Rights in Hobbes

I wanted to accomplish three things today:

  1. Explain Hobbes’s method. Why does he start every chapter with definitions that we are just supposed to accept? I said he was influenced by Euclidean geometry.

  2. Explain the thinking behind Hobbes’s infamous claim that people in the state of nature have a right to all things, including one another’s bodies. I said that he was trying to analyze the social preconditions for the view that justice consists in “giving to each his own.”

  3. Show that the way Hobbes used the term “right” is more complex than he realized. I distinguished four possible meanings of “right”: claim, liberty, power, and immunity. I said that while Hobbes defined rights as liberties, he relied on treating them as powers as well.

Hobbes and geometry

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 the elements of geometry, like lines and circles. Then he added postulates about how lines and circles can be made: connecting two points with a straight edge and rotating a compass around a point, respectively. As you can see on the handout, Euclid just proposes these definitions and postulates. He thought they were obvious. (There are also what Euclid called “common notions,” such as that if line A is equal to line B and line B is equal to line C, then line A is equal to line C. I did not put those on the handout.)

After carefully laying out these definitions, postulates, and common notions, the fun starts. You can use these very simple, obvious propositions to make things like 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 other things, like the state or having something as one’s “own” (justice, as traditionally understood).

One thing that we need to keep our eye on is whether Hobbes’s definitions are really as uncontroversial and obvious as Euclid’s definitions are.

For instance, do you think it is obvious that people are allowed to do anything in order to preserve their own lives?


You have to understand the distinctions between claims, liberties, powers, and immunities on the handout.

As Will noticed, these concepts are defined in terms of one another. If you have a right in the sense of a claim, then someone else has an obligation corresponding to your right. E.g. if I have a claim right that you paint my house, you have a obligation to paint my house.

That means that you lack the liberty not to paint my house. Liberty, after all, consists in the absence of obligations. Conversely, if you retain your liberty not to paint my house, then I do not have a claim against you that you paint my house.

You can do something similar with powers and immunities. My powers consist in my abilities to make legal or moral changes. For instance, I have a right in the sense of a power to make a binding promise to you: I can make it so that I have an obligation to you where before I had none. Magic!

While I have this power over my obligations, you do not: you cannot make a promise that binds me. Consequently, I have an immunity against your attempts to make promises on my behalf.

Finally, as Val noted, these different elements are generally intermixed in the rights that we commonly talk about. Take property rights. My property right to my pen has all four elements.

  1. Claims: everyone else has a duty not to interfere with the pen.
  2. Liberties: I am permitted to use the pen as I like.
  3. Powers: I can transfer my right to the pen by selling it or giving it away.
  4. Immunities: no one else is capable of selling or giving away rights to the pen.

Generally speaking, the point of drawing the distinctions is to enable you to say more precisely what it means to have a right: exactly what mixture of claims, liberties, powers, and immunities do you have?

The distinctions are useful for our purposes because they enable us to see the logic of Hobbes’s position better than we otherwise could. In fact, we are going to see Hobbes inadvertently switch between these meanings at an important point in his argument. In doing so, he is going to make his position seem more paradoxical than it really is.

Rights in Hobbes

I said that you can distinguish three different kinds of claims that Hobbes makes about the terms “right” and “law.”

  1. Analytical: what does the term “right” or “law” mean?
  2. Substantive: what specific rights do we have and what specific laws are there?
  3. Application: what is the consequence of combining the analytical and substantive claims about rights or laws with facts about the state of nature?

In the case of rights, I said that Hobbes’s analytical claim is that rights are liberties, meaning the absence of obligation. His substantive claim is that there is a right of nature, meaning that there is no obligation against doing anything that you think might help to preserve your life. (See Leviathan 14.1–3 for both points.)

When you combine these points about what rights are with facts about what life in the state of nature is like you get the conclusion that people have a right to all things or, to put the same point in other words, there is nothing they are obligated not to do (14.4).

In other words, Hobbes does not just assert that there is no justice or injustice, right or wrong, in the state of nature. He thinks he has an argument for that conclusion.

The argument for the right to all things

On the train home, it occurred to me that Hobbes’s argument could be expressed as a proof by contradiction. I wondered if this might be more illuminating than the extremely terse way he put the point in 14.4. So I’m going to try it out here. You be the judge!

  1. Suppose there is such a thing as justice in the state of nature, meaning that people in the state of nature would have things as their own. (We are supposing this is so in order to see if a contradiction follows. If a contradiction does follow from assuming the truth of this premise, that shows the assumption is mistaken and the premise is false.)

  2. Therefore, in the state of nature, people would have exclusive claim rights to some things, meaning that they are the only ones at liberty to use those things and that everyone else has obligations not to use them. (This follows from the initial supposition: having something as one’s own means having exclusive claim rights to it.)

  3. Everyone has a right to use any thing that they think will help to preserve their lives. (This is the right of nature that Hobbes asserted in 14.1.)

  4. The state of nature is so dangerous that, for any thing, several people would think they need to use that thing to preserve their lives. (Hobbes believes he established this in chapter 13.)

  5. Therefore, in the state of nature, several people would have the same right to use any thing, meaning they would all be at liberty to use it. (This follows from points 3 and 4.)

  6. Point 5 contradicts point 2. Point 2 says there would be some things that only one person is at liberty to use; point 5 says there would be no things that only one person is at liberty to use.

  7. Since the original supposition leads to a contradiction, it must be false. Therefore, there is no such thing as justice in the state of nature. (Assuming that justice involves having things as one’s own.)

The fourth premise is awkwardly expressed. And it might not be true. Are the blades of grass in my front yard really necessary for defending anyone’s life? But Hobbes could say that the fourth premise is true of the most important things, like our bodies and other necessities. For in the state of nature, I will think that I need to use my body in order to preserve my life. And you might think the same. Only in my case, I want to keep my body alive while you have a, um, different use for it. In other words, no one cares about having exclusive rights to inconsequential things. What they want are exclusive claim rights to the security of their bodies and to their material property. Those are precisely the rights that Hobbes claims do not exist in the state of nature.

I am kind of fond of this argument, though it is way too long for the chalkboard. The slogan I gave to Hobbes is more memorable: my claim rights depend on your safety. Since no one is safe in the state of nature, no one has claim rights. If you want claim rights, you have to ensure that others are safe enough to be obliged to respect them.


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 the first step to achieving that is for people to give up the right to attack one another.

Of course, saying that you give up that right is one thing but actually convincing others that you won’t is something else. By the standards Hobbes articulates in chapter 14, agreements not to attack others are invalid so long as some people suspect that others will not do their part. The point Hobbes is driving at is that the right to attack others cannot actually be surrendered until the state exists to ensure everyone’s safety.

But I want to go back to the first step. Hobbes has a very basic problem: he has not explained how anyone is capable of laying down their rights even under the most perfect circumstances.

Hobbes defines rights as liberties: to have a right to do something is to have no obligation not to do it. So where does the ability to lay down the right come from? You can’t get it out of that definition. It is as if Euclid had left out the postulates about making lines and circles. You cannot construct an equilateral triangle in the way Euclid demonstrated unless you can make a line and a circle. Hobbes needs a definition of rights that enables those who have rights to do things with them.

In other words, he needs rights to be powers as well as liberties. When Hobbes says people have rights, he has to mean that they are capable of bringing about moral change with their rights.

One kind of change they have to be able to make is that they have to be able to lay down their own rights and thereby create obligations. That is how they are capable of making contracts and covenants. In these agreements, two or more people agree to give up their rights provided others do the same. I give up my right to my pencil if you give up your right to your pen. Then I become obliged not to take what is now your pencil and you become obliged not to take what is now my pen. With our words alone we eliminate old rights and make new rights and obligations. As I said before: magic!

The other kind of change that have to be able to make is that they have to be able to authorize people to represent them. Before I authorized Jack to represent me, he could not sign contracts that bound me. But after I authorized him to act as my representative, he gained that ability. And if a bunch of us all authorize the same person to act as our representative, we will become a corporate person, as our common representative will be able to speak for all of us. More magic!

So people with rights have at least two powers, according to Hobbes: the power of alienating or giving up their rights and the power of authorizing a representative.

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.


Hobbes, Thomas. (1651) 1993. Leviathan. Edited by Mark C. Rooks. British Philosophy: 1600-1900. Charlottesville, VA: InteLex Corporation.


There was a handout for this class: 07.HobbesRights.handout.pdf