The state of nature

We started off with some differences between Hobbes and Plato. For example, Plato thought it was important to reconcile justice with what is natural; Hobbes celebrated its artificiality.

Then we turned to the specific arguments Hobbes made for the conclusion that life in the so-called state of nature would be a war of all against all.

Three arguments

Those who live outside of a state’s authority are described as being in the state of nature. Hobbes gave three reasons why they would be in conflict with one another.

The first links conflict to scarcity: people fight for access to scarce resources. As Max observed, equality is important here because it means that everyone has some hopes to win in a fight. If one side were simply dominant, there would not be any conflict, just as there is no serious prospect of war between the US and Canada.

The second reason links conflict to insecurity. Hobbes assumed that what he called “anticipation” is the best strategy for winning a fight. Roughly, you get to fight on the terms that most favor you, especially if you achieve surprise. So people who fear that they are likely to be victimized have a strong incentive to start the conflict.

If you look at Hobbes’s remarks about power in chapter 11, you can see the problem. Everyone wants as much power as they can get to protect their access to resources in the future. Power is zero sum: my power to get resources necessarily comes at the expense of yours. But as I gain power, I pose a greater threat to you, and so you have a stronger reason to start what you fear would be the inevitable conflict. (And if I believe that this is how you think, I have a stronger reason to start what I fear would be the inevitable conflict. And so on.)

The third reason is the strangest. People fight for reputation. It looks as though Hobbes is saying that they are just quarrelsome. But I think that if you look at chapter 10, you will see that it makes sense to have a strong reputation. A reputation for defending your honor makes you look powerful and powerful people attract allies who are looking for the powerful person’s protection.

The upshot is not just that people who live outside the state are constantly at war with one another. It is also that they lack the benefits of civilization: agriculture, commerce, arts, and science.

Is it true?

Hobbes did not rely on arguments alone. He gave some empirical evidence to substantiate his points. For instance, the fact that we lock our doors at night shows we worry that other people will take advantage of us. And the fact that states are constantly at war with one another suggests that the dynamic of conflict outside of the state’s authority is real.

There is actually a lively debate about these questions. There is a lot of discussion in international relations about the causes of interstate war. And anthropologists heatedly disagree about whether non-state societies were extremely violent, as Hobbes believed they were, or not. I summarized this debate, as I understand it, a few years ago. It’s something that I hope to learn more about.

Key concepts

  1. The three causes of conflict: competition, diffidence, and reputation.
  2. People lived without states for thousands of years. How does that affect Hobbes’s argument, in your opinion?

Update: a real example

Want to see the dynamics of the state of nature at play? Look at what happened to internet sites whose members were anonymous to one another. Their anonymity meant they could cheat one another and escape from retaliation. And when that happened, the people running the websites turned to physical violence to maintain their “community.”

Hobbes would not have been proud, but he would have found it all quite familiar.

(Actually, this would be a decent illustration of Glaucon’s point. Anonymity is very close to the ring of Gyges.)