The State of Nature

I started off with some broad observations about Hobbes. Then we turned to the three specific arguments Hobbes gives for the conclusion that life in the so-called state of nature would be a war of all against all.

I was especially keen to do two things:

  1. I wanted to show you how to identify assumptions (also known as hidden premises) that authors make and how to think about them. Specifically, once you have found one, ask whether there is a good reason to believe in the assumption, even if it is not one that the author necessarily gives.

  2. I wanted to emphasize that Hobbes needs causes of conflict that the state can solve. Diffidence, for example, is great for him because the state greatly reduces the fear of your neighbor that leads to “anticipation.” By contrast, if he had said that people are inherently evil, that would not be a problem that the state could solve. It might well explain violence among human beings, but it would not be a reason to have a state.

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. It is not that we are literally equal. It is rather 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. Since no side is dominant like that, conflict is a possible means to achieving your aims.

We had to add some additional premises as well: people are willing to kill and there would be scarcity (Hobbes only said that there would be conflict if there were scarcity). We spent some time talking about whether the assumption that there would be scarcity is plausible.

The second explanation of war in the state of nature links conflict to insecurity. Here, we found, 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.”

Victor (I think) wondered whether Hobbes had proven too much here. If this is right, the state of nature should literally be a war of all against all. But we know that there are social groups outside of the state and Hobbes pretty clearly knew that too. 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. If so, it is hard to see how this is a cause of conflict that the state could solve. If we’re liable to fly off the handle for the slightest reason just because that’s the way we are, we will still be that way even with the state. But I think that if you look at chapter 10, you will see that the concern with reputation has a rational basis and that it makes sense to be more concerned in the state of nature than it does in the commonwealth. A reputation for defending your honor makes you look powerful and people who look powerful actually become powerful by attracting allies. This is obviously more important in the dangerous state of nature than it is when you have the state on hand to tamp down conflict and protect you from others.

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. In other words, Hobbes’s case for the state does not have to rest on the proposition that people who do not have a state will live in constant war with one another. He just has to show that the standard of living is drastically lower than it would be under the state.

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. Needless to say, it would be shocking if that happened.

Update: new paper in Nature

If you want the most up to date research on the relative rates of violent death across species, there is a new paper in Nature on the subject. Here is the abstract.

The psychological, sociological and evolutionary roots of conspecific violence in humans are still debated, despite attracting the attention of intellectuals for over two millennia. Here we propose a conceptual approach towards understanding these roots based on the assumption that aggression in mammals, including humans, has a significant phylogenetic component. By compiling sources of mortality from a comprehensive sample of mammals, we assessed the percentage of deaths due to conspecifics and, using phylogenetic comparative tools, predicted this value for humans. The proportion of human deaths phylogenetically predicted to be caused by interpersonal violence stood at 2%. This value was similar to the one phylogenetically inferred for the evolutionary ancestor of primates and apes, indicating that a certain level of lethal violence arises owing to our position within the phylogeny of mammals. It was also similar to the percentage seen in prehistoric bands and tribes, indicating that we were as lethally violent then as common mammalian evolutionary history would predict. However, the level of lethal violence has changed through human history and can be associated with changes in the socio-political organization of human populations. Our study provides a detailed phylogenetic and historical context against which to compare levels of lethal violence observed throughout our history.

In other words, prehistoric humans are about as violent as you would expect, given the observed rates of violence among primates. When the abstract says “the level of lethal violence has changed through human history,” it means that violence declined with the state.

I learned about this by reading a summary in National Geographic’s blog. It presents a variety of findings about violence among mammals that are pretty much in line with what Gat said. The last line is a quotation from Richard Wrangham, a biological anthropologist: “When it comes to murderous tendencies … ‘humans really are exceptional.’”

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.