Political Philosophy Spring 2018

Hobbes on 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.

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.

  1. Competition
  2. Diffidence
  3. Glory

Before I go any further, I want to point out a technique for reading early modern philosophy (roughly 16th-18th century) that I find invaluable: backtracking. What I mean is that whenever I find a little summary statement, and especially one that mentions a specific number of arguments, I look back through the text to make sure I have identified all the arguments.

The trigger to backtrack here is this line:

So that in the nature of man, we find three principal causes of quarrel. First, competition; secondly, diffidence; thirdly, glory. (Leviathan 13.6)

He was good enough to give capsule summaries of each.

The first, maketh men invade for gain; the second, for safety; and the third, for reputation. The first use violence, to make themselves masters of other men’s persons, wives, children, and cattle; the second, to defend them; the third, for trifles, as a word, a smile, a different opinion, and any other sign of undervalue, either direct in their persons, or by reflection in their kindred, their friends, their nation, their profession, or their name. (Leviathan 13.7)

With this in hand, I went back and made sure I had identified each of the three items in the first paragraph and that my understanding of them matched the language used in the second one: gain, safety, and reputation. You can see the fruits of my labor in the gray outline headings that I added to the text.

Another useful technique is to look for the trees, especially at the beginning of a chapter. What I mean is that authors often start off with conceptual trees, with a root idea and branches. If you look at chapter 10, for example, you see he starts with “power” as his root concept. Then he divides that into two branches: natural power and instrumental power. Then he gives a series of examples of instrumental power, which is the branch that he is most interested in.

Chapter titles are helpful too. In chapter 10, after Hobbes is done with instrumental powers, he turns to honor, which is the second topic listed in the chapter title.

The early moderns loaded up their writing with little tips like that. Once you get in the habit of looking for them, you will find that they are very useful. Plus it’s kind of fun to search them out. It’s like finding clues in an ancient map.

OK, back the substance of the thing.


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. Mark got this one dead to rights (so to speak): it means that anyone is capable of killing anyone else.

Note that this is not the same thing as saying that we are literally equal or that we are all equally capable of killing. Those things are not true and he knew it. Rather, the point is that we are all capable enough to have a hope of getting what we need by trying to kill one another.

That is what he needs. He needs to explain why people will fight in the state of nature. If fighting were hopeless, as it would be if some people were invincible super-beings, then no one would fight. If it is not hopeless, then fighting is an option.

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 took it for granted that there would be scarcity but it seems to me that this is not necessarily so. It depends on things like the population size relative to the available resources. The fact that pre-state societies are not very productive means they live closer to the edge of what the natural environment can provide. But they also have fewer people to maintain.


The second explanation of war in the state of nature links conflict to insecurity: diffidence, the opposite of confidence.

Here is another methodological hint for you. The Oxford English Dictionary is your friend. It is the most comprehensive dictionary the English language including ways of using words that have dropped out of fashion. Here is the entry for “diffidence”.

1. Lack of confidence or faith in someone or something; distrust; mistrust, misgiving, doubt. Also: an instance of this; a doubt, a misgiving. Now rare except as merged with sense 2.

2. Doubt in one’s own ability, merit, or judgement; lack of self-confidence; modesty or shyness resulting from this.

Hobbes is clearly using meaning 1 even though, as the entry notes, that is now rare except when it is used along with meaning 2.

With diffidence, we found that 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.

There is one way of describing this that we did not discuss but we will have to bring up in a future class. It is that what is called the prisoner’s dilemma is often used to illustrate diffidence as a cause of conflict. (Here 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.”

There is some question whether diffidence could stand on its own as a cause of conflict or whether it presupposes competition. Sarah (or Alexa - my notes and memory are in conflict here) thinks it is the latter and I tend to agree. If you have a bunch of people who have nothing to gain from conflict, there is little reason to fear that one of them will engage in anticipatory violence against the other. You have to have a reason for fighting in the first place to get the cycle going, in my opinion.


The third reason for conflict 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 about it in the state of nature than 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.

Is it true?

Carter and Michael both noted that Hobbes is surely exaggerating some features of the state of nature. It can’t really be solitary or a war of “every man against every man.” There are clearly groups and social interaction. The only way that glory makes sense as a cause of conflict is if defending your honor gains you what Hobbes calls “instrumental power” by impressing other people. That only makes sense if people are willing to work together in the ways Hobbes describes in chapter 10.

That said, I think the basic dynamics are not really altered if we introduce groups into the state of nature. Calling it a “war of every group against every group” is not as catchy, even though it is probably more accurate. (Although we should not ignore the possibility that individual level violence within social groups would be quite high; if it is, then Hobbes’s language would be more appropriate. Given what I have read, I am inclined to think that there was, in fact, quite a lot of individual level violence within social groups in pre-state societies.)

One other point is worth mentioning. Hobbes’s case does not just rest on showing 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. He has to trace the reasons for lacking the benefits of civilization back to insecurity. But it seems to me that he can do this even if the state of nature is not literally a war of all against all.

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 24 members. If we were in the state of nature, we would expect 3-4 of us to be murdered or killed in a conflict with another group. Needless to say, it would be shocking if that happened.

Main Points

Here are the main things you should know or have an opinion about after today’s class.

  1. The three causes of conflict: competition, diffidence, and reputation. What do those words mean and how do the explanations work?
  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.