A CRITICAL ASSESMENT OF THE STATE OF NATURE AND POLITICAL RIGHT IN THOMAS HOBBES
1.0 BACKGROUND TO THE STUDY
There are as many views of the nature of philosophy as there are philosophers, if not more and nearly everyone points out that the Greek roots of the word “philosophy” are “philo,” meaning “love,” and “sophia” meaning “wisdom” which would make philosophy translate more or less to “love of wisdom, However, this doesn’t tell us a whole lot, since many disciplines seek wisdom. How do they go about trying to get that wisdom?
Philosophy as a subject is one that covers a wide range of topics and so it is divided into various branches for a better comprehension and clarity and one of them is Ethics. Ethics is concerned with questions of how people ought to act, and the search for a definition of right conduct and the good life. This long essay would be concerned with the ethical branch of philosophy which the chosen topic, the state of nature is a part of.
1.1 Statement of Research Problem
The problem which this long essay attempts to treat is to see if the reason and the way in which the people consented to move from the state of nature to the organized society is enough reason for us to be obligated to the state and our obedience to the political authority. Various scholars or thinkers have tried to explain how we come about the society; some giving an account that is quite opposite to that of Hobbes while some feel that the society is a natural thing and man from birth are social being and not to forget political animals as well. However this study will try to evaluate the state of nature according to Thomas Hobbes, examine how plausible his views are in explaining our present society and the organized authority we have.
1.1.2 Aim and Objectives of the Study
This study is aimed at critically giving an evaluation of what Hobbes intend passing across in his state of nature and how he uses that to explain political obligation, its objectives is to close-read Thomas Hobbes’ State of Nature, identify its peculiarities which explain the emergence of political society and right and they examine if they are good enough reason to support his claim for the citizens to be obligated to obeying the state.
1.1.3 Expected Contribution to Knowledge
Considering various works earlier stated in the introduction, the likes of J.J Rousseau; “A discourse on equality”, Robert Nozick, “Anarchy, State and Utopia”, David Hume, “A Treatise of Human Nature” etc. We would notice that most of them have either tried to show the inadequacies of the account of Thomas Hobbes’ State of Nature or even write a different account of how they think it ought to be, to the neglect of assessment of Hobbes’ work and to show how plausible it could be in explaining our current society and political obligation and so this study would take care of the aspect of critical assessment of the theory of the state of nature and political obligation of Thomas Hobbes.
1.1.4 Scope of Study
This study would primarily be concerned with evaluating the work of Thomas Hobbes on his state of nature and political right not mainly concerned with raising critics or giving a different view on the emanation of the society to oppose that which he has painted like other philosophers. This work would be concerned with using a systematic method to identify the strength and weakness of his work and then the usefulness and validity of his work
There are as many views of the nature of philosophy as there are philosophers, if not more and nearly everyone points out that the Greek roots of the word “philosophy” are “philo,” meaning “love,” and “sophia” meaning “wisdom” which would make philosophy translate more or less to “love of wisdom, However, this doesn’t tell us a whole lot, since many disciplines seek wisdom. How do they go about trying to get that wisdom? Philosophy as a subject is one that covers a wide range of topics and so it is divided into various branches for a better comprehension and clarity and one of them is Ethics. Ethics is concerned with questions of how people ought to act, and the search for a definition of right conduct and the good life. This long essay would be concerned with the ethical branch of philosophy which the chosen topic, the state of nature is a part of.
1.2 Ethics as a branch of philosophy
Rushworth Kidder states that “standard definitions of ethics have typically included such phrases as ‘the science of the ideal human character’ or ‘the science of moral duty'”. Richard William Paul and Linda Elder define ethics as “a set of concepts and principles that guide us in determining what behavior helps or harms sentient creatures”. The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy states that the word ethics is “commonly used interchangeably with ‘morality‘ … and sometimes it is used more narrowly to mean the moral principles of a particular tradition, group or individual”. Paul and Elder state that most people confuse ethics with behaving in accordance with social conventions, religious beliefs and the law and don’t treat ethics as a stand-alone concept.
The word “ethics” in English refers to several things. It can refer to philosophical ethics or moral philosophy. Bernard Williams use reason in order to answer various kinds of ethical questions. As the English writes, attempting to explain moral philosophy: “What makes an inquiry a philosophical one is reflective generality and a style of argument that claims to be rationally persuasive.” And Williams describes the content of this area of inquiry as addressing the very broad question, “how one should live” Ethics can also refer to a common human ability to think about ethical problems that is not particular to philosophy. As bioethicist Larry Churchill has written: “Ethics, understood as the capacity to think critically about moral values and direct our actions in terms of such values, is a generic human capacity.” Ethics can also be used to describe a particular person’s own idiosyncratic principles or habits. For example: “Joe has strange ethics.”
The English word ethics is derived from an Ancient Greek word êthikos, which means “relating to one’s character” which is in turn derived from another Greek word which is the noun êthos meaning “character, disposition” i.e. The word “ethics“ is derived from the Greek “ethos” (meaning “custom” or “habit”). Ethics differs from morals and morality in that ethics denotes the theory of right action and the greater good, while morals indicate their practice. Ethics is not limited to specific acts and defined moral codes, but encompasses the whole of moral ideals and behaviors, a person’s philosophy of life.
It asks questions like “How should people act?” (Normative or Prescriptive Ethics), “What do people think is right?” (Descriptive Ethics), “How do we take moral knowledge and put it into practice?” (Applied Ethics), and “What does ‘right’ even mean?” (Meta-Ethics). Meta-ethics investigates where our ethical principles come from, and what they mean. Are they merely social inventions? Do they involve more than expressions of our individual emotions? and other germane questions. Meta-ethical answers to these questions focus on the issues of universal truths, the will of God, the role of reason in ethical judgments, and the meaning of ethical terms themselves. Normative ethics takes on a more practical task, which is to arrive at moral standards that regulate right and wrong conduct. This may involve articulating the good habits that we should acquire, the duties that we should follow, or the consequences of our behavior on others and an example of this is the Golden Rule. Finally, applied ethics involves examining specific controversial issues, such as abortion, infanticide, animal rights, environmental concerns, homosexuality, capital punishment, or nuclear war. The aspect of ethics which would be discussed extensively is the social and political aspect of it and this can be classified under normative ethics. Social and political philosophy faced with four important issues to find answers to and so various theories have been raised to address this question. I would be explaining society and politics with a reference to the work of Thomas Hobbes and a passing reference to other thinkers.
1.3 The State of Nature
Numerous scholars have all tried to paint their own picture of the society and they all have carried out a wonderful intellectual job in explaining the way the society was naturally before the introduction of the civil society with the use of the theory which is referred to as “The state of nature”. In the 17th and 18th century, a common device in political philosophy was to reason in terms of the “state of nature.” What this meant was to imagine human society as it was before there were states and governments. The question was usually what life was like in such conditions and then how and why there was or would be a transition from it to the arrangements we see now. Often the origin of organized society was conceived as an original agreement, a “social contract,” negotiated among people in the state of nature and so the state of nature is a concept used in moral and political philosophy, religion, social contract theories to explain the existence of what is called the society and our obligation and obedience to the government. It has also been said to be either a real or hypothetical condition of human being before or without the society. Some of this philosophers who have stated their view when it comes to how the society comes into existence and the state in which humans were before they moved to form an organized civil society are any semblance of Thomas Hobbes in his book “Leviathan”, John Locke in his book “Second treatise of government”, Jean Jacques Rousseau in his book “Discourse on the origin of inequality”, Robert Filmer on “Patriarcha” each attempting to give what he believe is a reasonable record in clarifying the condition of nature and the radiation of the general public which in a path introduces political commitment and the start of the common society.
Not all philosophers follow the hypothetical view that the society is preluded by man being in the state of nature. As much as few philosophers bring in the state of nature to explain the formation of the society, there are still some philosophers that are of the view that the society is as old as human themselves and the description given to man in the so called state of nature is not befitting. Philosophers such as Plato, Aristotle etc. are pioneers of that view about the society being as old as man and some others are of the view that the society was a better one during the state of nature than in the civil society why few are of the opinion that there was nothing like the state of nature rather the natural state of man was the social and political state while others are of the view that the state of nature was the best state for man and the movement of man to the civil society is a bad move.
This exploration would be fragmented without making reference to other striking savants whose work one way or the other have something to say in regards to the condition of nature before the general public. Thus, this part fundamentally is worried with inspecting the work of these other outstanding scholars .To get a clearer picture relating the work of Thomas Hobbes and how it in a path contrasts from the perspective of other people who have given their view on this subject or feedback that are raised against his view ,there is a need to consider the works of the like of John Locke, J.J Rousseau, John Rawls just to specify however a couple and some others who are not in support with the theory of the state of nature as that state before the emergence of the society like Aristotle.
1.4 Literature Review
Various individuals have tried to give a different view on what the state of nature is. For instance for J.J Rousseau, man was naturally good but was corrupted by contemporary society of man. To him, it was competition and lust for private properties that was responsible for corruption.
For John Locke, men are free to order their actions and dispose of their possessions and persons as they deem fit within the bounds of the law of nature. He had an optimistic view of human nature and so the state of nature as the law of nature to govern which obliges everyone, and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind that they should be equal and independent and that no one ought to hurt or harm another.
For John Rawls, he placed everyone in an original position which is an hypothetical state of nature used as a thought experience in developing his theory of justice and for John C. Calhoun, the state of nature is merely hypothetical and this concept to him is self-contradicting and so the political state naturally always existed
Reading through the above reviewed studies, it could be inferred that all they have done is to inquire into the natural state of man in an attempt to answer the question of social unrest which in turn has generated a lot of questions to the neglect of giving a critical appraisal or evaluation of Thomas Hobbes’ view.
1.4.1 Plato view on man and the society
The view of Plato on the society could be traced to be directly influenced by his predecessors view on the society and the relationship that ought to exist between the individual and the society in which we belong to and this view is also said to be in record courtesy of Plato himself in his book “The Republic”. In this book, there is a part which is titled Crito and this is a report of the dialogue between Crito, Socrates and the law of Athens when he was imprisoned and Crito felt it is unjust.
For Socrates, he is of the view that an individual is a member of the society by virtue of birth and in turn has entered an agreement with the society. So, if we enjoy some privileges in the society, then we should not rebel against the law of the land when it doesn’t favor us at that point in time. It is an interesting question just how Socrates’ “agreement” with the laws is or is not like the modern notion of contract-theory. It could be rightly argued that it is a “mistake” to read into the Crito, a contract theory in the classical sense of Hobbes and Rawls. There is at least this obvious difference between these two notions of agreement: Socrates’ contract is not based upon the equality of the contracting parties. In addition, I do not want to address here the analogy of parents to political authority and children to those ruled. This is perhaps one of the most pervasive and important analogies in political philosophy, ancient, modern, or otherwise. This analogy gets at theprinciple of all political philosophy, human nature.
1.4.2 Aristotle on the origin of society
According to Aristotle, people have needs and that is why we live in the society and not only the people but also the society has needs just like the individual. To him, the society arose as a result of necessity in the sense that the elements that constitute the society are essential.
There are two different kinds of human being and they are the freeborn and the slaves which are all by nature i.e. some by nature are freeborn while some are slaves and they constitute the two kinds of family which according to Aristotle is obtainable in the society. The family is very important because it is an essential hold even among animals which is established by nature for the supply of every want, and so it is from the formation of several families that the village is established, and then the city state, and then the modern nation state and so in this other the society is created.
Hobbes rejects one of the most famous theses of Aristotle’s politics, which is that human beings are naturally suited to life in a polis and do not fully realize their natures until they exercise the role of citizen. Hobbes turns Aristotle’s claim on its head: human beings, he insists, are by nature unsuited to political life. They naturally denigrate and compete with each other, very easily swayed by the rhetoric of ambitious men, and think much more highly of themselves than of other people. In short, their passions magnify the value they place on their own interests, especially their near-term interests. At the same time, most people, in pursuing their own interests, do not have the ability to prevail over competitors, nor can they appeal to some natural common standard of behavior that everyone will feel obliged to abide by. There is no natural self-restraint, even when human beings are moderate in their appetites, for a ruthless and bloodthirsty few can make even the moderate feel forced to take violent preemptive action in order to avoid losing everything. The self-restraint even of the moderate, then, easily turns into aggression. In other words, no human being is above aggression and the anarchy that goes with it.
1.4.3 John Locke on the State of Nature
John Locke, born in 1632, is a philosopher and a physician who impacted greatly on several areas of philosophy and was concerned with what the state of nature might be. John Locke considers the state of nature in his Second Treatise on Civil Government written around the time of the Exclusion Crisis in England during the 1680s. For Locke, in the state of nature all men are free “to order their actions, and dispose of their possessions and persons, as they think fit, within the bounds of the law of nature.” (2nd Tr., §4). “The state of Nature has a law of Nature to govern it”, and that law is reason. Locke believes that reason teaches that “no one ought to harm another in his life, liberty, and or property” (2nd Tr., §6); and that transgressions of this may be punished. This view of the state of nature is partly deduced from a Christian belief.
For Locke, the state of nature was a condition of uniformity and opportunity, however in a different manner than Hobbes. For Locke, equity means a privilege to pursue self-interest but not to do anything we need or hold controls over others. The need for movement was because equity can no longer be upheld especially in case when one is a judge in his or her case and could puff up ones feeling of damage and transform justice to revenge
John Locke was marginally more idealistic. He trusted that we have a commitment to attempt to help other people and abstain from harming others the length of it doesn’t meddle with our own opportunity. This is known as the law of nature. According to Locke, there is what he regards as the law of nature and this law to him governs the affairs of humans in the state of nature, which is the natural state of man before the necessary emergence of the society. The law of nature is such that it is serves the purpose of governing the people and it is arrived at through reason. One of the major laws is summarized as one not hurting others and a failure to adhere to this would attract punishment. This shows that there were certain moral truths that apply to all people and can only be discovered by reason and it was by this set of moral truth that the people live.
1.4.3b The social contract
According to Locke, we were able to make a successful transition from the state of nature to the civil society conveyed in the bus of the social contract. Remember that for Locke, the state of nature is such that individual is privileged to go after his or her self-interest and not only this; one is both the offended and the judge in his case and it is a state of perfect freedom within the bound of the law of nature The purpose of the social contract is to convert the state of nature of men living together, each as his own governor, to a political state where a body governs the public affairs. This would also help to serve the end of the mutual preservation of their life, liberty and estate, and so, when the ones in power turn tyrannical, the contract is broken. As indicated by Locke, ensuring the private property of people is the most essential part of the rule.
John Locke, insisted in his Second Treatise of Government that the state of nature was indeed to be preferred to subjection to the arbitrary power of an absolute sovereign but Hobbes famously argued that such a “dissolute condition of masterless men, without subjection to Laws, and a coercive Power to tie their hands from rapine, and revenge” would make impossible all of the basic security upon which comfortable, sociable, civilized life depends. There is a check to the power of the sovereign contract and that is in the issue of them turning into tyrant, the contract then is broken and people have the right to rebel
1.4.4 Jean Jacques Rousseau on the State of Nature
He described man in the state of nature with what he termed the noble savage. Man social skill and development of morality would be at the level of other animals and so man would totally be a solitary animal and so to become fully man or civilized, man must transfer into a moral being which has to be preceded by becoming a social being.
J.J Rousseau simply like Locke endeavors into clarifying the rise of the general public and the hypothesis of the condition of nature yet in his own places of business, the issue of the condition of nature absolutely in an alternate shape, from an alternate edge in opposition to that of different scholars. He clarified in his own particular work, not at all like others, that the condition of nature was not awful, but rather great. Men were free and glad, while today, under present day governments, men lives in chain. He confirmed rather that individuals were neither great nor terrible, however were conceived as a clear slate, and later society and the earth impact which way we incline. In Rousseau’s condition of nature, individuals did not know each sufficiently other to come into genuine clash, and they had ordinary qualities. The cutting edge society, and the proprietorship it involves, is rebuked for the disturbance of the condition of nature which Rousseau sees as genuine opportunity thus for him, there is no requirement for the transmission of people from the condition of nature to the common society rather the condition of man in the condition of nature is a flawless one for people and these sudden transmission has accomplished more damage than great. Jean-Jacques Rousseau thought of us as all to be great and righteous in the condition of nature. In introducing man into the society, there is the contract to submit to the “general will” and this general will has a life of its own (volk geit) meaning in German language “spirit of the society” and this general will according to him works for the good of all in the society and it is a real superior force to all the wills of everyone in the society. The introduction of this general will raises various reactions from many scholars as a term which is not well explained.
1.4.5 John Rawls on the State of Nature
John Rawls an American philosopher, in his A Theory of Justice (1971) and other works also discuss the concept of the state of nature. Although Rawls rejected the notion of a pre-social or pre-political state of nature, he argued that the basic features of a just society could best be discovered by considering the principles of government that would be accepted by a group of rational individuals who have been made ignorant of their positions in society and also of the privileges or privations they experience as a result and so he introduces a device he called the “veil of ignorance.” In this way, Rawls, like Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau, argued that the best way to assess the value of social institutions is to imagine their absence. He used what amounted to an artificial state of nature and so to develop his theory of justice, Rawls places everyone in the original position
1.4.6 Montesquieu on the State of Nature
Montesquieu makes use of the concept of the state of nature in his “The Spirit of the Laws”, first printed in 1748. Montesquieu interestingly states the thought process behind early human beings before the formation of society. He says that human beings would have the faculty of knowing and would first think to preserve their life in the state and unlike the characteristics of war and brutality that some of these thinkers have liken their view to, human beings would also at first feel themselves to be impotent and weak. As a result, humans would not be likely to attack each other in this state. Next, humans would seek nourishment and out of fear and impulse would eventually unite to create society. Once society was created, a state of war would ensue amongst societies which would have all been created the same way i.e. out of fear and impulse. The main purpose of war is not for power or nourishment rather it is for the preservation of the society and the self. The formation of law within society is the reflection and where reason is finally applied for Montesquieu.
1.4.7 John Calhoun on the State of Nature
John C. Calhoun, in his Disquisition on Government, (1850) wrote that a state of nature is merely hypothetical and argues that the concept is self-contradictory and that political states naturally always existed.
“It is, indeed, difficult to explain how an opinion so destitute of all sound reason, ever could have been so extensively entertained, … I refer to the assertion, that all men are equal in the state of nature; meaning, by a state of nature, a state of individuality, supposed to have existed prior to the social and political state; and in which men lived apart and independent of each other… But such a state is purely hypothetical. It never did, nor can exist; as it is inconsistent with the preservation and perpetuation of the race. It is, therefore, a great misleading term to call it the state of nature. Instead of being the natural state of man, it is, of all conceivable states, the most opposed to his nature—most horrible to his feelings, and most incompatible with his wants. His natural state is, the social and political—the one for which his Creator made him, and the only one in which he can preserve and perfect his race. As, then, there never was such a state as the, so called, state of nature, and never can be, it follows, that men, instead of being born in it, are born in the social and political state; and of course, instead of being born free and equal, are born subject, not only to parental authority, but to the laws and institutions of the country where born, and under whose protection they draw their first breath.”
In conclusion for Calhoun, there is nothing like the state of nature because what is described there as the nature of human are beneath us and are terrible way of describing the nature of man, rather what we have has our natural state and that which we are born into is the social and political state.
1.4.8 David Hume on the State of Nature
David Hume offers in A Treatise of Human Nature (1739) that human beings are naturally social and so it is 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 respected social. This, however, hinders not, but that philosophers may, if they please, extend their reasoning to the supposed state of nature; provided they allow it to be a mere philosophical fiction, which never had, and never could have any reality.
Hume’s ideas about human nature expressed in the Treatise suggest that he would be happy with neither Hobbes’ nor his contemporary Rousseau’s thought-experiments. He explicitly derides as incredible the hypothetical humanity described in Hobbes’ Leviathan. Additionally, he argues in “Of the Origin of Justice and Property” that if mankind were universally benevolent, we would not hold Justice to be a virtue: “’it is only from the selfishness and confined generosities of men, along with the scanty provision nature have made for his wants, that justice derives its origin.”
1.4.9 Robert Nozick on the State of nature
The American philosopher Robert Nozick, Rawls’s contemporary, also turned to a hypothetical state of nature in his main work of political philosophy, Anarchy, State, and Utopia (1974), to argue for a position that was markedly different from that of Rawls. According to Nozick, the minimal state (one whose functions are limited to protecting the natural rights to life, liberty, and property) is justified, because individuals living in a state of nature would eventually create such a state through transactions that would not violate anyone’s rights.
Reading through the above reviewed studies, it could be inferred that all they have done is to inquire into the natural state of man in an attempt to answer the question of social unrest which in turn has generated a lot of questions to the neglect of giving a critical assessment or evaluation of Thomas Hobbes’ view. Having considered the works of very few intellectual on what they see as the state of nature and the pre-society period and not only that but also some who did not share the idea of the existence of a pre –society, we could deduce that each individual gave his very best to giving a clear and precise picture as to what they see as what characterize the period before the existence of the society each preferring one to the other.
In the next chapter, what would be considered is the work of Thomas Hobbes and how he relates the emergence of humans from the state of nature to the society and also our obligation to obey the law. Does his account justify or could it be said to be enough reason for us as humans to be politically obligated to obey the law.