John Locke State Of Nature Essays

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.

Thomas Hobbes and John Locke on Natural Rights Essay

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Hobbes and Locke on Natural Rights

According to the natural right theory, the state of nature is the original condition of human beings in regard to any common authority. In the state of nature, according to Thomas Hobbes, each individual has a right to everything, even the body/life of the other. The state of nature can lead to the state of moral chaos. Moral chaos produces physical chaos or war, thus the state of war, the war of all against all. The reason this is because no one has any connection to the other, everyone has the right to everything, just to satisfy his or her appetites. There is no rational rule to resolve conflict, in order to get around this you have to get an agreement, thus the need for a social contact.…show more content…

To get out of the state of nature we need to retain our natural rights, the rights to liberty (self-preservation and preservation of others) and the right to property. The same rules that apply to liberty also apply to property for Locke. Property rights are prior (in principle) to government, you have a right to life and property without government. It's settling your disputes that may make it hard to do without government. The state of nature becomes the state of war when enforcement problems occur, disagreements; thus the reason for government is to preserve pre-existing rights. To get out of the state of nature government can exist only by consent and you cant consent for anyone else, unless of course they are children. There are two major elements of Locke's social contract. Phase #1 is the bare agreement to agree. People have to realize the need for government, the need for something to solve problems of the people. For Hobbes this is like a bare leap into government. For Locke, there must be societies were people agree to communicate and talk in order to unanimously agree on a government. And if someone decides that they don't want to join, well,

you cant do any harm to them, or compel them to join your society. Unlike Hobbes, for Hobbes if you don't join the society and agree to the establishment of a sovereign then everyone else has the right to either force you to join your social contract or they

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