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"State of nature" is a term in political philosophy used in social contract theories to describe the hypothetical condition of humanity before the state's foundation and its monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force. In a broader sense of the word, a state of nature is the condition before the rule of positive law comes into being, thus being a synonym of anarchy.

In some versions of social contract theory, there are no rights in the state of nature, only freedoms, and it is the contract that creates rights and obligations. In other versions the opposite occurs: the contract imposes restrictions upon individuals that curtail their natural rights.


Hobbes' "war of all against all" Edit

The concept of a state of nature was first posited by the 17th century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes in Leviathan. Hobbes described the concept in the Latin phrase bellum omnium contra omnes, meaning "the war of all against all." In this state any person has a natural right to do anything to preserve their own liberty or safety.

Hobbes believed that human beings in the state of nature would behave "badly" towards one another ("badly" in the sense of the morality that we would commonly apply: but Hobbes argued that people had every right to defend themselves by whatever means, in the absence of order). Famously, he believed that such a condition would lead to a "war of every man against every man" and make life "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short."

Locke's social contract Edit

John Locke further explores the state of nature in his Second Treatise on Civil Government written just prior to England's Glorious Revolution of 1688. Locke argued that unlimited government leads to abuses and that government should be from the people and that it should be limited so as not to violate the natural rights of people. Locke states that the entire population has the right to punish an offender so that he will not commit the crime again and so that others will be deterred from moral law breaking. If the state turned itself into a tyranny, Locke argued in favor of a right of rebellion.

Rousseau's theory Edit

Hobbes's view was challenged in the eighteenth century by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who claimed that Hobbes was taking socialized persons and simply imagining them living outside of the society they were raised in. He affirmed instead that people were born neither good nor bad; men knew neither vice nor virtue since they had almost no dealings with each other. Their bad habits are the products of civilization specifically social hierarchies, property, and markets. Another criticism put forth by Karl Marx is his concept of species-being, or the unique potential of humans for dynamic, creative, and cooperative relations between each other. For Marx and others in his line of critical theory, alienated and abstracted social relations prevent the fulfillment of this potential (see anomie).

20th century Edit

John Rawls used what amounted to an artificial state of nature. To develop his Theory of Justice, Rawls places everyone in the original position. The original position is a hypothetical state of nature used as a thought experiment to develop Rawl's theory of justice. People in the original position have no society and are under a veil of ignorance that prevents them from knowing how they may benefit from society. They do not know if they will be smart or dumb, rich or poor, or anything else about their fortunes and abilities. Rawls reasons that people in the original position would want a society where they had their basic liberties protected and where they had some economic guarantees as well. If society were to be constructed from scratch through a social agreement between individuals, these principles would be the expected basis of such an agreement. Thus, these principles should form the basis of real, modern societies since everyone should consent to them if society were organized from scratch in fair agreements.

Between nations Edit

In Hobbes's view, once a civil government is instituted, the state of nature has disappeared between individuals because of the civil power which exists to enforce contracts. Between nations, however, no such power exists and therefore nations have the same rights to preserve themselves - including making war - as individuals possessed.

Rawls also examines the state of nature between nations. In his work the Law of Peoples, Rawls applies a modified version of his original position thought experiment to international relations. Rawls says that people, not states, form the basic unit that should be examined. States should be encouraged to follow the principles from Rawls's earlier Theory of Justice. Democracy seems like it would be the most logical means of accomplishing these goals, but benign non-democracies should be seen as acceptable at the international stage. Rawls develops eight principles for how people should act on an international fr:État de naturept:Estado Natural fi:Luonnontila

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