Early liberal thought, especially as it has been argued through Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, have identified human nature as inherently individualistic and self-motivated. Each liberal thinker in their stead has offered some interpretation of this individual and how that relates to the natural condition of humans outside of society. This essay will explore the main features of those varying conceptions but, due to the broad nature of the essay, it will not examine all the related arguments about human nature. It should be additionally noted that in the discussion of John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor, their individual works will be treated as representative of both of them (except where explicitly stated) as they largely held the same philosophical views and co-authored many of their works together (Miller). Finally, it will be explicitly mentioned here that all of the discussed philosophers, with the exception of Karl Marx, emphasize human nature as individualistic. This can be noted implicitly by the features of their human nature. Ultimately, liberal thinkers have conceived of humans as naturally individualistic, equal to one another, and selfish, with later feminist thinkers (such as Wollstonecraft, Mill, and Taylor) focusing on including women as equals in human nature and one socialist thinker, Karl Marx, rejecting this individualism and selfishness entirely.
Thomas Hobbes and John Locke are two English philosophers who were important proponents of classical liberalism. They conceived of humans as existing in a state of nature by default and that it was by their doing that societies were formed. This was accomplished through a social contract in which individuals gave up some rights in order for a state that was to their benefit. This essentially repositioned political legitimacy as arising from the consent of the governed. This essay particularly explores how Hobbes and Locke’s conceptions of the state of nature led each to propose very different governments for correcting their problems, with Hobbes supporting a coercive authority and Locke supporting an impartial authority limited by an obligation to protect the property of citizens.