John Locke State Of Nature Essay

Discuss the Characteristics of Locke’s Man in the State of Nature and Thereafter Compare or Contrast them with the Characteristics Described by any other Republican Theorist

The State of Nature is a useful philosophical model which allows social contract theorists to present their understanding of human nature and offer a justification for the erection of government. John Locke and Thomas Hobbes have both submitted competing versions of such a state in Two Treatises of Government and Leviathan respectively, and they arrive at very different conclusions. An evaluation of their conception of pre-societal man accounts in large part for the divergence in their views on what form a Commonwealth should assume and what powers it should be endowed with. This essay will analyze Locke’s man in the state of nature and subsequently juxtapose it with Hobbes’ in an effort to shed light on the differences between two of the great 17th century thinkers.

Locke uses the state of nature as the starting point for his second, and most salient, Treatise. This is a condition where there is for men “a State of perfect Freedom to order their Actions and dispose of their Possessions, and Persons as they think fit, within the bounds of the Law of Nature, without asking leave, or depending upon the Will of any other man.” From this very first sentence, it is evident that Locke follows in the Natural Law tradition which states that men inherently have a moral sense which restricts them from engaging in certain acts. By virtue of being children of God, we know what is right and wrong and by extension what is lawful, and we can therefore resolve conflicts fairly consistently. As a result, for Locke, the state of nature is not a state of License because man “has not Liberty to destroy himself, or so much as any Creature in his Possession, but where some nobler use, than its bare Preservation calls for it.” Reason teaches us that we ought not to harm one another in life, health, liberty or possessions, and that in fact we have an active obligation to others, much as Cicero had earlier contended. At the same time, we all have “a right to punish the transgressors of [the Law of Nature]” and as such we are all executioners of natural law. However, man is disposed to be partial in his own case and therefore act as a biased judge. This is indeed one of the great shortcomings in Locke’s state of nature. The other two failings are the absence of protection of property rights and the inclusion of irrationals. Nevertheless, it is crucial that man has united even in the absence of government. In all, such a state is inconvenient for man, but not altogether corrupt, and it is characterized by tolerance, reason and equality.

By contrast, Hobbes’ vision of the state of nature is far grimmer. He rejects that man has an innate and inviolable moral compass directing his actions, and suggests instead that man is but a bundle of passions and that he behaves on the basis of desires and aversions. This quintessentially materialistic and prudential reading of the human condition is radical in the history of political thought and is certainly in disagreement with Cicero and Locke. Self-interest is the dominant theme in Hobbes’ man, as his ultimate objective is to secure as many pleasures as possible (the ultimate one being self-preservation) and to avoid pain and aversions (most importantly a violent death) with no regard for others. We have no conception of right and wrong – we need a namer of terms to dictate this to us. The state of nature is therefore not immoral, but rather amoral. There is no justice or property, only rational egoism. We use scientific reasoning, the deduction through ‘if/then’ experience, to achieve the greatest utility, yet we can never be safe to enjoy it. In this lawless, pre-societal condition, there is license and absolute positive liberty. Here, “every man has a Right to every thing; even one anothers body. And therefore, as long as this naturall Right of every man endureth, there can be no security to any man.” Men quarrel mainly as a result of Competition, Diffidence and Glory and force and fraud are the two cardinal ‘virtues’. In fact, such a condition rapidly degenerates into a “warre of every man against every man” where one’s life is ultimately “solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short.” While Hobbes employs Laws of Nature in his argumentation, they are not ubiquitously binding, but apply only when one’s life is secure. In principle, we are all inclined to abide by them, but in practice the need for self-preservation takes precedence. Hobbes must therefore not be confused for a Natural Law theorist. Man, because of his natural equality, is not secure in the state of nature and he is in fact not achieving his potential. Unlike in Locke, we are unable to form a civil society and we remain a collection of individual, irreconcilable, wills. We require a third party to unite our wills. The state of nature is thus a dangerous, uncooperative place and we are eager to escape it.

These divergent representations of the state of nature naturally produce different justifications for the erection of government and accord different functions and powers to the state. Locke believes that man escapes the state of nature in search of an impartial umpire to apply the law of nature and to protect one’s estate. In entering Political Society, therefore, man forfeits only his Executive Power of the Law of Nature, not his life, liberty or property. We agree with other men to join and unite into a community for comfortable, safe and peaceable living. Seeing as we are already capable of uniting our wills, we do not require an omnipotent Sovereign to be our representer. Instead, we simply need someone who can maintain, not create, the law. The law is merely the enforcement of the law of nature and we, as members of the society, must approve them. Locke argues that rights come from laws, while obligations come from nature. This creates a fiduciary power, accountable to the people, that rests on majoritarian popular consent. Law, rather than force, is the basis for government, and peace is not desirable at any and all costs. Locke clarifies that rebellion is permissible when the government subverts the ends for which it is established, and indicates that is it possible that someone is better off rejecting a particular civil government and returning to the state of nature before electing a new government. As a further safeguard to protect the people, Locke implements a separation of powers. For Locke, an absolute monarch that can violate the law of nature is not able to elevate the people above the state of nature. It appears that he is advancing a minimalist form of government with most of the activity occurring in the market place. Locke’s pre-societal man, endowed with an understanding of the law of nature, does not need a powerful government to educate him and keep him in check. Instead, he needs a reliable bureaucratic mechanism to responsibly apply the law in accordance with popular will.

Conversely, the Hobbesian man could never survive in such an institutional setup. Hobbes’ reading of human nature would not allow anything but a coercive government, because without it, we would simply disregard the laws of nature and apply our right of nature. For Hobbes, like Machiavelli, persuasion alone is insufficient to oblige men to perform their obligations. We consequently transfer the securing of our right of nature and the capacity of self-government to a Sovereign and voluntarily subject ourselves to positive legislation. “The finall Cause, End, or Designe of men (who naturally love Liberty, and Dominion over others,) in the introduction of that restraint upon themselves, (in which wee see them live in Commonwealths,) is the foresight of their own preservation, and of a more contented life thereby.” We essentially say to each other “I Authorise and give up my Right of Governing my selfe, to this Man, or to this Assembly of men, on this condition, that thou give up thy Right to him, and Authorise all his Actions in like manner,” and in this fashion, a multitude of men are made one person by co-authoring the acts of their Representer. The state creates civil society. By virtue of authoring the actions of the Sovereign, we adopt them as our own and can therefore offer no resistance, since that we would be going against our own will and would be irrational. Any abuse of power is simple the price of peace. A Sovereign can now enact legislation that forbids acting upon one’s Passions (which in themselves do not constitute a sin) insofar as they injure or disadvantage someone else. This will allow subjects to follow the Laws of Nature, which they are inclined to do even in the State of Warre. Unlike with Locke, the Sovereign makes the laws with the intention of enforcing the contracts we made with one another and punishing non-performance. Force, not law, is the basis for government. This is a paternalistic system geared at protecting the state and ensuring peace and stability. There is no separation of powers: the Sovereign controls civil, military, judicial and ecclesiastical powers. Our freedom lies only where the law has nothing to say (ie, negative liberty). Unlike with Locke, we have no obligations, and law only limits our rights. Cooperation would lead to chaos – what we have instead is a negative Golden Rule. Because of our passions, our lack of a moral sense and our self-interest, we cannot ensure our survival with anything short of an all-powerful Sovereign who will lay down the law and (hopefully) work for the Common Good as he interprets it.

From the above analysis, it is manifest that Locke and Hobbes disagree on very core questions on human nature. One sees man as fundamentally good with an innate morality while the other sees man as a self-interested and unrestrained creature. These initial assessments have ponderable implications on the form of government each theorist recommends and lead to further disputes. Locke believes that the arrangement should protect the people and be subservient to it, Hobbes believes the state deserves protection. Locke wants its functions limited to the essentials, Hobbes wants as far-reaching powers as possible for his Leviathan. Locke views the law as a means of enforcing the dictates of nature, Hobbes views it as a means of enforcing contracts. Locke considers government as a vehicle for maintaining human nature, Hobbes regards it as a means for counteracting it. These positions are entirely irreconcilable. However, each thinker is internally consistent, and the form of government proposed is the logical conclusion of his pre-societal man. In classifying today’s world, it appears that we have adopted a more Hobbesian attitude, with the state being more of a master and less of a judge.


Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan. Richard Tuck (ed.), Cambridge University Press, 2005; UK.

Locke, John. Two Treatises of Government. Peter Laslett (ed.), Cambridge University Press, 2005; UK.

For the Vaeda album, see State of Nature (album). For the United Kingdom 2013 State of Nature Report, see Royal Society for the Protection of Birds § State of Nature Report.

The state of nature is a concept used in moral and political philosophy, religion, social contract theories and international law[1] to denote the hypothetical conditions of what the lives of people might have been like before societies came into existence. Philosophers of the state of nature theory deduce that there must have been a time before organized societies existed, and this presumption thus raises questions such as: "What was life like before civil society?"; "How did government first emerge from such a starting position?," and; "What are the hypothetical reasons for entering a state of society by establishing a nation-state?".

In some versions of social contract theory, there are no rights in the state of nature, only freedoms, and it is the contract that creates rights and obligations. In other versions the opposite occurs: the contract imposes restrictions upon individuals that curtail their natural rights.

Societies existing before or without a political state are currently studied in such fields as paleolithichistory, and the anthropological subfields of archaeology, cultural anthropology, social anthropology, and ethnology, which investigate the social and power-related structures of indigenous and uncontacted peoples living in tribal communities.

Noted philosophers[edit]

Mozi (墨子)[edit]

The early Warring States philosopher Mozi was the first thinker in ancient China to develop an ideal state of nature as a premise to defend the need of a single ruler in a state. According to him, on that state each person have their own moral (yi:義). As a result, people were unable to reach agreements and resources were wasted. Since his philosophy promotes the actions that leads to the benefit (li:利) of the state, such natural organization was rejected:

"In the beginning of human life, when there was yet no law and government, the custom was "everybody according to his moral (yi)." Accordingly each man had his own moral, two men had two different morals and ten men had ten different morals -- the more people the more different notions. And everybody approved of his own moral and disapproved the views of others, and so arose mutual disapproval among men. As a result, father and son and elder and younger brothers became enemies and were estranged from each other, since they were unable to reach any agreement. Everybody worked for the disadvantage of the others with water, fire, and poison. Surplus energy was not spent for mutual aid; surplus goods were allowed to rot without sharing; excellent teachings (Dao) were kept secret and not revealed." Chapter 3 - 1[2]

His proposal is to unify morals according to a single standard (fa:法) that can be used by anyone: calculating benefit of each act. In that way, the ruler of the state and his subjects will have the same morals, cooperation and joint efforts will be the rule. Later his proposal was strongly rejected by confucianism (especially Mencius) because of the preference of benefit over morals[3].

Thomas Hobbes[edit]

The pure state of nature or "the natural condition of mankind" was deduced by the 17th century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, in Leviathan and in his earlier work On the Citizen.[4] Hobbes argued that all humans are by nature equal in faculties of body and mind (i.e., no natural inequalities are so great as to give anyone a "claim" to an exclusive "benefit"). From this equality and other causes in human nature, everyone is naturally willing to fight one another: so that "during the time men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called warre; and such a warre as is of every man against every man". In this state every person has a natural right or liberty to do anything one thinks necessary for preserving one's own life; and life is "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short" (Leviathan, Chapters XIII–XIV). Hobbes described this natural condition with the Latin phrase bellum omnium contra omnes (meaning war of all against all), in his work De Cive.

Within the state of nature there is neither personal property nor injustice since there is no law, except for certain natural precepts discovered by reason ("laws of nature"): the first of which is "that every man ought to endeavour peace, as far as he has hope of obtaining it" (Leviathan, Ch. XIV); 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" (loc. cit.). From here Hobbes develops the way out of the state of nature into political society and government, by mutual contracts.

According to Hobbes the state of nature exists at all times among independent countries, over whom there is no law except for those same precepts or laws of nature (Leviathan, Chapters XIII, XXX end). His view of the state of nature helped to serve as a basis for theories of international law and realism.[5]

John Locke[edit]

John Locke considers the state of nature in his Second Treatise on Civil Government written around the time of the Exclusion Crisis in England during the 1680s. For Locke, in the state of nature all men are free "to order their actions, and dispose of their possessions and persons, as they think fit, within the bounds of the law of nature." (2nd Tr., §4). "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, liberty, and or property" (2nd Tr., §6) ; and that transgressions of this may be punished. Locke describes the state of nature and civil society to be opposites of each other, and the need for civil society comes in part from the perpetual existence of the state of nature.[6] This view of the state of nature is partly deduced from Christian belief (unlike Hobbes, whose philosophy is not dependent upon any prior theology).

Although it may be natural to assume that Locke was responding to Hobbes, Locke never refers to Hobbes by name, and may instead have been responding to other writers of the day, like Robert Filmer.[7] In fact, Locke's First Treatise is entirely a response to Filmer's Patriarcha, and takes a step by step method to refuting Filmer's theory set out in Patriarcha. The conservative party at the time had rallied behind Filmer's Patriarcha, whereas the Whigs, scared of another prosecution of Anglicans and Protestants, rallied behind the theory set out by Locke in his Two Treatises of Government as it gave a clear theory as to why the people would be justified in overthrowing a monarchy which abuses the trust they had placed in it.[citation needed]


Montesquieu makes use of the concept of the state of nature in his The Spirit of the Laws, first printed in 1748. Montesquieu interestingly states the thought process behind early human beings before the formation of society. He says that human beings would have the faculty of knowing and would first think to preserve their life in the state. Human beings would also at first feel themselves to be impotent and weak. As a result, humans would not be likely to attack each other in this state. Next, humans would seek nourishment and out of fear and impulse would eventually unite to create society. Once society was created, a state of war would ensue amongst societies which would have been all created the same way. The purpose of war is the preservation of the society and the self. The formation of law within society is the reflection and application of reason for Montesquieu.[8]

Jean-Jacques Rousseau[edit]

Hobbes' view was challenged in the eighteenth century by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who claimed that Hobbes was taking socialized people and simply imagining them living outside of the society in which they were raised. He affirmed instead that people were neither good nor bad, but were born as a blank slate, and later society and the environment influence which way we lean. In Rousseau's state of nature, people did not know each other enough to come into serious conflict and they did have normal values. The modern society, and the ownership it entails, is blamed for the disruption of the state of nature which Rousseau sees as true freedom.[9]

David Hume[edit]

David Hume offers in A Treatise of Human Nature (1739) that 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."[10]

Hume's ideas about human nature expressed in the Treatise suggest that he would be happy with neither Hobbes' nor his contemporary Rousseau's thought-experiments. He explicitly derides as incredible the hypothetical humanity described in Hobbes' Leviathan.[11] Additionally, 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."[12]

John Calhoun[edit]

John C. Calhoun, in his Disquisition on Government, (1850) wrote that a state of nature is merely hypothetical and argues that the concept is self-contradictory and that political states naturally always existed. "It is, indeed, difficult to explain how an opinion so destitute of all sound reason, ever could have been so extensively entertained, ... I refer to the assertion, that all men are equal in the state of nature; meaning, by a state of nature, a state of individuality, supposed to have existed prior to the social and political state; and in which men lived apart and independent of each other... But such a state is purely hypothetical. It never did, nor can exist; as it is inconsistent with the preservation and perpetuation of the race. It is, therefore, a great misnomer to call it the state of nature. Instead of being the natural state of man, it is, of all conceivable states, the most opposed to his nature—most repugnant to his feelings, and most incompatible with his wants. His natural state is, the social and political—the one for which his Creator made him, and the only one in which he can preserve and perfect his race. As, then, there never was such a state as the, so called, state of nature, and never can be, it follows, that men, instead of being born in it, are born in the social and political state; and of course, instead of being born free and equal, are born subject, not only to parental authority, but to the laws and institutions of the country where born, and under whose protection they draw their first breath."[13]

20th century[edit]

John Rawls used what amounted to an artificial state of nature. To develop his theory of justice, Rawls places everyone in the original position. The original position is a hypothetical state of nature used as a thought experiment development to Rawls' theory of justice. People in the original position have no society and are under a veil of ignorance that prevents them from knowing how they may benefit from society. They lack foreknowledge of their intelligence, wealth, or abilities. Rawls reasons that people in the original position would want a society where they had their basic liberties protected and where they had some economic guarantees as well. If society were to be constructed from scratch through a social agreement between individuals, these principles would be the expected basis of such an agreement. Thus, these principles should form the basis of real, modern societies since everyone should consent to them if society were organized from scratch in fair agreements.

Rawls' Harvard colleague Robert Nozick countered the liberal A Theory of Justice with the libertarian Anarchy, State, and Utopia, also grounded in the state of nature tradition.[14] Nozick argued that a minimalist state of property rights and basic law enforcement would develop out of a state of nature without violating anyone's rights or using force. Mutual agreements among individuals rather than social contract would lead to this minimal state.

Between nations[edit]

In Hobbes' view, once a civil government is instituted, the state of nature has disappeared between individuals because of the civil power which exists to enforce contracts and the laws of nature generally. Between nations, however, no such power exists and therefore nations have the same rights to preserve themselves—including making war—as individuals possessed. Such a conclusion led some writers to the idea of an association of nations or worldwide civil society. Among them there were Immanuel Kant with his work on perpetual peace. This aim was taken up by former US President George H W Bush in the drive to create a "New World Order" which he describes as "a world where the rule of law, not the law of the jungle, governs the conduct of nations".

Rawls also examines the state of nature between nations. In his work the Law of Peoples, Rawls applies a modified version of his original position thought experiment to international relationships. Rawls says that peoples, not states, form the basic unit that should be examined. States should be encouraged to follow the principles from Rawls' earlier A Theory of Justice. Democracy seems like it would be the most logical means of accomplishing these goals, but benign non-democracies should be seen as acceptable at the international stage. Rawls develops eight principles for how a people should act on an international stage.

See also[edit]


  1. ^Emer de Vattel, The Law of Nations, Preliminaries. Idea and General Principles. §4.
  2. ^Adapted from Mei translation of the. "Mozi". Ctext. Retrieved 18 September 2017. 
  3. ^Hansen, Chad (2000-08-17). A Daoist Theory of Chinese Thought: A Philosophical Interpretation. Oxford University Press. pp. 158–162. ISBN 9780195350760. 
  4. ^Hobbes, Thomas, Leviathan. 1651. Edwin Curley (Ed.) 1994. Hackett Publishing.
  5. ^Yurdusev, A. Nuri (June 2006). "Thomas Hobbes and international relations: from realism to rationalism"(PDF). Australian Journal of International Affairs. 60 (2): 305. Retrieved 2 February 2016. 
  6. ^Goldwin, Robert (March 1976). "Locke's State of Nature in Political Society". The Western Political Quarterly. 29 (1): 126. doi:10.2307/447588. Retrieved February 22, 2018. 
  7. ^Skinner, Quentin. Visions of Politics. Cambridge.
  8. ^Translated by Thomas Nugent, revised by J. V. Prichard. Based on edition published in 1914 by G. Bell & Sons, Ltd., London. Rendered into HTML and text by Jon Roland of the Constitution Society, where the full text of this document may be found, Book 2
  9. ^Jean-Jacques Rousseau, A Discourse on Inequality
  10. ^Hume, David (1739). A Treatise of Human Nature. Project Gutenberg. pp. Book III, Part II, Section II. Retrieved 2 February 2016. 
  11. ^Hume, David (1739). A Treatise of Human Nature. Project Gutenberg. pp. Book II, Part III, Section I. Retrieved 2 February 2016. 
  12. ^Hume, David (1739). A Treatise of Human Nature. Project Gutenberg. pp. Book III, Part II, Section II. Retrieved 2 February 2016. 
  13. ^Calhoun, John. "Disquisition on Government". Retrieved 2 February 2016. 
  14. ^Rothbard, Murray N. (1977). "Robert Nozick and the Immaculate Conception of the State"(PDF). Journal of Libertarian Studies. 1, Num 1.: 45–47. 

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