The state of nature

Notes for February 13

Main points

We went over two of the three principle causes of war in the state of nature: competition and diffidence. (Glory will have to wait).

I emphasized the importance of finding a cause of conflict in the state of nature that the state is capable of solving.


Competition is a cause of conflict only if there is scarcity and killing your competitors is your most profitable way of dealing with scarcity.

The state can solve the problem of scarcity of material goods by making the society more productive. See 13.9.

It can also head off conflicts over a particular scarce good: power. As Eliot noted, one way this happens is if the state is the way to get power. There’s no competing with the state, so getting ahead means working with it. That means complying with its laws and being a peaceful person. Another way that the state solves conflicts over power is that it caps how much power anyone can have. It takes violent acts like murder off the table and it rules out things like private armies. So the competition for power can only go so far since the state only permits individuals to have so much power.


Diffidence is the most interesting cause of conflict because it presents a case where the state can seemingly alter the motivation to go to war. The idea is that diffidence makes people fight for purely defensive reasons: they’re worried that others might strike them first, so they have a strong incentive to do so themselves. That, in turn, gives others a strong reason to do so for themselves. And so the downward spiral goes. (As Tena noted, this is called the security dilemma in international relations.)

The state, by deterring people from pre-emptively attacking one another, breaks the cycle and eliminates the defensive motivation for war. Neat!

It’s a striking idea, but we shouldn’t get too caught up in it. We know that lots of societies can exist without states. Their members aren’t caught up in a war of all against all.

Hobbes’s point has to be that peace in those societies is less stable than it is societies with states. He also argued that societies without states had to be small scale, such that they couldn’t enjoy the benefits of commerce, industry, science, and the arts. We’ll look at some anthropological discussions of this next week.

This page was written by Michael Green for Hobbes Seminar, Philosophy 185s, Spring 2013. It was posted February 13, 2013.
Hobbes Seminar