Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository


Doctor of Philosophy




Dr. Dennis Klimchuk


This dissertation constitutes a challenge to the orthodox interpretation of Thomas Hobbes’s theory of punishment. The tradition understands Hobbes to reject the view that subjects authorize the sovereign to punish them for transgressing the law. Instead, the tradition understands Hobbes to identify the right to punish with the sovereign’s right of war, a natural right that only the sovereign retains upon the institution of a Commonwealth. On the traditional account, the right to punish is not an essential attribute of sovereignty; rather, the right to inflict punishment belongs, not to the office of sovereignty, but to the natural person who holds the office. This dissertation challenges the orthodox interpretation by arguing that the right to punish, for Hobbes, is not exceptional. The right to punish, like all rights of sovereignty, is artificial; it is a right that belongs to the office of the representative of the Commonwealth. The challenge to the tradition is posed through attending to three central issues that establish the rudiments of a theory of punishment: i) the foundation of the state’s right to punish; ii) the rationale or justification of the practice of punishment; and iii) the principled constraint on the state’s right to punish. Attention to the first issue reveals Hobbes to hold the view that no person possesses a pre-political right to punish. The right of nature serves as the foundation of the right to punish; however, the two rights are not identical. The right to punish is an artificial right exercised by an artificial person. Attention to the second issue reveals that the rationale of punishment, for Hobbes, is not to deter crime through coercive measures but, rather, is found in prospective subjects’ covenanting to hold themselves accountable to law in order to establish the in foro externo obligatory status of the law. Attention to the third issue reveals that Hobbes’s appeal to the laws of nature prohibiting cruelty, ingratitude, and inequity as an argument against the punishment of the innocent is best understood as an appeal to maintain legitimacy in punishment, legitimacy grounded in the authorization of the sovereign to punish transgressors.