The State of Nature

We started off with some differences between Hobbes and Plato. Plato sought to show that justice is consistent with our nature in order to refute Glaucon’s suggestion that it might be a perversion of nature (Republic 359c). Hobbes, by contrast, thought that our natural condition is terrible and that we can only live decent lives inside the artificial body of the state.

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 explanation of war in the state of nature links conflict to scarcity: people fight for access to scarce resources. Hobbes says this follows from a premise about equality so we spent some time talking about what he means in saying we are equal. As Kamyab noted, it is not that we are literally equal. It is rather, as Oscar suggested, that it is possible for anyone to win; no one else is an invincible God or Superman. Everyone has some hopes to win in a fight. If one side were simply dominant, there would not be any conflict.

We had to add some additional premises as well: people are willing to kill (Kamyab), the scarce resources are important for their own “conservation,” (Val), and there is no alternative to conflict (Will).

The second explanation of war in the state of nature 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.

As you can imagine, this dynamic makes peace very unstable in the state of nature. Suppose that I have no desire to fight but that I also think that you fear that I will attack you. I know that we both know that anticipation and surprise are the best tactics to adopt. Given that, I have to at least entertain the thought that I might have to attack you first, if only to defend myself against a misguided attack on your part. And you can go through the same kind of thinking about me.

One way that this is commonly illustrated is with what is called the prisoner’s dilemma (the first number is the payoff for the row player, the second number is the payoff for the column player).

Pre-emptive violence in the state of nature
Anticipate Wait
Anticipate 3rd / 3rd 1st / 4th
Wait 4th / 1st 2nd / 2nd

People whose interactions with one another have this structure have a dominant strategy, meaning a strategy that it is rational to follow no matter what the other side does. In this case, it is to anticipate, or start the war.

Hobbes’s idea is that the state is needed to lock people in to the southeast corner, where each one waits rather than striking first. It does so by changing the payoffs. If you start the conflict, you will get punished. That lowers the value of “anticipate” and reduces the cost of “wait.”

We will revisit this when we talk about Hume. Hume thinks it mischaracterizes the strategic situation of people in the state of nature.

The third reason is the strangest. People fight for reputation. It looks as though Hobbes is saying that we are just quarrelsome, like drunks looking for a fight. 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 people who look powerful actually become powerful by attracting allies. So the protection of honor is actually a more rational activity than it appears to be, at least according to Hobbes.

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. Finally, Hobbes did a little armchair anthropology, pointing to the Americas as an example of a place where people live in a state of nature.

I cited one fact about the difference between human beings and other animals, namely, that human beings kill adult members of their species at far higher rates than other animals do. My source is a very interesting book called War in Human Civilization by Azar Gat. Gat’s explanation of the asymmetry, I said, fits Hobbes’s assumption about the importance of the tactic of anticipation (striking first). Here is Gat in his own words.

there was a difference between humans and other animal species. Among animals, it is mostly the young that stand at the receiving end of intraspecific killing, whereas adults … are relatively secure. By contrast, among humans, although women and children were often killed, it was mainly the men fighters themselves who suffered most of the casualties. With humans too, deadly fighting was asymmetrical, in the sense that it was conducted under conditions in which the enemy were caught helpless and unable to fight back, mostly by surprise. However, among humans, the asymmetry regularly rotated, with the receiving and inflicting ends changing places: the helpless victim of today’s raid was himself the raider tomorrow. Thus the adult fighters themselves bore the brunt of the casualties … What is the source of this difference between humans and other animals?

Mutual deterrence, which is generally effective among adult animals, fails in humans under certain conditions … because of that principal threat to deterrence: first-strike capability. Why do humans possess it to a much larger degree than other animal species? It is because of the most distinctive human capability: tool making. The more advanced the capability became, the more lethal humans became. …

As with other animal species, they normally did not seriously fight conspecifics on the open battlefield for fear of being hurt themselves. However, unlike other animal species, they were able to kill adult conspecifics by surprise, when their adversaries were unarmed and vulnerable. (Gat 2006, 128–29)

In other words, it is true that adult chimpanzees will kill other adults if they can catch them by surprise. But human beings are far better at catching one another by surprise. Also, because they rely on weapons rather than their physical strength, teeth, and claws, human beings are more likely to be caught defenseless.

After tallying up the estimated rates of violent death among hunter-gatherers and primitive agricultural societies, Gat makes a back of the envelope conjecture that “average human violent mortality rates among adults in the state of nature may have been in the order of 15 per cent (25 per cent for men)” (Gat 2006, 131). That is a phenomenally high rate. To see that, take our class, which has 27 members. If we were in the state of nature, we would expect 4 of us to be murdered.

I should add that Gat is on one side of a debate within anthropology. The other side maintains that these numbers are wrong or that they are the product of encounters with states that upset the traditional way of life within primitive societies. 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?


Gat, Azar. 2006. War in Human Civilization. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hobbes, Thomas. (1651) 1993. Leviathan. Edited by Mark C. Rooks. British Philosophy: 1600-1900. Charlottesville, VA: InteLex Corporation.