Political Philosophy Spring 2018

Rights in Hobbes


I wanted to accomplish three things today:

  1. Explain Hobbes’s method. Why does he start every chapter by firing definitions at us? 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 of justice, understood as “giving to each his own.”

  3. Show that the way Hobbes used the term “right” is more complex than he realized. I distinguished three possible meanings of “right”: claim, liberty, and power. 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 writes the way he does: he is trying to come up with a political philosophy that mirrors Euclid’s geometry. Euclid starts with definitions of the elements of geometry, like lines and circles. Then he adds postulates about making some of these elements. For instance, the first postulate, “to draw a straight line from any point to any point” means “I assume that it is possible to draw a straight line between any two points.” In practice, geometrical constructions are done using a straight edge for lines and a compass for circles, but you could do it by free hand too. The postulates allow us to assume that if you say that what you drew is a straight line, then it is a straight line.

As you can see on the handout, Euclid just throws out these definitions and postulates. He thought they were obvious. (There are also what Euclid calls “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.)

The fun starts after these definitions, postulates, and common notions have been laid out. For instance, 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.

You don’t have to measure the sides to know it’s an equilateral triangle. Given the definitions of a line and a circle and the postulate that tells us how we can move the line to make the circle (rotate it around the center), we are guaranteed to construct an equilateral triangle.

One you see it it’s impossible to forget. That is why Hobbes tries to model his philosophy on geometry. He starts with definitions of rights and tries 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, our discussion revealed that we were not as certain as Hobbes is 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.

A right is a liberty if it grants permission. Suppose you and I are running a race against one another. The following sentences are all equivalent to one another.

  1. We each have the right to win the race.
  2. We are each permitted to win the race.
  3. Neither of us is obliged to let the other win the race.
  4. Neither of us would do anything wrong by winning the race. More specifically, neither of us would injure the other (where “injure” means “treat unjustly”).1

Obviously, we cannot both win the race. That shows one important thing about liberties: they are compatible with competition. So when Hobbes says that everyone in the state of nature has the right to preserve their lives, he is not saying that they are forbidden from killing one another. Quite the contrary!

A right is a claim right if it grants an entitlement to something from someone else. For example, the following expressions concerning my physical security are all equivalent to one another.

  1. I have a right not to be killed (unless I pose a threat to someone else or deserve to be killed for some reason)
  2. No one else is permitted to kill me (unless, etc.)
  3. Everyone else is obliged not to kill me (unless, etc.)
  4. Anyone who does kill me would do something wrong (unless, etc.)

Claim rights are supposed to close off certain kinds of competition. If I have a claim right to my life, I do not have to compete with you to see if I “win” by staying alive or “lose” by doing the other thing. My claim right entitles me not to be killed by you.

A right is a power if it means you have a particular capability. For example, your right to sell your pencil is the capability to extinguish your rights to the pencil and create a property right to the pencil for someone else. A right is an immunity if someone else lacks the power to change it. Our Constitutional right to free speech in part means that Congress lacks the power to abridge our freedom of speech. If it tried to do so its efforts would be declared invalid by the courts.

Claims, liberties, powers, and immunities are elements of the rights that we talk about in everyday life. There are very few pure instances of one or the other. For instance, my property right in my pen can be analyzed as including:

  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.

The reason why we bother with the elements is that they enable us to say more precisely exactly what an everyday right involves. They are especially useful in the law, where precision about rights is extremely important. That is why these elements were first identified by scholars interested in the analysis of legal rights (See Hohfeld 1913).

The Right to All Things

Back to Hobbes. Hobbes’s right of nature (see 14.1) is a liberty and not a claim right. What it means is that nothing done for the sake of self-preservation is wrong.

He then says that one implication of the right of nature is there is a right to all things in the state of nature (14.4). When you think about it, that means that there are no claim rights in the state of nature. A claim right exists only if others have obligations: a claim right to X is an entitlement to X that others are obliged to respect. If everyone is at liberty to use any thing, then no one has an obligation not to use any thing: what it means to have liberty to X is that you lack an obligation not to use X. So if everyone is at liberty to use every thing, it follows that no one has a claim to anything.

This is shocking. That means no human rights and nothing that anyone does to anyone else would be wrong, no matter how awful it is. That is hard to swallow.

Scholars disagree about what Hobbes is saying here. On the one hand, he seems to be simply leaving claim rights out. He defines the right of nature as the liberty to do whatever you think you need to do to save your life and he doesn’t say there are any claim rights so he has gotten rid of claim rights simply by not including them. Needless to say, for people like me who believe in human rights, that is not very persuasive. Maybe I’m wrong, but he should show me why I’m wrong rather than just asserting it through omission.

I made a case for thinking he was doing something more interesting than that. This is the 8 point argument listed in part 4 of the handout. The thrust of this argument is that there could not be claim rights in the state of nature; the argument seeks to show this by supposing that there are such rights and then showing that this leads to a contradiction. If a premise of an argument leads to a contradiction, and none of the other premises are wrong, then it is false.

Even if you grant me that this is what he was trying to do, you don’t have to grant that he succeeded. We spent a lot of time talking about the fourth premise, that everyone has a right to use anything they think will preserve their lives. (Hobbes calls this the “right of nature” in Leviathan 14.1.)

Alex and Adrian didn’t think it’s true that anyone is permitted to do anything they think might be helpful in preserving their lives. That is far too weak! (Imagine what crazy things people could think of.) Alec agreed, but said that he thought Hobbes could strengthen the premise to rule out more behavior. He could say anyone is permitted to do anything they reasonably think is necessary to save their lives, for instance. The conclusion would still follow, Alec thought, because the state of nature is so dangerous. You really might need nearly anything to save your life in a world where anyone might be out to get you.

Michael disagreed. He thought Alec’s reasoning was fine but he did not think that Hobbes was right to say that the state of nature is terribly dangerous. In effect, he rejected the fifth premise.

The only thing I have to add is to say that this is exactly the right way to go about analyzing philosophical arguments. I could not have scripted it better. You start with what looks like a questionable premise (as Alex and Adrian did). Then you see if you could alter that premise in ways that make it less questionable while still yielding the same conclusion (as Alec did). Then if you think that did the job you move on to any other premises that look questionable and repeat the process (as Michael did).

Fingertips kiss! (Meaning “wonderful,” not the other things.)


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 attack them is something else. By the standards Hobbes gives in chapter 14, agreements not to attack others are invalid so long as some people suspect that others will not do their part; that is what “reasonable suspicion” means in Leviathan 14.18. 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, about what it would mean to lay down your rights at all, under even the most ideal circumstances or, say, in the social contract. 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 because it simply describes a static condition of not having an obligation. It is as if Euclid had left out the postulates about making lines and circles. If the rules do not make any provision for drawing lines and circles, then they do not enable you to construct an equilateral triangle. 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.

A right is a power if it grants an ability to do something. When I say “I have the right to make a contractual agreement with you,” what I mean is that I am capable of doing so and that I will be bound by any agreement I make. So-called incompetents, such as children, are not capable of making contractual agreements and so do not have the right to do so. Note that this does not mean that they would do anything wrong if they tried to make a contractual agreement. Their efforts would fail and they would create a “nullity” rather than an actual contract.

For Hobbes, people with rights have to be able to be able to transfer them (he says “surrender” or “lay down” as well) and thereby create obligations. That is how they are capable of making contracts and covenants. In these agreements, one person agrees to give up their rights provided the other does 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 the pencil from you and you become obliged not to take the pen from me. 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 (we talked about this in the next class, on the social contract). Before I authorized my lawyer to represent me, he could not sign contracts on my behalf. 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. He will need them to have these two powers in order to agree to the two clauses of the social contract: one of which involves the alienation of the rights to govern themselves while the other authorizes the sovereign to act as their representative.

Main Ideas

These are the things you should know after today’s class.

  1. The four meanings of “right:” liberty, claim, power, and immunity.
  2. What is the right of nature (14.1)?
  3. How does Hobbes argue for the right to all things (14.4)?
  4. What is a covenant (14.11)?
  5. What makes a covenant invalid (14.8)?
  6. The difference between surrendering a right and authorizing someone to act on your behalf.


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

Hohfeld, Wesley Newcomb. 1913. “Some Fundamental Legal Conceptions as Applied in Judicial Reasoning.” Yale Law Journal 23 (1): 16–59.

  1. Why the qualification? Well, it might be unkind of you not to let me win, if you knew I would be heartbroken, for instance. So it might be wrong in that sense. But I still do not have a right to win and you would not violate my rights or treat me unjustly if you did not let me win. Those of you who go on to take a class in moral philosophy will probably read Judith Jarvis Thomson; she loves to make this kind of point.


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