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Political Philosophy: Unit 2 The state of nature

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Book: Political Philosophy: Unit 2 The state of nature
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Date: Saturday, 25 November 2017, 4:03 AM

2.1 Unit overview

Political philosophy is centred on the study of the state: what it is, what it should do, and what justifies its existence. To help think about these questions, some philosophers start by trying to imagine what life would be like without the state: in other words, in the ‘state of nature’. This unit explores the fascinating question of how human beings would behave if they were not constrained by government and the law. Would there be peace and harmony, or war? How can we know?

In this unit you will:

  • be introduced to the idea of the state of nature
  • consider the different accounts of the state of nature provided by Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau
  • come to see the ways in which assumptions about human nature influence philosophers’ accounts of the state of nature
  • develop your own views about the plausibility of different accounts of human nature.

As in all the units to follow, you will also become acquainted with some technical terminology, learn some important philosophical distinctions, and reflect on the methodology of political philosophy.

This unit begins by looking in detail at the question of why political philosophers are interested in considering what life would be like in a ‘state of nature’, without government.

You will then be guided through the views of Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau, in turn, looking both at extracts from primary texts and at discussions of their views in the main course textbook.

Alongside the optional reading activity, there are three types of activities in this unit.

  • Quizzes that will help you understand the views of these thinkers. In particular, it will help you to see the ways in which assumptions about human nature lead to different views concerning the state of nature. This is split into four short sections, one each on Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau and a final one considering them all together.
  • Reflection activities that will help you consolidate your thoughts.
  • A discussion concerning the plausibility of the different accounts of human nature and the state of nature.

You should answer the quiz questions on Hobbes as soon as you have finished the reading assignments on Hobbes. Similarly for Locke and Rousseau. On completing the Rousseau quiz, you should answer the final section of the quiz.

You will be prompted to make notes after the completion of each short quiz, to help prepare you for the discussion activity. Please try to start this activity by the evening of day 4 so as to maximise the time for discussion.

By the end of this unit you will have an understanding of:

  • the idea of the ‘state of nature’
  • the differing accounts of the state of nature provided by Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau
  • the way in which assumptions about human nature inform philosophers’ accounts of the state of nature.

In doing these things you will be engaging in:

  • various thought experiments
  • conceptual analysis
  • causal reasoning

You may find some of the primary sources difficult to understand. Don’t worry. I still find many of them tough too, 25 years after I first read them. Often the language is hard to understand because it is written in an unfamiliar form of English from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. If you are having trouble understanding the primary text, skim-read it and then move on to the Wolff textbook. If you are still having difficulty, get onto the forums and tell people what the problem is. If there is something you don’t understand, then someone else might be able to help. Your tutor is there to help too, but can only help you if he or she knows you are having a problem!

Out of curiosity, you might want to look at a ‘translation’ of passages from Locke into modern English, produced by the philosopher Jonathan Bennett.

This forms part of a series of such translations produced by Bennett.

If you want to check these versions against the originals on which we shall be concentrating, the readings from this unit are in Chapters 2 and 3 of Locke’s Second Treatise on Government.

Locke's book is available online. Here are the links to the editions made available online by the Liberty Fund and by the Constitution Society.

2.2 Guide to reading

All the readings for this unit come from the course texts:

  • Wolff: Introduction and Chapter 1
  • Rosen and Wolff (eds.): Selections 2, 3 and 5

As we work through the ‘Reading’ and ‘Activities’ for this unit, you will be directed to the precise pages and selections of the texts.

Optional activity: reading

There are articles in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on Hobbes and Locke.

These provide interesting background reading but are optional only. It is far from essential to read these articles, but they can help you gain a broader understanding. You will see that in this course there are several references to the Stanford Encyclopedia; a free, online resource, to which new entries are regularly being added. It is an excellent place to browse.

You might also find it very interesting to look at the Dictionary of National Biography, available through Oxford Reference Online, which also includes entries for both Hobbes and Locke.

Both of these articles are available through Oxford Reference Online. This is accessible through the course homepage.

2.3 Introduction to the state of nature

Please read the introduction to the issues in the Wolff textbook, pp. 6–8.

This short selection introduces the idea of the state of nature and attempts to explain why it has been such an important issue. Please read it now.

Individual activity: quiz

On completion consider the question: Why have political philosophers wanted to understand what life would be like without the state, in the state of nature?

You may like to write down your answer. When you have done so, click on ‘Reveal’ to see the answer I have suggested:

Reveal

By imagining what life would be like without the state, we will come to see why we have one, in particular:

  • what it is for
  • what problems it exists to solve
  • under what conditions it would be legitimate.

Don’t worry if your answer doesn’t match this exactly. It is important, though, that you understand why I have given the answer I have. If you don’t see this right away, take a look at the reading again. If you still don’t understand, or if you disagree, get on to the State of nature forum. Perhaps others will have similar concerns. This also applies to all the quiz questions that follow.

2.4 Hobbes

This section of your reading has two parts:

  1. A short extract from Hobbes’s masterpiece, Leviathan (Selection 2 in Rosen and Wolff (eds.)).
  2. A description and analysis of Hobbes’s argument from the Wolff textbook, pp. 8–17.

Please now read the extract from Hobbes.

Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan is arguably the greatest work of political philosophy written in English. The other works that might compete for this title include John Locke’s Second Treatise on Government, John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty and, some might say, John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice. Extracts from all these will be read on this course, and in fact Locke is part of the reading for this week.

Leviathan was published in 1651. It is long work, written in the context of the English Civil War, arguing for the advantage and legitimacy of an absolute sovereign as the only alternative to an anarchic situation of a state of nature, which would be a war of all against all. Please read the short selection now. Remember not to worry if you find it hard to understand. If necessary, skim-read it and then move on to the next reading.

Please now read the selection from the Wolff textbook, pp. 8–17.

Individual activity: Hobbes quiz

Please now answer the first section of the quiz, on Hobbes. Remember that you may, if you wish, write your answers in your blog or elsewhere before clicking on ‘Reveal’.

  1. Does Hobbes think that one of the reasons for war in the state of nature is that people are naturally equal or naturally unequal? Reveal

    Naturally equal, in the limited sense of being equally capable of killing each other.

  2. According to Hobbes, would natural human tendencies in the absence of government lead to war or to peace? Reveal

    War.

  3. What, for Hobbes, and using Hobbes’s own terms, are the three principal causes of ‘quarrel’ in the state of nature? Reveal

    Competition, diffidence and glory.

  4. Complete the following quote, that life in the state of nature is ‘solitary, poor, …’ Reveal

    nasty, brutish and short.

  5. Does Hobbes think that it is unjust for one person to kill or attack another in the state of nature? Reveal

    No. In the state of nature the notions of justice and injustice have no place.

Individual activity: Hobbes

Does Hobbes provide a plausible account of the state of nature? Write down some thoughts about this now in your blog or elsewhere, so that you will have notes to help you when you join in the discussion at the end of this unit.

2.5 Locke

This section of your reading has two parts

  1. A short extract from Locke’s Second Treatise on Government
  2. A description and analysis of Locke’s argument from the Wolff textbook.

Locke’s view of the state of nature is commonly contrasted with that of Hobbes. It was first published in 1690, about 40 years after Leviathan. Locke published the Second Treatise on Government anonymously and never acknowledged it in his lifetime. It was considered, quite literally, a revolutionary text, arguing that the King’s power has moral limits, in that individuals have natural rights to life, liberty and property. On this view, taxation without the consent of the people is illegitimate. The foundation of Locke’s political philosophy is his social contract theory of political authority, and this, in turn, starts from his depiction of the state of nature. We will look at other aspects of Locke’s views in later units.

Please read the Locke extract, Selection 3 in Rosen and Wolff (eds.), followed by pp. 17–23 of Wolff.

Individual activity: Locke quiz

Now answer the quiz, remembering to write your answers in your blog or elsewhere if you want to, before looking at my answers.

  1. Is, for Locke, the state of nature a state of liberty or a state of licence? Reveal

    A state of liberty.

  2. What is Locke’s ‘law of nature’? Reveal

    That no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty or possessions.

  3. Why does Locke think that people in the state of nature have the right to punish others who disobey the law of nature? Reveal

    Because otherwise the law of nature would be in vain.

  4. How is the appropriate level of punishment determined in the state of nature? Reveal

    To make it an ‘ill bargain’ to the transgressor, give him cause to repent, and terrify others from doing the like.

  5. Why does Locke think that Civil Government is needed? Reveal

    Because ill nature, passion and revenge can carry people too far in punishing transgressors.

Individual activity: Locke and the state of nature

Does Locke provide a plausible account of the state of nature? Once more, jot a few notes down about this in your blog or elsewhere, as preparation for the discussion at the end of the unit.

2.6 Rousseau

This section of your reading has two parts.

  1. A short extract from Rousseau’s Discourse on the Origins of Inequality.
  2. A description and analysis of Rousseau’s argument from the Wolff textbook.

Rousseau wrote A Discourse on the Origins of Inequality for an Essay Prize announced by the Dijon Academy. It was published in 1755. Rousseau did not win the prize – in fact it was not awarded – which was a disappointment to him, as he had earlier won a Dijon Academy prize for his ‘first discourse’, A Discourse on the Arts and Sciences, in which he argued, controversially, that the development of the arts and sciences had done more to corrupt human morals than to improve them.

A Discourse on the Origins of Inequality pursues some of these themes, painting a far more optimistic picture of life in the state of nature than Hobbes, and one that does not presuppose such a well-developed sense of morality as that proposed by Locke. It is in this text that Rousseau introduces the idea of the ‘noble savage’.

Please read the Rousseau selection (Selection 5 in Rosen and Wolff), followed by pp. 24–33 of Wolff.

Individual activity: Rousseau quiz

Now answer the Rousseau quiz questions – writing you thoughts down before you reveal the answer if you find this helpful.

  1. What is the chief mistake made by previous theorists of the state of nature, according to Rousseau? Reveal

    They have taken the traits of people in contemporary society as if they were the natural traits of individuals without government.

  2. What does Rousseau believe to be the ‘goods’ desired and ‘evils’ feared by the savage man? Reveal

    Food, female and sleep; pain and hunger.

  3. Does Rousseau think that the state of nature would be a state of war or peace? Reveal

    Peace.

  4. Which natural emotion does Rousseau think Hobbes has ignored which Rousseau believes is common to human beings and animals, such as horses? Reveal

    Compassion.

  5. Does Rousseau think that the savage is dependent on others, or self-sufficient? Reveal

    Self-sufficient.

Individual activity: Rousseau and the state of nature

Does Rousseau provide a plausible account of the state of nature? Write down some thoughts about this now in your blog or elsewhere.

2.7 State of nature

Now please answer the questions in the state of nature quiz, which draws on all three philosophers studied here. Questions 5 and 6 are less straightforward than the others, and you might not agree with my answers. In fact, I prefer it when students disagree, provided that they can back up their disagreement with well-reasoned arguments! If you do disagree, you are very welcome to bring this up in the discussion. Recording your thoughts on these questions in your blog or elsewhere may help you remember interesting points to raise in the forum.

Individual activity: State of nature quiz

  1. What is the main aspect of human nature that, for Hobbes, draws man in the state of nature into war? Reveal

    The pursuit of felicity, which leads to the desire for ‘power after power’.

  2. What, for Locke, is the main aspect of human nature that prevents the state of nature from being a state of war? Reveal

    Humans are motivated to obey the moral law.

  3. What for Rousseau, is the main aspect of human nature that prevents the state of nature from being a state of war? Reveal

    Human beings are motivated by compassion.

  4. Hobbes sees three sources of war in the state of nature: competition, diffidence and glory. Explain what each of these mean. Reveal

    Competition is to attack for the sake of gain. Diffidence is to attack for the sake of self-defence by means of a ‘pre-emptive strike’. Glory is to attack for the sake of reputation.

  5. Would any of Hobbes’s sources of war exist in Locke’s state of nature? Reveal

    If people lived according to the law of nature, Hobbes’s sources of war would not exist, but it is probably not realistic to think that the motives of competition, diffidence and glory would never occur. Nevertheless, for Locke the existence of the right to punish might mean that people would be less inclined to attack for competition, and would take away some of the motive for attacking for diffidence, and perhaps glory.

  6. Would any of these sources of war exist in Rousseau’s state of nature? Reveal

    Rousseau seems to suggest that people would prefer to get what they need through peaceful means, although there may be some competition. Diffidence and glory are much less likely as Rousseau suggests that the savage does not plan for the future, and these are future-oriented goals.

Group activity: State of nature

In your view, has the work of any philosopher discussed in this unit - Hobbes, Locke or Rousseau - provided a plausible picture of what life would be like in the state of nature?

Using the notes you have made up to now, answer the question above, posting to the State of nature forum. Please make your first post by the evening of day 4, to allow some time for participants to read each other’s posts and to comment on them.

In your discussion you may want to raise the issue of whether there is any historical – or indeed any other – evidence of what life would be like in a state of nature. You may also wish to consider whether it matters for this issue whether there is any evidence for any of the views. Philosophers, on the whole, are mainly concerned with exploring the consequences of particular beliefs or principles or hypotheses than to test their truth, for this latter task they have to rely on more empirical disciplines. In this case, however, philosophers seem to appeal to their ideas of how things would be in the real world. Does this strengthen their case, weaken it, or make no difference?

2.8 Concluding question

Does reflection on some sort of ideal or fictional state of nature really provide insight into any issues in political philosophy?

2.9 Further reading

  • Raphael 1990, chapter 2 (from p. 35 to 55), chapter 7 (sections 1 and 2, up to p. 181). Chapter 6 is also relevant.
  • Mackenzie 2009, chapter 2 (pp. 21-32).
  • Williams 1991, chapters 5 to 7 are dedicated to Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau. Chapter 3 on Aristotle is also relevant in that it offers an example of an alternative, naturalistic, approach to politics.
  • Morrow 2005, pp. 25-38.