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  • Print publication year: 2017
  • Online publication date: April 2017

3 - The Hobbesian Hypothesis: How a Colonial Prejudice Became an Essential Premise in the Most Popular Justification of Government


The “Hobbesian hypothesis” is far older than Hobbes. The effort to justify the social arrangements by saying that they are somehow like a contract is at least as old as Plato (2013). The first Chinese Emperor asserted the hypothesis even earlier: “There is not one who did not benefit [from the emperor's rule]. Every man is safe under his own roof” (Harari 2015). We call it “the Hobbesian hypothesis” but because Hobbes (1962 [1651]) did so much to make it important to political philosophy. Few if any contemporary philosophers accept the whole of Hobbes's justification of the state. Diverse variations of contractarianism have appeared over the three and a half centuries since Leviathan. Because some elements of Hobbesian theory are influential over all of them, this chapter introduces the role of the Hobbesian hypothesis in contractarianism in general by discussing Hobbes's use of it in particular.


Scholars disagree about exactly what justifications of the state Hobbes intended to present in Leviathan. We consider three popular interpretations based on literal consent, prudential advice, and yield to superior force. Although our best understanding is that Hobbes intended all three as parallel arguments for the state, our central goal is not to determine his exact intentions, but to look for the ideas that have been most influential over subsequent theory. Although Hobbes's idea of literal consent has been dropped, many elements from the literal-consent version of his theory are highly influential over contemporary justifications of the state based on hypothetical consent. The most influential and lasting ideas, we argue, are the Lockean proviso and the Hobbesian hypothesis.

A. The Literal-Consent Version

Hobbes (1962 [1651]: 100) justified the state by comparison to its absence: the “state of nature,” or as he calls it, “the natural condition of mankind.” The state of nature needs no justification in contractarian theory. It is the natural default position against which all other social arrangements must be justified. Hobbes portrayed the state as an artificial human creation that can only be justified by unanimous consent of the people. Thus, he set up the basic justificatory problem for that state: it has to obtain consent, which it can do by achieving mutual advantage relative to the state of nature.