Hobbes's Theory of Rights

Dissertation, City University of New York (1998)

Eleanor Curran
University of Kent at Canterbury
Hobbes--champion of absolutism, arch-royalist, supporter of Charles I, relentless egoist. What could he have to tell us about the natural rights of individuals? Not much, would be considered a fair reply by most and yet it is argued in this thesis that Hobbes actually holds a strong theory of natural rights. It is argued that, contrary to the interpretations of most modern Hobbes scholars, Hobbes gives primacy to the rights of the subjects rather than to the right of the sovereign to rule. The sovereign's right to rule is dependent upon his ability to uphold the subjects' rights. It is further argued that Hobbes describes rights for individuals that are correlated with the duties of others, rights, therefore, that can be defined as claim rights. ;It is by examining the historical context of Hobbes's writing that the significance of his pronouncements on rights are brought to light. A comparison of contemporary political writers with Hobbes shows that on the subject of rights, what Hobbes has to say is closer to the arguments of the parliamentarians, than it is to those of the royalists. The assumption that Hobbes was a staunch royalist is questioned and an examination of what is known about Hobbes's personal actions and allegiances during the Civil War period is shown to add nothing more in the way of evidence for the truth of the assumption. ;Closely allied to the assumption that Hobbes is a royalist is the assumption that he is an absolutist. It is argued here that he makes the subjects the judge of whether their rights are being sufficiently protected by the sovereign. His theory of rights therefore provides a check on the power of the sovereign, and so it is argued that Hobbes does not defend absolutism. ;The new interpretation of the subjects' rights in Hobbes's theory is examined to see what underlying rights theory is being assumed. It is argued that while the rights in Hobbes's theory may be termed natural rights, they do not rely on a traditional theory of natural law
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