A state of nature; a life where no governable state exists and no one possesses political power. ‘Why do we not live in a state of nature?’ some may ask. Why must we be under the government’s power? The first step in understanding why we have something, like the government, is to consider what life would be like without it. There has been many different concepts over time as to what a ‘state of nature’ really is and if life really would be awful without it. Initially, Hobbes believed that in a state of nature, all men would turn ‘nasty and brutish’ and life would turn into a never-ending cycle of crime and war as there would be no one there to stop us.
On the contrary, Locke believed that man would be content in a state of nature, that life would be the opposite of awful and we would act morally towards each other due to the social contract. Thirdly, Rousseau thought that if we ever found ourselves in a state of nature, men would turn to savages, but would be happy with it. In actual fact we are very unlikely to experience a state of nature in our lifetime, so the most we can do is to just imagine. In support of Hobbes’s view, no one, no police would be there to stop us from doing whatever it takes to experience total happiness. For example, if we desperately needed money, no one could stop us from committing fraud or robbing a bank in order to get what we want. However, it may work when we think about it in our own perspective, but imagine what you would do in a state of nature, and times it by 7 billion.
The imagery you now have in your head is most likely chaotic and out of control. This is the exact reason why Hobbes was so against a state of nature. In Hobbes’s most famous piece of work, ‘the leviathan’, he wrote that in a man’s natural state, “the life of man solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short…The condition of man…is a condition of war of everyone against everyone.” This leads us to believe that life in a state of nature, with no rules, morality or punishment by law would be awful. However, Hobbes’s idea of the state of nature is challenged by John Locke’s beliefs, who believed in the social contract.
The state of nature, and the state of war, which however some men have confounded, are as far distant as a state of peace, good will, mutual assistance, and preservation, and a state of Enmity, malice, violence and mutual destruction are from one another.” Locke wrote this in his piece of work, the ‘second treatise of civil government’, which completely contrasted what Hobbes wrote in the Leviathan. Locke supposed that it would generally be possible to live an acceptable life even in the absence of government. Locke’s view states that if we were placed in a state of nature, the unwritten rules of the ‘social contract’ would take place and although we may have the power to do what we like, we choose not to for the sake of doing the ‘right thing’ for our fellow man.
Thirdly, Rousseau’s ideas take a large step in the idea that mankind do the right thing for one another, not because they feel like they have to due to the moral contract, but because they simply like to. Like Hobbes and Locke, Rousseau agreed that each and every one of us has an underlying idea of self preservation when we agree to help another, however he also believes this is not the end of the story. In Rousseau’s famous ‘Discourse on the Origin of Inequality’, he wrote that we all have ‘an innate repugnance at seeing a fellow creature suffer’, adding that this is ‘so natural, that even the very brutes themselves sometimes give evident proofs of it’. Rousseau believes that compassion is what drives the average man against war and conflict, and that empathy is what drives us into doing the ‘right thing’. Thus, Rousseau argues that in a state of nature, man would be able to live in a civil and communal society based on the consideration of others feelings and wants.
But, the next question is, how concise are these opinions on how the state of nature would be? For example, if Rousseau agreed that we are ultimately driven by self preservation, how is it possible for us to put the wants and needs of our community first? Also, what is it that we really mean by ‘awful’? It is questionable that any of these philosophers believe that a state of nature would be ‘awful’, even Hobbes. Although he believes we would all turn on each other and purely live for our own self righteousness, not once does he state in the Leviathan or any of his work that life itself would really be ‘awful’.
Each and every one of these three substantial philosophers has points that both inspire and repel us from the idea of a state of nature. Hobbes, who all-in-all described a state of nature as chaotic and lawless, reminded us that we would have the right to do whatever we wanted in order to achieve pure contentment. Locke, who suggested that we would still feel pressurized to do the right thing, also mentioned that our fellow man would do the right thing for us. Finally Rousseau, whose prediction of a state of nature seems to be the most optimistic one, may seem unrealistic and therefore put us off the idea of what a life without government would really be like.
As previously mentioned, life in a ‘state of nature’ remains fiction to us. We have never experienced this way of life; hence we cannot say that we have any proof as to what it would be like in this age. Life without enforcement may turn out to be awful; on the other hand, wouldn’t this view just promote the government that we have already? In which case, do we have a right to complain about our way of life as it is when we can compare it to a much ‘worse’ option? However, as we continue to debate about if this way of life would be awful, we must remember that we have not experienced it, therefore we have no knowledge of it, and finally, we cannot make a clear judgement or prediction on whether it would really be awful or enjoyable.