Home > Ethics, Political Philosophy, Summaries > Locke vs. Hobbes, Nature, and Civil Society

Locke vs. Hobbes, Nature, and Civil Society

November 22nd, 2007


 |   [Part1] |   [Part2] |   [Part3] |   [Part4] | 

Thomas Hobbes and John Locke were relative contemporaries in philosophy, so it is no surprise that their comparison has become something of a cliché (hence this? While both philosophers use language couched in the tradition of natural law, they both advocate radically different views on human nature and ideal governance, as will be seen. Since Locke and Hobbes get name-dropped by pseudointellectuals regularly, it’s probably a good idea to get a feel for the basics. –more–>


Firstly, Hobbes’s moral philosophy is specifically egoistic. While many of his statements point to his being a psychological egoist, much of what he says implies that he is, in fact, an ethical egoist: he believes that we ought to do what is in our individual self-interest. Namely, he suggests that humans are frequently short-sighted in their decisions, self-deceptive about their motives (e. g. altruism), and otherwise unreliable in rationally determining actions in their interests. Generally speaking, while we always act in our self-interest, we do not always act in a way that fulfills it best (though we ought to). [1]

According to Hobbes, the state of nature is defined by the absence of authority (except that of a mother over her child). All men are more or less equal. Though some may be stronger or smarter than others, each man is always susceptible to being killed by others, whether by deception, by others in unison, etc. [2] Because men are egoistic and will do whatever is in their interest, this pits mankind in a perpetual state of war of “all against all. ”

He argues that peaceful cooperation is impossible without the power of an umbrella of absolute authority, for three general reasons: first, we will compete violently for subsistence or other material desires; second, we will live fearfully and challenge others in order to ensure our personal safety; and finally, we will seek reputation, by violence primarily, to ward others off from challenging us. [3] With no guarantor of security, “the wickedness of bad men also compels good men to have recourse, for their own protection, to the virtues of war, which are violence and fraud,”[4] ensuring the constant perpetuation of war.

In the state of nature, man has “a right to all things,” which is an implicit basis for the rest of Hobbes’s argument for the moral rightness of an absolute sovereign. He derives this right from the understanding that all humans seek self-preservation and are not only entitled to it, but to be the judges of what it entails. Given that, Hobbes states, “…this also is consequent: that nothing can be unjust. The notions of right and wrong, justice and injustice have no place [in the state of nature]. “[5]

The Sovereign

From these suppositions and observations about human nature, Hobbes invariably concludes the requirement of an absolute sovereign. In accordance with egoism, we ought to avoid the state of nature because doing so is prudently avoiding violent death. In turn, the only thing that can allow humans to avoid the state of nature is an unlimited sovereign. Hobbes’s first “law of nature” states, “every man ought to endeavor peace, as far as he has hope of obtaining it, and when he cannot obtain it, that he may seek and use all helps and advantages of war. ”[6] Hobbes’s second law states:

“That a man be willing, when others are so too, as far-forth as for peace and defense of himself he shall think it necessary, to lay down this right to all things, and be contented with so much liberty against other men, as he would allow other men against himself. ” [7]

These two laws are the bridges Hobbes builds to close the gap between the state of nature and civil society.

 |   [Part1] |   [Part2] |   [Part3] |   [Part4] | 


Categories: Ethics, Political Philosophy, Summaries Tags:
Comments are closed.

© 2009-2017 Christopher Khawand All Rights Reserved