Critically Examine Hobbes's Conception of the State of Nature

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Critically Examine Hobbes’s Conception of the State of Nature

The concept of state of nature was developed by Hobbes in his famous work, Leviathan, in which he also set out his doctrine of the foundation of states and legitimate governments which was based on his social contract theories. Leviathan was written during the English Civil War, so much of his theory concentrates on the need for the presence of a strong central authority within society in order to avoid the evils of rebellion and civil war. Hobbes developed his state of nature by contemplating what life would be like without any governing political authority, i.e. a state of anarchy. Hobbes wrote that "during the time men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called war; and such a war as is of every man against every man" (Leviathan, ch. XIII). Hobbes described this concept with the Latin phrase “bellum omnium contra omnes”, in his work, de Cive.

Hobbes identified three reasons why the state of nature would be a state of war of “all against all”, by which he means not constant fighting but a constant readiness to fight. First, without government there would be little or no industry and so resources would be very limited. People must attack for gain in order to take whatever possessions others had managed to acquire. Second, individuals would try to pre-empt these attacks, and get their defence in first. This Hobbes calls ‘diffidence’. Third, people would realize the advantages of a reputation for strength and attack others simply for glory. These natural causes of quarrel are how Hobbes concluded that the natural condition of humans is a state of perpetual war of all against all, where no morality exists, and everyone lives in constant fear. Hobbes believes that humans have three motivations for ending this state of war; the fear of death, the desire for better living conditions, and hope for a means to achieve those conditions.

Within the state of nature there would be no injustice, since there is no law. “To this war of every man against every man, this also is consequence; that nothing can be unjust. The notions of right and wrong, justice and injustice have there no place. Where there is no common power, there is no law: where no law, no injustice”. (Leviathan, ch.13) In answer to this Hobbes identifies ‘Laws of Nature’, which are general principles that are revealed to us by reason and that are also supposed to describe behaviour that is in one's best interest. These ‘laws’ are not absolute, they merely "bind to a desire they should take place" (Leviathan, ch.15). They are principles that a rational being would desire everyone to follow, but in the absence of reasonable assurance that everyone else will follow them, you yourself have no obligation to follow them. The first of which is "that every man ought to endeavour peace, as far as he has hope of obtaining it" (Leviathan, ch. 14); 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”.

From this, Hobbes develops the way out of the state of nature into civil government by mutual contracts. According to Hobbes, society is a population beneath a sovereign authority, to whom all individuals in that society surrender their natural rights for the sake of protection. Any abuses of power by this authority are to be accepted as the price of peace. However, he also states that in severe cases of abuse, rebellion is expected. In particular, the doctrine of separation of powers is rejected: the sovereign must control civil, military, judicial and ecclesiastical powers.

Another philosopher, John Locke also considered the concept of the state of nature in his Second Treatise on Civil Government written around the time of the...
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