Thomas Hobbes on The State of Nature

The state of nature refers to a hypothetical situation before the existence of civil society.

During his life, Hobbes often worked as a tutor for students in wealthy families and this provided a gateway through which his knowledge about power and government increased and these experiences influenced his ideas. His interest in political philosophy grew here. Around the year 1642, the civil unrest in England resulted in Hobbes believing that strong government and civil order is extremely important.

To him, human nature is such that it will ultimately lead to conflict in the state of nature.

Hobbes was a materialist, which means he believed that matter is the fundamental substance from which everything arises; including the mind, consciousness, and mental states.

He also believed in the principle of the conservation of motion, introduced by Galileo, which essentially said that all things are naturally in a state of constant motion and they only stop or change direction as a result of another force acting on them. Hobbes related this to humans and delved into the topic in his book — Levithan.

According to Hobbes, desire is an inner motion that draws humans to something they want. This is why he established that humans are always in search of something without rest.

He said humans are always in search of felicity which is the continued success of obtaining what is desired and believed that every individual’s innate search for felicity will result in war.

He also believed that humans would develop competition for power since it would contribute to achieving felicity.

Hobbes had a few assumptions about the state of nature, these were that -

  1. Everyone is naturally equal
  2. Everyone possesses roughly the same level of skill and strength.
  3. There is scarcity
  4. Everyone will be uncertain about when they could be attacked, stolen from, or killed, and hence will always be on guard.

He identified three primary reasons for conflict -

  1. Pre-emptive action against others, for safety
  2. For a reputation of being powerful
  3. For gain from others

He believed that morality is inconceivable in the state of nature, and called this the natural right of liberty.

Along with this he also established what he believed would be a few laws of nature, there were 19 in total -

  1. Everyone hopes for peace when it is possible to obtain it, but when that isn’t possible they may use the advantages of war to do so, this is the first fundamental law.
  2. Everyone must give up right over objects, and be happy with as much liberty as any other person.
  3. Everyone must follow through with agreements they make

He doesn’t intend these as full-fledged laws but instead said that they can be deduced from the fundamental law, and provide the best chance for individual survival if everyone is able to make these deductions.

He says that this is unlikely, though, since most people won’t come to these conclusions amidst a state of nature, and also because it requires collective rationality.

Collective rationality refers to what is best for each individual when every single person acts the same, it is hard to achieve because humans will most likely be tempted by individual rationality which is what is best for the individual in relation to others, by taking advantage of the fact that everyone else acts the same, and gaining an individual advantage.

This will then lead to everyone breaking the laws of nature and chaos would ensue.

Hence, Hobbes defines the state of nature as a constant state of readiness to fight.