A comparitive analysis on the theories of Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau regarding the concept of "state of nature"
The following is an exceprt from my final paper for a course titled Western Political Philosophies
Please disregard minor formatting issues
Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau all have philosophies that rely upon the concept of a state of nature. While they are all similar in that they all use this idea to describe the natural state of humanity, they are all profoundly different in how they portray that state. Hobbes is undeniably pessimistic about his views on humanity. Rousseau and Locke are both much more optimistic towards natural human interaction but are divided on more specific details about the conditions within the optimistic state. Hobbes' words are strong and have great significance. His arguments make sense, but I think it is simply too easy to say that society is inherently evil and bad and whatnot and therefore we just need an iron fist. Nature cannot simply be a state of war, otherwise it would not strive for the natural balance that it does. Therefore it makes sense that the state of war must be wholly separate from the state of nature. The argument here between Locke and Rousseau arises in what parts of natural life are natural life are natural and what parts are imposed where they do not actually exist. Rousseau's claim is that the other two theorists do just this. I tend to agree with Rousseau, not just on this point, but also on his idea that one true reality of existing society is inequality. When put together, Rousseau's arguments make the most sense to me.
Hobbes says that nature is a constant state of war and, as such, an all-controlling authoritarian rule is required to keep people from killing each other. This is true in that most animals, humans included, exhibit violent tendencies in many instances, especially when provoked. It is easy to see how this could be misconstrued as the natural way of things. However, as Rousseau points out, the primary flaw in Hobbes' thinking is his failure to take note of the natural animal drive for pity. If life were, as Hobbes claims it is, a constant state of fighting, this would not be possible. However, it is nearly always clear that humankind, as a whole would rather avoid harming another. In stead, we depend on each other. The best example is as we discussed in class, as the young grow stronger, they are less and less dependent on their parents, but as their parents age they become more dependant on the young. It is in this fact that Rousseau most effectively counters Hobbes. Locke clearly said that the state of nature was peaceful, which was in direct contradiction to a state of war, but did not give an example so effective as Rousseau to back it up.
Locke does make some very valid arguments about the state of nature though. He goes well beyond simply saying that nature is peaceful and war is a separate state. His defects of the state of nature are especially noteworthy. The first is that nature lacks an established and known law. Nature in and of itself simply has no set standards by which to live, but that is open to individual interpretation. Locke argues that in order for society to be effective, it must have a set of rules by which to live, that is recognized by all those in that society. The second defect is that nature lacks a known, impartial judge. If there are no laws in nature, then there can certainly be no one individual to judge right and wrong. Once law has been established it is essential that there be someone there to make judgment in fairness of what is right and wrong. The third and final defect is the lack of power to support the sentence when it is right and the power to execute it. Even if there is a fair and impartial judge, he will be powerless if he does not possess the authority to enforce his judgments. Thus, this defect is more a result of the other two than a defect on its own, however when included with the previous two, it becomes equally important. It is Locke's opinion that the job of government is to fix these defects. Humans are mostly rational creatures, and do not seek war. It is therefore the purpose of government to make and enforce laws that maintain a state of peace without encroaching on the natural rights of its citizens. These rights, as stated by Locke are life, liberty, and property. The first two are obvious. If one is to be at peace, one needs to be alive and able to live without unreasonable limits put on how that life is led. His definition of property is a little less concrete. In its most basic form, he states that everyone is entitled to their life, their liberty, and their estates, and that it is government's duty to protect this, including personal estates. It is on this issue that Rousseau, and myself as well, finds fault with Locke's thinking.
For the most part, Rousseau does not disagree with Locke's arguments. He also is of the opinion that nature and war are separate states. However he believes that Locke and Hobbes (Hobbes even more so than Locke) are imposing ideas upon this state of nature that do not naturally exist. The disagreement with Hobbes is very clear. Hobbes, according to Rousseau, is assuming war where it does not naturally exist. Rousseau believes quite the opposite: that self-preservation is the natural tendency for people, that it is natural for people to spend time staying alive, not killing. Rousseau also points out, as mentioned earlier, that Hobbes overlooked the natural human propensity for pity. He believes that all people naturally do not like to see each other in pain, but rather help each other when it does occur. The break with Locke is much less a rift, but he does make it very clear that he does not agree. The primary sticking point is over the idea of property, of the right to estate. Rousseau simply says that it is not the case; people do not have natural ownership of land. I agree primarily with Rousseau here. I do not see how Locke can logically argue that property ownership is a natural right. It may be prudent for the government to determine this to be so later, but certainly it is not in the devices of Mother Nature that each creature has his own tract of land, and man is no different than any other creature.
However, the main reason I find myself mostly attracted to Rousseau's thinking is his idea that he concentrates on equality, or rather lack thereof, and the role it plays in civil society. He believes that we are all born free and (at least relatively) equal. Society however, is inherently inclined towards inequality. To me this idea is especially evident in today's society. It has become so ingrained in us today that we often overlook that it even exists. There are inequalities of race, income, gender, and upbringing, the list goes on. Rousseau states that when it is decided that you were better off in the state of nature that you should revert that state and make a new social contract by which to live. I believe that this would be beneficial to today's world. However it would be largely impossible to convince most countries to join the effort. It would be, as Rousseau argues as well, only effective in small states, and cities. In any larger institution, it will quickly break down into the old way.
I quickly ruled out Hobbes as a possibility for agreement simply because it is too easy to be that pessimistic. There must be more to life than that. Locke on the other hand, was largely correct in many of his thinkings, especially in differentiating between the state of nature and the state of war. However the idea of a natural right to property does not seem to make sense. Therefore, to me, Rousseau offers the best and most applicable theories on the state of nature and what must be done to preserve the natural rights of people.