Monday, December 14, 2009

States of Nature

States of nature were a recurring theme in Search 201 this semester. Various philosophers such as Locke, Rousseau, and Hobbes used this term to describe a hypothetical situation rooted in their own personal philosophy. The “State of Nature” is a term used by social contract theorists to describe the condition of humanity before law and the state. Essentially, a State of nature is a model for human life during pre-political anarchy. States of nature play a fundamental role in political philosophy because they serve as a justification or reason for entering society. What factors determine an individual’s conception of the State of Nature? I think that it is possible to identify a few of these factors by examining individual proposals of the State of Nature.

Hobbes, who first posited the idea of the State of Nature, portrays pre-political society in a Darwinian fashion. He describes the state of nature as a war. Anyone has the right to defend their own personal liberty and safety. Life is characterized as short and brutish under these conditions. Since there is no law, there is no justice aside from natural precepts like a universal endeavor for peace. He also contends that man should be willing to lay down some personal liberties for the sake of that peace. From that point, Hobbes uses those natural precepts to set the stage for the replacement of the state of nature with civil government arising from those mutual contracts. On the other hand we have John Locke, who has a different vision of this prepolitical state. In Locke’s conceptualization of the state of nature, there is no reigning authority or pronunciation of justice. However, a Law of Nature exists to govern this state, a law of reason. Locke says that reason teaches us not to harm each other in terms of liberty, possessions and health, and that violations of this law are punishable. Since there is no enforcement of this law, what should be a state of peace turns into a state of war similar to what was posited by Hobbes. However, unlike Hobbes’ theory there is an obligation to obey the law of nature despite the nonexistent enforcement of this law in the State of Nature.To avoid the state of war and to protect personal property and liberties, Locke says that men enter into society and civil government. Upon the failing or dissolution of the government, humans return to this State of Nature.

What do these two hypothetical conditions tell us about Hobbes and Locke, and what determines one’s conceptualization of pre- government society? As theories written in the 17th century, we can see different sources for these theories. Hobbes’ conceptualization is chaos in absence of government, a war of all against all that is driven by conflict. His path to salvation from this state of war stems from mutual agreements and covenants between men, formed by men in a utilitarian sense. This type if law is positive, or man made. Locke argues that the same anarchy exists, but his natural laws lean more toward something written by Aquinas. Locke’s state of nature assumes theism, whereas Hobbes’ does not. These two hypothetical situations are indicative of the time, and are more theory based than the typical state of nature posited by individuals in the 21st century. The study of biology, psychology, and anthropology makes the modern conception of the state of nature closer to scientific theory rather than political philosophy. Whereas Locke or Hobbes’ theories involve personal conceptions of human nature or formation of society, evidence and research are used mechanistically to define a state of nature that existed. With factual evidence being presented against theory, the validity of these two thinkers is diminished from what it might have been earlier. If there is a modern scientific conception of the state of nature, what is it? Is it possible to merge political philosophy and other fields to determine the true state of nature?

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