Hobbes’ State of Nature

Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) who is considered by some to be the greatest English political philosopher defended the need for an absolute sovereign, a ruler who would have unlimited powers of rule and punishment, he based his belief by imagining what life in the state of nature would be like and he supposed that life in this state would be ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short’ .Hobbes based this idea on his theory of human nature, he believed that all human beings seek to satisfy their desires moreover since there is no sum mum bonum or highest good for men but rather a constant succession of appetites, what each human being most wants is not any particular thing but the generalized capacity to satisfy new desires as they emerge: ‘to assure forever, the way of his future desire’ (Leviathan:47).

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Conflict can arise from any attempt by humans to satisfy their desires for they may go to any lengths to do so and in the state of nature there are no moral limits to men’s action: ‘The notions of Right and Wrong, Justice and Injustice have there no place’ and they may kill another for anything they deem necessary to their life. Dawkins (1989) tends to agree with Hobbes, he also sees human nature as selfish, and he claims that selfishness is contained in every gene even though everyone has distinctive genes. Dawkins goes on to say that competitive behavior is programmed biologically. Nevertheless Dawkins differs from Hobbes because he stresses that it makes more sense if people join forces for mutual benefit. However just because a gene contains a selfishness streak does not mean that the individual will be selfish.

Hobbes (Cited in Hampsher-Monk (1992) claims that the only naturally occurring authority that exists is that of a mother over her child and this link only prospers because the child is much weaker than the mother and its survival depends on the mother. This type of connection does not exist between adult human beings, although Hobbes does accept that some human beings possess more strength than others, although every human being has the ablity to kill another. ‘Even the strongest must sleep ; even the weakest might persuade others to help him to kill another’ (Leviathan, xiii.1-2) furthermore because adults are equal in this capacity to threaten each other’s lives, Hobbes claims that there is no natural source of authority to order their lives together.

Hobbes main argument for an absolute sovereign was that any type of government is better than the State of Nature, a condition where people are forced into contact with each other in the absence of a superior authority. A condition of ‘war of every man against every man’ (Leviathan, ch. 13). Hobbes gave three explanations why life in a state of nature would mean a state of war, where people would always be in a continual readiness to fight. Firstly there would be no production and this in turn would mean there would be limited resources; people would have to take by force the possessions they require from others. Secondly people would attack first as a way of defending themselves. Lastly people would just attack others just to gain a reputation for being strong so as to put off others. The result of all this would be hostility between people and there would be no trust.

Underlying the state of nature is the struggle for survival and fear of death and to counter these conditions people must use the dictates of reason and voluntarily join together forming a collective union supported by a social contract. Hobbes places great weight on contracts and he often speaks of covenants, by which he means a contract where one person performs his part of the agreement later than the other. In a state of nature such arrangements would not work because only the weakest will have good reason to fulfill the second part of a covenant and then only if the stronger person is watching over them. One opposition to this is that are people not able to behave in a fair and honest way? Even where there is no government giving laws. This objection assumes that people possess a basic sense of morality and believes that all this would overcome the greed, attacks and defensive fighting that Hobbes talks about.

Hobbes makes two declarations the first is to do with our duties in the state of nature that is the ‘right of nature’, the second involves the risks posed by people’s differing beliefs of what is right and wrong. Hobbes definition of the right of nature is the entitlement to save our own lives by any means possible, he goes on to say that the most terrible thing that can befall us is a brutal death caused by others. Hobbes continues by saying that we have a right to decide what will save our lives. He goes further by saying that in a state of nature we have a right to everything ‘even to one another’s body’ (Leviathan, xiv.4). His argument seems to be a bit extreme at this point, but if a person decides that they require something for example the death of another person or their labor to make sure that they can survive, in a state of nature there exists no influence to judge these actions as right or wrong. However Hobbes believes that human beings are able to adhere to some principles which are not found in religion but can in some ways be paired with religion. In (Leviathan,xiv.4) the first law commands that every man ought to endeavour peace, as far as he has hope of obtaining it and when he cannot obtain it he may seek and use all helps and advantages of war. The second law says that a man be willing, when others are so too as far-forth as for peace and defense of him 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. (Leviathan, xiv.5)

Hobbes thinks that people should act as if they have made a contract with others in a society, however this does not include the sovereign authority. With Hobbes’ social contract all people give up their ‘right to all things’ (Leviathan, xiv.5) although the sovereign does not give up this right. In this agreement, people agree to only retain the right to protect their lives in cases of direct peril, but the decision of what poses an immediate threat depends on judgment, nevertheless it does allow us to retaliate if the sovereign attempts to take our lives. There are practical reasons for the sovereign not participating in contracts with their subjects, firstly it is not practical for the sovereign to make a covenant with everyone individually and it is not possible to make a covenant with the population as a whole because while the sovereign is being created, people are still in a state of nature and do not trust each other. One of the roles of the sovereign is to punish those who have acted unjustly but it is also the sovereign’s right because people have forfeited their rights to the sovereign who is not held responsible for the possible injury or death of subjects. The most important role of the sovereign according to Hobbes is to ‘prescribe the rules, whereby every man may know what goods he may enjoy, and what actions he may do, without being molested by any of his fellow-subjects’. This role protects against the inevitable competition that will arise between people over scarce resources. However Hobbes’ theory gives way for criticism if the sovereign is unjust, but Hobbes counters this by stating that the sovereign cannot be unjust and ultimately Hobbes believed that government was more preferable than social chaos, especially under an absolute sovereign. Another key aspect of sovereignty is ‘the right of making war and peace with other nations and commonwealths’ which reflects the obligation of the sovereign to protect their subjects. The sovereign however retains their right of nature although Hobbes does concede that there are moral limits on what sovereigns should do.

Hobbes’ arguments have been contested by many among which is John Locke ([1690] 1965) who was concerned that an absolute sovereign with absolute power would be even more of a hazard to us than life in a state of nature. After all, how could we have faith in the sovereign to act in the citizens interests rather than his or her own? So Locke argued that even though we could do with a sovereign to straighten out disputes and dispense justice, we must also lay down constitutional limits to the sovereigns rule and in addition we also have a right to fight back if the sovereign abuses our faith.

Hobbes’ argument has weakness in that it has ‘the tendency of legitimate monarchs to quietly slide over into being despots’; (Fukuyama,1989:157-158) with no institutional devices like elections for finding out popular consent, it would be difficult to know whether a particular monarch had the kind of sanction Hobbes himself had in mind(Fukuyama, 1989:157-158). Fukuyama then makes it clear that it was ‘relatively easy’ for John Locke to change Hobbes’ principal of monarchical sovereignty into one of parliamentary or legislative sovereignty based on majority rule. Locke’s alternate to the ‘Hobessian dilemma’ is not absolute monarchy but restricted government which consists of a constitutional government providing protection for the citizen’s basic rights and whose authority is resulted from the consent of the people(Fukuyama, 1989). It is clear that Locke views Hobbes’ right to preservation of one’s’ life as meaning ‘a right to revolution against a tyrant who used his power unjustly against the interests of the people’ (Fukuyama, 1989:158). Locke’s offers a perfect solution to the classic question: ‘Who would guard the guardians?’

Hobbes deduces that an absolute sovereign is a highest power, an earthly God, who has been called upon to protect people from each other. The absolute sovereign is given various powers through which they can institute and keep peace to prevent reverting back into the state of nature. Hobbes’ main argument for the need for an absolute sovereign is that a state of war would be horrific for everyone but that very same reason will mean that we carry on living in such a state. The only probable way to escape a state of war is through the formation of an influence that can intimidate the people and force them to live in peace with each other. On the other hand, Hobbes fails to prove that we have an almost unlimited obligation to do what the sovereign tells us to do, furthermore his arguments that sovereignty which includes the power to moderate moral and political matter and put in force those judgments cannot be separated, are not only weak but they are clearly opposed by the somewhat successful division of powers in modern liberal societies. The shocking crimes of twentieth century perpetrated by dictatorships make obvious to us beyond doubt that verdicts about what is right or wrong cannot be a problem only for our political leaders, it also has to be a question for us as individuals. So although Hobbes does justify the need for an absolute sovereign with his arguments, they have been refuted by some thinkers like Locke ([1690] 1965) and Rousseau ([1762] 1913) who have proposed having a sovereign whose power is limited so as to prevent tyranny.