top of page
  • Ishani Sharma


Updated: Feb 1, 2022

This article aims to reiterate the correctness of Thomas Hobbes’ stance, that the state of nature would be a state of war. At the offset, the paper will first briefly introduce the state of nature theorising as a justification for the state and then present Hobbes’ assertion about the state of nature being a state of war. Followed by this, the paper illustrates the different interpretations of the state of nature offered by other philosophers and critically evaluates the explanations offered by Hobbes which form the premises for his conclusion, This paper aims to contend that his argument is well-supported and offers a cogent perspective of the state of nature.

The state of nature theorising is a method used by thinkers and philosophers to justify the existence of the state and the powers it exercises. It starts with an account of the state of nature, i.e. a situation where no state exists, an absence of social/political entity possessing authority over others, and the conditions under such a situation are presented as such that the escape from it is deemed necessary. Avoiding or escaping the state of nature is argued to be a justification for the state and its monopoly over legitimate force. It is important to note here that the kind of state that is justified depends to a large extent on the state of nature that they begin with and, thus, the various interpretations of the state of nature provided by different philosophers determine the kind of state that they justify, if at all.

Thomas Hobbes, a seventeenth-century English philosopher, argues for the existence of a strong authoritarian government in his book Leviathan, portraying a hostile picture of the state of nature which in the absence of a common power, would “lapse into a war of all against all”.[1] Although Hobbes uses the phrase “...War Of Every One Against Every One” to describe the state of nature, he warns the reader that the state of war is not characterised by actual, constant conflict, but instead, by a perpetual intention to fight that is shared by every man.[2] He argues that because everyone is aware of everyone else’s willingness to fight, there is a continual fear of violent death, followed by insecurity, suspicion and mutual distrust. Owing to this uncertainty of human life, Hobbes claims that the state of nature would not allow the growth of industries, arts and knowledge making “the life of man solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”.[3]

Having established Hobbes’ argument for the state of nature resembling a state of (potential) war, the paper now critically evaluate the reasons offered by Hobbes for the same and compares his premises to the ones provided by other philosophers. Hobbes uses certain features of human nature as assumptions that would inevitably lead to severe conflict in the state of nature. His first assumption rests on the equality of human beings wherein he argues that even though humans may not strictly be equal in bodily or mental strength but each person is still capable of killing another of his kind “either by secret machination, or by confederacy with others...”.[4] Thus, in an absence of a protective force and a realization that everyone is capable of hurting everyone else, each person is under an everlasting threat. Unlike Hobbes who distinctly asserts the absence of a law enforcer, John Locke argues that executive power is vested in every person and can be used to punish wrongdoers collectively which can provide safety and certainty leading to a relatively peaceful state of nature.[5] However, I argue that exercising authority over another person even for the punishment of an offence does not fall in line with Hobbes’ assumption of the natural equality of human beings and could lead to further conflict since the offender may retaliate. Considering the threat of retaliation, people may not be willing to take the risk of using their executive power, making the state of nature insecure again.

Hobbes’ second assumption addresses the scarcity of resources and the conflicting desires of people in the state of nature which he believes would lead to fierce competition. As described by Rawls, “If we wait until others have taken all they want, there will be nothing left for us. So, in a state of nature, we must be ready to stake out and to defend our claims”.[6] In light of the fact that each person is responsible for his or her own survival and is aware of the equal capacity of others, the acquisition and protection of his or her claims, be it land, cattle, food, etc., would render the state of nature in a never-ending state of contention.

In addition to scarcity-led conflict, Hobbes insists that the conquest for glory and pride may also lead to contention, forming his third assumption. The quest for prestige causes the “bitterest of wars”[7] since individuals may feel undervalued from even a deliberate gesture, sign or laughter and would set off on a pursuit of power. However, Kavka contends Hobbes’ argument and asserts that individuals, instead of seeking glory and painting a target on themselves for future conflict, would pursue a strategy of “lying low, staying alert, and fighting only when and if attacked”.[8] He mentions the dangers they may face while seeking glory which includes defensive violence by the attacked and a tempting target for other glory-seekers. Countering Kavka’s critique, I will draw to the benefits of greater prestige in a state of no protection. Admitting that an individual with greater glory may become a target for other glory-seekers, but at the same time, may also evade retaliation from the modest who may get intimidated by his power, making procurement of material resources easier. Whereas, the modest who does not involve himself in the quest for glory and stays ‘low’ still faces the threat from others like him due to the scarcity-led competition but also from other emerging glory-seekers who may wish to prey on the (supposed) weak. Thus, I argue that since it is rational for individuals in the state of nature to seek glory due to the advantages it entails, it leads to a perpetual state of war.

It may seem from the discussion up till now that according to the account provided by Hobbes, humans in the state of nature are cruel and evil beings who gain pleasure from harming others, as is exemplified by William Lucy, who asserted that Hobbes’ argument made “Men to be beasts, or if they have more wit than beasts, to be by that only enabled to be more barbarous and beastly than Beasts themselves”.[9] It is important to consider Hobbes’ statement here that “any man should take pleasure in other men’s great harms, without other ends of his own, I do not conceive it possible”[10], which clearly conveys his message that individuals are not brutal for pleasure, but rather for self-preservation. Moreover, he even believes that humans are capable of benevolence and goodwill, ranking “conjugal affections as second in importance after our own self-preservation”.[11] But since the state of nature is a state of constant conflict for resources and privilege, individuals are bound to prioritise their own self-interest.

Hobbes’ fourth assumption builds upon the other three where he strongly insists that in such an uncertain and insecure state of nature, “there is no way for any man to secure himself, so reasonable, as Anticipation”,[12] advocating pre-emptive action by the individuals. Since each individual is aware of the possible threat from each other, it is reasonable for them to act in self-defence by striking first in order to gain an advantage over their competitor. Hobbes justifies his argument by claiming the Right of Nature, which grants every man the liberty to act as they think fit so as to secure their preservation, validating his assertion that every man has a right to another man’s body and thus cannot be criticised for any action they take to defend themselves.[13]

John Shafte refuted this justification of anticipatory attack being the reasonable choice for an individual in the state of nature, arguing instead that “natural equality made it unreasonable for one human being to attempt to kill another, as the other individual would also attempt to kill him” and he would be acting against his own self-interest.[14] Shafte offers a strong argument but fails to realise that in the state of nature, individuals are governed solely by their natural reason and as rightly explained by Thornton, there is no common judge who decides what is reasonable in particular circumstances due to which “some individuals think that it is reasonable to kill others while some think that it is reasonable to want more than others”.[15] It is an individual’s own reasonability that governs his decision. Conversely, this may seem to contradict Hobbes’ claim that in the natural world, anticipatory attack is the most reasonable option, considering how reasonability is subjective.

To support Hobbes’ claim I will now emphasize the distinction between individual and collective rationality. As rightly worded by Wolff, “collective rationality is what is best for each individual on the assumption that everyone else will act the same way”[16] while individual rationality resembles Hobbes’ assertion that individuals should do what fits them best for their self-interest, regardless of how everyone else behaves. Now, it may seem perfectly reasonable for one to avoid a pre-emptive attack if they are assured that everyone else would do the same. This explains collective rationality where an individual, in his self-interest, would find it rational to not initiate an assault since he shares a mutual trust with his fellow beings and this would lead to a relatively peaceful state of nature. However, since there is a lack of mutual trust that forms the foundation of collective rationality due to the constant suspicion, individuals in the state of nature are uncertain whether their fellow beings would cooperate. Furthermore, in the absence of an authority with the power to prosecute, an individual who intentionally prefers not to cooperate and deceives others for personal gain will face no consequences. Besides that, as previously mentioned, each person is entitled to the right of nature to act in their own self-interest and is justified in his decision by virtue of his reasonability. It can be argued, then, that the preferred choice for an individual when acting in self-interest, is to not cooperate with others and is exemplified by the prisoner’s dilemma, which proves that “one fares better if one does not cooperate than one would have fared if one had cooperated”.[17] But the prisoner’s dilemma stands true when individual and collective rationality diverge and it is important to consider the situation where they may converge, for example, the possibility of people banding together in defensive groups for greater security where an attack against one is seen as an attack against all. The problem of mutual trust may still arise in such a situation where one is uncertain about whether others will come to oneself’s aid and consequently, may refrain from aiding them in the first place. Moreover, as accurately concluded by Kavka, “the destructive war of all individuals against all others will simply be replaced by a war of all groups against all others, that has similar disastrous consequences”,[18] therefore, consolidating Hobbes assertion that the state of nature would be a state of war.

To sum up, I conclude that Hobbes’ portrayal of the state of nature as a state of war of every man against every man is indeed a compelling argument for the state’s justification. He warns that the state of nature is not characterized by actual battles or brutish people, but rather by the existence of a shared urge to fight followed by a common, persistent fear. Having discussed the natural equality of human beings and the conflict of desires, accelerated by scarcity-led competition, it is maintained that human beings would prioritize their own self-interest rather than benevolence towards others, which inevitably leads to conflict. Furthermore, Hobbes justifies the pursuit of glory and pre-emptive violence by referring to the right of nature that entitled every man the liberty to take any action if it suits their self-preservation. Refutations by critics that followed that a rational man would not initiate a fight and would prefer to cooperate are countered by a natural reason argument that is further reinforced by the prisoner's dilemma. It is argued that the possibility of the emergence of small defensive alliances remains bleak, considering the mutual distrust, and even so, does not dodge the state of war. Notwithstanding that Hobbes’ argument has certain discrepancies as rightly noticed by the critics, a thorough and in-depth evaluation of the same leads to a cogent argument.


[1] Wolff, J. (2017). An introduction to political philosophy (London, England: Oxford University Press). [2] Hobbes, T. (1651). Leviathan (London: Scolar P.). [3] Hobbes, T. (1651). Leviathan (London: Scolar P.). [4] Hobbes, T. (1651). Leviathan (London: Scolar P.). [5] Wolff, J. (2017). An introduction to political philosophy (London, England: Oxford University Press). [6] Rawls, J. (2007). Lectures on the History of Political Philosophy (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press). [7] Thornton, H. (2005). State of nature or Eden?: Thomas Hobbes and his contemporaries on the natural condition of human beings (Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press). [8] Kavka, G.S. (1983). “Hobbes’s War of All Against All”, Ethics, 93 (2), pp. 291-310. [9] Lucy, W. (1663). Observations, Censures and Confutations of notorious errors in Mr. Hobbes His Leviathan, and his other books (London: J.G. for Nath. Brooke). [10] Hobbes, T. (1651). Leviathan (London: Scolar P.). [11] Rawls, J. (2007). Lectures on the History of Political Philosophy (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press). [12] Hobbes, T. (1651). Leviathan (London: Scolar P.). [13] Wolff, J. (2017). An introduction to political philosophy (London, England: Oxford University Press). [14] Shafte, J. (1673). The Great Law of Nature, or Self Preservation Examined, Asserted and Vindicated from Mr. Hobbes his Abuses In a small discourse; part Moral, part Political, and part Religious (London: Printed for the Author). [15] Thornton, H. (2005). State of nature or Eden?: Thomas Hobbes and his contemporaries on the natural condition of human beings (Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press). [16] Wolff, J. (2017). An introduction to political philosophy (London, England: Oxford University Press). [17] Kavka, G.S. (1983). “Hobbes’s War of All Against All”, Ethics, 93 (2), pp. 291-310. [18] Kavka, G.S. (1983). “Hobbes’s War of All Against All”, Ethics, 93 (2), pp. 291-310.

Cover Image: Source

About the author: Ishani Sharma is a second-year undergraduate student at the Jindal School of International Affairs pursuing a bachelor’s degree in Global Affairs. Her areas of interest include human rights, international diplomacy, and geopolitical dynamics

55 views0 comments
bottom of page