Hobbes’ vs. Locke’s Account on the State of Nature

Hobbes and Locke are among the most influential political philosophers to ever write in English. The state of nature, which precedes the organization of the complex societies, is the common premise that both Hobbes and Locke share but interpret in different ways. The former views humans in their natural state as equally dangerous and free to pursue their egoistic goals unrestricted by the nonexistent notions of justice, which is why his natural state amounts to the “war of every man against every man” (Hobbes76). The latter, on the other hand, views humans in their original condition as equally valuable and restricts natural freedom by the idea of justice that requires not to harm others, which allows defining the state of nature as “mutual assistance and preservation” rather than war (Locke 15). The key difference between the two philosophers’ accounts of natural state is that Locke uses ethical considerations while Hobbes does not, and it ultimately leads Hobbes to envisage a state exercising unlimited power over human beings, while Locke limits the government by the moral principles, which he considers a natural law.

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Hobbes bases his assumptions regarding the state of nature on the fact that all people are roughly equal in their physical and mental capabilities. He admits that some individuals may demonstrate greater physical strength or superior intellect but insists that “when all is reckoned together, the difference between man and man is not so considerable” (Hobbes 74). Since humans are roughly equal in their capabilities, they also have similar hopes to attain their ends and satisfy their needs (Hobbes 75). As a logical outcome of this equality, when the people begin competing for scarce resources, no one may feel entirely secure in his or her possessions. Even if a mighty, cunning, and capable person succeeds in subjugating “the persons of all men he can,” it still does not guarantee the ultimate security (Hobbes 75). As no human can obtain such superiority over the others that renders him or her utterly immune to their strength of intellect, no human can feel completely safe when surrounded by his or her equals. Hobbes’ equality in the natural state is equality of fear, where all humans view each other as dangerous competitors.

Just as Hobbes, Locke considers all human beings to be fundamentally equal, but assigns a very different meaning to the term. From his perspective, it is not the equality of capabilities, but, rather, the equality of value. He opines that the people “promiscuously born to all the same advantages of nature” should logically enjoy the perfect equality among them, as there is no reason to consider anyone inherently more valuable (Locke 8). The only possible foundation for designating some people as superior to others would be if God “by any manifest declaration of his will, set one above another” (Locke 8). Since such divine sanction of superiority is absent, Locke concludes that the natural equality of all representatives of humankind is not to be called into question. Hobbes approaches equality pragmatically and stresses that people in their natural state are equally dangerous, but Locke employs an ethical approach and emphasizes that humans are equally valuable in God’s eyes. This disagreement is but the first difference between the two authors based on the fact that Locke includes God as a premise into his political philosophy, while Hobbes does not.

Another characteristic feature of Hobbes’ account of the natural state is his interpretation of liberty. According to Hobbes, the state of nature implies unlimited freedom to do whatever is necessary for one’s continued existence. The philosopher defines liberty as “the absence of external impediments” in using one’s abilities to attain one’s goals (Hobbes 79). The primary purpose of every sentient being is to maintain its continued existence. As a consequence, Hobbesian freedom amounts to the unhindered opportunity to do anything that, in one’s judgment, would be best suited to preserve one’s life and possessions (Hobbes 79). The only limitation to liberty is that a person cannot do anything contradictory to sustaining his or her life or destroying “the means of preserving the same” (Hobbes 79). Apart from that, there are no boundaries, and everyone has “a right to everything, even to one another’s body” if that furthers one’s survival (Hobbes 80). Thus, natural liberty, as viewed by Hobbes, is the absence of externally enforced obstacles in pursuing one’s right to everything to sustain and secure one’s continued existence.

Locke also upholds the idea of natural liberty but, unsurprisingly, approaches it in a manner that is significantly different from that of Hobbes. As soon as he begins discussing liberty in the state of nature, he immediately notes that a state of freedom does not equate “a state of license” (Locke 9). The philosopher identifies two specific limitations to human freedom in the state of nature. The first one is identical to that introduce by Hobbes: however free and independent, a person nevertheless “has not liberty to destroy himself” (Locke 9). Yet the second limitation contradicts Hobbes’ prepositions directly. According to Locke, every human being has a natural obligation not to “harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions” (9). Just as with his interpretation of equality, the author bases this assertion on ethical and religious grounds: people should preserve each other’s existence since they are all creations of the same “omnipotent, and infinitely wise maker” (Locke 9). Thus, Locke’s limits liberty in the natural state far more stringently than Hobbes by introducing the obligation to refrain from harming both oneself and the others.

The differences between the two authors also manifest in their accounts of justice in the natural state of humanity. As far as Hobbes is concerned, delineating just and unjust practices is merely the matter of the law. There is no jurisprudence in the state of nature, and the only law governing human beings in their original condition is a natural law that only obliges them to seek personal security. As a result, nothing can be unjust in the original state of the humankind: “notions of right and wrong justice and injustice” have no place and no meaning in the absence of the stringently enforced law (Hobbes 78). As long as the people use their virtually unlimited freedom to ruthlessly compete with each other for resources, to which they are equally entitled, they have no criteria to differentiate between just and unjust actions. Therefore, the Hobbesian state of nature defies the very idea of justice since the author interprets it as a mere function of the formalized and established law.

Locke assigns different meaning to justice and views it not so much in legislative as in the ethical terms. This paper already mentioned that, unlike Hobbes, Locke employs ethical notions and generally bases his political philosophy on moral rather than purely practical presumptions. Locke’s natural law, unlike that of Hobbes, obliges human beings to take care of each other rather than simply leaving everyone to fend for themselves. As a result, there is a place for justice and injustice in his state of nature. The author points to this fact himself when noting that no one should deprive another of his or her life of the means of preserving it “unless it be to do justice on an offender” (Locke 9). This statement reveals with the utmost clarity that, according to Locke, there is justice in the state of nature, and, moreover, humans have to preserve it actively. The criterion of justice, which Hobbes’ natural state lacks, is the second limitation on natural liberty imposed by Locke: an action is unjust if it constitutes an unwarranted threat to another person’s life and possessions.

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These differences in the two authors’ treatment of equality, liberty, and justice or injustice culminate in their interpretation of the relationship between the state of nature and the state of war. From Hobbes’s perspective, the two are synonymous, because the ruthless competition is the only logical outcome of putting people with equivalent capabilities and similar needs in an environment with limited resources. He states this connection outright: “if any two men desire the same thing, which nevertheless they cannot both enjoy, they become enemies” and are, therefore, in the state of war with each other (Hobbes 75). Yet since humans are numerous and all possess similar capabilities and needs, this competition manifests not only in the individual interactions but also on the level of humanity as a whole. As long as all humans have equal and unlimited rights to all resources and even to each other’s bodies and lives, the state of nature is a war of “every man against every man” (Hobbes 76). This grim interpretation stems directly from Hobbes’ portrayal of the state of nature as governed solely by the individuals’ egoistic urges.

Locke, on the other hand, differentiates between the state of nature and the state of war and points out that, while they may occur simultaneously, it is no reason to identify one with the other. Locke’s definition of the state of war is virtually identical to that offered by Hobbes. According to Locke, “he who attempts to get another man into his absolute power does thereby put himself into a state of war with him” (14). This explanation lines up perfectly with the Hobbesian notion that everyone’s universal right to everything, including the other people’s bodies and lives, leads to the state of war. Yet Locke refuses to equate the state of war and the state of nature precisely because he denies Hobbes’ interpretation of natural freedom. Since Locke’s natural state restrains people from harming each other through the second limitation of liberty, an attempt on another person’s freedom is a transgression against the natural law. While for Hobbes, war is the humankind’s condition by default, Locke portrays it as a perversion of the state of nature rather than its rule.

These differences in delineating the state on nature and its constituents, such as liberty, equality, justice, and war, pave the way to the authors contrasting portrayals of government. Based on his pessimistic assessment of the state of nature, the author of Leviathan concludes that, under conditions of war, there can be no definite hope for “living out the time which nature ordinarily alloweth men to live” (Hobbes 80). The solution is laying down the universal right to everything and leaving everyone “so much liberty against other men, as he would allow other men against himself” (Hobbes 80). The participants of the resulting social contract invest the unlimited liberties they have surrendered into a sovereign – the bearer of the supreme power whose purpose is to preserve the achieved status quo by punishing all transgressions against it. Sovereign’s power is absolute: the ruler has the authority “to do whatsoever he shall think necessary” to promote peace between his subjects so that no one would assail another’s life or property (113). Hobbes concludes that without such an unassailable figure entitled with the right to do anything to the subjects, there can be no peace and no guarantee of security.

While Locke agrees with the necessity of creating politically organized societies, he nevertheless opposes Hobbes’ idea of the sovereign power as unlimited and unassailable. As mentioned above, Locke’s state of nature is not nearly as dreadful as that painted by Hobbes because of the people’s obligation to preserve not only themselves but each other as well. Therefore, the need for social contract arises not from the fear of the others, but from the sheer convenience. Small communities may not need numerous laws to solve conflicts and “officers to superintend the process,” but larger associations find it advisable to institute governments for that purpose (Locke 57). Yet the power of the government cannot be unlimited because it would result in subduing the subjects to an “inconstant, uncertain, unknown, arbitrary will of another man” (Locke 17). Such a government would constitute a twofold violation of the natural law. By agreeing to another person’s absolute power over his life, a subject would violate its first limitation prohibiting to harm oneself. As for the ruler, destroying another person’s liberty would constitute direct harm and, as such, be contradictory to the second limitation.

As a direct continuation of his case for unlimited governmental authority, Hobbes denies the separation of powers as a principle. From his perspective, the sovereign, once instituted, possesses “the whole power of prescribing the rules” governing the lives of the subjects or, in shorter terms, the legislative power (Hobbes 114). The sovereign also reserves the right of “hearing and deciding all controversies” – that is, the judicial power (Hobbes 114). Finally, since the entire purpose of the sovereign is to force the subjects to refrain from harming each other, there can be no doubt that executive power is also his or her exclusive prerogative. The separation of powers as a concept is alien to Hobbes because of his views on the state of nature. Creating a political entity where the executive, legislative, and judicial branches would check each other – that is, compete – would mean recreating the Hobbesian state of nature-as-war on a higher level. Since the people enter a social contract and institute a government to put the state of nature behind them, not reinstate it in a different form, the separation of powers contradictory Hobbes’ views directly.

Locke, on the other hand, embraces separation of power as a foundational principle of his political theory. His case for the separation is evident in the discussion of the limits of the legislative power. As Locke puts it, it would be hardly advisable “for the same persons, who have the power of making laws, to have also in their hands the power to execute them” (76). The philosopher points to the imperfections of human nature and the inherent desire to “grasp at power” as a rationale for this precautionary measure (Locke 76). Just as in Hobbes’ case, Locke’s account of the separation of powers stems directly from his interpretation of the state of nature. If there is already justice in the state of nature and the people can understand it, any government is inevitably subject to the same natural law. Since absolute power over people violates both limitations of this law, separating and distributing it is advisable so that the government would function appropriately.

This paper has demonstrated that, while the differences between Hobbes’ and Locke’s accounts of the natural state of humanity are numerous, they ultimately amount to the presence of absence of moral premises. Hobbes views the natural state as that of unlimited liberty, where people endowed with equal capabilities and not bound by any moral notions, such as justice, compete for the resources unceasingly. Locke, however, interprets equality and liberty ethically rather than practically and opines that war is a perversion of the natural state, as the natural law obliges humans not to harm each other. This disagreement influences the philosophers’ approaches to government. Hobbes insists on an all-powerful ruler, as, in the absence of ethical restraints, no other authority could force the humans to refrain from harming each other. Yet, in Locke’s view, granting the government unlimited powers would be contradictory to the ethical limitations embedded in the law of nature, which is why he, unlike Hobbes, advocates separation of powers.

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Works Cited

Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan, with Selected Variants from the Latin Edition of 1668, edited by Edwin Curley, Hackett Publishing, 1994.

Locke, John. Second Treatise of Government, edited by C.B. Macpherson, Hackett Publishing, 1980.

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StudyCorgi. (2021, August 3). Hobbes’ vs. Locke’s Account on the State of Nature. Retrieved from https://studycorgi.com/hobbes-vs-lockes-account-on-the-state-of-nature/

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