Hugo Grotius on the natural sociability of humans (1625)

Hugo Grotius

The Dutch legal philosopher Hugo Grotius (1583-1645) believed that human beings were by nature sociable creatures and that the purpose of natural rights, especially the right of property, was to enable them to live together in peace and prosperity:

Now amongst the Things peculiar to Man, is his Desire of Society, that is, a certain Inclination to live with those of his own Kind, not in any Manner whatever, but peaceably, and in a Community regulated according to the best of his Understanding… This Sociability, which we have now described in general, or this Care of maintaining Society in a Manner conformable to the Light of human Understanding, is the Fountain of Right, properly so called; to which belongs the Abstaining from that which is another’s, and the Restitution of what we have of another’s, or of the Profit we have made by it, the Obligation of fulfilling Promises, the Reparation of a Damage done through our own Default, and the Merit of Punishment among Men.

Hugo Grotius wrote his famous treatise on The Rights of War and Peace (1625) while he was in prison and while the Thirty Years was raging around him. In an Introduction or Prolegomena to the work he expresses succinctly his own view of the nature of origins of natural rights. Unlike many critics who think that individual rights, especially property rights, are somehow destructive of human communities, Grotius argues the reverse. He believes that because humans are naturally sociable creatures who crave the company of fellow creatures they need and thus evolve ideas about rights which make make complex societies possible. In his view the need to live peaceably in a society is “the Fountain of Right” and the faucet which regulates the flow of this fountain is Property, which tells us when to abstain from taking that which is another’s, and to provide restitution of property which we taken from another. It is in this manner the Natural Right is connected to the Social Faculty of Sociability.