On Human Nature

Philosopher Thomas Hobbes held pride and vanity, and the will to dominate, to be basic and original impulses of human nature, which accounts in part for why the State of Nature is a State of War. Jean-Jacques Rousseau denies this, attributing these propensities to society. For Rousseau, in the primitive State of nature, people are moved by their nature needs (food, shelter, sex), guided by self-love, and restrained by natural compassion.

When considering the dueling conceptions of human nature, my mind immediately went to the ring of Gyges myth Glaucon challenges Socrates with in Plato’s Republic. The point is: if a man found a magic ring that rendered him invisible, what would he do? Glaucon’s implied answer is “much mischief.” Perhaps Rousseau would respond that, yes, a man would do mischief, but only because the forces of society had so misshapen his character as to favor mischief. It appears to be an impossible thought experiment, for none of us can divorce ourselves from the state, and, thus, we cannot imagine what the “true” state of nature is like and what is the true state of nature for the human animal.

What is really at stake in these disputes about human nature is the prospect for social change, according to philosopher John Rawls, and he makes a lot of sense. We find echoes of that question in the current political debates, for the extent to which you believe social change possible shapes your views on the appropriateness of the size (and activism) of the state.

It is easy to be too literal with Hobbes, Locke, or Rousseau, and, in the process, get lost in the specifics of their contract theories. What is important, it seems to me, is to understand that, by describing the state of nature, the various philosophers are setting in motion the antecedent conditions for their theories on the proper form and functioning of government. For example, if, like Hobbes, the background nature of man is nastiness and brutishness, then a political philosophy wherein one should accept any sovereign because it is preferable to the State of Nature (i.e., State of War) seems reasonable, to a degree. But, if like Locke or Rousseau, you define man’s pre-state nature to be more positive, pleasant, kind, it would seem crazy to accept any old sovereign.

It is interesting to consider that, when considering the form and function of the state, our consideration is not primarily focused on the state but, rather, on the nature of man. How you topple that first domino impacts the rest of the analysis, does it not?

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