State of Nature Research Paper

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State of nature refers to a condition in which there is no established political authority. It is essentially a state of complete freedom. Political theorists have used it to better understand human nature and, typically, to justify the rationality of a particular type of government. Proponents claim that the state of nature provides insight into the inherent dispositions and inclinations of human beings. Because individual conduct is not coerced by political authority, it will reflect how humans behave naturally.

Social contract theorists commonly speculate about what life would be like in the state of nature. Based on their understandings of human nature, they argue that individuals in the state of nature face certain threats to their well-being. Consequently, rational people should consent to recognize the authority of a state in exchange for protection from these threats. The extent of the state’s authority and the safeguards it is responsible for providing are functions of the theorist’s view of human nature. Generally, an optimistic view of human nature leads to the advocacy of a state with limited powers, while a more pessimistic view is associated with a more powerful state.

Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), in Leviathan (1651), first used the state of nature to justify the authority of the state. He claims that the state of nature would be a war of “every man against every man” (p. 76). Hobbes’s characterization of the state of nature results from his view of human nature.He believed that all people are basically equal physically and mentally, so no individual is safe from the machinations of others. Moreover, humans are innately competitive, diffident, and glory seeking. Therefore, they are prone to attack others for gain, preemptive self-defense, and recognition. Given this view of human nature, he envisioned the state of nature as a place in which violence would always be a threat, that is, a state of “war.” There would be no industry, culture, knowledge, or society and “worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death” (p. 76). Hobbes famously concludes that, in the state of nature, “the life of man” is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” (p. 76).

The solution to this state of war, according to Hobbes, is the creation of an overawing government, that is, a leviathan. Because human nature disposes people to conflict and violence, only an all-powerful state can maintain order. Consequently, people should give up almost all personal autonomy, retaining only their right to self-defense. Hobbes contends that an authoritarian government is not only necessary but preferable to a state of nature.

John Locke (1632-1704), in Two Treatises of Government (1690), also uses the state of nature in his justification of limited government. He claims that the state of nature would be characterized by “inconveniences” (p. 276). Human beings, according to Locke, are rational creatures able to understand the law of nature using reflective reason (see chapter 2, Second Treatise). This law requires that people not harm another individual’s natural right to “Life, Health, Liberty, or Possessions” (p. 271). It also obligates them to help preserve the lives of others when possible. Finally, it gives people the right to enforce the law and punish transgressions only so far as to deter future crime. Locke believes that humans in the state of nature are typically inclined to respecting the natural right of others. The problem is that people are unable to be objective when their own interests are at stake. Humans are naturally disposed to overpunishing transgressions against themselves, family members, or friends. Retaliation inevitably creates an escalating cycle of violence.

Government, according to Locke, can provide a remedy, restraining “the partiality and violence of Men” (pp. 275—276). By objectively adjudicating violations of natural law, it can prevent the cycle of violence resulting from subjective enforcement. Rational people should be willing to give up their natural right to enforce the law of nature to the state. In exchange, the state becomes responsible for enforcing their natural rights to life, liberty, and property. Because the state of nature is merely a state of inconvenience, it does not warrant the establishment of a more intrusive and powerful government.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712—1778), in the Second Discourse on the Origin of Inequality (1754), provides a much more brutish understanding of the human condition in the state of nature. He claims that previous theorists mischaracterized the state of nature because they had mistaken socialized inclinations for natural attributes. “They spoke about savage man, and it was civil man they depicted” (p. 38). Rousseau claimed that humans in the state of nature have only three basic physical desires: food, sex, and sleep. Their only fears are hunger and pain. No significant human conflict arises in the state of nature because people have very limited desires and an inborn sentiment of pity, which inspires a form of natural goodness. All other human passions and desires, along with such qualities as rationality and virtue, are acquired in society. Human beings in the state of nature, therefore, are simply animals, albeit with unrealized civilizing potential. They are in essence noble “savages.”

The state of nature is a thoroughly modern approach to studying human nature and justifying the responsibilities of the state. It embodies three basic principles of liberal political theory: the priority of the individual, equality, and personal freedom. First, the state of nature’s asocial condition suggests that humans should ultimately be understood as abstract individuals. Second, humans in the state of nature are considered morally equal, with no person having the authority to dominate anyone else. Third, people are portrayed as autonomous, self-determining creatures, thus emphasizing freedom as a natural human quality. This depiction of the human condition is quite contrary to the classical view, which assumes that human beings cannot be understood outside of the society in which they live.

The state of nature was a particularly popular thought experiment during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries before falling out of vogue. Nonetheless, it continues to influence contemporary academic and public discourse. For example, the “original position” in John Rawls’s Theory of Justice (1971) is a conceptual variation of the state of nature. In international relations, some scholars use the idea of a state of nature to theorize about the relationships and interactions between political states. The imagery produced by state-of-nature theories also maintains a grip on the popular imagination, from Hobbes’s nightmarish war of all against all to Rousseau’s romanticized noble savage. Locke’s natural rights in the state of nature have also been passed down through the American Declaration of Independence as unalienable rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”


  1. Hobbes, Thomas. [1651] 1994. Leviathan: With Selected Variants from the Latin Edition 1668, ed. Edwin Curley. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett.
  2. Locke, John. [1690] 1988. Two Treatises of Government, ed. Peter Laslett. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
  3. Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. [1754] 1987. Second Discourse on the Origin of Inequality. In The Basic Political Writings, trans. and ed. Donald A. Cress, 25–82. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett.

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