In the following essay, I aim to provide a comprehensive comparison between the political philosophies by Thomas Hobbes and John Locke on the subject of ‘Human Nature’. This is attained by taking into account the political writings of Hobbes from his book Leviathan and Locke’s Second Treatise of Government. Throughout the essay I analyse ‘Human Nature’ by evaluating it in two key areas, the philosophical idea of ‘state of nature’, and the ‘social contract theory’. Towards the end I provide an assessment of both philosophical aspects leading to a concise conclusion.
The ‘state of nature’, as outlined by many philosophers is represented as the case in which humans beings would find themselves in the absence of authority, law and order in the society. In the ‘state of nature’, inherent human nature is driving force behind it. This means that the human actions in the absence of an authority, distinguishes the environment from a hostile to a peaceful one. Through this environment a civil society is further established. Philosophically the conflict lies between distinguishing whether the ‘humans’ are inherently good or bad? And what characteristics drive humans to exhibit those characteristics. The concept of state of nature serves dual purpose, not only philosophers use it to explain laws which are just by ‘nature’ without human intervention but also how humans living in a state of nature conducts themselves. This brings us to the recurring argument of Nature Vs. Nurture, whether state of nature (environment) forms human nature or the exposure to ideas and values (nurture) forms human nature.
Taking into account the writing of Thomas Hobbes, who was not only a political thinker but also a philosopher, Hobbes to an extent was an empiricist, to him all of our ideas are attained, directly or indirectly, from sensation. He firmly believes in a causal process about perception, which is largely the linkage of a causal chain of motions. (Hobbes T. The Elements of Law) Hobbes can be considered a ‘psychological egoist’. In his work, the ‘Leviathan’ he paints the ‘Human Nature’ both mechanistic and with cynicism. Hobbes believes that human beings are intrinsically self centred and ruthless, therefore any endeavour to make moral individuals out of them would be a waste of time and energy, and if humans are allowed to execute their own decisions being in the ‘state of nature’, there will be definite death. Thus existence because of this human nature as defined by Hobbes, would be nasty, brutish and short. It would be solitary and poor. (Heywood A. 1992, P27) Hobbes continually establishes in all his works that human nature is very pessimistic and uses the thought experiment of ‘state of nature’ to extract insights of human behaviour to justify political actions in the real world. Human behaviour in the state of nature is a case of perpetual war, with every man for himself. (Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan) It is because state of nature has an ever-growing scarcity of essential resources for humans, for instance Hobbes considers that it would be wise for individuals to commence pre-emptive strikes upon others, towards whom they feel are or would threaten their own resources and reasons of existence.
Human nature in a ‘Social Contract’ according to Hobbes is naturally inclined towards self preservation. He advocates that because human nature is so deeply engrossed with its own survival it would voluntarily surrender their natural liberty by entering into civil union in which individuals would exchange their absolute freedom for the assurance of the security offered through a social contract. After entering the social contract, humans would willingly yield their freedom to mighty sovereign. Hobbes asserts that all human beings are egoists, who constantly seek to feed off their desires. Human beings naturally desire the power to lead a better life and that this thirst will never be satisfied without the acquisition of ever-growing power. Additionally he argues this leads to a successive new desires such as prominence and honour , pleasures of flesh or being subjected to appreciation from others. He argued that all humans have been made equal and everyone is subjected to the same rights and potential of inflicting harm to each other. Although one individual might be physically powerful than another, the weaker will be atoned for it his intelligence or some other personal trait. He considers that at the root level, the nature of humanity will coerce individuals to attain power and when conflict of similar wants arises individuals will become nemeses and attempt to destroy each other. According to Hobbes there are three objectives: rivalry, suspicion and honour. Within each of these brackets, human nature would force people use aggression to capture their enemies dominion either for personal advantage, their welfare or for prestige. In the absence of a powerful sovereign to bond the common masses, they would continue conflict. The state of war was the actual state of humans and the peace that exists among them is completely fake because it is founded on a mutual accord of self preservation.
Interestingly Hobbes, who was an ardent materialist, he believed that everything in the universe can be described scientifically. The world to him was simply matter and motions and therefore humans are simply convoluted and sophisticated complex machines.
Comparing Hobbes despondent outlook on ‘human nature’, which commands towards the inevitability of humans to quarrel and contest within themselves after society is broken down to its basics. A separate philosopher, John Locke, argued that collaboration and co-existence amongst individuals is attainable in the ‘state of nature’ without the lingering fear of war. The behaviour of human nature in the ‘state of nature’ as written by Locke is entirely different than that of Hobbes.
Taking into account the writings of John Locke, over the the ‘state of nature’ in his book, The Two Treatises of Government (Locke J. 1689) he argues against Hobbes’ approach of perpetual warfare among men. Locke grasps onto a far more pleasing outlook on ‘human nature’ when compared to Hobbes’. In his opinion all humans are tied by a chain of several natural laws that averts them to inflict any physical harm upon each other. Locke was a calvinist and many scholars believe that his religious background influenced his political writings.