In this essay I will be assessing the role that human nature plays in defining the role of the state, while making references to the political philosophers Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau.
First of all, whatever the origin of our human nature is, that natural state does indeed define the purpose of the state and the role it plays in our life and society. There are a few different theories of how the state came about and what the purpose of it is according to our nature. If the natural state of man is selfish then obviously the purpose of the state is very different to the society that created the state for caring humankind who naturally obeys unwritten laws. And that is where the complications begin.
Let us consider if the human nature of man is self-interested, barbaric and warlike. Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) believed that this was the way the state of nature was for man. This life was violent, full of tribal disputes and the taking and seeking of power. For Hobbes the state was created as an intellectual preventative measure to this part of human nature. The state is in effect, the preventer of our selfish desires and its laws are to curb our harmful nature. The state being more powerful than the individual, it demands respect, obedience and is so intimidating when compared to the individual that we do not commit that crime or obey our nature because of it. Hobbes’ state is very similar to an almighty and unquestionable God and may of been influenced by such an idea. Its purpose being to fuel us to shy away from our barbaric nature, but of course this also makes the state a controller of the people and a tyrant of the masses. It’s hard to say how much of Hobbes’ view on the state’s role is based on our nature and how much is actually based on him being a product of his time. A time filled with civil war in England and the constant potential of anarchy, which evidently terrified him into arguing for the state and its purpose in the Leviathan (1651).
‘In such condition there is no place for industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving, and removing such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.'(1)
It is human beings want of continual success in achieving the objects of their desires that will bring us to war in the state of nature. For Hobbes ‘nothing could be worse than life without the protection of the state.'(2) While our fear of our own barbarous nature leads us to form a state in order to control our nature, and that, is the role of the state according to the Hobbesian view.
While John Locke (1632-1704) supposed that the role of the state is to enforce the law of nature. He believed that human nature was altruistic and only has violent rights in self-defence, but he did see the potential in man to ignore these natural morals and that is why the state was created.
‘For the Law of Nature would, as all other Laws that concern Men in this World, be in vain, if there were no body that in the State of Nature, had a power to execute that Law, and thereby preserve the innocent and restrain the offenders, and if anyone in the State of Nature may punish another, for any evil he has done, every one may do so.'(3)
All men being naturally equal, all have the right to punish the ones who treat us with injustice. So the state’s role is serving the people and punishing those who commit injustices, while allowing equality for all. The state role is that of the enforcer and defender of our rights according to the Lockean view of human nature.
According to Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) that ‘savage man’ is motivated by self -preservation and pity, having ‘An innate repugnance against seeing a fellow creature suffer'(4). That compassion is a large part of human nature as well as self-preservation, which can evidently lead to conflicts as well as cooperation. He disagreed with both Locke’s and Hobbes’ view, thinking that they both had depicted socialised traits as if they were natural.
He believed that man was a solitary creature but was also pained by the suffering of others. When natural man came together, they realised how beneficial this was to all involved. This was the beginning of the family and the state. So savage man desires only food, sexual satisfaction and rest, and at the same time fearing hunger and pain, while having free-will and the capacity for self-improvement. So the role of the state in this case would be to supply all with the things we need, such as food and homes, while protecting us from pains and injustices. But with this comes socialised inequities. Examples of which are pride, shame, envy and of course the concept of property.
I think originally we were solitary and selfish, but also disliked seeing others suffer, so we banded together because it’s easier and safer that way. When we had children, the family was the state. We govern ourselves and our children. So in reality, the state is not a creation, but a thing that we live because we govern ourselves. We are a living state. While our original state of nature will most probably always remain a mystery to us now, one thing is clear; Whether alone or among many, the human is a governing animal which will interact with itself and its environment in order to form a state and whatever we decide the role of the state to be according to our nature, is no longer governed by our nature, but by our choice.
1. Thomas Hobbes: Leviathan, reissue. (Oxford world’s classics: Oxford University press, 2008) Part 1. ‘Of man’, Chapter XIII: ‘Of the natural condition of mankind as concerning their felicity and misery’, p.84.
2. Jonathan Wolff: An introduction to Political Philosophy, revised edition. (Oxford University press, 2006) Chapter one: ‘The state of nature’, p.8.
3. John Locke: Two treatises of government, Amended reprint. (Cambridge University press, 1963), Chap. II: ‘Of the state of nature’, Section 7, pp.289-290.
4. Jean-Jacques Rousseau: A discourse on Inequity. (Penguin classics, 1984.) ‘Discourse on the origins and foundations of inequity among men’: Part one, p.99.
– Thomas Hobbes: Leviathan (Oxford world’s classics: Oxford University press, 2008)
– John Locke: Two treatises of government (Cambridge University press, 1963)
– Jean-Jacques Rousseau: A discourse on Inequity (Penguin classics, 1984)
– Jonathan Wolff: An introduction to Political Philosophy (Oxford University press, 2006)