Commentary on Professor May’s ‘Hobbes on Equity and Justice‘

  • William Mathie
Part of the Archives Internationales D’histoire des Idées/International Archives of the History of Ideas book series (ARCH, volume 111)


Larry May claims that we shall arrive at a happier and more accurate understanding of Hobbes’s legal, political, and moral philosophy when we grasp the importance of equity and its relation to justice within that philosophy. Once we have recognized the role of equity in Hobbes’s teaching, he believes we shall no longer regard him as a simple legal positivist. The remarks that follow are intended to question neither May’s claim as to the importance of Hobbes’s notion of equity nor his denial that Hobbes is a legal positivist. What will be questioned is May’s account of what equity is and of how exactly it is related to justice. Although ‘equity, not justice is the dominant moral category in Hobbes’s political and legal philosophy’ (p. 241)1 and the ‘prime law of nature’ for Professor May, it is for him a category Hobbes added to his system (p. 251). Thus according to May, Hobbes would be guilty as accused of legal positivism and moral relativism had he not ‘added’ this category. Equity is, indeed, ‘a moral wedge’ Hobbes ‘allows to be driven into his positivistic scheme’ (pp. 241, 251). I hope to show that equity is a fundamental category in Hobbes’s teaching for reasons other than those furnished by May and, further, that equity is not added to Hobbes’s system but rather is so related to justice that one may almost speak of Hobbes’s notion of justice as deriving from his teaching on equity. May thinks Hobbes’s political and legal philosophy is rendered ‘much more palatable’ when we recognize the place of equity in it (p. 251). If the relation of justice to equity is as I argue, one can go further.


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  1. 1.
    References in parenthesis not otherwise identified are to May’s essay in this volume.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    For a more complete statement of this interpretation see W. Mathie, ‘Justice and Equity: an Inquiry into the Meaning and Role of Equity in the Hobbesian Account of Justice and Polities’, Ch. 18 in this volume.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    A similar argument is presented by Brian Barry, ‘Warrender and His Critics’ in M. Cranston and R.S. Peters (eds.), Hobbes and Rousseau (New York: Doubleday, 1972). p. 54.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Martinus Nijhoff Publishers (Kluwer Academic Publishers), Dordrecht 1987

Authors and Affiliations

  • William Mathie
    • 1
  1. 1.Brock UniversityCanada

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