For centuries political philosophers such as Thomas Hobbes, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and John Locke, just to name a few, have been trying to find the best answer to the following question: ‘How would it be to live in the state of nature?’
The first of the aforementioned men tries to do so in one of his famous works, Leviathan. In this book he follows the topic of civil wars, its evils and anarchy which would accompany them (Wolff 2006, p. 8). He lists nineteen Laws of Nature, which if obeyed would bring people peace.
The first three Laws are considered to be the most fundamental of them (Dyzenhaus 2001, p. 469). In the first Law of Nature Hobbes writes: ‘every man ought to endeavour peace, as far as he has hope of obtaining it’ (Hobbes 1996, p. 87). In my essay I am going to try to explain why Hobbes argues that every man should seek peace. I will also try to show why it may not be easy to do so.
Besides, I will present my critique of Hobbes’ arguments and why I partially disagree with him.
First of all, in order to answer the first part of the essay question, we should know what Hobbes’ definition of peace is. However, it will be easier to explain how he defines ‘war’ first. According to Hobbes, during the war every man is against each other, all humans are enemies. However, the war is not just about battling. It is also ‘the declared disposition to resolve conflicts of will by resorting to force’ (Boucher 1990, p.
208), or to put it another way: a constant readiness to fight. And as Hobbes states, peace is all other time (Hobbes 1996, p. 84).
We also need to examine what he exactly means by saying that ‘every man ought to endeavour peace’. In my opinion it is hard to tell whether Hobbes thinks we are obliged and bound to do so or whether we just should seek peace as it is a rational thing to do for everyone living in the state of nature (i.e. the state of war, for Hobbes) (Gauthier 2001, p. 8).
So why does Hobbes assume we should always seek peace? The answer to this question should be fairly easy if we know what Hobbes says about living in the state of nature as his description of it is very negative and pessimistic. The state of nature is a ‘natural’ state without any form of government, where no one has any political power (Wolff 2006, pp. 6-7). According to Hobbes, the state of nature equals the state of war. In the state of nature we live in constant fear and danger of death. Everyone has the right to do anything they want to each other’s bodies, which leads people to killing others in order to avoid being killed. There is no industry, navigation, culture, knowledge, account of time or society whatsoever, and the life in such a state is ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short’ (Hobbes 1996, p. 84). Personally, I do not think that the life in the state of nature would be as bad as Hobbes suggests. Also many philosophers (such as Locke, Rousseau or anarchists) disagreed with Hobbes. Now I am going to present other philosophers’ views on the state of nature and on Hobbes’ opinion. Read about anarchists demand the impossible
Hobbes argues that all human beings always search for something, especially felicity and power (we all ‘naturally love … dominion over others’ [Hobbes 1996, p. 111]). By felicity he means continual success in obtaining the goods a man desires (Replogle 1987, pp. 577-578). It will be possible to achieve those if he gains power, i.e. riches and authority over other people, which will help him acquire goods in the future (van Mill 1995, p. 452). What is more, there is a scarcity of goods in the state of nature and there are always at least two people who desire the same thing. As a consequence of attempting to achieve power and of the scarcity of goods, competition between people will arise. Competition is often a good thing but Hobbes assumes it would lead to war. John Locke tells us something completely different. He argues that God gave people a vast amount of goods and there is an enough number of everything for all of us. Therefore, it should not be a cause of conflict (Wolff 2006, p. 22).
Jean-Jacques Rousseau disagrees with Hobbes as well. He says that in the state of nature humans have few desires and that they are more likely to acquire goods by gathering or hunting rather than by stealing them from others (Wolff 2006, p. 26). He also claims that they are completely uninterested in power or ruling over other people. The only thing that they desire is their survival. They live in good relations with nature and other human beings. It is unlikely that they would do any harm to each other as they pose a very little threat to other humans and other species (Lane Jr. and Clark 2006, p. 67).
Hobbes tells us that in the state of nature every one is equal. However, Hobbes’ idea of equality does not mean that we should all respect and help each other, be tolerant for others, etc. What he means by ‘equality’ is physical equality. He claims that all humans have more or less the same strength. Therefore, every one of us is capable of killing another human being. Even a very weak individual is able to kill someone who is much stronger either by co-operating with other people or by deceit. Hobbes tells us that no one is invulnerable against a potential attack. Thus everyone has to be on constant guard to prevent from being killed (Wolff 2006, pp. 9-11). Even though Hobbes’ claim that everyone is fairly equal when it comes to their physical and mental abilities is quite true in my opinion, he does not mention our equal rights we naturally have. As Locke argues, no one has a right to subordinate anyone else (Wolff 2006, pp. 17-18).
Human rights documents in contemporary liberal democratic countries also state that people are equal in rights (for instance, as the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen says, ‘Men are born and remain free and equal in rights.’ or ‘All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.’ from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights). I also disagree with Hobbes’ statement that in the state of nature people would be in constant fear for being killed but I am going to show my arguments in a short while.
Hobbes’ first Law of Nature says that in the state of nature every man has the right to do literally anything to ensure preservation of their life. It includes killing other people, if we are afraid that they might want to kill us (Gauthier 2001, p. 8). Therefore, in the state of nature any of our actions that helps us preserve ourselves is justified and there are no limits on our freedom whatsoever and we have the liberty to do anything we find suitable in a certain situation (Curran 2002, p. 66). According to Hobbes, there are three main causes of attacks on other people in the state of nature.
First, for gain, i.e. to attain a certain good that belongs to someone else; secondly, for safety, i.e. person A kills person B in order to avoid being murdered by them; and thirdly, for glory, i.e. to show other people that we are strong and powerful, which creates a possibility that other people will be afraid of us and, therefore, they will be scared to attack us (Wolff 2006, p. 11).
We could disagree with Hobbes by saying that in the state of nature we would not necessarily be so suspicious that we would kill other people in order to prevent attacks from them. Maybe we would simply decide to ‘live and let live’. Hobbes, however, says that even while living under authority, so when being protected by the law, we are still very suspicious. We lock doors in our homes and cars, engage long and complicated security procedures at the airports, etc. Thus, in the state of nature, Hobbes tells us, we would be even more feared and suspicious, which would likely lead us to kill each other, not even for gain but for safety and reputation (Wolff 2006, pp. 12-13). His critics strongly disagree though.
Anarchists, such as Peter Kropotkin, say that in the state of nature, seeing that war gives no benefits, people would learn to cooperate. Kropotkin argues that human beings are naturally very intelligent and cooperative (Slatter 1996, p. 258). Also Jean-Jacques Rousseau would disagree with Hobbes. Unlike Hobbes, he claims that we have compassion and pity. Rousseau says that we are generally sympathetic to each other and that we have an aversion to harm. We do not like seeing other people suffer so we naturally avoid harming them. This would restrain us from starting a war (Wolff 2006, pp. 24-26).
As I have pointed out, in the state of nature every person has unlimited and unrestricted freedom to do anything they wish. Normally it would be a good thing. Hobbes, however, looks at this problem in a different way. There is little or no benefit, he argues, of holding the right and having the liberty to do as we please if there is no protection of the right holder in their exercise of the right. Everyone has the same right to do anything they want, and since no one protects them to exercise their right, it puts them in a situation as if they had no right at all (Curran 2002, pp. 66-67). John Locke would certainly disagree with Hobbes. Locke argues that in the state of nature people have to obey the Law of Nature. However, it does not put any limits on our liberty because it only says what is morally allowed. Locke emphasizes a great role of God who is superior to us. As he believes, God does not want us to harm each other in any way, which for Locke is the reason why we should not do that. Therefore, unlike Hobbes claimed, we do not have any right to other people’s bodies. We are completely free and we have the liberty to do anything we wish but we are not morally permitted to do harm to other humans (Wolff 2006, pp. 18-19).
Hobbes also points out that for people it is rational, natural and universal to have a desire for peace. If they realise that the state of nature (i.e. the state of war) is evil, they will want peace (Trainor 1985, p. 348). ‘For it can never be that war shall preserve life, and peace destroy it’ (Hobbes 1996, p. 105). Hobbes tells us that in order to preserve our lives, we will have to turn to peace (Gauthier 2001, p. 13). He suggests that we all lay down our rights and be satisfied with as much liberty against others as we would allow others to have against us. As we renounce our rights, we have to accept it and cannot hinder other people from doing anything they want. However, in order to achieve peace, he says, we should make covenants with each other. In the third Law of Nature he argues that once we have made a covenant, we are obliged and bound to obey it and we cannot break it even if it is made through fear (unless something unexpected happens, which will allow us to break the promise we previously made, or unless we are forgiven). He reminds us that we should not violate our faith as it is a law of God. If we do not perform our covenants, we will still be in the state of war (Gauthier 2001, pp. 265-267). However, as Hobbes says in the first Law of Nature, we are required to seek peace only if we are entirely sure that other people will do so, too. Otherwise we ‘may seek, and use, all helps, and advantages of war’, which means that we are entitled to kill others if we feel endangered (van Mill 1995, p. 453). This is why, according to Hobbes, we should not keep our covenants if other people do not do so. And it is obvious that there will be people who will break covenants, which will make other people not keep their promises, either. Consequently, it will all lead to war.
It might seem contradictory when Hobbes says that it is rational for people to seek both peace and war. It does make sense if we distinguish individual and collective rationality though. In the state of nature for me as an individual it is best and rational to attack others (in order to avoid being killed, for gain and reputation), which will lead to war. But for the entire community it is rational if we all cooperate. However, as I have already said, there will always be people who will not obey the Law of Nature. If this happens, or even if I suspect someone else might break the Law of Nature, I am fully allowed not to obey it, either (Wolff 2006, pp. 14-16).
For the reason I have just mentioned, in Hobbes’ theory it is simply impossible for people to achieve peace in the state of nature. Thus, he tells us that in order to leave peacefully we should choose a sovereign who would share our desire for peace and help us find it. He would have the absolute power over us and therefore we could safely obey the law since he would punish those who would not (Trainor 1985, p. 348; Wolff 2006, p. 16).
To sum it all up, Thomas Hobbes is a huge opponent of the state of nature. He claims that the state of nature would be the state of war in which everyone would be ready to fight all the time. People would live in constant fear for being killed, which would lead them to killing each other. There would be no place for knowledge or arts whatsoever. Hobbes says that we should seek peace and in order to do so we ought to obey the Laws of Nature. However, we only have to obey them if we are certain that other people will do so as well. And, as he goes, obeying the Laws of Nature would be a foolish thing to do, if people around kept breaking the law. He says that we should make covenants with other people and give up our rights but this could not last long, either. Therefore, peace can only be attained if we decide to choose a sovereign. Hobbes’ vision of the state of nature is very dark and pessimistic. Personally I agree that living under a sovereign power would be safer. However, I do not think that people would keep killing each other in a state without any form of government. In my opinion after a while they would learn to cooperate and maybe they would live peaceful and fearless lives.