From the end of the twelfth century until the middle of the eighteenth century, the concept of a right of necessity –i.e. the moral prerogative of an agent, given certain conditions, to use or take someone else’s property in order to get out of his plight– was common among moral and political philosophers, who took it to be a valid exception to the standard moral and legal rules.
In this essay, I analyze Samuel Pufendorf’s account of such a right, founded on the basic instinct of self-preservation and on the notion that, in civil society, we have certain minimal duties of humanity towards each other. I review Pufendorf’s secularized account of natural law, his conception of the civil state, and the function of private property. I then turn to his criticism of Grotius’s understanding of the right of necessity as a retreat to the pre-civil right of common use, and defend his account against some recent criticisms. Finally, I examine the conditions deemed necessary and jointly sufficient for this right to be claimable, and conclude by pointing to the main strengths of this account.
Keywords: Samuel Pufendorf, Hugo Grotius, right of necessity, duty of humanity, private property.