1. How did Hobbes support his contention that everyone has a right to everything in the state of nature?
  2. The four meanings of “right” on the handout.
  3. What authorization means.


There was a handout for this class: 08.HobbesRights.handout.pdf