The State of Nature was described in Professor LaVaque-Manty’s lecture as “what people are naturally like”. This means what people are like when there is no authority figure to control the actions of an individual, a group of people, or a society. There were three major philosophers that had state of nature theories: Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau. The most extreme views of the three came from Hobbes. Hobbes stated, “If a covenant be made, wherein neither of the parties perform presently, but trust one another; in the condition of mere nature, (which is a condition of war of every man against every man,) upon any reasonable suspicion, it is void: but if there to be a common power set over them both, with right and force sufficient to compel performance, it is not void” (Wootton, pg 163). Hobbes is saying that naturally, with no common power among people, there is a state of nature (which is comparable to Locke’s state of war). In Hobbes’ state of nature, the people are self-interested and it is everyone for themselves. Without a common authority, Hobbes describes a chaotic and cruel world, when in reality, are people born naturally self-interested? Or does self-interest come from the environment and conditions that a person is put in?
An article in the New York Times (Wade) came up recently that scientists have been researching this very idea. Dr. Michael Tomasello, a developmental psychologist, the co-director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, stated, “Children are altruistic by nature”. Some of the findings include that children from the age of one year will point at objects that an adult has pretended to lose. Dr. Frans de Waal, a primatologist says, “We’re preprogrammed to reach out. Empathy is an automated response over which we have limited control. The only people emotionally immune to another’s situation, he notes, are psychopaths.”
Around age 3 is when children start to become a bit more selective to which they help. At this age, children want to start fitting into groups, and start following social norms. The social norms include playing games and sharing with other children. Children are more apt to be nice to other children who were nice to them in the past. Similarly, children are mean and selfish when it comes times to share and play with a child who was mean to them previously. This demonstrates human aggression, which is where a selfish tendency comes from.
I think that Hobbes was moderately correct in his thoughts of a state of nature. Let’s use children as a real life example of his state of nature theory. Hobbes talks about natural covenants between people and how if there is any ‘suspicion’ of a broken promise then the covenant is void. In a child’s play setting, this is covenant theory is relevant. Let’s say Child A was mean to Child B in the past. Child B could feel like Child A broke an unwritten rule of kindness, therefore continuing the pattern. Child B, when playing with Child A would be less likely to share, and be more self-interested. In Hobbes’ Law of Nature it states, “The second, the sum of the right of nature; which is, by all means we can, to defend ourselves” (Wootton, pg 160). Child B is defending himself because Child A has broke the covenant and Child B and can no longer be trusted in a state of nature.
Although we as humans are somewhat self-interested, we are also naturally helpful. This is why it is hard to differentiate what a person would naturally be like and if the person has outstanding conditions affecting how their temperament towards other people. “That’s why we have moral dilemmas,” Dr. Tomasello said, “because we are both selfish and altruistic at the same time.”
Wade, Nicholas. “We May Be Born With an Urge to Help.” New York Times 30 Nov 2009, Print.
Wootton, David. Modern Political Thought. Second Edition. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 2008. 160-63. Print.