Hobbes and Locke on Human Nature and Their Necessitated Governments

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.

Whereas both Hobbes and Locke conceive of a state of nature following largely from equal human natures, Hobbes imagines it to be a dystopian state of perpetual war created by irrational and paranoid humans; conversely, Locke imagines it to be relatively peaceful and stable state of affairs resulting from rationality and the observance of natural law, but where property is ultimately insecure due to partiality. Hobbes’ state of nature is one governed by incessant war. He carefully distinguishes between active war, in which individuals are actually fighting with one another, and latent war, which is a degree of hostility and paranoia of others that leads individuals to be on the constant verge of erupting into active war (Hobbes 185-6). This is likened to storm clouds: “for as the nature of Foule weather, lyeth not in a showre or two of rain; but in an inclination thereto of many days together” (186). The state of nature results from the way that humans are naturally like. Humans, for Hobbes, are roughly equal, such that even the strongest man may be killed in his sleep by the weakest (183-4). With equal natures comes equal goals: humans are bound to compete for the same resources and, when they’re limited, possibly kill one another to succeed (184-5). Beyond fighting for resources, people recognize their rough equality with others and become fearful for their lives, so they preemptively attack others in hopes of securing their own safety (185). Finally, they attempt to cultivate a reputation through their warring efforts, such that nobody else will think to attack them (185). People are motivated toward peace, personal safety, and commodious living, and they have the unlimited liberty to do what is necessary in order to preserve or secure those conditions, even if it means attacking another person without provocation (189-90). Given this, there is a great predisposition toward violence. For a person in Hobbes’ state of nature, there can be no rest as violent action is always impending and personal safety is precarious.

Locke’s state of nature is comparatively more optimistic. Like Hobbes, Locke considers individuals to be equal in a state of nature and for them to be self-interested (Locke 8). Rather than being occupied with peace, personal safety, and commodious living in general, Locke defines personal property as the common goal of humans, which includes their life, liberty, and estates (8, 46). Whereas Hobbes thought humans irrational and prone to war, Locke believed that humans were rational and this led them to observe natural law. This natural law was his idea that people avoided harming one another on the basis that they wanted not to be harmed, recognizing that if they harmed others, they gave no reason for others not to do the same (8). This led Locke to declare, “but though this be a state of liberty, yet it is not a state of license” (9) People are free to do as they see fit within the state of nature so long as it falls within the parameters set by natural law. This created a kind of moral code that produced relative stability and peace. This law, he believed, granted individuals in a state of nature the powers of adjudication and execution of that law. That is, if anybody broke the law by harming another person’s property, it was that person’s right to judge the breaking of that law and execute a punishment that would “deter others from doing the like injury” (9-11). In is here that Locke distinguishes between a state of war and peace, where peace is the state of nature upheld by natural law, and war is any instance in which a person harms another person’s property and it then becomes the right of the attacked to respond with punishment (14-5). This is a far cry from Hobbes, who conceived of nature as being exclusively defined by war. The problem for Locke arises in the adjudication and execution of punishment, where an infringement upon another person’s liberty cannot be viewed as a solitary incident: the infringed party has no reason to believe that the infringing individual will not proceed to take away all liberties. This leads him to conclude that even thievery should be punished by death (15). Matters are further complicated due to the partiality of people insofar as they are likely to judge their own offenses lightly and judge harshly the offenses of those they despise (12). This leads Locke to conceive of two problems of the state of nature. The first problem is that one cannot escape the unlimited right of others to inflict death for transgressions of natural law, but any infliction of natural law is causing injury (excessive even) such that the punished party will engage in a retaliatory war. With no unbiased judiciary to appeal to, “it is hard to imagine any thing but a state of war” (15-6). This leads to a second, greater problem, which is that the ability to secure one’s property becomes precarious where there is no impartial and protective authority (16). This problem is exacerbated by the presence of degenerate men who do not have reason enough to recognize natural law. Thus, it is less so that Locke thinks the state of nature inherently negative due to some perpetual presence of war, but rather that he considers property to be insecure. It can then be seen that the emphasis for Locke is placed on the insecurity of property, even though life is still of relative peace, whereas the emphasis for Hobbes is placed upon the threat of violence and unrelenting state of war.

Hobbes and Locke conceive of the purpose of the state and its government to correct the respective downfalls they have perceived in the state of nature. As Hobbes has placed the emphasis upon the threat of violence and incessant state of war, he considers it best for people to give up their unlimited right to pursue their self-interest, in order to live in a state of peace (Hobbes 189-90). Particularly, Hobbes delineates his thinking on the matter in what he calls the laws of nature, which is a kind of deductive argument for the state that he deems favorable. Given the desire for people to be secure, he finds them obliged to give up the unlimited rights that make everyone insecure. Given that nobody can trust anyone else to uphold their word that they will give up their right, he considers it necessary for an absolute power to use coercion in order to maintain this state (202). Even if this sovereign authority rules arbitrarily, Hobbes believes it better to live under this kind of authoritarian government than any other state because all people (with the exception of the sovereign authority) are equally subject to the coercive power and thus restricted in their ability to cause harm to others (202-6). As for the kind of government that idealizes this, Hobbes favors a monarchy because, while other forms of government may still employ coercive power, a monarchy consists of one person and thus, one will. Aristocracies or democracies are bound to have their sovereign authority turn in on itself due to the competing interests of governmental members. For a monarch, their interest cannot be turned against themselves because they are one person, the only within the state of nature. Furthermore, a monarch’s private interests include his possessions, which are his subjects and property, whereas the subjects and property in an aristocracy or democracy is divided between governmental individuals. For the monarchy, their private interests correspond with public interests (that of the subjects and wealth of the commonwealth) (241-3). Finally, Hobbes is careful to make the sovereign authority exempt from any coercion (including subjection to laws or power of others) because he considers the absolute power of the authority to be necessary to maintain coercive power over all the subjects (232-8). Locke outright rejects the proposition for an absolutely powerful authority, considering it antithetical to the security of property (Locke 48-50). Individuals enter into societies to secure their property, so giving complete power over one’s property is to firmly secure the insecurity of property (which is the downfall of the state of nature to Locke). So, the emphasis for a society is placed more particularly on correcting the downfall of insecure property from degenerate men and partial judges. It is on this basis that John Locke proposes the core focus of the state to be to provide an established and known law, impartial judges, and a timely execution of the law (66). This requires individuals their power as a judge and executor of natural law in favor of an impartial and fair law that will treat everyone equally. Following from this, Locke declares that the purpose of government in the civil state is to protect the property of citizens and that its powers should in no way breach this ethical foundation (66-8). If it does, he even argues that citizens should have the right to revolt and establish a new government which will more adequately uphold this ethical principle (77-80). It can thus be seen that Hobbes grants absolute power to a government so that it may coerce citizens into a peaceful state while Locke limits the power of government to the provision of law, impartial judges, and timely execution so that property will be protected and its disputes fairly and impartially resolved.

The emphasis that each philosopher placed on the state of nature (on violence or on insecurity of property) led them to conceive of governments that could correct these problems. Hobbes, in considering the constant threat of violence, proposed that citizens should give one authority the unlimited use of violence while repealing their own so that all the citizens could be held in a coercive state of peace. The aim, for Hobbes, was to ensure a life that was peaceful and commodious, not the brutish and barbaric one that existed in the state of nature. Locke, by comparison, focused on the importance of property to individuals and how, though the state of nature is relatively peaceful, the state of nature is ultimately insecure. Thus, individuals are compelled to society to protect their property. For Locke, then, government was about protecting the property of citizens and providing fair resolutions to property-based disputes. Any government that exercised powers beyond this defied the purpose of society, so limits to governmental power were emphasized. Despite starting from relatively similar positions about the self-interest and equality of human nature, they conceived very differently of what life this created naturally and what, then, should be done about it. Hobbes supported a coercive authority to maintain order and Locke supported a legal-rational authority to protect property.

Works Cited
Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan. Ed. C. B. Macpherson. St. Ives: Penguin Classics, 1985. Print.
Locke, John. Second Treatise of Government. Ed. C. B. Macpherson. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1980. Print.


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