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The state of nature is a concept used in philosophy to create an image of a hypothetical condition in which there is no political authority or association. This concept is used to portray a society in which we no longer abide by the rule of law. Philosophers have used the idea of a state of nature to argue that the state is based on an agreement between people to live together under laws, or a social contract. Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau take opposing stances on the state of nature, and therefore take differing views on the authority and justification of the state.
Hobbes developed his state of nature theory amongst the context of the time, the English civil war. Hobbes was becoming more and more worried about the outcome of the war, and the disastrous consequences of a world without authority. He felt that the ‘state of nature’ would become a state of war. Hobbes’ state of nature argument is aligned with his argument of human nature. Hobbes took a negative view of human nature, with the idea that man was solely self-interested, and was only interested in the pursuit of power.
Geraint Williams’ view of Hobbes’ understanding of human nature was that man’s obsessive pursuit of self-interested passions leads to only frustration, and that in the state of nature this natural human nature benefits nobody (Williams, 1991). Hobbes believed that human beings naturally desire the power to live well and that they will never be satisfied with the power they have without acquiring more power. Because of this view of human nature, Hobbes believed that the natural state of nature would be anarchical and violent as there is no rule of law to restrain human nature. Existence in the state of nature is, as Hobbes states, “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” (Hobbes, 1651). Hobbes believed that without a strong state to referee and umpire disputes and differences amongst the population, everyone fears and mistrusts other members of society. Also, with no overarching authority, there can be no justice or functioning society.
The only way of bringing this untenable state of nature is if the individuals surrender their natural rights and self-sovereignty to a higher political authority, or state. This is known as the social contract, a theory developed by Hobbes which was a trade between individuals and a political authority, offering the individuals’ self-sovereignty in return for social benefits such as state protection. The social contract, therefore, is a means in which individuals can leave the state of nature, and join civilised society. Hobbes expresses the idea that humans can only be happy and flourish when locked into the social contract, Jonathan Wolff’s interpretation of Hobbes’ ideology was that without the protection of the state, there is no worse alternative (Wolff, 1996). And therefore, it was vital to have a strong government, to protect its citizens and enforce the laws of nature, and lapse into a state of war.
By contrast, Locke disagreed with Hobbes’ idea that the state of nature was a state of war. He believed that human nature was characterised by ‘tolerance and reason’, and because of this, he felt that human beings could live good lives, even in the absence of a state or a higher authority. Jonathan Wolff states that Locke’s view of the state of nature was that it was, in a sense, a state of perfect freedom (Wolff, 1996). By this he meant that humans could live in a world, free to do what we want, though only if we abide by the laws of nature. David Gress in his book, ‘From Plato to Nato’, describes that the law of nature is God’s rules for how his creations should operate. (Gress, 1998). Locke, in the Second Treatise, states that, ‘The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which obliges everyone; and reason, which is that law which teaches all mankind who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions.’ (Locke, 1690).
What Locke meant by this is that, humans are free to do as they please, as long as they are not harming others in the process. Locke believed that the law of nature was encompassed by our natural rights, which he stated were, ‘the right to life, liberty and property’, therefore we are all free to do what we want, as long as we are not encroaching on others natural rights. Geraint Williams stated that it was clear that, before government, men in the state of nature were naturally free and equal. Williams goes on further to stress that they were free within a structured way of living by the existence of natural laws (Williams, 1991).
Though Locke felt that in the state of nature, the law of nature cannot be truly enforced, and therefore, the contract is made with a political authority to enforce the law of nature and natural rights more consistently and to institute an impartial power capable of adjudicating their disputes and to right wrongs. Alex Tuckness describes that Locke’s support for the social contract stems from the idea of people in the state of nature conditionally transfer some of their rights in order to better ensure the stability of their lives and natural rights. (Tuckness, 2005). This furthers Locke’s idea that humans consciously transfer some of their rights and sovereignty to a higher power in order to strengthen their natural rights, of life, liberty and property. Though Locke suggests that as the government exists by consent, if they fail to protect the natural rights, they can be resisted and replaced with a new authority.
The state of nature concept was also central to the philosophy of Rousseau. He took a different stance to both Hobbes and Locke on human nature, and the state of nature. Like Hobbes and Locke, he agreed that the most basic feature of human nature was the motivation for self-preservation. But Rousseau felt that both Hobbes and Locke had overlooked a key aspect of human nature, compassion, which he felt meant they had misjudged the probability of conflict in the state of nature. Christopher Bertram states that Rousseau claimed that human beings were naturally good by nature, but had been corrupted by society (Bertram, 2010). This is a direct opposition to Hobbes, who claimed that humans were naturally selfish by nature.
Rousseau therefore argued that the state of nature could only be the state preceding society. Rousseau felt that the state of nature was naturally morally neutral and peaceful, as it was comprised of individuals who act on their basic needs, such as hunger, and the desire for self-preservation. Though Rousseau believed that the desire for self-preservation was equally matched by an equal sense of compassion for others. In the discourse on the origin of inequality, Rousseau criticised other theorists such as Hobbes and Locke for portraying man in the state of nature with attributes they found in their own corrupted societies. Rousseau states that individuals leave the state of nature by becoming increasingly civilised, and through this gradual process, we see humans become more and more corrupted by society (Rousseau 1754).
Rousseau depicted the contract through which government is manifested as a deception perpetrated by the wealthy upper class upon the poor working class. In the social contract, written by Rousseau, he writes what he believes would be the best way to establish a political community. The Social Contract, Rousseau lays out ideas to to recapture as much of the natural state of humans as possible into the ‘new contract’. He implements his views of human nature into the social contract, “In a well governed state, there are few punishments, not because there are many pardons, but because criminals are rare; it is when a state is in decay that the multitude of crimes is a guarantee of impunity.” (Rousseau, 1762). This quote from the Social Contract illustrates the point that Rousseau views humans as compassionate beings, and in a well governed state which is not corrupted, humans will remain in this state.
In conclusion all three theorists put forward different arguments in relation to the state of nature. Hobbes’ state of nature argument was characterised by his cynical view of human nature, depicting humans as selfish and only interested in man’s pursuit of power. Because of this, the state of nature would naturally lead to a state of war, as there is no strong government to referee its civilians. Because of this, Hobbes was an advocate of strong government, to stop its citizens drifting back into a state of nature. Locke, on the other hand, disagreed with the idea of the state of nature being a state of war.
Locke believed that humans were naturally characterised tolerance and reason, therefore believing that even in the state of nature, humans can live good lives. Though Locke was a firm believer in the natural laws, and he felt it was best that there was a strong government to protect our natural rights. Rousseau took a completely different stance from both Hobbes and Locke. He took a much more positive view of human nature, labelling humans as compassionate. He felt that that the state of nature, in complete opposition to Hobbes, was peaceful and moral, suggesting that society was corrupted this.
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