PHIL 41150: Political Philosophy
Dr. Robert Lane
Lecture Notes: Monday February 24, 2003

[5.] Contracts, Covenants, and Justice. (Leviathan Ch.14-15).


[5.1.] Agreements in the State of Nature. What we need to escape the State of Nature is some way of assuring that others will keep their agreements with us. Here's how Hobbes gets there:


         A contract is "a mutual transferring of right"; a covenant is a contract in which one or both parties agree to deliver the thing or service contracted at some point in the future.


         No one ever agrees to a covenant unless it is (a) in order to gain some other right or (b) otherwise to benefit himself. [Remember Hobbes' psychological egoism.]


         In the state of nature, you have no guarantee that if you fulfill your part of the covenant, the other party will fulfill his.

...he that performeth first, has no assurance the other will perform after; because the bonds of words are too weak to bridle men's ambition, avarice, anger, and other passions, without the fear of some coercive power; which in the condition of mere nature, where all men are equal, and judges of the justness of their own fears, cannot possibly be supposed. (ch.14, 18, p.407)


         Therefore, a "reasonable suspicion" is enough to void a covenant that is made in the state of nature.

If a covenant be made, wherein neither of the parties perform presently, but trust one another; in the condition of mere nature, (which is a condition of war of every man against every man,) upon any reasonable suspicion, it is void; ... (Ch.14, 18, p.407)


         What's needed is some way to remove that "reasonable suspicion" by assuring each individual that others will uphold their agreements. On Hobbes' view, we cannot rely on the beneficence, generosity or altruism of others, since everyone always acts in the way which he thinks will benefit himself the most, and if one party thinks breaking a covenant will benefit him, then he won't hesitate to break it. So if not the beneficence of one's covenant-partner, what is there that can provide parties to a covenant reasonable assurance that their partners won't renege? Hobbes' answer:


...some coercive power, to compel men equally to the performance of their covenants, by the terror of some punishment, greater than the benefit they expect by the breach of their covenant. (ch.15, 3, p.409)


There can be no such "coercive power" apart from the creation of a "commonwealth" (nation, state, government).



[5.2.] The Appearance of Justice.


It is only with the creation of the commonwealth that morality, and in particular justice, appears. Hobbes connects the appearance of justice with what he calls the "third law of nature."


So far Hobbes has identified two laws of nature ("to seek peace, and follow it" and "that a man be willing, when others are so too, as farforth, as for peace, and defence of himself he shall think it necessary, to lay down this right to all things; and be contented with so much liberty against other men, as he would allow other men against himself").


At the beginning of ch.15, he gives us a third law of nature:

         "that men perform their covenants made", i.e., that they abide by their agreements, i.e. that they act justly.


Valid covenants are the source of justice. For Hobbes, justice is nothing other than the keeping of covenants, and injustice is nothing other than the breaking of covenants. In the absence of covenants, each has a natural right to everything and everyone; it is only when an individual agrees to give up that natural right that notions of justice and injustice begin to make sense.


But since covenants of mutual trust are never valid in a state of nature (because their validity depends on each party being reasonably assured that the other will uphold his end of the agreement, and there are no such assurances in the state of nature), there is no injustice (nor justice) in the state of nature.


So apart from the state, there is no such thing as justice or injustice:



depends on

valid covenants

depend on

coercive power

depends on



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