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A Critical Analysis of Hobbes' Law of Justice

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A Critical Analysis of Hobbes' Law of Justice

Shawn Olson



Introduction to Political Philosophy

SW Holtman

Of Thomas Hobbes' 19 laws of nature, the first three, which add consecutively up to his concept of justice, are by far the most influential and important, with the ultimate goal being an escape from the state of nature. The first law states that we should seek peace, and if we cannot attain it, to use the full force of war. Directly building off of the first law's mandate to seek peace is the second law that states that we should lay down our rights of nature and form social contracts, if others are willing to as well. From this springs forth the concept of the covenant, in which men can transfer their rights of nature between each other and which forms the basis of moral obligation. With the enactment of each of these laws, which act as impediments towards the full use of an individual's right of nature, an individual will trade a piece of their right of nature in order to promote cooperation between others. According to Hobbes, these two are not enough to keep human kind from betraying one another. There needs to be another layer of control. This is where the third law comes in to fully form the concept of justice. The third law simply states that men need to perform their valid covenants, which becomes Hobbes' definition of justice. From this, injustice is defined as not performing your valid covenants. As can be seen by this, with one law building off of another, it is quite clear that Hobbes put great effort into creating a full representation of the world in order to support his political doctrine. Thus, in order to understand Hobbes' reasoning for his concept of justice, this paper will elaborate on how Hobbes' laws of nature are rules that every human being should follow in order to give them the best chance of living well as well as investigating the full requirements of justice and Hobbes' claim that there is neither injustice nor justice in a state of nature. Finally, while Hobbes wove his concepts of the state of nature, the laws of nature and justice into an extremely tight web through the Euclidean method, I argue that his account for justice is too weak to account for social atrocities such as slavery, religious discrimination, animal cruelty, genocide and murder and thus it is my intent to show that his account of justice is inadequate.

For civil society to have sprung forth from this state of nature, where there is a constant war of all against all, there must have been some sort of catalyst that helped guide humans away from there anarchistic lifestyles to where codependence and interpersonal development were necessary. This catalyst, for Hobbes, took the form of the laws of nature. A law of nature is "a precept or general rule, found out by reason, by which a man is forbidden to do that which is destructive to his life, or taketh away the means of preserving the same" (p. 69, Chpt. XIV). From this it is apparent that a law of nature needs to be a general rule that can be discovered simply through reason. Rules like this propagate human self-preservation and frown upon acts that are destructive towards humanity. There is one great difference between this kind of natural law and a civil law though, and it is that civil laws need to be written down and advertised while a natural law can be realized solely by the innate powers that spring forth from our reason. They also tend to be of the form, do onto others, which you would do upon yourself, embracing common morality and driving towards creating harmony between people. In this, these laws tend to be of the kind that every man should follow, in that they are naturally obvious and following them reliably leads towards mans greatest urge, the urge to live and live well. For without these laws, Hobbes tells us that all would have to withstand the horrors of the state of nature, in which fear reigns supreme. But within these laws that should be innately followed, life can be preserved and peace can be approached.

From these laws, spring Thomas Hobbes' concept of justice. Justice is defined by Hobbes as keeping your valid covenants, or more simply, keep your promises. Obviously, such a narrow basis for such a complex concept has certain requirements that focus the concept of covenants into a valid system of justice. For Hobbes, without covenants, there could be no justice because the covenant is justice's root itself. One of the first requirements of the covenant is that there can be no contract if there is reasonable cause for either side of the covenant to believe the other party will not hold up their end of the bargain. For if there was, the covenant would be automatically void and the basis of justice would be removed. Another major requirement is that there be some sovereign above to oversee the covenants and dispense punishments if they are not fulfilled. Without some fear of punishment, it would be impossible to contain man's tendency towards betrayal, which is inherent in his ultimate drive towards living and living well. Along with this, there are multiple other requirements for the law of justice. According to Hobbes, it is impossible for anyone to give up their right to defend their life. This portion of the right of nature can never be covenanted due to Hobbes' belief in the psychological egotism of humankind. Beyond this, covenants made with those that cannot understand speech is invalid, as are covenants made between man and God. After all this, once a valid covenant is made between individuals who do not have reasonable cause to believe that the other is plotting against them, there are only two ways to be freed of the covenant; either by performing or being forgiven. Finally, the moral shield that is provided by the covenant between the people and their sovereign is not extended to people who are not included in the contract. This includes those from other societies as well as those who cannot comprehend the contract, such as the senile, insane, comatose, infantile, mentally challenged people and animals.

From this, it can be seen why Hobbes states that there can be no justice when in the state of nature. For, "the bonds of words are too weak to bridle men's ambition, avarice, anger and other passions, without the fear of some coercive power" (p. 71, Chpt. XIV). When within a state of nature, where the inhabitants live in constant fear of each other, no covenants can be made. This is due to the fact that any covenant is void if reasonable doubt exists that the other party will



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