Critically Examine Hobbes’s Conception of the State of Nature

Critically Examine Hobbes’s Conception of the State of Nature The concept of state of nature was developed by Hobbes in his famous work, Leviathan, in which he also set out his doctrine of the foundation of states and legitimate governments which was based on his social contract theories. Leviathan was written during the English Civil War, so much of his theory concentrates on the need for the presence of a strong central authority within society in order to avoid the evils of rebellion and civil war.

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Hobbes developed his state of nature by contemplating what life would be like without any governing political authority, i. e. a state of anarchy. Hobbes wrote that “during the time men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called war; and such a war as is of every man against every man” (Leviathan, ch. XIII). Hobbes described this concept with the Latin phrase “bellum omnium contra omnes”, in his work, de Cive.

Hobbes identified three reasons why the state of nature would be a state of war of “all against all”, by which he means not constant fighting but a constant readiness to fight. First, without government there would be little or no industry and so resources would be very limited. People must attack for gain in order to take whatever possessions others had managed to acquire. Second, individuals would try to pre-empt these attacks, and get their defence in first. This Hobbes calls ‘diffidence’.

Third, people would realize the advantages of a reputation for strength and attack others simply for glory. These natural causes of quarrel are how Hobbes concluded that the natural condition of humans is a state of perpetual war of all against all, where no morality exists, and everyone lives in constant fear. Hobbes believes that humans have three motivations for ending this state of war; the fear of death, the desire for better living conditions, and hope for a means to achieve those conditions. Within the state of nature there would be no injustice, since there is no law. To this war of every man against every man, this also is consequence; that nothing can be unjust. The notions of right and wrong, justice and injustice have there no place. Where there is no common power, there is no law: where no law, no injustice”. (Leviathan, ch. 13) In answer to this Hobbes identifies ‘Laws of Nature’, which are general principles that are revealed to us by reason and that are also supposed to describe behaviour that is in one’s best interest. These ‘laws’ are not absolute, they merely “bind to a desire they should take place” (Leviathan, ch. 15).

They are principles that a rational being would desire everyone to follow, but in the absence of reasonable assurance that everyone else will follow them, you yourself have no obligation to follow them. The first of which is “that every man ought to endeavour peace, as far as he has hope of obtaining it” (Leviathan, ch. 14); and the second is “that a man be willing, when others are so too, as far forth as for peace and defence of himself he shall think it necessary, to lay down this right to all things; and be contented with so much liberty against other men as he would allow other men against himself”.

From this, Hobbes develops the way out of the state of nature into civil government by mutual contracts. According to Hobbes, society is a population beneath a sovereign authority, to whom all individuals in that society surrender their natural rights for the sake of protection. Any abuses of power by this authority are to be accepted as the price of peace. However, he also states that in severe cases of abuse, rebellion is expected. In particular, the doctrine of separation of powers is rejected: the sovereign must control civil, military, judicial and ecclesiastical powers.

Another philosopher, John Locke also considered the concept of the state of nature in his Second Treatise on Civil Government written around the time of the Engagement Controversy in England during the 1680s. For Locke, “The state of Nature has a law of Nature to govern it”, and that law is Reason. Locke believes that reason teaches that “no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty or possessions”; and that transgressions of this should be punished. This view of the state of nature is partly influenced by Christian beliefs, unlike Hobbes, whose philosophy was not dependent upon any religious ideals.

Lock believed that the reason we would not harm one another is that we are all the possessions of God and do not own ourselves. Locke believed that in the state of nature men mostly kept their promises and honoured their obligations, and, though insecure, it was mostly peaceful, good, and pleasant. He quotes the American frontier and Soldania as examples of people in the state of nature, where property rights and (for the most part) peace existed. Princes are in a state of nature with regard to each other. Rome and Venice were in a state of nature shortly before they were officially founded.

In any place where it is socially acceptable to oneself punish wrongdoings done against you, for example on the American frontier, people are in a state of nature. Though such places and times are insecure, violent conflicts are often ended by the forcible imposition of a just peace on evil doers, and peace is normal. Hobbes’s view was directly challenged in the eighteenth century by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who claimed that Hobbes was taking socialized persons and simply imagining them living outside of the society in which they were raised.

He claimed instead that people were neither good nor bad. Men knew neither vice nor virtue since they had almost no dealings with each other. Their bad habits were supposedly the products of civilization. Nevertheless the conditions of nature forced people to enter a state of society by establishing a civil society. David Hume’s view on the other hand was that the use of a “state of nature” hypothesis in political philosophy is a rhetorical ploy, or at best a thought-experiment, and should not be taken seriously as a statement about what human beings have historically been or done.

As Hume says in A Treatise of Human Nature (1739), human beings are naturally social: “’Tis utterly impossible for men to remain any considerable time in that savage condition, which precedes society; but that his very first state and situation may justly be esteem’d social. This, however, hinders not, but that philosophers may, if they please, extend their reasoning to the suppos’d state of nature; provided they allow it to be a mere philosophical fiction, which never had, and never cou’d have any reality. ” (Book III, Part II, Section II: “Of the Origin of Justice and Property. “

Hume’s ideas about human nature suggest that he would be happy with neither Hobbes’s nor his contemporary Rousseau’s thought-experiments. He explicitly derides as incredible the hypothetical humanity described in Hobbes’s Leviathan (Book II, Part III, Section I: “Of Liberty and Necessity”). And he argues in “Of the Origin of Justice and Property” that if mankind were universally benevolent, we would not hold Justice to be a virtue: “’tis only from the selfishness and confin’d generosity of men, along with the scanty provision nature has made for his wants, that justice derives its origin. “

Hobbes seems to have assumed that we are all grasping egoists with no sense of morality and restraint, and so the only thing that can keep us from attacking each other is a sovereign with draconian powers of punishment. However Hobbes’s does not rely wholly on such a pessimistic assumption about human nature. Rather he presents our situation as far more tragic than this. In the state of nature many of us will have fellow feeling for others. We do want to respect others and their property. But because we cannot trust everyone, and do not know whom to trust and whom not to trust, we must, if acting rationally, trust no-one.

Any other course of action will be far too risky. Our fear of death requires us even to attack other people. Consequently we need a sovereign not so much to threaten us with punishment if we do wrong, but to create safe conditions where we can trust each other and safely act as morality requires. Once the sovereign is in place to enforce rules of conduct, acting morally is no longer such a risk. Conditions have been created which allow us to do the right thing without exposing ourselves to exploitation by others.

Hobbes’ arguments have been contested by many. John Locke, for example, worried that an absolute sovereign, with absolute power, would be even more of a danger to us than life in the state of nature. After all, how could we trust the sovereign to act in the citizen’s interests rather than his or her own? So Locke argued that although we do need a sovereign to settle disputes and administer justice, we must also set constitutional limits to the sovereign’s rule. We have a right to rebel if the sovereign abuses our trust.

If we were all completely trustworthy in all our dealings with each other, then perhaps we would not need a government, and could remain forever in the state of nature. But this is asking too much of each other. The authority of the government introduces a framework in which we can deal with this. There is, of course, plenty of room in which we can develop mutual relationships based on trust and understanding in our day-to-day lives. But the full force of the law is there, lurking in the wings, just in case our trust is misplaced or wears too thin. Word Count: 1631


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