Eric Massengill's Ethics Class Blog

The State of Nature | November 16, 2008

I agree with Hobbes’ conception of the natural state, though only generally, since he has some problems. Primarily it’s that he’s too extreme. Maybe, in the rare case that civilization collapsed and all of your friends and family – your social network – was killed, then there would be a period of time where you would have no connection whatsoever with anyone else, and since they’d just be strangers to you, you’d be in the State of Nature. But the idea that the State of Nature occurs at all in the absence of government is a little weak.

A) People have social standards that are programmed into them, and sure, one can unlearn those standards, but they still inform the way people act to a degree (maybe lessening their readiness to kill, etc.); I don’t think it would eliminate those impulses towards survival that create the State of Nature, but it counts for something.

B) We are animals, sure, and that means we do what’s necessary to survive, but we are, by definition, social animals. We instinctually form at least small social groups. The idea that in the State of Nature it would be every-man-for-himself is unrealistic. If we went to the State of Nature now, with the current world overpopulation, then there may be a period of death, but once we reach a stable population people will start to become more relaxed, if just for the fact that we’re less likely to run across each other. All we have to do is look at solitary animals: they are hardly in a “constant” state of war with one another, even the dominant omnivores. Take bears for instance. Bears are not social animals, and the only true social groups are those of mothers and cubs. Sometimes, when in direct competition they will fight, but their population is at such a level that they don’t fight that often. They even congregate during fishing season in the same river, ten feet from each other. Creatures only come into competition when there is a true overpopulation (there is a little equation going on in our heads when we come into conflict over resources, whether the struggle is worth the expenditure of energy; given enough space, it will be worth forgoing expansion every once in a while), which doesn’t happen often.

This also, in some ways, supports Hobbes though. We do have a natural instinct to bond, and in chaotic situations, given enough time, humans will form groups, but this is, I think, due in large part to our unconscious knowledge – so well known we never have to think about it – that life is easier when we work together to eliminate competition. It’s why we’re the dominant species on Earth. Just to clarify: just because the State of Nature isn’t as bad as Hobbes argues, doesn’t mean it isn’t desirable to avoid it. You can consider it in the way Mill considered those who argued happiness was unattainable: thing fled from or moved towards may be impossible to sustain or reach, but you can move towards or away from it; essentially, just because the State of Nature is too far down for us to ever be in, that doesn’t mean there’s no value in being as far away from it as possible.

Also, my criticism in no way supports the whole idea that humans are somehow ‘better than that’. At the end of the day, we’re like everything else: we want to live. Moral considerations are nice, but there’s a reason we consider “uncivilized” people immoral (usually – it has those negative connotations), and “civilized” people moral. It’s easier to hold a very strict moral code in a highly socialized environment, especially when you consider our morals support group cohesion (don’t kill; don’t steal; don’t lie; etc.). When there is no group though, group-cohesive actions become burdensome. Sure, one may choose in that environment to do the right thing, but the likelihood of one dying because of it is much greater, so eventually only those who were willing to do the “immoral” things to survive will live on.

Given the circumstances of absolutely no social networking, and extreme competition, it is absolutely true that humans would act the way Hobbes describes. Even if those exact extremes don’t come around, one has to admit it is in human nature to do what is necessary to survive. It seems naive to me to think otherwise.

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3 Comments »

  1. I think this analysis is insightful. It’s probably true that the state of nature wouldn’t result in the kind of terrifying state of war that Hobbes talks about, if only because our ranks will thin out. As for your first criticism, though, having to do with our social “programming”, I feel like there’s something wrong there. It might be the case that we have a tendency not to hurt others, but Hobbes will simply explain this by saying that the tendency is an adaptation to social society, not a fundamental part of human nature. If the inducement to peace (i.e. the government) is taken away, therefore, so too will the tendency toward peace disappear. There would likely be many people who wouldn’t be able to change their minds and become totally self-interested overnight, but so much the worse for them – they would probably be knocked off by those who were able to make such a switch.

    Comment by Boone B. Gorges — November 17, 2008 @ 10:51 am

  2. Actually, if you look further down, I acknowledge that. I say that, given circumstances where we have absolutely no friends or family, no social structure, we would probably go into a state of “war” as Hobbes thinks. I was just pointing out that we naturally band together, at least in small groups; you could say this is because we’re rational, and desire order and to reduce competition, but it still doesn’t refute my point.
    I also said what you said: “There would likely be many people who wouldn’t be able to change their minds and become totally self-interested overnight, but so much the worse for them – they would probably be knocked off by those who were able to make such a switch.”
    I said: “When there is no group though, group-cohesive actions become burdensome. Sure, one may choose in that environment to do the right thing, but the likelihood of one dying because of it is much greater, so eventually only those who were willing to do the “immoral” things to survive will live on.”

    So there 😛

    Comment by ericmassengill — November 17, 2008 @ 2:01 pm

  3. I think that your use of animal counterparts add to your explanations and scrutinies of Hobbes. Animals are close to humans and they aren’t in a constant sate of competition. It is only as you say when overpopulation inhibits their ability to live comfortably that they will fight more than occasionally. Even with family members gone, humans seem to be drawn to each other in an instinctual way, they desire some form of contact with each other. this will lead to some form of bonding that could lead to the formation of groups. I agree that Hobbes is much too harsh.

    Comment by jeffersson — November 18, 2008 @ 7:19 pm


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I am a person. I am alive. I am capable of mechanical motion. My respiratory system is functional, as is my digestive, and circulatory system. My neurons operate.

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