The Liberty of Subjects

Chapter 21 and chapter 28 each concern the edges of the relationship between sovereign and subject. Chapter 21 is about when the subjects may resist the sovereign. Chapter 28 is about the sovereign’s use of force against the subjects.

Today’s class spent a lot of time on the argument Hobbes gives in support of his claims about the liberties of subjects. This is the argument that no one can give up the right to resist force. On the basis of that argument, Hobbes concludes that the subjects cannot give up the right to resist punishment in the social contract. In other words, they would remain at liberty to resist punishment, so that is part of the “true liberty of a subject.”

The inalienable right to self-defense

We looked very closely at several passages from chapter 14, especially 14.8 and 14.29. In these passages, Hobbes argues that no one can give up the right to defend themselves against force.

After spelling out the first argument, we considered which one of its premises might be the weakest. I favored going after the second premise: that all voluntary actions are motivated by self-interest.

Nathaniel proposed a superior alternative: no one voluntarily puts their life at risk. That is a lot more defensible than Hobbes’s own assumption. Even so, it is still a very strong claim: police officers, fire fighters, soldiers, people who engage in extreme sports, and criminals all voluntarily put their lives at risk.

I said that I thought the argument in 14.29 was slightly different. I said that if I squinted hard enough, I could see Hobbes saying that a covenant to give up the right to protect oneself against force would be invalid. Since the social contract is a covenant, it would follow that the right to protect oneself against force could not be given up in the social contract.

There are some technical terms in there. A covenant is a contract in which at least one side is trusted to do its part in the future. A contract involves at least two sides that transfer their rights to one another. (A gift, by contrast, is a unilateral transfer of rights, from one person to another.) The social contract is a covenant because the subjects have to trust one another to comply with its terms into the future. Hobbes has an extensive discussion of when covenants are valid and invalid. One of the things he says is that a covenant is invalid if at least one party has a reasonable suspicion that the other will not do its part (14.8 and 15.3; quoted on the page I gave you in class and on the updated version of the readings for today’s class in Sakai).

I think this would be a better argument for Hobbes to make because it does not rest on a strong claim to the effect that no one ever acts against their own interests (or that no one ever puts their lives at risk). All that Hobbes would have to show is that there would be a reasonable suspicion that anyone who does promise not to resist force would not actually do so when push came to shove. It just has to be highly probable that others would go back on their word, not that they would necessarily do so. That is much easier to prove.

that would be enough to render invalid any covenant in which someone promises not to resist force. Since no rights are transferred in an invalid covenant, it would follow that no one can give up the right to resist force.


Hobbes discusses several examples of what he calls “the true liberty of a subject.” We talked about one: punishment. I said that Hobbes makes three claims:

  1. The sovereign has the right to punish: without it, the commonwealth doesn’t work.

  2. The subjects have the right to resist punishment (see 12.12, 21.14, 21.17 as well as passages in chapter 14).

  3. Nonetheless, the subjects allow the sovereign to punish them (21.14)

Lots of people think the first two points are incompatible with one another: how could the sovereign have the right to punish if the subjects are free to resist punishment? Berto got the answer: the sovereign’s right to punish is a liberty. It means that the sovereign is permitted to punish or that the sovereign would do nothing wrong by punishing. The fact that the subjects are permitted to resist would only cause a problem if the sovereign’s right to punish were a claim right, like a property right, that others are duty-bound to respect.

Why would the subjects agree to give the sovereign permission to punish them? Will (I think; maybe Alex?) nailed this one: it’s a lot less dangerous to live in a world where the sovereign can punish you than it is to live in the state of nature. This is especially the case if the sovereign works through laws. Then you know what acts will bring about punishment and what acts will not do so. That enables you to avoid violence at the sovereign’s hand. By contrast, in the state of nature, there is not much that you can do to avoid being targeted by others.

But what about Uriah?

Taylor identified a big problem for Hobbes. The sovereign is absolute: above the law and unlimited by the law. And Hobbes is quite explicit about what this means: in a sense, the sovereign can harm even the innocent, people who do not violate the law (see Leviathan, 21.7).

I say “in a sense” because he is deeply conflicted about it. On the one hand, he insists throughout that the sovereign is forbidden from harming the innocent by the laws of nature. On the other hand, he thinks that the fact that the subjects authorize all of the sovereign’s actions means that if a sovereign does harm an innocent subject, it cannot amount to unjust treatment of that subject.

So, for instance, when King David had Uriah the Hittite sent to the hottest part of the battle so he might die (I have the gory details at the bottom), what David did was an offense against God but not against Uriah. Because Uriah had authorized David’s actions, it was as if Uriah had ordered himself to the hottest part of the battle so he might die. And while that would have been an odd thing for Uriah to do to himself it would not have been an injustice towards himself because there is no such thing as an injustice towards yourself.

We will return to this on Thursday. For now, I will just note two things.

First, before we get up on our soap boxes about how wicked Hobbes is, think about how our own legal system deals with wrongful convictions. Do people who are innocent but in prison get to kill the guards? Can their relatives break them out? No, they have to be exonerated by the legal system, which is operated by the same thing that put them in prison in the first place: the state. If they are exonerated, what should their compensation be? This too is determined by the state. In the US, that’s states, plural, since most criminal law is on the state level. I can tell you one thing about compensation for wrongful convictions: it is inconsistent and often shockingly low. But under the US legal system, it is up to the states to determine how much they owe people who they have wrongly imprisoned. The Constitution is silent on this question.

Second, I thought Jeremy had a great question. Why does Hobbes think that the subjects would authorize all of the sovereign’s actions but only alienate some of their own rights. If there are exceptions in the one case, why not the other? Why would anyone authorize the sovereign to kill him even if he is innocent? I do not see that Hobbes answered that.


We did not talk about soldiers except for a brief remark that Sabrina made. I said I would get back to it but failed. Fortunately, we have the internet. Here is what I would have said.

Are soldiers obliged to put their lives at risk? You would think the answer would be no, since Hobbes says multiple times that no one can be obliged to put their life at risk for anything. Why would soldiers be an exception?

Hobbes, however, says that while no one is obliged by the social contract to serve in the military, those who make a specific contract to put their lives at risk in the military are obliged do so. And furthermore everyone is obliged to risk their lives in war when the commonwealth is in danger of collapsing.

I do not think he is being consistent here. If it is impossible to be obliged to put your life at risk, then neither a special contract agreeing to put your life at risk nor extreme danger for the state should make any difference.

Where the defeat of the state is concerned, Hobbes’s thought seems to be that fighting in the army is a better alternative that being defeated and returning to the state of nature. So the chance of death would not be an excuse for not fighting with the army as there are high risks of death either way.

But while it is true that everyone will suffer if the state collapses, it does not follow that each individual is better off trying to prevent that from happening. In this sort of case, people face a collective goods problem: my side is going to win the war or not regardless of whether I fight in the military. If the army is going to fight, one more soldier will not make the difference between victory and defeat. If the army is going to collapse, having one more soldier standing up to fight is not going to prevent defeat. So the suffering from the state’s collapse is not affected by one’s participation in the military. The only question facing me is whether fighting in the military makes it more or less likely that I will die. Whether the outcome of the battle would be good or bad for me should have no bearing on my decision.

One interesting thing about this is that, from the individual’s perspective, the choice is structurally similar to the ones facing people in the state of nature: they are both what is called prisoner’s dilemma situations.

Here is the state of nature again. (The first number is the payoff for the row player, the second number is the payoff for the column player).

Pre-emptive violence in the state of nature
Anticipate Wait
Anticipate 3rd / 3rd 1st / 4th
Wait 4th / 1st 2nd / 2nd

And here is the choice facing an individual soldier. (Payoffs are for the individual soldier, who I am representing as the row player.)

Soldiers’ options
The army runs away The army fights
I run away 3rd 1st
I fight 4th 2nd

We are going to spend more time with these 2 x 2 tables when we talk about Hume’s theory of conventions. Fair warning!

Key concepts

  1. Why no one can transfer the right to defend themselves against force.
  2. How this bears on the sovereign’s ability to punish.

David and Uriah

From the second book of Kings, Authorized Version (a.k.a. the King James version).

11:2 And it came to pass in an eveningtide, that David arose from off his bed, and walked upon the roof of the king's house: and from the roof he saw a woman washing herself; and the woman was very beautiful to look upon.

11:3 And David sent and enquired after the woman. And one said, Is not this Bathsheba, the daughter of Eliam, the wife of Uriah the Hittite? 11:4 And David sent messengers, and took her; and she came in unto him, and he lay with her; for she was purified from her uncleanness: and she returned unto her house.

11:5 And the woman conceived, and sent and told David, and said, I am with child.

11:6 And David sent to Joab, saying, Send me Uriah the Hittite. And Joab sent Uriah to David.

11:7 And when Uriah was come unto him, David demanded of him how Joab did, and how the people did, and how the war prospered.

11:8 And David said to Uriah, Go down to thy house, and wash thy feet. And Uriah departed out of the king's house, and there followed him a mess of meat from the king.

11:9 But Uriah slept at the door of the king's house with all the servants of his lord, and went not down to his house.

11:10 And when they had told David, saying, Uriah went not down unto his house, David said unto Uriah, Camest thou not from thy journey? why then didst thou not go down unto thine house? 11:11 And Uriah said unto David, The ark, and Israel, and Judah, abide in tents; and my lord Joab, and the servants of my lord, are encamped in the open fields; shall I then go into mine house, to eat and to drink, and to lie with my wife? as thou livest, and as thy soul liveth, I will not do this thing.

11:12 And David said to Uriah, Tarry here to day also, and to morrow I will let thee depart. So Uriah abode in Jerusalem that day, and the morrow.

11:13 And when David had called him, he did eat and drink before him; and he made him drunk: and at even he went out to lie on his bed with the servants of his lord, but went not down to his house.

11:14 And it came to pass in the morning, that David wrote a letter to Joab, and sent it by the hand of Uriah.

11:15 And he wrote in the letter, saying, Set ye Uriah in the forefront of the hottest battle, and retire ye from him, that he may be smitten, and die.

11:16 And it came to pass, when Joab observed the city, that he assigned Uriah unto a place where he knew that valiant men were.

11:17 And the men of the city went out, and fought with Joab: and there fell some of the people of the servants of David; and Uriah the Hittite died also.

11:18 Then Joab sent and told David all the things concerning the war; 11:19 And charged the messenger, saying, When thou hast made an end of telling the matters of the war unto the king, 11:20 And if so be that the king's wrath arise, and he say unto thee, Wherefore approached ye so nigh unto the city when ye did fight? knew ye not that they would shoot from the wall? 11:21 Who smote Abimelech the son of Jerubbesheth? did not a woman cast a piece of a millstone upon him from the wall, that he died in Thebez? why went ye nigh the wall? then say thou, Thy servant Uriah the Hittite is dead also.

11:22 So the messenger went, and came and shewed David all that Joab had sent him for.

11:23 And the messenger said unto David, Surely the men prevailed against us, and came out unto us into the field, and we were upon them even unto the entering of the gate.

11:24 And the shooters shot from off the wall upon thy servants; and some of the king's servants be dead, and thy servant Uriah the Hittite is dead also.

11:25 Then David said unto the messenger, Thus shalt thou say unto Joab, Let not this thing displease thee, for the sword devoureth one as well as another: make thy battle more strong against the city, and overthrow it: and encourage thou him.

11:26 And when the wife of Uriah heard that Uriah her husband was dead, she mourned for her husband.

11:27 And when the mourning was past, David sent and fetched her to his house, and she became his wife, and bare him a son. But the thing that David had done displeased the LORD.

12:1 And the LORD sent Nathan unto David. And he came unto him, and said unto him, There were two men in one city; the one rich, and the other poor.

12:2 The rich man had exceeding many flocks and herds: 12:3 But the poor man had nothing, save one little ewe lamb, which he had bought and nourished up: and it grew up together with him, and with his children; it did eat of his own meat, and drank of his own cup, and lay in his bosom, and was unto him as a daughter.

12:4 And there came a traveller unto the rich man, and he spared to take of his own flock and of his own herd, to dress for the wayfaring man that was come unto him; but took the poor man's lamb, and dressed it for the man that was come to him.

12:5 And David's anger was greatly kindled against the man; and he said to Nathan, As the LORD liveth, the man that hath done this thing shall surely die: 12:6 And he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity.

12:7 And Nathan said to David, Thou art the man. Thus saith the LORD God of Israel, I anointed thee king over Israel, and I delivered thee out of the hand of Saul; 12:8 And I gave thee thy master's house, and thy master's wives into thy bosom, and gave thee the house of Israel and of Judah; and if that had been too little, I would moreover have given unto thee such and such things.

12:9 Wherefore hast thou despised the commandment of the LORD, to do evil in his sight? thou hast killed Uriah the Hittite with the sword, and hast taken his wife to be thy wife, and hast slain him with the sword of the children of Ammon.

12:10 Now therefore the sword shall never depart from thine house; because thou hast despised me, and hast taken the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be thy wife.

12:11 Thus saith the LORD, Behold, I will raise up evil against thee out of thine own house, and I will take thy wives before thine eyes, and give them unto thy neighbour, and he shall lie with thy wives in the sight of this sun.

12:12 For thou didst it secretly: but I will do this thing before all Israel, and before the sun.

12:13 And David said unto Nathan, I have sinned against the LORD. And Nathan said unto David, The LORD also hath put away thy sin; thou shalt not die.

12:14 Howbeit, because by this deed thou hast given great occasion to the enemies of the LORD to blaspheme, the child also that is born unto thee shall surely die.

12:15 And Nathan departed unto his house. And the LORD struck the child that Uriah's wife bare unto David, and it was very sick.

12:16 David therefore besought God for the child; and David fasted, and went in, and lay all night upon the earth.

12:17 And the elders of his house arose, and went to him, to raise him up from the earth: but he would not, neither did he eat bread with them.

12:18 And it came to pass on the seventh day, that the child died. And the servants of David feared to tell him that the child was dead: for they said, Behold, while the child was yet alive, we spake unto him, and he would not hearken unto our voice: how will he then vex himself, if we tell him that the child is dead? 12:19 But when David saw that his servants whispered, David perceived that the child was dead: therefore David said unto his servants, Is the child dead? And they said, He is dead.

12:20 Then David arose from the earth, and washed, and anointed himself, and changed his apparel, and came into the house of the LORD, and worshipped: then he came to his own house; and when he required, they set bread before him, and he did eat.

12:21 Then said his servants unto him, What thing is this that thou hast done? thou didst fast and weep for the child, while it was alive; but when the child was dead, thou didst rise and eat bread.

12:22 And he said, While the child was yet alive, I fasted and wept: for I said, Who can tell whether GOD will be gracious to me, that the child may live? 12:23 But now he is dead, wherefore should I fast? can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he shall not return to me.

12:24 And David comforted Bathsheba his wife, and went in unto her, and lay with her: and she bare a son, and he called his name Solomon: and the LORD loved him.


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