Critically Examine Hobbes's Conception of the State of Nature

1674 words 7 pages
Critically Examine Hobbes’s Conception of the State of Nature

The concept of state of nature was developed by Hobbes in his famous work, Leviathan, in which he also set out his doctrine of the foundation of states and legitimate governments which was based on his social contract theories. Leviathan was written during the English Civil War, so much of his theory concentrates on the need for the presence of a strong central authority within society in order to avoid the evils of rebellion and civil war. Hobbes developed his state of nature by contemplating what life would be like without any governing political authority, i.e. a state of anarchy. Hobbes wrote that "during the time men live without a common power to keep them all in awe,
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Their bad habits were supposedly the products of civilization. Nevertheless the conditions of nature forced people to enter a state of society by establishing a civil society.

David Hume's view on the other hand was that the use of a "state of nature" hypothesis in political philosophy is a rhetorical ploy, or at best a thought-experiment, and should not be taken seriously as a statement about what human beings have historically been or done. As Hume says in A Treatise of Human Nature (1739), human beings are naturally social: "’Tis utterly impossible for men to remain any considerable time in that savage condition, which precedes society; but that his very first state and situation may justly be esteem’d social. This, however, hinders not, but that philosophers may, if they please, extend their reasoning to the suppos’d state of nature; provided they allow it to be a mere philosophical fiction, which never had, and never cou’d have any reality." (Book III, Part II, Section II: "Of the Origin of Justice and Property."

Hume's ideas about human nature suggest that he would be happy with neither Hobbes's nor his contemporary Rousseau's thought-experiments. He explicitly derides as incredible the hypothetical humanity described in Hobbes's Leviathan (Book II, Part III, Section I: "Of Liberty and Necessity"). And he argues in "Of the Origin of Justice and Property" that if mankind were universally benevolent, we would