Sunday, July 11, 2010

A Truer State of Nature

Throughout human history the most advanced minds have occupied themselves with questions about the human condition. Despite the fact that we all continuously live and experience this condition through our waking time on earth, answers to these questions have remained evasive even for the greatest thinkers amongst us. One of the most debated questions along this line of thinking is the question of how to go about creating the best possible human society. Many great human societies have existed throughout our history, however every one of them has been wrought with internal and external problems that have caused a great deal of pain and conflict. The German philosopher, Hegel, described the history of these societies as, “The slaughter-bench at which the happiness of peoples, the wisdom of states, and the virtue of individuals have been sacrificed.” (Hegel, 27) In this discussion many different ways of addressing the question have been attempted however none has accomplished its goal of creating a perfect human society. The largest reason for this failure is a lack of understanding of the state of nature and it's application to our own human nature. The creation of a comprehensive theoretical view of human nature is an important part of building a functioning society however this theory must be based upon the state of nature that has existed in the real world and not a theoretical state of nature as seen by Thomas Hobbes or John Locke. Perhaps once this task has been accomplished the great thinkers of the world can go about creating a more perfect society.

In order to create a more perfect society it is imperative that we understand the concept of human nature, the rules that govern the behaviors of men. Without an understanding of this concept any application of government or attempt at structure is merely arbitrary and without purpose. To implement a structured society one must understand how a subject will be likely to react under such a situation and adjust it to become acceptable to those who will be part of the society. Furthermore, to understand human nature it is equally important to understand how human beings exist in a state of nature. There are differing views on exactly what a state of nature is, however for now we will use the understanding of men such as Thomas Hobbes and John Locke. The latter of these two men described the state of nature as, “A state of perfect freedom to order their actions, and dispose of their possessions and persons, as they think fit, within the bounds of the law of nature, without asking leave, or depending upon the will of any other man.” (Locke, 8) To describe a state of nature that both men would agree upon one would have to remove from Locke's description the notion of possessions due to Hobbes' insistence on the idea that such could not exist in such a state, yet their basic concept of what a state of nature is remains very similar.

Both men went to great lengths to understand the state of nature from a theoretical viewpoint, as it was not especially possible at the time of their writings for them to observe such a situation firsthand. Though their approach was similar, their outcomes in concept were vastly different. In describing the state of nature, Thomas Hobbes said, “In such condition, there is no place for Industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain; and consequently no Culture of the Earth; no Navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by Sea; no commodious Building; no Instruments of moving, and removing such things as require much force; no Knowledge of the face of the Earth; no account of Time; no Arts; no Letters; no Society; and which is worst of all, continuall feare, and danger of violent death; And the life of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short.” (Hobbes, 186) In contrast to this view, Locke saw the state of nature in a more positive light with, “Men living together according to reason, without a common superior on earth, with authority to judge between them, is properly the state of nature.” (Locke, 15)

Both Hobbes and Locke worked under the supposition that human nature was not a pliable concept, our nature was fixed in one range of possible behaviors and that range could not be changed through any means. Thinkers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Hegel differ from Hobbes and Locke in that they viewed human nature as a changing characteristic of man that was evolving over time. Because human nature changed with time and situation, neither of these men spent a great deal of time discussing the state of nature because it simply did not apply to the current state of human nature. Rousseau said of this that, “The passing from the state of nature to the civil society produces a remarkable change in man; it puts justice as a rule of conduct in the place of instinct, and gives his actions the moral quality they previously lacked. It is only then, when the voice of duty has taken the place of physical impulse, and right that of desire, that man, who has hitherto thought only of himself, finds himself compelled to act on other principles, and to consult his reason rather than study his inclinations.” (Rousseau, 64) On Hegel's part, he felt that human beings were merely agents of a greater force, the Idea, and thus our nature is no more than a manifestation of that. “One may indeed question whether those manifestations of vitality on the part of individuals and peoples in which they seek and satisfy their own purposes are, at the same time, the means and tools of a higher and broader purpose of which they know nothing, which they realize unconsciously.” (Hegel, 31) For these men the state of nature was an inconsequential thing of the past that was no longer important, human beings are no longer affected by it.

Though sharing a view with Hegel that the state of nature was a matter of history, Karl Marx felt that it was necessary to describe that state as a starting point of history. He felt that the state of nature could be looked at as a real event in time and one could learn about the forces that have caused human beings to act in the way we have and bring us to our current situation. As one can imagine his conception of the state of nature was remarkably different from that of Hobbes and Locke, as it was not a theoretical state of being, but instead a historical event. Marx described his contempt of these theoretical concepts saying, “When reality is depicted, philosophy as an independent branch of knowledge loses its medium of existence. At the best its place can only be taken by a summing-up of the most general results, abstractions which arise from the observation of the historical development of men. Viewed apart from real history, these abstractions have in themselves no value whatsoever.” (Marx, 48) Marx's view of the state of nature, if thought about appropriately, has a greater value than perhaps even Marx himself considered.

Much in the vein of Marx's thinking, the concept of the state of nature must be redefined, not as a theoretical view of how man would exist without government, but instead how man has lived in the real world with the most minimal amount of government and society possible. Hobbes said of the state of nature, “It may peradventure be thought, there was never such a time, nor condition of warre as this; and I believe it was never generally so, over all the world: but there are many places, where they live so now. For the savage people in many places of America, except the government of small Families, the concord whereof dependeth on naturall lust, have no government at all; and live at this day in that brutish manner, as I said before.” (Hobbes, 187) Since the time of Hobbes the knowledge of such “savage people” has grown to the point where we understand what their daily lives were composed of and we now know that the simple view that Hobbes had of these groups of people was false. Native Americans, and other groups of supposedly “savage people” often have very complicated social structures that can and have involved many people over large geographical areas. Even ignoring Hobbes' lack of understanding of Native American culture, Hobbes and Locke failed in one very important way in their assumptions about a state of nature.

Through many facets of science, most notably the field of anthropology, it has become possible to obtain a very accurate view of the way that people of the past have lived. One of the things that can be gained from this study is the behavior and lifestyles of our own distant ancestors and that of species close to our own. A characteristic of our primate family of apes is that every species, humans and their ancestors included, live in social groups and that these social groups are composed of individuals who are not directly genetically related to one another. As human beings our social nature is a defining characteristic of our species, without which we could not be called human. Government comes as a natural part of our social nature as well, as Hobbes correctly put it, “Again, men have no pleasure, (but on the contrary a great deale of griefe) in keeping company, where there is no power able to over-awe them all. For every man looketh that his companion should value him, at the same rate he sets upon himselfe.” (Hobbes, 185) Within groups of people there always arises either a leader whom they will follow or an agreement upon which decisions can be made communally. Whether that takes the form of a tribal chieftain, monarch, council, senate, assembly, etc., government is part of what makes us human.

Because of these facts, it is impossible to separate the human condition from our social nature. Whenever such is done a person's mental state suffers greatly in that it is associated with certain psychological disorders. To attempt to view human beings in a state of nature in which society and government do not exist is to view human beings in a state in which they are not human beings at all. Therefore we must accept that both society and government exist in a state of nature and perhaps that the most appropriate way to view said state of nature is in historical terms as Marx had done.

In addition to the scientific work that must alter the way that we think about the state of nature, the in-depth study of history that has occurred has given us a view of human history in which we are able to get a fairly accurate depiction of the behavior of humans of nearly every culture across the globe. In looking at this accumulation of historical accounts it becomes clear that there is a certain pattern of behavior throughout our history, a certain range of human motivations, desires, and behaviors that have remained the same across all cultures in all parts of the world. Everywhere in all times people are largely motivated by the same things, such as fear, duty, lust, and love. With acquired knowledge of science the range of human capability has changed greatly, however our nature has largely remained the same. It would be wrong to suggest that human nature is static, as it is largely dependent on the society and culture that a person lives in, however the variances in human nature are more geographically and culturally driven rather than a progression to some endpoint. Because of this abundant evidence of our non-linear nature, the works of Rousseau and Hegel, depending on a progressive human nature, must garner a certain amount of skepticism. It would be foolhardy to discount their ideas completely, however their work lacks a level of empirical evidence that should be required for something as important as determining how people should live their lives and exist with one another.

With this new understanding of what should be accounted for in a state of nature many of the conclusions arrived upon by thinkers such as Hobbes and Locke may have been very different, though the value of such focus on the state of nature must be looked at in an appropriate context. The state of nature is merely a simplification whereupon generalizations about our nature can be formulated, however the world we live in is much more complicated than any of these generalizations can account for and when making these generalizations we face the danger of ethnocentric thinking. As important as it is to create a more comprehensive theoretical view of human nature such simplifications can sometimes be misleading and should only be viewed in a larger context. Used in such a context, however, a new exhaustive study into human nature, as Hobbes had done, using the information that we now know about the true state of nature may be the way to creating a more perfect society.

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