The state of nature, in political philosophy, is a term used in social contract theories to refer to the hypothetical condition that preceded governments.
In a broader sense, state of nature can be described as the condition before rule of positive law comes into being, thus it is a synonym for anarchy (Schochet, 1967). State of nature is fundamental in social contract theory since people seek to be governed by persons in higher authority in order to maintain their social stability. Hobbes and Locke were among the few philosophers who contributed immensely to the concept of state of nature.
They were both natural law and social contract theorists who lived in the same era but had different views and arguments on the state of nature, justification of governments and the motives to move out of the state of nature. All other natural law theorists, except Hobbes, assumed that man was a social animal by nature. On contrary, Hobbes assumed very different conclusions and was infamous for several other unconventional results in mathematics and physics.
Thomas Hobbes wrote in his greatest work Leviathan, that nothing could be as worst as life without the state protection. As a materialist he borrowed a lot from the principle of conservation in motion from Galileo’s theory. He noted, that an object is eternally supposed to be in motion unless someone disturbs it.
Using the principle of conservation of motion, he argued that, human beings are perpetually seeking for new things (Macpherson, 1990). In addition stated that, life itself is in a state of motion and can never be enjoyed without desire to move. He argued that, it is only through the search of well-being that human beings go to war with one another and that the fear of death is the only leading factor to the creation of a state. The state of nature is pictured by Hobbes as a state where all are at war with each other.
The search for felicity results to men constantly trying to aggravate their power. According to Hobbes, human beings are made equal by nature since what they possess is equal in terms of strengths and skills. He argued that the weakest has strength enough to kill the most formidable, either by secret maneuvers or by coordinating with others.
Hobbes cited that in a state of nature three reasons motivate human beings to attack each other, which included the desire for safety, glory, reputation or for selfish gains. According to Hobbes’ theory, in a state of nature there is no room for the unjust hence there is no space for immorality, something that he referred to as the National Right of Liberty.
Individuals with collective rationality are contrasted by Hobbes. When explaining the peculiarity of “prisoner’s dilemma” Hobbes argued that it is difficult to achieve cooperation when individuals with collective rationality diverge.
He believed that an individual’s rational behavior leads to attack of other people. According to him, it is our duty to obey the laws of nature just as other people around us are obedient to it. Incases where an individual feels endangered by other people’s standing, in just an occasion one is termed as acting jealously.
According to Hobbes theory the level of collective suspicion and fear is very high such that we are excused for not obeying the law and that we only act in a morally upright way when others act the same way. Hobbes assumes that one concedes his rights to the government in return for life. To him, the role of the society is to direct creation of state and a reflection of the will of the ruler and that whatever the state does is just by definition.
On the contrary, Locke’s views and arguments differ a lot when compared to Hobbes’. John Locke believed he could live in a state of nature and in a life without a state government. According to Locke, the state of nature is a state of perfect freedom and a state of equality that is only bound by the law of nature.
In his theory, Locke adds a moral and technological aspect where he states that due to the fact that we are all creatures of God we should not harm others except for purposes of self defense. All people have a duty to protect and help others without doing harming themselves. On matters of liberty, we have the freedom to do what is morally upright. Here Locke’s view clearly contrasts Hobbes’ who cited that every one has a right over every thing in a state of nature, even the right over other people’s bodies.
Locke advocated for equality among human beings and stated that everyone has the power to enforce the law of nature within a state of nature. According to Locke, harming somebody is only allowed in self defense and those who break the laws of nature should face punishment as a natural right.
He argued that each offense should be severely punished according to its magnitude so as to act as an ill bargain for the offenders and to make them repent, thus terrifying others who may be wanting to commit the same transgressions (Olivecrona, 1998).
According to Locke the most important right to be secured in a state nature is private property. He claims that God created us to own property and live in satisfaction but not to end up starving. Locke cited that there is a natural reason to own property in the sense that if man was to ask permission from another man to use the earth then it would amount to starvation.
Locke’s picture of the state of nature is very optimistic. He argues that nature is not ruled by morality and individuals act for their best but not for the best of the community as whole. According to Locke, the reasons that led to creation of states were; increase in resource scarcity and the invention of cash that is a means of non perishable exchange.
People could exchange land produce for money avoiding loss, creating wealth and imbalances that Hobbes termed as a state of war. According to him, the role of the society was to ensure justice was done.
There are similarities between Hobbes’ and Locke’s views on state of nature. Both are political philosophers and their writings have influenced to a great extent development of modern political thought. Both refer to the state of nature in which man lives without a government and both point out risks in the state.
Both, Hobbes and Locke talk about the dangers of the state of nature. Man is referred by both of them as being equal to the state (Macpherson, 1990). Locke describes nature as a state of perfect equality where superiority over one another is not exercised but despite the equality both warn of dangers of state of nature.
For instance, Hobbes says that if two men cannot enjoy the same thing they turn out to be enemies, something that ends in a state of war. Locke points out risks in cases where the law of nature is lacking and everyone executes duties, this may result to what Hobbes refers to as a state of war. Both Locke and Hobbes somehow seem to agree on the law of nature. They seem to agree the concept of law to imply a law enforcer; otherwise the law would be an empty concept.
I tend to agree with Locke’s point of view in his argument, that in a state of nature there are moral codes which guide and inspire human beings (Macpherson, 1990). My reluctance to support Hobbes argument is supported by the fact that people may choose follow individual reasoning instead of a collective reason. However, Locke’s law of nature is somehow weak since it requires somebody to enforce it and his argument that everybody is empowered may not be true and may result to what Hobbes termed as state of war.
Macpherson, C.B.(1990). The political theory of possessive individualism. Oxford:
Clarendon Press Oxford
Olivecrona, K.L.(1998). Appropriation in the State of Nature: Locke on the Origin of Property. Journal of the History of Ideas,78(67),90-123.
Schochet, G.J.(1967). Thomas Hobbes on the Family and the State of Nature. Political Science Quarterly,90,78-80