Comparing and Contrasting Hobbes’s and Locke’s States of Nature

(Written for Prof. Paden’s Modern Western Political Theory [GOVT324] class at George Mason University.)


Under social contract theory and its various iterations, the state of nature plays a similar role. It is considered the predecessor to government, an anarchy (or semi-anarchy) that—for one reason or another—people wanted or needed to get out of. Social contract theories seek to explain why people have established governments, and to understand the establishment of governments it is necessary to first understand what existed before and why people wanted to change that preexisting status quo.

Hobbes and Locke are two of the preeminent early social contract theorists, and yet they had different—sometimes diametrically opposed—views of the state of nature and how its flaws led to the institution of government. The purpose of this paper is to look at the theoretical states of nature according to these two theorists, to investigate their similarities and differences, and ultimately determine which of the two concepts is philosophically most sound.

Hobbes’s State of Nature

There are four basic assumptions behind Hobbes’s idea of the state of nature. First, there are no authorities. Second, there is no government. Third, there is no shared morality. Finally, people are rational, free, and knowledgeable.

If these four tenets of the state of nature are true, says Hobbes, then people exist in a state of absolute equality of power and freedom. But it is not a peaceful world, in fact, Hobbes considers the state of nature to be a state of war.

This state of war exists because people in the state of nature have the right of nature—a right to do anything that one believes is in his own best interest. This right allows people to invade and take land, steal their things, and more, simply to satisfy their own desires. Therefore, if any one thing is desired by more than one person, those people become enemies. Man’s nature of competition, diffidence, and glory lead men to to exist in a constant state of war—constant fear that possessions will be taken, land invaded, etc.

As a result of this inherent lack of security in a world where all men are enemies of one another, there is no industry because people may not be able to enjoy the fruits of their labor. People cannot prosper. There is no right and wrong (no shared morality), no justice or injustice, no property ownership.

In short, a person living in Hobbes’s state of nature would be a person living in constant fear. They would spend their life simply trying to survive in a violent, dangerous world.

Hobbes’s concept of the state of nature is based on a particular view of human nature. This view holds that people in a state of absolute freedom have a positive right to do whatever is in their best interest, and therefore everybody is in constant danger of having others stomp all over them in their own personal best interest.

It is because the state of nature is such a terrible place that people establish governments with the primary purpose of ensuring that the natural state of war comes to an end. “The passions that incline men to peace,” says Hobbes, “are fear of death.”

Locke’s State of Nature

Locke’s concept of the state of nature is very different from Hobbes’s. Although he starts with the same four basic assumptions—no authorities, no government, no shared morality, and people are rational, free, and knowledgeable—he reaches almost opposite conclusions about what life would be like in in this pre-government state.

Rather than absolute freedom, Locke speaks of a perfect freedom. While Hobbes talked about equality of power, Locke instead speaks of an equality of authority. Rather than Hobbes’s concept of a single right of nature (a right to pursue an individual’s self-interest), Locke instead discusses a set of primary rights of nature (right to life, health, liberty, property) along with a secondary set of rights (right to punish and to reparation).

Locke’s state of nature is not necessarily a state of war, because rather than people having a broad natural right to do whatever is best for them, people have a set of negative rights—essentially rights to noninterference—which create a sphere of freedom in which the individual is sovereign.

If people respect one another’s natural rights, then a state of war does no exist between individuals. This peaceful state of nature would allow opportunities for cooperation between individuals, economic exchange, industry, etc. Locke goes so far as to say that money can be coined in a state of nature. He considers the state of nature to be a libertarian utopia, not the battlefield of self-interest that Hobbes discusses.

But Locke discusses “malcontents,” or people who do not respect the negative rights of others. Because of these malcontents, the state of nature is still a state of insecurity—people are not guaranteed an ability to exercise their rights, because malcontents might invade, steal, etc.

Locke’s concept of the state of nature is based on a different view of human nature than the self-interest idea put forth by Hobbes. Locke, instead, believes that people in a state of perfect freedom will not act in a positive manner to pursue their self-interest at all costs. Rather, they will generally recognize the rights of nature that others have and not trample their respective property.

While the state of nature according to Locke is not nearly so horrible as that envisioned by Hobbes, it is still not an ideal place. There is no settled and known law, no known and indifferent judge, and people lack the power to enforce their freedom. It is for these reasons—not simply to keep the peace—that governments are instituted, according to Locke.

An Evaluation of Validity

Both Hobbes and Locke started with the same basic concept of the state of nature. Anarchy. People existing without government in a world that functions purely by natural right(s). Where their theories differ is simply in what the natural right(s) are.

The difference is caused by a fundamental disagreement between the two theorists as to human nature. Hobbes believes that people, at their core, are singularly interested in their own self interest and that they do not particularly care about anybody else. Locke, on the contrary, believes that people are naturally inclined toward cooperation and respect for each other’s rights as individuals.

Hobbes’s argument needs little explanation. It is almost universally accepted that human beings are, first and foremost, preoccupied with their own preservation and well-being. This self-preserving and self-interested instinct is why people prefer safer cars, demand that products come with warning labels, and vie for promotions. It is reasonable to assume that humans, centuries ago in a state of nature, had these same instincts but without the temperance of law, societal norms, and so forth.

It is therefore not an improbable assumption that these self-interested humans, without law or agreed “right and wrong” values, lived in a constant attempt to gain more property and power for themselves and simultaneously in constant fear that others would come and try to take their property and power.

While Locke’s concept of a libertarian utopia surely sounds much nicer than Hobbes’s constant state of war, it is based on one major assumption that seems to be far-fetched. Under Locke’s argument, people in a state of nature exist under a law of nature which “teaches all mankind . . . that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions.”

No clear explanation is made of this law or why humans would be likely to follow it. Anecdotally, it would seem that when people are given the choice between serving themselves or respecting the rights of others, they serve themselves.

This assumption that there is a natural law governing the treatment of other individuals, even after making the argument that in the state of nature there is no shared morality, is too strong an assumption presented with too little evidence. Because Hobbes’s argument is based on an indisputable concept—humans are self-interested—his account of the state of nature as a state of war would seem to be the best account of the two.

But reality probably falls somewhere in-between—not Locke’s utopia, but not quite Hobbes’s state of war either.

Scott Bradford is a writer and technologist who has been putting his opinions online since 1995. He believes in three inviolable human rights: life, liberty, and property. He is a Catholic Christian who worships the trinitarian God described in the Nicene Creed. Scott is a husband, nerd, pet lover, and AMC/Jeep enthusiast with a B.S. degree in public administration from George Mason University.