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State of nature is a term in political philosophy used in social contract theories to describe the hypothetical condition of humanity before the state's foundation. In a broader sense, the state of nature is the condition before the rule of positive law comes into being, thus being a synonym of anarchy. The idea of the state of nature was a part of a classical republicanism theory as a hypothetical reason of entering a state of society by establishing a government.

In some versions of social contract theory, there are no rights in the state of nature, only freedoms, and it is the contract that creates rights and obligations. In other versions the opposite occurs: the contract imposes restrictions upon individuals that curtail their natural rights.

Contents

History

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Hobbes' philosophy

The concept of state of nature was posited by the 17th century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes in Leviathan.[1] 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). In this state any person has a natural right to the liberty to do anything he wills to preserve his own life, and life is "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short" (loc. cit.). He believed that in the international arena, states behave as individuals do in a state of nature.

Within the state of nature there is no injustice, since there is no law, excepting certain natural precepts, the first of which is "that every man ought to endeavour peace, as far as he has hope of obtaining it" (Leviathan, ch. XIV); 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" (loc. cit.). From this, Hobbes develops the way out of the state of nature into civil government by mutual contracts.

Hobbes described the concept in the Latin phrase bellum omnium contra omnes, in his work de Cive.

Locke's view on the state of nature

John Locke considers the state of nature in his Second Treatise on Civil Government written around the time of the Engagement controversy in England during the 1680s. For Locke, "The state of Nature has a law of Nature to govern it", and that law is Reason. Locke believes that reason teaches that "no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty or possessions"; and that transgressions of this may be punished. This view of the state of nature is partly deduced from Christian belief (unlike Hobbes, whose philosophy is not dependent upon any prior theology): the reason we may not harm another is that we are all the possessions of God and do not own ourselves.

Although it may be natural to assume that Locke was responding to Hobbes, Locke never refers to Hobbes by name, and may instead have been responding to other writers of the day, like Robert Filmer.[2] In fact, Locke's First Treatise is entirely a response to Filmers Patriarcha, and takes a step by step method to refuting Filmer's theory set out in Patriarcha. The conservative party at the time had rallied behind Filmers Patriarcha, whereas the Whigs, scared of another prosecution of Anglicans and Protestants, rallied behind the theory set out by Locke in his Two Treatises of Government; as it gives a clear theory as to why you should be allowed to overthrow a monarchy who abuses the trust set in it by the people.

Rousseau

Hobbes's view was challenged in the eighteenth century by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who claimed that Hobbes was taking socialized persons and simply imagining them living outside of the society in which they were raised. He affirmed instead that people were neither good nor bad. Men knew neither vice nor virtue since they had almost no dealings with each other. Their bad habits are the products of civilization. Nevertheless the conditions of nature forced people to enter a state of society by establishing a civil society.

Hume's theory

David Hume's view is that the use of a "state of nature" hypothesis in political philosophy is a rhetorical ploy, or at best a thought-experiment, and should not be taken seriously as a statement about what human beings have historically been or done.

As he says in A Treatise of Human Nature (1739), human beings are naturally social: "’Tis utterly impossible for men to remain any considerable time in that savage condition, which precedes society; but that his very first state and situation may justly be esteem’d social. This, however, hinders not, but that philosophers may, if they please, extend their reasoning to the suppos’d state of nature; provided they allow it to be a mere philosophical fiction, which never had, and never cou’d have any reality." (Book III, Part II, Section II: "Of the Origin of Justice and Property."

Hume's ideas about human nature expressed in the Treatise suggest that he would be happy with neither Hobbes's nor his contemporary Rousseau's thought-experiments. He explicitly derides as incredible the hypothetical humanity described in Hobbes's Leviathan (Book II, Part III, Section I: "Of Liberty and Necessity"). And he argues in "Of the Origin of Justice and Property" that if mankind were universally benevolent, we would not hold Justice to be a virtue: "’tis only from the selfishness and confin’d generosity of men, along with the scanty provision nature has made for his wants, that justice derives its origin."

20th century

John Rawls used what amounted to an artificial state of nature. To develop his Theory of Justice, Rawls places everyone in the original position. The original position is a hypothetical state of nature used as a thought experiment to develop Rawls' theory of justice. People in the original position have no society and are under a veil of ignorance that prevents them from knowing how they may benefit from society. They do not know if they will be smart or dumb, rich or poor, or anything else about their fortunes and abilities. Rawls reasons that people in the original position would want a society where they had their basic liberties protected and where they had some economic guarantees as well. If society were to be constructed from scratch through a social agreement between individuals, these principles would be the expected basis of such an agreement. Thus, these principles should form the basis of real, modern societies since everyone should consent to them if society were organized from scratch in fair agreements.

Between nations

In Hobbes's view, once a civil government is instituted, the state of nature has disappeared between individuals because of the civil power which exists to enforce contracts. Between nations, however, no such power currently exists and therefore nations have the same rights to preserve themselves - including making war - as individuals possessed. Such a conclusion led some writers to the idea of association of nations or worldwide civil society. Among them there were Immanuel Kant with his work on perpetual peace.

Rawls also examines the state of nature between nations. In his work the Law of Peoples, Rawls applies a modified version of his original position thought experiment to international relationships. Rawls says that people, not states, form the basic unit that should be examined. States should be encouraged to follow the principles from Rawls's earlier Theory of Justice. Democracy seems like it would be the most logical means of accomplishing these goals, but benign non-democracies should be seen as acceptable at the international stage. Rawls develops eight principles for how people should act on an international stage.

References

  1. ^ Hobbes, Thomas Leviathan. 1651 Edwin Curley (Ed.) 1994. Hackett Publishing.
  2. ^ Skinner, Quentin Visions of Politics. Cambridge.

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