State of Nature

views updated May 29 2018


The state of nature is a situation without government, employed in social contract theory in order to justify political authority. The device is most important in the works of the great contract theorists of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, mainly Thomas Hobbes (15881679), John Locke (16321704), and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (17121778). But it has a long history and was used by many other theorists. In the latter half of the twentieth century, variants of the state of nature were revived by John Rawls and other theorists who attempted to establish particular moral or political principles on the grounds that they would be selected in artificially constructed choice situations.

Accounts of humanity's purported natural condition differ in important ways, for example, whether circumstances are peaceful or riddled with conflict, whether there is an absence of society as well as the state, and the extent to which the people depicted resemble those in existing societies. These variations and others lead to justifications of different forms of governmentsand moral principles.

Early History

Mythical accounts of a pre-social and/or pre-political Golden Age abound in classical literature. Familiar variants are found in Hesiod's Works and Days (lines 10821) and in Plato's Statesman. In Plato's Protagoras, the title character describes the original human condition as one of isolation and peril from wild beasts and the elements. Divine intervention provided fire and the crafts, which allowed humans to defend themselves, and moral qualities of justice and respect, which allowed them to live together peaceably. A roughly similar account was presented by Cicero, in De inventione (On invention, I.2.2), and an especially vivid account in Book V of Lucretius' De rerum natura (On the nature of things). A variant of these themes is that people originally enjoyed a condition of peace and plenty, until some intervening event gave rise to conflict, which made the state necessary. The Stoic Posidonius attributed humankind's fall to the origin of property (Seneca, Epistle 90), while according to Ovid, the change occurred as people began to eat meat (Metamorphoses, XV.96111).

Connections between an original condition and the origin of justices are presented in Book II of Plato's Republic. Plato's spokesman, Glaucon, argues that justice arose from a general compromise: people agreed not to take advantage of others, in exchange for not being taken advantage of themselves (358e59b). This was perhaps the first "social contract" argument in the Western tradition.

Classical arguments blended well with Judaeo-Christian accounts of the Garden of Eden and subsequent fall, to support the important medieval notion that the state arose as a remedy for sin. But other theorists, influenced by Aristotle, argued against the state of nature and contract traditions, claiming that the human is naturally a political animal, and so there could not have been a primordial pre-social (or pre-political) condition. St. Thomas Aquinas and subsequent Scholastic theorists argued that even in the Garden of Eden, authority was necessary to coordinate people's activity to achieve the common good.

Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau

During the late medieval and early modern periods, claims according to which political power originated from a pre-political, natural condition generally supported limitations on political powerwhich people would have required for renouncing their natural liberty. The great originality of Hobbes was to use a contract argument to establish absolute government. He accomplished this by depicting the state of nature in horrific terms, as a war of all against all, in which life is "solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short" (Leviathan, chap. 13). Hobbes argued that, in order to escape such horrors, people would consent to absolute political authorityand that only absolute authority could ward off the state of nature.

Although Hobbes employed the device of the state of nature for largely analytical purposes, he also believed in its historical accuracy. Evidence he provided is people's defensive behavior in society, the "savage people" in America, whom he saw as living in a "brutish manner," and how states confront one another in the international arena, "in the state and posture of Gladiators," with their "Forts, Garrisons, and Guns" pointed at one another (Lev. chap. 13).

In the state of nature described by Locke in his "Second Treatise of Government, " people live under the law of nature, which, in the absence of government, they enforce themselves (Secs. 69). People also establish property rights, use money, and have something of a developed economy. But conflict arises because people are self-interested and so not impartial in their own disputes. Recognizing the need for an impartial umpire, Lockean individuals leave the state of nature, in two stages, forming first a community and then government. When government violates the agreement according to which it was established, people revert to a pre-political but not pre-social state. The state of nature returns only with complete destruction of society, through foreign invasion or similar catastrophes (Sec. 211).

In his "Discourse on the Origin of Inequality," Rousseau criticized other theorists for attributing to natural man qualities they found in their own societies. Influenced by anthropological and zoological discoveries, Rousseau depicted natural man as little different than an ape: solitary, without language, and with limited reasoning capacity. But because his purely physical needs are satisfied relatively easily, he is content and, above all, morally innocent. Man becomes corrupt only through a gradual process of moving into society, and Rousseau depicted the contract through which government originates as a clever fraud perpetrated by the rich upon the poor. Rousseau's political theory aspired to recapture as much primordial natural purity as possible, through the new contract described in The Social Contract.

Contemporary Developments

By the end of the eighteenth century, the social contract was widely criticized on historical grounds. The idea fell into general disuse, and with it, the state of nature. Contract theory was revived by John Rawls, in A Theory of Justice (1971), although Rawls used his contract to justify moral principles rather than a form of government. Rawls's principles of justice are those that would be agreed upon under appropriately fair conditions. The state of nature reappears in his theory as the "original position." In order to prevent people from choosing principles that would advantage themselves, they are placed behind a "veil of ignorance" and so deprived of knowledge of their personal attributes, e.g., age, religion, race, and wealth. The two principles selected under these conditions are highly egalitarian, guaranteeing equal liberty and that economic inequalities benefit the least-advantaged members of society. With Rawls, the state of nature (original position) loses all historical pretense. It is simply an analytical device to help identify appropriate moral principles.

Other theorists employ contractual devices to justify moral principles rather than government. In David Gauthier's Morals by Agreement, appropriate principles are those that would be agreed upon by parties motivated by self-interest. Gauthier's "initial bargaining position" differs from Rawls's original position in that the parties have full knowledge of their circumstances and interests. The principles agreed upon represent the parties' least possible concession to others' demands, the "maximum relative concession."

A different, highly influential alternative to Rawls's contract theory is Robert Nozick's "invisible hand" explanation of the origin of the state, in Anarchy, State, and Utopia. According to Nozick, individuals situated in a Lockean state of nature join together in "mutual protective associations," which are then moved by market forces to combine in ever-larger associations, eventually giving rise to an "ultraminimal state," and finally a minimal state. Nozick argues that a state can arise through such a process without violating anyone's rights, and that only a minimal state can meet this condition.

See also Human Rights ; Philosophy, Moral ; Social Contract .


Gauthier, David. Morals by Agreement. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986.

Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan. Edited by R. Tuck. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Locke, John. "Second Treatise of Government." In Two Treatises of Government, edited by Peter Laslett. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

Nozick, Robert. Anarchy, State, and Utopia. New York: Basic Books, 1974.

Rawls, John. A Theory of Justice. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1971; rev. ed., 1999.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. "Discourse on the Origin of Inequality." In Basic Political Writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, edited by Peter Gay. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1987.

George Klosko

State of Nature

views updated May 09 2018

State of Nature


State of nature refers to a condition in which there is no established political authority. It is essentially a state of complete freedom. Political theorists have used it to better understand human nature and, typically, to justify the rationality of a particular type of government. Proponents claim that the state of nature provides insight into the inherent dispositions and inclinations of human beings. Because individual conduct is not coerced by political authority, it will reflect how humans behave naturally.

Social contract theorists commonly speculate about what life would be like in the state of nature. Based on their understandings of human nature, they argue that individuals in the state of nature face certain threats to their well-being. Consequently, rational people should consent to recognize the authority of a state in exchange for protection from these threats. The extent of the states authority and the safeguards it is responsible for providing are functions of the theorists view of human nature. Generally, an optimistic view of human nature leads to the advocacy of a state with limited powers, while a more pessimistic view is associated with a more powerful state.

Thomas Hobbes (15881679), in Leviathan (1651), first used the state of nature to justify the authority of the state. He claims that the state of nature would be a war of every man against every man (p. 76). Hobbess characterization of the state of nature results from his view of human nature (see chapter 13). He believed that all people are basically equal physically and mentally, so no individual is safe from the machinations of others. Moreover, humans are innately competitive, diffident, and glory seeking. Therefore, they are prone to attack others for gain, preemptive self-defense, and recognition. Given this view of human nature, he envisioned the state of nature as a place in which violence would always be a threat, that is, a state of war. There would be no industry, culture, knowledge, or society and worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death (p. 76). Hobbes famously concludes that, in the state of nature, the life of man is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short (p. 76).

The solution to this state of war, according to Hobbes, is the creation of an overawing government, that is, a leviathan. Because human nature disposes people to conflict and violence, only an all-powerful state can maintain order. Consequently, people should give up almost all personal autonomy, retaining only their right to self-defense. Hobbes contends that an authoritarian government is not only necessary but preferable to a state of nature.

John Locke (16321704), in Two Treatises of Government (1690), also uses the state of nature in his justification of limited government. He claims that the state of nature would be characterized by inconveniences (p. 276). Human beings, according to Locke, are rational creatures able to understand the law of nature using reflective reason (see chapter 2, Second Treatise ). This law requires that people not harm another individuals natural right to Life, Health, Liberty, or Possessions (p. 271). It also obligates them to help preserve the lives of others when possible. Finally, it gives people the right to enforce the law and punish transgressions only so far as to deter future crime. Locke believes that humans in the state of nature are typically inclined to respecting the natural right of others. The problem is that people are unable to be objective when their own interests are at stake. Humans are naturally disposed to overpunishing transgressions against themselves, family members, or friends. Retaliation inevitably creates an escalating cycle of violence.

Government, according to Locke, can provide a remedy, restraining the partiality and violence of Men (pp. 275276). By objectively adjudicating violations of natural law, it can prevent the cycle of violence resulting from subjective enforcement. Rational people should be willing to give up their natural right to enforce the law of nature to the state. In exchange, the state becomes responsible for enforcing their natural rights to life, liberty, and property. Because the state of nature is merely a state of inconvenience, it does not warrant the establishment of a more intrusive and powerful government.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (17121778), in the Second Discourse on the Origin of Inequality (1754), provides a much more brutish understanding of the human condition in the state of nature. He claims that previous theorists mischaracterized the state of nature because they had mistaken socialized inclinations for natural attributes. They spoke about savage man, and it was civil man they depicted (p. 38). Rousseau claimed that humans in the state of nature have only three basic physical desires: food, sex, and sleep. Their only fears are hunger and pain. No significant human conflict arises in the state of nature because people have very limited desires and an inborn sentiment of pity, which inspires a form of natural goodness. All other human passions and desires, along with such qualities as rationality and virtue, are acquired in society. Human beings in the state of nature, therefore, are simply animals, albeit with unrealized civilizing potential. They are in essence noble savages.

The state of nature is a thoroughly modern approach to studying human nature and justifying the responsibilities of the state. It embodies three basic principles of liberal political theory: the priority of the individual, equality, and personal freedom. First, the state of natures asocial condition suggests that humans should ultimately be understood as abstract individuals. Second, humans in the state of nature are considered morally equal, with no person having the authority to dominate anyone else. Third, people are portrayed as autonomous, self-determining creatures, thus emphasizing freedom as a natural human quality. This depiction of the human condition is quite contrary to the classical view, which assumes that human beings cannot be understood outside of the society in which they live.

The state of nature was a particularly popular thought experiment during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries before falling out of vogue. Nonetheless, it continues to influence contemporary academic and public discourse. For example, the original position in John Rawlss Theory of Justice (1971) is a conceptual variation of the state of nature. In international relations, some scholars use the idea of a state of nature to theorize about the relationships and interactions between political states. The imagery produced by state-of-nature theories also maintains a grip on the popular imagination, from Hobbess nightmarish war of all against all to Rousseaus romanticized noble savage. Lockes natural rights in the state of nature have also been passed down through the American Declaration of Independence as unalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

SEE ALSO Civilization; Discourse; Enlightenment; Government; Hobbes, Thomas; Law; Locke, John; Philosophy, Political; Property, Private; Representation; Rousseau, Jean-Jacques; Social Contract; Society


Hobbes, Thomas. [1651] 1994. Leviathan: With Selected Variants from the Latin Edition 1668, ed. Edwin Curley. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett.

Locke, John. [1690] 1988. Two Treatises of Government, ed. Peter Laslett. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. [1754] 1987. Second Discourse on the Origin of Inequality. In The Basic Political Writings, trans. and ed. Donald A. Cress, 2582. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett.

Johnny Goldfinger

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