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The State of Nature: Thomas Hobbes Vs John Locke

Updated on January 3, 2017

John Locke and Thomas Hobbes’ accounts of the state of nature differ greatly with regards to 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 most crude 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, but 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 one line sums up the severity of the scenario presented by Hobbes and informs why the life of man must be “nasty, brutish and short”.

This position of Hobbes is arrived at in a systematic way that perhaps makes 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. In terms of 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 sort of 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. In terms of intellectual equality Hobbes describes how any given man will often believe himself to be more wise than most others. Yet it cannot be logically possible for most men to be more wise 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 fulfill our desires, but our neighbours want to fulfiltheirs 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 of the undesired do not end here though. For 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 and 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 motive to take his land and 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 only 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 so far presented. However the laws of nature are an expression of collective rationality were as 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 and 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 to be 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 and so we all have the authority to enforce the law of nature. At this point we see a how starting from the same premise of equality both take moves to 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 the collective rationality for anyone who breaks the laws of nature has made himself an enemy to all mankind, 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 goes onto say 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 regards 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 fear of violent death, both of which contrast with the argument of Hobbes.

The problem Locke does identify with regards to resources is with the ‘invention’ of currency . Money allows for hoarding and 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 is one that 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 mankind, 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.

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, the state of nature was a close reality. So his view though systematically formed and of 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, who’s logical and scientific framework would apparently stand on the stronger foundations.


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    • profile image

      Menna 5 months ago

      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.

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      Harry Styles is sexy 3 years ago

      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

    • profile image 4 years ago from upstate, NY

      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.

    • profile image

      VALBALA 4 years ago


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      DANIEL BRIGHTON 4 years ago

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

    • profile image

      me 4 years ago

      How do i cite this

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      stella 4 years ago

      are thea any other elements of of a state

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      Me 5 years ago

      Very easy to understand, useful for political science students.

    • maxoxam41 profile image

      Deforest 5 years ago from USA

      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 profile image

      Comrade Joe 5 years ago from Glasgow, United Kingdom

      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.

    • maxoxam41 profile image

      Deforest 5 years ago from USA

      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 profile image

      Comrade Joe 5 years ago from Glasgow, United Kingdom

      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.

    • maxoxam41 profile image

      Deforest 5 years ago from USA

      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!