"In a true state of nature, indeed, all men are born equal, but they cannot continue in this equality. Society makes them lose it, and they recover it only by the protection of laws."
-- Charles de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu, The Spirit of Laws, 1748

The state of nature is a state in which humans once lived, a state in which there was no government, or any other higher level social organization. Humans lived alone, or in small family groups. A man did not need to answer to anyone.

Well, yes, this is a bit silly. But before Darwin explained how evolution could really make good sense, philosophers theorized how humans, presumably created originally in the same form they are in now and dumped onto Earth to make their way the best they could, invented society and government. Given these assumptions, the stories philosophers made up were often surprisingly complete, clever, and radical (theologically speaking). These days anthropology has taken over the job of trying to explain how human societies evolved.

So now we mostly talk about the state of nature when studying the history of philosophy. Anthropologist do not use the phrase.

Here are three of the more famous explanations of how and why the state of nature gave rise to government:

Thomas Hobbes: In a state of nature there is a scarcity of resources (for example, food). It is advantageous for the individual to fight and steal to survive (see the tragedy of the commons). A government improves the situation by enforcing the rules and keeping people from killing each other. While the government restrict everyone, it is to everyone's advantage because it allows everyone to work together without fear that the others will try to get ahead by stabbing them in the back."

"No arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death: and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.
-- Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, 1651

John Locke: In a state of nature there are plenty of resources to go around; no one need be hungry. But humans create scarcity by inventing money, which encourages individuals to hoard resources. Once this starts up, the government is needed to keep the peace. (Once again, the government is to everyone's advantage).

"To understand political power aright, and derive from it its original, we must consider what estate all men are naturally in, and that is, 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."
-- John Locke, Second Treatise of Government, 1689

Rousseau: In a state of nature there are plenty of resources to go around, but humans create a scarcity by inventing money. The rich must invent rules of justice to protect themselves from the poor. A government is necessary to keep the rich from taking too much advantage of the poor. (The poor aren't well off, and the rich aren't as well off as they could be).

"The first man who, having enclosed a piece of ground, bethought himself of saying ‘This is mine’, and found people simple enough to believe him, was the real founder of civil society. From how many crimes, wars, and murders, from how many horrors and misfortunes might not anyone have saved mankind, by pulling up the stakes, or filling up the ditch, and crying to his fellows: ‘Beware of listening to this imposter; you are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody."
-- Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Discourse on the Origins of Inequality, 1755

And one more view of the state of nature...

Anarchism: The state of nature is an ideal that lies in our future. We hope we can outgrow our government.

The concept of the social contract between citizens and state is central to most contemporary philosophical discussion into the legitimacy and nature of government. The situation before this hypothetical contract was made is described as man's natural state, or the state of nature. The conception of this pre-political state varies widely between philosophers, and inevitably shapes the nature of the government which is proposed to be born out of it through the social contract. The state of nature was first described in the 17th Century by Thomas Hobbes, who saw it as a war of all against all, from which strong government was the only escape. A century later, Jean-Jacques Rousseau posited a state of nature in which people were essentially 'good', and blamed civilisation for the ills of humanity. While these conceptions seem superficially very different, they are founded on a similar assumption - namely that society is an 'unnatural' state of existence which has been constructed through reasoned compromise. The contrasting depictions of this state seem to tell us more about the nature of the societies in which their authors lived than of any actual pre-social state of humanity. Nevertheless, the state of nature, whether in the form of a proposed actual period in human history, or as a thought experiment, has a resonance that continues to this day. Perhaps its greatest value is as an 'other' against which contemporary society can be compared. By exploring what we are not, it can help us see better what we are.

Unusual reactions to post-traumatic stress

It is perhaps not surprising that Thomas Hobbes had such a poor opinion of his fellow man. Living through the horrors of the English Civil War gave him all the evidence he needed to determine the nature of people unconstrained by government and the rule of law.

"Hereby it is manifest, that during time men live without a common Power to keep them all in awe, they are in a condition which is called Warre; and such a warre is of every man, against every man." (Leviathan. Ch. 13. p. 62)

Hobbes observed three causes of this perpetual conflict: competition, diffidence (by which he meant distrust) and glory. As people are in his view created equal, they have similar desires and similar means of satisfying those desires. Hobbes had a strongly mechanistic view of human behaviour, viewing it as governed similarly to the moving parts of a machine. Just as the springs and gears of a clock determine its motions, for Hobbes the actions of "Passions" or desires and aversions on the mechanisms of a human determine his actions. Equality in passion and mechanism causes people to compete for the same resources, leading to conflict. Rousseau directly challenges this view, stating,

"in the power of willing, or rather of choosing, and in the sentiment of this power, are found purely spritual acts about which nothing is explained by the Laws of Mechanics" (Discourses on Inequality. I, 16)

While Hobbes grants a person free will, the exercise of that will is governed by deterministic "natural laws" to such an extent that the actual freedom is limited. If one takes such a view of human nature, it is easier to justify the need for a ruler. Rousseau derided those who share Hobbes's position,

"These authors show us the human race divided into herds of cattle, each with a master who preserves it only in order to devour its members." (The Social Contract. Ch.2)

Hobbes and Rousseau agreed that there is no concept of morality in the state of nature, and that the actions of people in such a state could neither be judged good or bad, but Rousseau disputed Hobbes's further conclusions,

"Above all, let us not conclude with Hobbes that because he has no idea of goodness man is naturally wicked, that he is vicious because he does not know virtue, that he always refuses to those of his kind services which he does not believe he owes them, or that by virtue of the right which he reasonably claims to the things he needs, he insanely imagines himself sole owner of the Universe" (Discourses on Inequality. I, p. 153)

Game theory

The emergence of game theory as an area of study has given us a number of useful tools with which to analyse Hobbes's and Rousseau's states of nature. There are some good writeups about game theory if you need a little background. The study of strategies taken by players in conflict is far from new - Hobbes and Rousseau both make use of such methods. However, it is only in the past half century that such models have been formalised. One of the classic games that has been modelled is the Stag Hunt, which takes its name from a story told by Rousseau in the Discourse on Inequality.

"If a deer were to be caught, everyone clearly sensed that this required him to keep faithfully to his post; but if a hare happened to pass within reach of one of them, he will, without a doubt, have chased after it without scruple, and, after catching his prey, have cared very little about causing his companions to miss theirs" (Discourses on Inequality. II, 9)

In modelling the Stag Hunt, we can see that each hunter has two options: to hunt the stag or the hare. The hare provides a lesser meal, but catching it does not depend on the cooperation of others. If the hunter is to go after the stag, then he is relying on others to join him in the hunt otherwise he will go hungry. By cooperating, the hunter is not settling for second best: all are better off if the stag is caught. He is, however, taking a gamble on whether others will join him. If the hunter trusts others to join him, then he should always choose the stag. If, however, he is distrustful he is better off pursuing the safer choice of the hare. Without knowing more about the hunter's beliefs and preferences, we cannot predict which option he will choose. While this may seem like a needlessly specific example, the stag hunt can be seen as an analogue for a much wider question at the root of social contract theory and questions on the state of nature. Namely, should people cooperate, or should they rely solely on their own labour.

Hobbes addressed this question, but significantly had his people follow a different, and much more pessimistic game: the prisoner's dilemma. In this, the best known of formal games, the dominant strategy is to not cooperate. One will always be better off to cheat, regardless of the other's actions. This leads to an outcome that is worse for everyone. An example of such a game affecting those living in Hobbes's state of nature is the decision on whether to break a truce. If both sides play by the rules and upholds the truce then all are happy with the resultant peace. However, there is always the fear that the other will attack. If one is threatened with attack, then it is best to attack first in anticipation and gain the element of surprise. If it turns out that your enemy wasn't in fact preparing to attack you, then you can quickly rout him and you are better off for having rid yourself of an enemy. Of course, as both sides follow this reasoning, both will attack and there will be war. Hobbes sees this as an illustration of how selfish people will not cooperate unless they are forced to by a higher power.

The trouble with this model of behaviour is that it makes the assumption that such a decision is only taken once - that the game is 'one-shot'. However, in reality people would be deciding whether to cooperate on multiple occasions. Rousseau's hunters will go looking for a meal on many occasions, so have the opportunity to learn how others behave. Significantly, even the prisoner's dilemma changes when played repeatedly. If one gains a reputation as a breaker of truces, then others are more likely to reason that it is best to attack you first. In a fascinating study modelling the behaviour of a number of software 'agents', Robert Axelrod demonstrated that in this situation the best strategy is "tit-for-tat": cooperate with others, but if they cheat then punish them. A couple of years ago I made a little model where you can play with this. You can see the link to my uni website below. It's always nice to be able to cite yourself! One they start behaving, then forgive them and reward their mended ways. If others follow the same strategy then neither attacks and peace ensues. Those who do attack quickly learn that they will suffer for it. It can also be shown that humans are even more successful than such rigid models, as they can adapt to deal with irrational opponents. Axelrod then went on to show that through a process of evolution, 'tit-for-tat' players came to dominate all others. This seems to contradict Hobbes's belief that people must be forced to cooperate, as it shows that even the most self-interested individual would choose to cooperate with others. Hobbes does appear to hint that this is the case, but does not elaborate as to why this would not in his view lead to peace without the need for an external power.

The inevitable bias

The way in which individual philosophers construct their idea of a state of nature is highly revealing of their own societies and contexts. By describing a state of nature, they are describe an 'Other', which is held in contrast to government in their own society. Hobbes believed he had seen how his people would behave without the rule of law, as he had observed the death and bloodshed as neighbour fought against neighbour. It is true that such behaviour can be observed when the rule of law is removed from modern societies: witness the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, the insurgency in post-Saddam Iraq, or even the Paris riots of autumn 2005. There is a big difference, however, between a people whose previous rule of law has been removed, and a people who have never experienced such rule. The difficulty with the use of thought experiments is that one's own subjective experiences will inevitably shape the results. Rousseau paints a highly idealised picture of man under the state of nature. While never referring explicit to the ideal of the 'noble savage', he nonetheless takes a decidedly Primitivist approach. The culture of decadence and excess prevalent at the time lead many at the time to hark back to an idealised simpler age, as it seems apparent that Rousseau's state of nature is coloured by similar sentiments. The year before writing his Discourse on Inequality, his prize-winning Discourse on the Arts and Sciences had argued that the rise of science and arts had lead to a degeneration of public morals.

It is clear that both Hobbes and Rousseau had been strongly influenced by contemporary reports from the colonies. It is illuminating that both authors can cite the same example: the 'savage' peoples of America (i.e. Native Americans), and on the one hand use them as an example of the superior abilities of the savage and the other of the brutality of savage man. Both examples are weakened somewhat by the fact that said peoples were not living in anything like the state of nature described by the authors. They were rather living in relatively complex tribal structures that would not be classed as pre-political.

The myth of the state of nature

Regardless of either side's merits as a thought experiment, it is without doubt that Rousseau's conception of the state of nature is the more realistic when viewed in the light of anthropological evidence. Even if one were to follow the evolutionary path back to beyond the point at which proto-hominids emerged from the relative security of the forests onto the savannah, we cannot find a point where Man is living a life that is "solitary, poore, nasty, brutish and short". On the contrary, such proto-hominids were consistently sociable, and lived in flexible, open groups, with little evidence of inter-group aggression. Hobbes himself concedes that it is unlikely that there were ever a period in history where such a state of war existed all over the world, but this does raise the question as to how such a state is "natural" if this is the case. There is more evidence to support Rousseau's description of the state of nature, but it is still based on a mistaken premise. It shares with Hobbes's view an underlying assumption that political action is not a natural part of human behaviour. "Hobbes very clearly saw the defect of all modern defintitions of Natural right.". The defect Rousseau refers to is "that they define it in terms of man's being rational and sociable - in the sense of political". Hobbes and Rousseau agreed that this was not a true desciption of natural man. This assertion is not supported by anthropological evidence, however, and a quite different conclusion is found in that literature.

"features found in one form or another throughout human societies - such as political authority (actual if not titular) in the hands of males, [and] tribal and kinship systems with a recognition of a nexus of roles and relationships [...] - are all present in some form or another in all human cultures, and express part of man's genetic behavioural inheritance." (Reynolds, 1966:451)

The persistent popularity of the state of nature

The state of nature, whether actual or hypothetical, is central to most contemporary political philosophy. If we are to study the nature of politics, it is important to be able to conceive of a state without politics. We must accept, however, that we are just as bound by subjectivity as were Hobbes and Rousseau. We therefore cannot realistically aim to conceive of a genuine pre-political time, not least because such a period of human history never existed. However, as a thought experiment it is useful to imagine the lack of politics, if only as a way to explore our own subjectivity, and thus the nature of our own state. Hobbes and Rousseau used the state of nature concept as a tool to derive a social contract that justified a form of government. This same method has been used by many since their time, most recently in the form of John Rawls's "original position". Rawls is widely considered to be the greatest political philosopher of the 20th century. Personally I find him to be up his own arse, but what would I know. Hobbes's subjective experience of civil war coloured his conception of the state of nature in a manner that lead to a conclusion that any government, however tyrannical, was better than none. Likewise, Rousseau's teaching has been charged with influencing totalitarian regimes such as those of Hitler and Stalin. Rawls's original position is abstracted to the point of contrivance, but hey, it sure sound really smart and important. It illustrates a problem common to all social contract theories: if the contract is said to have been made by ones ancestors in a distant past state of nature, then there is no reason one need be bound by it. Likewise, if the state of nature is a thought experiment, then the hypothetical contract is no contract at all (this is Ronald Dworkin's criticism).

Sometimes there really is no 'contemporary relevance'

We (by which I mean my university) always seem to study philosophy in terms of its contemporary relevance. However this time I have to say I find such relevance limited. The authors' conceptions of the state of nature are sometime cited as relevant to contemporary situations where the rule of law has collapsed, such as the examples of New Orleans and Iraq that I gave earlier. My lecturers certainly mention it a lot. This is a mistaken comparison, however, and falls into a similar trap met by Hobbes. When considering social contract theory, we are interested in a pre-political state of nature, whereas these are examples of post-political states. The behaviour of people who have lived under the rule of law and then are suddenly free from its oversight will be very different from those who have never experienced this rule. We cannot ascertain the actions of people in the state of nature based solely on the likely actions of our contemporaries if they were 'parachuted' into such a state. Our best hope is either to study the behaviours of our distant ancestors who were closer to such a state, or attempt to model their choices using tools such as those offered by behavioural game theory. As we have shown, Rousseau's conception, albeit romanticised, is closer to the actual behaviour of early man than Hobbes's war of all against all. Likewise, if we model the two conceptions using game theoretic techniques, we can observe strong similarities in the games being played. However, the radically different pictures produced by the authors are derived from their differing analyses of people's strategies. Hobbes's 'diffident' people are suspicious and untrusting, and so end up in a poor state. By taking into account the fact that people have been shown to be social, and thus are likely to have dealings with the same people on a number of occasions, we can see that a more trusting outcome is likelier. However, the implication here is also that people naturally avoid the lawless state of nature, and without the requirement for a conscious social contract. It is simply in their best interests, and not a real compromise at all. The state of nature is not natural at all. So, while highly influential on current political thinking, one must not overestimate the relevance of the state of nature for contemporary thought and circumstance.

Node your homework, but please rewrite it before posting so that it's vaguely interesting. Then spend some time on the links. I hope I've successfully done this here. For reference, and the benefit of plagiarism checkers, I am Matt Kane, at the University of Bath, and I wrote the essay upon which this is based for my European Political Thought course. I wrote this version after it was graded and returned.

References

  • Axelrod, R. (1990). The Evolution of Cooperation. London: Penguin.
  • Bruno, V., & Christopher, M. (2004). Game Theory and Ethics. In N. Z. Edward (Ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
  • Dworkin, R. (1975). The Original Position. In N. Daniels (Ed.), Reading Rawls : Critical Studies on Rawls' A Theory of Justice London: Blackwell.
  • Gourevitch, V. (1997). Editorial notes. In V. Gourevitch (Ed.), Rousseau: 'The Discourses' and Other Early Political Writings: v. 1 (Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought) Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Hampton, J. (2001). Hobbes and Game Theory. In N. Warburton, J. Pike, & D. Matravers (Eds.), Reading political philosophy: Machiavelli to Mill (pp. 106-12). London: Routledge.
  • Hobbes, T. (1968). Leviathan (Pelican Classics). Harmondsworth: Penguin.
  • Kane, M. (2004). Iterative Prisoners' Dilemma Game. from http://kane.me.uk/ipd/
  • Matravers, D. (2001). Jean-Jacques Rousseau: The Social Contract. In N. Warburton, J. Pike, & D. Matravers (Eds.), Reading political philosophy: Machiavelli to Mill (pp. 185-213). London: Routledge.
  • Pike, J. (2001). Thomas Hobbes: Leviathan. In N. Warburton, J. Pike, & D. Matravers (Eds.), Reading political philosophy: Machiavelli to Mill (pp. 68-98). London: Routledge.
  • Rawls, J. (1973). A Theory of Justice. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Rawls, J., & Kelly, E. (2001). Justice as Fairness: a Restatement. Cambridge, Mass. ; London: Belknap Press.
  • Reynolds, V. (1966). Open Groups in Hominid Evolution. Man, 1(4), 441-52.
  • Rousseau, J.-J. (2004). The Social Contract. London: Penguin Books Ltd.
  • Rousseau, J.-J. (1997). Rousseau: 'The Discourses' and Other Early Political Writings: v. 1 (Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Skyrms, B. (2001). The Stag Hunt. Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association, March 2001.

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