Does Hobbes’ employment of natural rights take him in an absolutist direction?

This essay was written as a formative part of my undergraduate studies at the London School of Economics.

In this essay, I will aim to assess the political thought of Thomas Hobbes, through analysis of his work, Leviathan.

I will explain his theory of human nature, leading to his views on the natural rights of mankind and ultimately, the link he creates between this and his view that absolutism, preferably centred in a monarchy, is the best form of government. I will then attempt to analyse this reasoning, leading to a defence of his theory.

Leviathan starts with Hobbes outlining his methodology for exploring human nature, or “The Science of Nature”; by breaking down humanity and politics into their smallest possible component parts, he can explore our base motivations and look at the inter-relationships between them, drawing conclusions about the State of Nature, and ultimately, good government. Book I dismisses the Classical notion that there is an eternal good or bad; something we can grasp and obtain knowledge of in order to better ourselves in a Platonian way.

“But whatsoever is the object of any mans Appetite or Desire; that is it, which he for his part calleth Good: And the object of his Hate, and Aversion, evill; And of his contempt, Vile, and Inconsiderable. For these words of Good, evill, and Contemptible, are ever used with relation to the person that useth them: There being nothing simply and absolutely so; nor any common Rule of Good and evill, to be taken from the nature of the objects themselves; but from the Person of the man” (I, IV, p. 39)1

Hobbes asserts that there is no moral eternal concept of good and bad for us to grasp and to follow, but instead mere interpretation on a person-by-person, society-by-society basis. Further, he goes on in chapter VI to compound his accusation, claiming men are only moved to act by desire; “… there is nothing by Motion, or Endeavour; which consisteth of Appetite, or Aversion, to, or from the object moving.” (I, VI, p. 40)2. These claims lead us to a State of Nature in which men are individualistic, unsociable, and principally at Warre with one another. Hobbes says we find “three principall causes of quarrel.” (I, XIII, p. 185)3; Competition, Diffidence and Glory. Man is naturally competitive because of scarcity, we compete for reputation and for security, and we trust no-one incase they try to take our property or try to kill us and we are suspicious of everyone because we are all equally capable of doing harm. The State of Nature then, is almost a complete State of War.

Hobbes argues, that in the State of Nature, we have a Right of Nature:

“The RIGHT OF NATURE… is the Liberty each man hath, to use his own power, as he will himselfe, for the preservation of his own Nature; that is to say, of his own Life; and consequently, of doing any thing, which in his own Judgement, and Reason, hee shall conceive to be the aptest means thereunto.” (I, XIV, p. 86)4

This Right of Nature gives man unlimited right to preserve himself and makes no obligation on him to respect the rights of others to self-preservation. The Right of Nature, our unlimited Liberty and our constant fear of a painful death makes the State of Nature inherently unstable, Hobbes argues; the State of War, acting as an adjudicator over disputes, means there is no security for man and so we drive for peace (I, XIII, p. 84)5. This peace takes the form of a covenant between all people to form a political society in order to provide what individuals cannot provide on their own and resolve the problem of our natural condition; we create the state to provide stability and security. This entire theory is in direct contrast with Aristotle, who believed humanity was naturally drawn to political community, because it suggests an entirely self-interested motivation for politics and is based on a model of individualism.

For Hobbes the contract between the people should be an alienation contract and should pass our Liberty and our Judgement to a sovereign power – preferably a monarch:

“His Power cannot, without his consent, be Transferred to another: He cannot Forfeit it: He cannot be Accused by any of his Subjects, of Injury: He cannot be Punished by them: He is Judge of what is necessary for Peace; and Judge of Doctrines: He is Sole Legislator; and Supreme Judge of Controversies; and of the Times, and Occasions of Warre, and Peace: to him it belongeth to choose Magistrates, Counsellours, Commanders, and all other Officers, and Ministers; and to determine of Rewards, and punishments, Honour, and Order.” (I, XX, p. 132)6

Hobbes argues that the problem with the natural condition is that we have a right to unlimited Liberty and we can reason our actions and judge them by what is in our best interests, even when this is in conflict with others, and so in order for there to be peace, providing stability and security, and ultimately the conditions under which people are able to self-preserve without fear of a violent and painful death, there must be one final judge of the Law of Nature. Hobbes’ assertion that there is no epistemological right and wrong which we can inherently know and learn from makes this possible; someone must set the boundaries of right and wrong and if the decision is not centred in an absolute sovereign monarch, we will return to the State of Nature as we are all self-interested and will interpret the Laws of Nature to our own gain. There must be an alienation contract which allows us to give up our rights to Liberty and Judgement, because these are the very things that cause us conflict in the State of Nature. This form of governance, where law is determined purely by the Sovereign, is now commonly referred to as Hobbes’ “Command Theory” (Austin, 1832)7. We continue to obey the Sovereign because we formed the Leviathan and it is an extension of us but also, because we surrender our judgement to the Sovereign, we cannot challenge their decisions because they are the ones who judge – if they were subject to a higher judge, they wouldn’t be sovereign any more. Absolutism – unconditional and unified sovereign authority to which we have no right of collective resistance – and absolute sovereign power can be justified because the State of Nature is a near complete State of War, we are self-interested but seek security and stability and investing trust in an absolute Sovereign is the necessary condition for peace.

I will now assess some of the critiques of Hobbes’ work and show why Leviathan’s main thrust is correct. It is fair to say that the idea of an all powerful Leviathan has been a bone of contention for political philosophy and one of the largest areas of debate centres around political obligation – why would we obey the Sovereign and why would we centre the power in one person, when our natural condition is pushing us toward self-interest and diffidence? Hobbes’ central observation on human nature is that we all have equal ability to cause harm, however, creating the Leviathan makes all but one of us less powerful, and one significantly more powerful and able to harm us. The so-called “Grotian problem” (Grotius, 1625, 1609)8 gives grounds to this argument because of Hobbes rejection of the individual right to secession. Because the Sovereign is the final judge, and there are no real restrictions on his power, there is no exit option and we would arguably not enter into a state where our hands were tied, especially if it meant we had no real right to protect our Right of Nature. Later contract theorists like Locke sought to address this problem with the idea of explicit and tacit consent (Locke, 1948)9, but there are of course answers from Hobbes himself; in chapter XVIII he describes the Sovereign as a mere extension of ourselves and so the Leviathan would never act in a way that would harm the political society. More than this though, we are obligated to obey the Leviathan, not just because we are instrumental in creating it, but also because of Hobbes’ earlier claims that justice is keeping our promises despite our self-interested, egoistic motivations (Taylor, 1938)10. Hobbes also says that breaking the covenant would be “against the reason of [man’s] preservation” (I, XV, p. 205)11 because he would not be accepted into any society; and so if societies that provide peace and security are ones ruled by absolute monarchy, man would be foolish to go against his only chance of guaranteed self-preservation. The contract ensures that man keeps his promise and overrides his self-interested non-compliance (Gauthier, 1988)12. Warrander (1957)13 goes on to note that we obey the Sovereign because we still fear a punishment from the Sovereign, which as Hobbes’ argues is unfounded because the Sovereign would not ‘hurt itself’ as an extension of the body politic.

Aside from the obligation to follow a Sovereign, the terms of how that Sovereign should take shape is also hotly debated. Clearly, Hobbes favours a monarchy, and some political thinkers agree with this interpretation, including Goldsmith, who argued that Hobbes was correct in assuming that only in a closed system and with a single validating power can you truly get unity and peace (Goldsmith, 1980)14. Hart (1961)15 and Kelsen (1945)16 disagree however, attempting to show that it is still possible to achieve validation when there is a division of power. They believe that Hobbes has confused the need to have finality within a regime and the need to have a final human authority, arguing that a set of written rules in the form of a constitution to constrain the power of the government can have the same effect as an absolutist monarch. This is of course totally missing the point that Hobbes is making. Hobbes believed that Sovereignty had to be centred in a single person, rather than a group – or groups – governed by a set of written rules because of Judgement. In democracies, for example, where there are many people to judge, there will be conflict of interpretation, necessitating the need for a single decision making authority. That can only exist in a monarchy. Moreover, a set of written rules can never be complete enough to not need interpretation, and if there is someone that is making judgements about the Sovereign’s actions, based on an interpreted constitution, then the alleged Sovereign ceases to be a sovereign power; Hobbes defines a Sovereign as that which has power to set limits on others, but upon which no limits are placed; and as you cannot get a complete set of objective rules that govern decision making, you must have a single, human, decision maker.

I conclude then that Hobbes was correct in assuming that the employment of natural rights takes him in an absolutist direction, because unlimited Liberty causes a problem of wreckless war, that without eternal moral standards we need someone to create and impose them, and that the only way to impose this is by creating a single absolute power, meaning we treat politics in a not dissimilar fashion to the way we treat religion, except in this case the Leviathan dictates the moral laws we abide by, not a holy scripture.

  1. Hobbes, T. Tuck, R. (ed.) (1996). “Leviathan”. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 

  2. ibid, 1996. 

  3. ibid, 1996. 

  4. ibid, 1996. 

  5. ibid, 1996. 

  6. ibid, 1996. 

  7. Austin, J. Rumble, W. (ed.) (1995), “The Province of Jurisprudence Determined”. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p.117 

  8. Prof. Paul Kelly lecture on Hobbes and Natural Law gave a digressionary talk on what he termed “The Grotian Problem”, referencing Grotius’ works “De Jure Belli ac Pacis”(1625) and “De Jure Praedae” (1625). Kelly, P. (2011). “Hobbes and the Birth of Modern Natural Law”, [Lecture] GV100: Introduction to Political Theory. London School of Economics and Political Science, Old Theatre, December 2010. 

  9. Locke, J. Gough, J. W. (ed.) (1948). “The Second Treatise of Civil Government: and a Letter Concerning Toleration”. Oxford: Blackwell. 

  10. Taylor, A. E. (1938). “The Ethical Doctrine of Hobbes”. In: “Philosophy”. Vol. XIII. pp. 406 – 424. 

  11. Hobbes, T. Tuck, R. (ed.) (1996). “Leviathan”. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 

  12. Gauthier, D. (1988). “Hobbes’s Social Contract”. In: Rogers, G. A. J. & Ryan, A (eds.) “Perspectives on Thomas Hobbes”. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 

  13. Warrander, H. (1957). “The Political Philosophy of Hobbes: His Theory of Obligation”. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 

  14. Goldsmith, M. M. (1980). “Hobbe’s ‘Mortal God’: Is There a Fallacy in Hobbes’s Theory of Sovereignty?”. In: “History of Political Thought”. Vol. I. pp. 33 – 50. 

  15. Hart, H. L. A. (1961). “The Concept of Law”. Oxford: Clarendon Press. pp. 97 – 107 

  16. Kelsen, H. Wedberg, A. (ed.) (1945). “The General Theory of Law and the State”. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press. pp. 110 – 116.