Political Philosophy Spring 2021

The Laws of Nature


Today’s reading presents what Hobbes calls the laws of nature. This is his moral philosophy. He seeks to make two points about the laws of nature:

  1. They are valuable because they are the means to achieving peace.

  2. What they require individuals to do depends on how others behave.

You can see how the two points are related. If the point of the laws of nature is to secure the peace and others are not following the laws there will be no peace and so no point in following the laws yourself.

You might ask “Why does he have a moral philosophy? Isn’t this political philosophy?” And that, my friend, would be a good question. Why is there a moral philosophy here at all? Why not just go straight from “the state of nature is bad” to “the state would be better”?

What is in chapters 14 and 15?

People in the state of nature aren’t stupid. There is an obvious solution to their problem: make a non-aggression pact! I promise not to attack you so long as you don’t threaten me and vice versa. That would take care of diffidence and “anticipation.” Once they have that worked out, they can make some property rules to make progress on competition as a cause of conflict. And if they are really feeling ambitious they can make some rules about the use of violence to dampen fighting motivated by glory.

Chapters fourteen and fifteen are about how that might work. The most important part concerns what Hobbes calls covenants. These are promises in which one side is trusted to do its part in the future. If I say “pay me tuition in September and I will deliver a lecture on Hobbes in February,” I have made a covenant: you have to wait for me to do my part. (And I will!) More importantly, if I say “I won’t sneak up on you at night so long as you don’t threaten me,” I have also made a covenant. You are relying on my keeping my end tonight, tomorrow night, the next night, and, well, every night into the indefinite future. Every day too!

Chapter fifteen also has some rules about maintaining a peace established by covenants. There are rules about behavior that could upset the peace but isn’t specifically governed by agreements. For example, show gratitude and don’t take more than you need (15.16-17). There are rules about enforcing the rules in ways that will not cause the system to collapse in cycles of revenge (15.18-19). And there are rules for using arbitrators to settle disputes about when the rules have been broken and what to do about those who break the rules (15.23f).

So what we have here are rules for establishing peace without the state. They are laws “of nature” rather than laws of the commonwealth.

So why do we need the state?

If the laws of nature are so great, why do we need the state?

Well, remember the second point: what the laws of nature require depends on how others behave. If others aren’t keeping the laws of nature, you don’t have to do so either. Hobbes is quite clear about this: see 15.36. In the state of nature, you can’t count on anyone’s keeping the laws of nature.

To see why, let’s start with the first thing that people in the state of nature would have to do: establish a non-aggression pact. I promise not to attack you by surprise so long as you don’t do the same to me. Having made our covenant, we each face a question every day: should I keep it or break it?

Guess what the incentive structure looks like!

Non-aggression pacts in the state of nature
Break Keep
Break 3rd / 3rd 1st / 4th
Keep 4th / 1st 2nd / 2nd

If we didn’t trust one another before making the non-aggression pact, it’s hard to see how we’re going to trust one another to keep it. Remember that the cost of misplaced trust is pretty bad. It can be the last mistake you ever make. Admittedly, that doesn’t sound so bad. But think about it for a second.

Without a non-aggression pact, it’s hard to see how the rest of the laws matter very much.

The upshot is that we aren’t getting out of war in the state of nature without an actual state to threaten us if we ever try to leave the southeast box. That’s the only way it’s going to work.

The good news is that once we have a state in place, we get to enjoy the kind of life made possible by the laws of nature. Hobbes assumes that most people will comply if they can do so safely. And if they try to cheat, the state will be there to suggest they reconsider. In that sense, morality depends on the state.


If morality depends on the state, does that mean that nothing is wrong among people who do not live in a state with one another? It sure seems to (see 14.4). That is hard to swallow. You can’t do anything wrong to another person until you share a state? Yikes.

I think that Hobbes thinks of himself as describing how we came to live by the moral code that we do. The point is more that life outside the state would not be governed by the laws of nature in any practical way. Still, what he says is disturbing.

Hobbes also wavers on the central case: covenants. He says that covenants are invalid when one party to the covenant fears that the other will not do its part (14.18).

You would think that this is always true in the state of nature: you always fear the other side will break its word and no covenants are valid. Hobbes says this himself (15.3, for instance).

But he also says the opposite. For instance, if you are captured in a war and agree to pay a ransom if you are released, your agreement is valid and you are obliged to pay (14.27). Hobbes takes a shot at a Ring of Gyges kind of case involving a character he calls the Fool. The Fool asks why he should keep his covenant if he can get away with breaking it. Hobbes tries to show that he should keep it and that makes sense only if it is valid (15.4-5).

We will want to talk about what is going on here. Why is he so wobbly about this?


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