The States of Nature

After having contributed one whole substantive post to this blog, I’m now going to take selfish advantage of the power of this public forum to request our readers’ help with an issue I’ve been working on.  I have an idea that seems original to me, but want to be sure I’m not overlooking important work already developed in the literature.

By no means am I an expert on either Locke or Hobbes.  But my understanding is that the scholarly consensus is that these two philosophers offer us very different, and mutually incompatible understandings of the State of Nature (SoN).  I think the assumption of mutual incompatibility is mistaken, and that that this has important implications for contemporary moral and political debate.

Here’s the basic idea.  It’s widely accepted that for both Hobbes and Locke, the SoN is a relational concept.  In other words, it is improper to say that an individual must either exist in the SoN or not simpliciter – for that individual may exist in the SoN with respect to some persons, and not with respect to others.  If you and I are subjects of the same civil society, than we are not in a SoN with respect to each other.  But if you and I are not subjects of any civil society, or if we are subjects of different civil societies, then we exist in a SoN with respect to each other, even though we may exist in a state of civil society with respect to some other persons.

But if the SoN is essentially relational, such that individuals may exist in it relative to some other individuals but not relative to another group, then why cannot we take this idea one step further and say that the correct description of the SoN depends on the nature of the particular relationship in question, such that some individuals are correctly described as existing in a Lockean SoN with respect to each other, while others exist in a Hobbesian SoN? 

How this works will depend on how exactly we understand the key differences between the Lockean and Hobbesian SoNs.  I think (though this is an issue on which I’d appreciate enlightenment by our readers if I’m wrong) that the question of the harmony of interests is key in distinguishing the descriptive characteristics of the Lockean and Hobbesian SoNs.  Hobbesian SoNs are marked by a fairly radical disharmony of interests, which in turn leads to violent conflict.  Lockean SoNs, on the other hand, are marked by a greater harmony of interests, so that we would expect to find the Lockean SoN marked by inconveniences but not the violent conflict described by Hobbes.

If this is right as a description of the empirical differences between Lockean and Hobbesian SoNs, then why not conclude that absent civil society, some individuals will be in a Lockean SoN with respect to (some) other individuals, and other individuals (or perhaps the same individuals) will be in a Hobbesian SoN with respect to (some) other individuals? 

That, in and of itself, strikes me as a pretty interesting conclusion.  But it gets better.  If the Hobbesian and Lockean *normative* theories can be seen as being based in some way on their empirical descriptions of the SoN, then perhaps we can conclude that neither normative theory is correct as a complete account of normative truth.  For individuals who would exist in a Lockean SoN with respect to each other, one sort of normative conclusion follows.  But for individuals who would exist in a Hobbesian SoN, quite another normative conclusion is warranted.  Depending on how we understand the connection between the descriptive and normative elements of Hobbes and Locke’s accounts, then, this kind of argument might lead to a sort of relativism about either the kinds of natural rights we have against one another, or the kinds of political authority that are justified for us.

So, what do you think?  Readers could really help me out by addressing any of the following questions.  1) Is this account original, or has it already been developed elsewhere?  2) Is there any literature that you think would be helpful in working out the details of this account more precisely?  3) Any worries you have with the argument as I’ve set it out?  Or any aspects of that argument that you’d particularly like to see developed in more detail?

Thanks in advance for the help!

5 Replies to “The States of Nature

  1. To simplify things, I’m going to write
    LSN(A,B) when I want to say “A would exist in a Lockean SoN with respect to B,” and
    HSN(A,B) when I want to say “A would exist in a Hobbesean SoN with respect to B.”
    Now for my question:
    Do you have any ideas about how to tell whether, for any given pair of individuals A and B, LSN(A,B) or HSN(A,B)?
    If whether LSN(A,B) or HSN(A,B) depends solely on very general facts about human nature — facts that apply equally to all of us — then (seemingly) either (x)(y)LSN(x,y) or (x)(y)HSN(x,y). That’s obviously not going to get you the relativism you want.
    But if whether LSN(A,B) or HSN(A,B) depends on facts about A and B in particular — if it depends on facts about A’s or B’s personality, or cultural background, or whatever — then it might be pretty difficult to tell whether, for any two individuals, LSN(A,B) or HSN(A,B), because were A and B in a state of nature, all of these factors might be different than they actually are, and we might not be able to tell what the differences would have been.

  2. Matt,
    interesting post. My Hobbes is little rusty after being away from Helsinki but here’s something I wonder about. I’m not sure that in the Hobbesian framework you can be simultaneously in state of nature relations with some people but not to others. I thought there is supposed to be mechanisms that spread the state of nature relations globally unless everyone commits themselves to the sovereignty. So, in the state of nature we are not supposed to be able to trust that others keep the contracts we try to make with them to enter non-state of nature relations, it is in the self-interests of each of us to make pre-emptive strikes against others forming any coalitions that might be disadvantegous to us, and so on. Therefore, it’s hard to see how, given Hobbes’s assumptions, islands of civilisations could be stable when there is a state of nature around.
    Another development to the contrary direction would presumably be the one described by Nozick. So, if some non-state of nature relations would be able to start up, then these coalitions would begin to look appealing to rational agents in the state of nature because of the additional advantages of the joined forces. Therefore, the non-state of nature relations would start to spread too. At some point the strongest coalitions would even force the rest of the people out of the state of nature for their own protection.
    Given these two tendencies of development I wonder whether there could be a stable mixture of both state of nature relations and non-state of nature relations. Of course this is different than the idea that people could simultaneously be in different kinds of state of nature relations. That sounds like an empirical question that probably is solvable – look at places where governments have failed and see if there are different kinds of relations. But, I’m not sure what the significance of this is. I’ve always been skeptical about the normative conclusions of state of nature scenarios anyway but that is another story.

  3. Thanks for the comment, David. My thought was that there was probably some kind of middle ground between the two options you present. LSN(A,B) vs HSN(A,B) might depend on features of an individual that are relatively stable (such that we might reasonably suppose that they would manifest in a certain sort of behavior across a host of nearby possible worlds), but not necessarily common to all persons.
    So, to take an extreme case, if someone in the civil society in which we live is generally aggressive, unable to empathize with others but instead taking pleasure in their pain, then it seems reaonable to suppose that he would be so in the SoN as well, and that the SoN in which I would exist with this person would probably be a Hobbesian one.
    Or, instead of aggressiveness and empathy, we could look at other aspects of their character relevant to determining their interests (since after all, what’s relevant on the analysis I’m floating here is the degree of conflict or harmony of interests among individuals). Physical ability might be relevant as well. If Infirm can only sustain himself by living of the proceeds of Able’s work (and Infirm has nothing to offer Able in exchange), then the SoN of these two individuals might well be characterized as a Hobbesian one as well.
    As for the stability of mixed SoN/Civil Society relationships that Jussi brings up, I think this might be sort of a side issue for my main argument. The real concern is the normativity of SoN stories. I think they can have normative implications, but they do so simply by serving as heuristics about the kinds of instrumental reasons for action we have vis-a-vis other individuals and governments. If Hobbes is right about what human nature and social interaction is like, then it makes sense (sort of) to conclude that there exists a reason for us to adopt strong governments and to go at each others’ throats in the absence of such government. If Locke is right about what human nature and social interaction is like, then a host of different normative implications follow.
    I think it’s got to be right that the content of morality depends on what we are like as human beings (together and individually), and I think that this is all that SoN stories can reasonably be taken to depend on. My thought in this post is that there might not be any one thing that all human beings are like, and so no one set of moral conclusions that follows from such an analysis. Rather, we might have a set of moral rules for Able-Able interactions, another for Able-Infirm interactions, etc.

  4. Matt,
    you say that:
    ‘As for the stability of mixed SoN/Civil Society relationships that Jussi brings up, I think this might be sort of a side issue for my main argument. The real concern is the normativity of SoN stories.’
    I wonder how these fit together. If mixed relationships are not stable, I’m not sure why we would need to be concerned about their normative consequences rather than the normative consequences of the stable situations. I mean the mixed relationships are in this case a mere phase towards either end of the more global situation.
    I agree that Hobbes and Locke give certain assumptions about human nature that are interesting. It may be that these features of humans would have normatative consequences (rather than state of nature per se). I just don’t think they are plausible views about human motivation, rationality, and so on.

  5. “It’s widely accepted that for both Hobbes and Locke, the SoN is a relational concept. In other words, it is improper to say that an individual must either exist in the SoN or not simpliciter – for that individual may exist in the SoN with respect to some persons, and not with respect to others. If you and I are subjects of the same civil society, than we are not in a SoN with respect to each other. But if you and I are not subjects of any civil society, or if we are subjects of different civil societies, then we exist in a SoN with respect to each other, even though we may exist in a state of civil society with respect to some other persons.”
    This seems broadly correct although I would suggest there are two different states of nature at play in both theorists work. The first is characterised by Hobbes as a war of all against all, and might be usefully refered to as the radical state of nature. This is when X is in the SoN with respect to everyone.
    But there is also a less radical form of the state of nature, namely the example you give where there is not a state of war of all against all, but there is no common authority over us perhaps because we are ruled by different sovereigns.
    I’m fairly convinced that the theories SoN’s are incompatible but not because of the Lockean vs Hobbesian theories of human nature (I’m inclined to think that this is a red herring that much of the literature on Hobbes vs Locke obbesses over unnecesarily.)
    I think the main differences between the two are their metaphysics and ultimately their epistemology.
    Basically Hobbes is sceptical that human reason can be used to resolve debates in a satisfactory manner:
    Take chapter 5 of Levithan:
    5.3) “And as in arithmetic unpractised men must, and professors themselves may often, err, and cast up false; so also in any other subject of reasoning, the ablest, most attentive, and most practised men may deceive themselves, and infer false conclusions; not but that reason itself is always right reason, as well as arithmetic is a certain and infallible art: but no one man’s reason, nor the reason of any one number of men, makes the certainty; no more than an account is therefore well cast up because a great many men have unanimously approved it. And therefore, as when there is a controversy in an account, the parties must by their own accord set up for right reason the reason of some arbitrator, or judge, to whose sentence they will both stand, or their controversy must either come to blows, or be undecided, for want of a right reason constituted by Nature; so is it also in all debates of what kind soever: and when men that think themselves wiser than all others clamour and demand right reason for judge, yet seek no more but that things should be determined by no other men’s reason but their own, it is as intolerable in the society of men, as it is in play after trump is turned to use for trump on every occasion that suit whereof they have most in their hand. For they do nothing else, that will have every of their passions, as it comes to bear sway in them, to be taken for right reason, and that in their own controversies: bewraying their want of right reason by the claim they lay to it.”
    If you believe this then it is perfectly reasonable to behave as Hobbes claims people will in the radical state of nature, simply because reason cannot settle a disagreement in the SoN and there is no reason to trust anyone (You would be a fool to). You don’t have to be a nasty person to behave this way, simply a (minimally self interested) reasonable one.
    Locke on the other hand believes that human reason can deliver the right answers because human reason is underwritten by divine truth. Indeed his favoring democracy (of right thinking christian men, of course) was in part as a mechanism for ensuring that we don’t mislead ourselves through self interest. Democracy in this context was a means of determining the right answer. (Very different to how many of us now conceptualise democracy ie as a means of finding an acceptable compromise)
    So I don’t think the differences between the two theorists SoN’s can really be characterised in terms of the shared interests they have with people. Since it is not on this account the amount of shared interests that they have that distinguishes the two cases. To put it another way in a Hobbesian SoN most of our interests may well be shared, and possibly we would flourish if we combined forces, nonetheless since I have no guareentee nor good reason to believe your peace offering is anything but a clever trick I have no reason to trust you nor you me. In these circumstances despite shared interests we may still devolve into a war of all against all.
    You might be interested to know that a Chinese confucian philosopher, Xunzi, says some things that are remarkably similar to Hobbes (And there are historical similarities as well, being both situated after considerable civic strife), they solve the problem of trust in slightly different ways though.

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