Why Are We Not In The State of Nature?

Hobbes (and later thinkers) asked one of the basic modern questions of social theory: Why are we not in the state of nature? In other words, why did we evolve the structures and mechanisms of modern society, such as marriage, banks, police, governments, etc.?


So, he imagined a time before these structures, which he called the "state of nature".

5 Characteristics of the state of nature

1. Approximate equality of vulnerability - any one of us can be killed or injured by any other.

2.
Amorality - There are no moral rules, and therefore we can't understand the significance of breaking rules.

3.
Non-altruism - We are willing to resort to violence to get what we desire.

4.
Relative Scarcity - Nature doesn't supply us with an unlimited amount of goods. Therefore, it is to my benefit to take what you have. Its easier for me to take what you have and run the risk of reprisals, than to get it on my own.

5.
Rationality - We have the ability to apprehend circumstances, and make efficient means/ends judgments.


What's the result?

Given this scenario, the state of Nature is a state of war of everyone against everyone:

  • scarcity leads to competition
  • competition plus an absence of morals leads to invasion and destruction which leads to fear
  • fear plus ability to reason leads to generalized fear, since everyone knows that everyone else is in the same position.
  • This leads to the policy of striking before you are struck (best defence is a good offence)


Hobbes concludes that the life of people in the state of nature is "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short".

How do we get out of it? By making an agreement. But under these conditions, what kind of agreement is possible?


So: imagine that you and your partner have been captured by the police. You are being held for a relatively minor crime (e.g., assault), but the police want to charge you for a major crime, such as robbing a bank. But to make this charge, they need each of you to testify against the other one.

So, here's the offer: If you testify against your partner for robbing a bank, you will get away free and clear -- unless he testifies against you, in which case you will both be put in jail for 10 years. If neither of you testifies, you will both be convicted on the assault charge, which carries a sentence of 2 years.

 

Person A

Squeal

Don't Squeal

Person B


Squeal

1

A:10

B:10

 

2

A:10

B:0

 

Don't Squeal

3

A:0

B:10

 

4

A:2

B:2

 

So what do you do?

Options best to worst

 

A

B

Best

3

2

 

4

4

 

1

1

Worst

2

3

Note: if both people go for their best option, they would both squeal. Under those circumstances, both would end up with their third best option. What is needed is for people to give up their best option, in order to attain their second-best.


But how can you ensure that the other person doesn't stab you in the back? For Hobbes, the answer is:
You both give up the only right you have, the right to self-preservation, to a third party, a sovereign. This is the beginning of the state, and the emergence out of the state of nature.