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State of Nature: Hobbes vs. Locke

Joe is an online writer who is interested in philosophy and political science.

Read on to learn about Hobbes and Locke's views on the state of nature.

Read on to learn about Hobbes and Locke's views on the state of nature.

Locke and Hobbes on The State of Nature

John Locke's and Thomas Hobbes' accounts of the state of nature differ greatly regarding individual security. Both present a stateless scenario but draw completely different conclusions, with inhabitants of Locke's state of nature having greater security than those in Hobbes'.

One reason for these different conclusions lies in their opposing understanding of human nature, with, in the crudest sense, Hobbes seeing man as a creature of desire and Locke as one of reason. A second explanation for their conclusions is their understanding of the nature of rights. Locke saw certain rights as independent of government or the state, whereas Hobbes, in a sense, saw them as coming from the state.

Finally, both give what they call "laws of nature" which ought to guide behavior in the state of nature. Still, Hobbes' laws are far less secure than Locke's, thus being another reason why inhabitants of Locke's scenario would enjoy greater security.



Hobbes' Account

The extremity of Hobbes' state of nature is typified as the "warre of every man against every man". This line sums up the severity of the scenario presented by Hobbes and explains why man's life must be "nasty, brutish and short".

This position of Hobbes is arrived at systematically, making him the father of political science. Such a scientific approach is none more evident than in his invocation of Galileo's theory of the conservation of motion: that whatever is in motion will remain so until halted by some other force. Regarding human agency, Hobbes viewed motion as producing delight or displeasure within us. Obviously, we will desire those pleasure or delight-inducing motions rather than painful or even contemptible ones and so are in a fixed search for felicity and aversion to pain.

Furthermore, Hobbes saw men as roughly equal. Although one man may be physically stronger than another and one smarter than another, these differences do not produce any natural hierarchy. For the stronger man may dominate the weaker, but the weaker may take up arms or join with others in confederacy, thus negating the strong man's apparent advantage.

Regarding intellectual equality, Hobbes describes how any given man will often believe himself to be wiser than most others. Yet it cannot be logically possible for most men to be wiser than most others. In fact, Hobbes points out that if each man thinks himself wiser, then he must be contented with his share, and there is no "greater signe of the equal distribution of any thing, than that every man is contented with his share".

Our search for felicity, coupled with us being relatively equal in terms of capabilities, sets us on a collision course. We want to fulfil our desires, but our neighbours want to fulfil theirs too. If we have the same tangible desire and that object is in scarcity, then we will be on a path to confrontation. This confrontation puts our ultimate end or strongest desire (self-preservation) in great jeopardy, and if our opponent is successful and subordinates, kills or takes what we possess, the same misfortune may soon await him.

The problems associated with this search for felicity and aversion to the undesired do not end here, though—there is also the consideration of potential enemies. For man X may desire a set piece of land and take it peacefully, but his knowing that all else is equal could give him reason to suspect that man Y or Z may have a desire to take this land, even though they have made no such expression of the will. In such a case, he may make a pre-emptive strike to eliminate what are merely potential enemies.

It even matters not the status of either Y or Z. Y may be a man of many possessions and prestige, so X has reason to suspect him of wanting to further these attributes. Z may be a man with nothing, and so X knows he also has the motive to take his land, so in the state of nature, no man is safe, not the figurative prince nor pauper.

Yet still, this is not all, for the picture painted becomes even worse if we consider those who simply enjoy conquest or the suffering of others. With these people added to the equation, even those content "with what they have must act like the worst kind of tyrant in order to try to secure themselves".

Acting for one's security for Hobbes is really the only right we have in the state of nature. Self-preservation is the sole right (or perhaps obligation is more apt) independent of government. For he saw the state as being prior to any kind of virtue, which, coupled with the picture painted, informs why he thinks the state of nature to be a state of war.

Finally, Hobbes gives a list of laws of nature. These laws essentially come down to the fact that it is rational for us to seek peace in the state of nature, which would apparently conflict with the entire scenario he has presented so far. However, the laws of nature are an expression of collective rationality, whereas our behaviour described in the state of nature is an example of individual rationality.

While it may be rational to seek peace, this is only possible if everyone else seeks peace. Given the suspicious nature of man out with the state and the lack of mechanisms (a commonwealth) available to achieve this end, this expression of collective rationality simply cannot be made.



Locke's Account

In contrast, Locke’s state of nature is seemingly a far more pleasant place than Hobbes’. He also gives Laws of Nature, ‘that mankind is to be preserved as much as possible’. This comes from the idea that we are God’s property and should not then harm one another. We have a duty to obey this law. While we have a duty to obey this law, it does not follow that we would; like any law, it requires an enforcer.

The step Locke takes to solve this problem is to say, like Hobbes, that we are all equal, so we all have the authority to enforce the law of nature. At this point, we see how, starting from the same premise of equality, both reach separate conclusions, with Hobbes fitting within a negative framework and Locke a positive.

In applying the laws of nature, man must do so to two effects: reparation and restraint. Locke believed that reason would enable the expression of collective rationality, for anyone who breaks the laws of nature has made himself an enemy to all humanity, and by definition, to oneself. On this basis, “every man hath a right to punish the offender, and be executioner of the law of nature”.

He further says that a man who has received damage to his property in seeking reparation may be joined with other men who recognise the wrong he has been done. Together they may enforce reparations proportionate to the transgression. The two problems Locke has is with regard to impartiality and interpretation of the law, for the victim of a crime is unlikely to be proportionate in the application of punishment, which Locke himself does accept.

But even with this problematic area, the state of nature is still far from a state of war. It may be one containing a few rogues and be occasionally guilty of the misapplication of justice, but man is still primarily rational rather than a desire-seeking species. Our rationality tells us to take no more than we need, to go beyond self-sufficiency is not required, and so we need not be at war over resources just as we need not be at war over the fear of violent death, both of which contrast with the argument of Hobbes.

The problem Locke identifies regarding resources is with the ‘invention’ of currency. Money allows for hoarding; instead of using what we need, we will hoard to meet our future desires. He does not view this as the beginning of the state of war but the multiplication of the inconveniences of the state of nature.

This argument of Locke’s seems logically invalid, though. For it does not follow that a species that expresses collective rationality would take a measure (invent currency) that allows for hoarding, which in turn contradicts his law of nature by threatening the preservation of humanity, or at least significant sections of it. For the appropriation and hoarding of currency will produce a have and have not population, and to have not is the means to the destruction of one’s self-preservation.

So it would then appear that, if anything, man is expressing collective irrationality, if rationality at all. Locke may argue that consent allows for this to happen, but that does not free man from any charge of irrationality or of being an essentially desire-seeking being. In fact, it perhaps even strengthens the criticism by illustrating man’s tendency towards felicity by creating a mechanism for producing richness.

Influence of Historical Context and Final Thoughts

Having analyzed both theories from a philosophical perspective, it might be apt to have a brief look at both men's work in a historical context. For Hobbes was writing at a time of civil war, a time when fear of violent death was prevalent, and the state of nature was a close reality. So his view, though systematically formed using the scientific method, could have been said to have been influenced by the chaos he was viewing in his lifetime, where statehood or rather sovereignty was insecure.

This could be analyzed in two ways. The first is to say that Hobbes' first-hand experience gave him greater insight into the realities of the state of nature. The second is to say that the one particular extremity observed by Hobbes, namely the English civil war, skewed Hobbes' argument to a negativist position based on one event. On the other hand, Locke was fortunate enough to be writing after these events and was so unappreciative of the realities of the chaos brought by conflicting claims to authority and so reached his positivist position on the state of nature and the essence of man.

Through whichever lens we analyze both men's theories, though, we can see the great differences in their conclusions to the same questions. Through their understanding of man, in terms of either desire or rationality, their understanding of rights and obligation and their laws of nature, we can see Locke's state of nature as being one of far greater security than that of Hobbes.

However, although Locke's state of nature sounds like the better place to be, his methods of reaching his conclusion do appear to be more fragile than those of Hobbes, whose logical and scientific framework would apparently stand on stronger foundations.

Human Nature and the Social Contract

Sources and Further Reading

Lloyd, Sharon A. and Susanne Sreedhar. (2018). "Hobbes’s Moral and Political Philosophy." Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy,

Munro, André. (2021). "State of nature." Britannica,

Tuckness, Alex. (2020). "Locke’s Political Philosophy." Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy,


fraol on January 10, 2019:

give test bank of question in thomas hobbes &jhon locke

Angel on August 22, 2018:

What is John Locke's view of human nature ? Thank you for noticing this comment. Highly appreciated if ever. :)

Menna on February 23, 2017:

Hi, can anyone please help me and explain to me Hobbes' concept or understanding on the human nature as i do not understand it well.

Harry Styles is sexy on October 30, 2013:

wow this is very wordy but I do under stand what they are saying by hobbes equal men. we are doing this in class so its all very confusong from upstate, NY on March 16, 2013:

I guess I agree with parts of what both Hobbs and Locke are saying. I agree with Hobbs that the nature of man to be somewhat irrational or evil depending on your definition. Hard times tend to bring to the surface what's really in a man.

I have a Christian worldview in regards to the natural rights of man. I agree with Locke that rights are God given and independent of the government. That we have government to secure those rights that all men are meant to possess.

VALBALA on February 26, 2013:


DANIEL BRIGHTON on December 24, 2012:

John Locke ideas seems to be like of Social conract theory,why this happen?

me on December 20, 2012:

How do i cite this

stella on December 01, 2012:

are thea any other elements of of a state

Me on May 30, 2012:

Very easy to understand, useful for political science students.

Deforest from USA on February 15, 2012:

In spite of uprising movements, I really don't see any positive changes for the future. In the U.S., freedom shrinks, in France they built a version of the Pentagon, in the U.K. it is the increase of video surveillance etc... What does it augur? Dictatorship and you would be right.

We are entering an era and zone of more conflicts (social, economical, military)!

Why are we so docile? Why don't we disagree with our governments? I don't know!

Comrade Joe (author) from Glasgow, United Kingdom on February 15, 2012:

I'm certainly not optimistic while societies structures remain as they are. The way things are in a structural sense is fundamentally the same as it was in Marx day in that the capitalist structure remains. Although new institutions spawn and die the fundamentals are the same. There has certainly not been relevant change since Lenin identified the merger of financial and industrial capital which propelled us into the era of Imperialism as the highest form of capitalism.

In the sense i am optimistic is with regards to the end of this era of history. Even then I would envisage (though what my estimation is worth is probably very little) a sustained period of the Dictatorship of the Proletariat - essentially global socialism should remove the contradictions of the superstructure which produces our nature, and then communism and the victory of man over nature can be facilitated.

Deforest from USA on February 14, 2012:

Is optimism realistic? I, myself, am an eternal optimist however experience taught me otherwise!

Marx depicted his society as the man's exploitation of man, has society changed since?

Are we naturally good or is it inherited from our environment? If by nature we are good, why are we so easily influenced (reference to racism)? In that same logic, why can't we turn off any evil side?

Unfortunately, philosophy for me asks questions that remain unanswered.

Comrade Joe (author) from Glasgow, United Kingdom on February 14, 2012:

Thanks for the feedback. I had written another piece that expands on the human nature aspect of Hobbes work. Unfortunately, I seem to have lost the file on my computer and only have a hard copy, so i may get round to typing that up in the future.

But, in short i think that Hobbes was perhaps too pessimistic in his outlook. I tend towards the view that human nature is less static and fixed than is generally expounded in political thought. Maybe, it is i who is too optimistic, but it seems to me that the human essence is an unfinished product guided by societies structures, the past and many other variables that are forever changing and evolving, consequently producing an ever changing consciousness which has unlimited potential for good.

Deforest from USA on February 13, 2012:

In your example using the variables x,y,z,you draw the perversions of competition symbolized by capitalism. Is capitalism inherent to human nature? Doesn't the application of capitalism obey to the pursuit of happiness related by Hobbes? By extrapolating and magnifying your example, America is a perfect representative of any of the variables given its foreign policies!

Both philosophers underlined the bellicoseness of the human nature!

It is interesting to think that as the creativity towards technologies increase geometrically, our ability towards wisdom stagnates! Will human nature never progress? What you stated in your comparative analysis still reflects our epoch!

Nice hub!