Human Nature-Hobbes

Notes on human nature from Hobbe's point of view with critisms.

  • Created by: Holliee
  • Created on: 01-04-12 10:17

Key Terms


A hypothetical state in which there is no society and no laws


Someone who believes that we are all naturally individualistic and concerned only for our own needs. “The object to everyman us his own good”; we are motivated by our own needs only.


Someone who believes every person is a complete individual in their own right; our primary purpose is to act as we please as individuals.

N.B. this is opposite to a ‘communitarian’ view who believe we are incomplete without society

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Who Was Hobbes?

Thomas Hobbes lived between 1588-1679, he had lived through and witnessed the brutality of the civil war. Hobbes was a royalist meaning that the war was against his point of view. Hobbes was probably offended by this opposing view and therefore had such a poor expectation of human nature. He would probably conclude that in order to exist civilly with each other, a ruling authority is required. 

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In a State of Nature, Life Would Be...

"Solitary, Poor, Nasty, Brutish and Short" is the answer Hobbes gave in his book Leviathan

He believed that humans are essentially machines built by God whose purpose was to stay alive at all costs and "maintain their virtual motion" (heart beat, growth etc). Also, that we are all filled with desires for things that help us survive (appetites) and wish to avoid things that harm us (aversion). 

A state of nature would also be violent as a result of the competition for limited resources; one would be happy to harm, even kill, others to get what they want/need. it would be war for every individual; no security means no happiness. However, one positive is that we are all equal despite variations of physical ability and mental capacity but the pessimistic side is that we are all equal as we all posses the capacity to death. 

The Social Contract                   According to Hobbes, the conditions in a state of nature would be so appalling that we would be willing to ‘sign’ a contract whereby we obey certain rules; this arises from our selfish desire for safety and certainty. We recognise that is only achievable if we agree to live by certain rules. He claims that there should be a monarchy so there is one ruler to avoid future quarrels, reflecting his royalist background. 

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1) The State of Nature is Fiction

Mankind has always lived in societies, a state of nature is something that has never happened; is it merely a thought experiment with no reference to an actual historical period or written social contract. 

2) Lack of Evidence

As it is just a thought experiment, its validity is questioned. 

3) Examples of Selfless/Altruistic Acts in the World

Some argue that Hobbe's stance as a psychological egoist is false. There are numerous examples of people that dedicate their lives to helping and put the needs of others above their own, Maximilian Kolbe and Mother Teresa. 

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4) Not everyone is willing to use violence for their ends

Hobbes claims that we are natural perfectly happy to harm others, there are many pacifists, both groups and individuals, that refuse to use violence; such as Martin Luther King and Ghandi famously saying "There are many causes I would die for. There is not a single cause I would kill for"

5) Hobbes universalises his nature of man, but aren’t we all different?

Says that we are all, without exception, selfish and greedy and even applies this to most animals. However, many would argue that we are all different; John Locke argues that most people are morally good, and that the reason why we arms ourselves and lock our goods away is to protect ourselves that lack morality.

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6) Psychological Egoism is too simplistic

Hobbes argues that our likes and dislikes are based on what is most beneficial to our survival; in contrast, people enjoy hazardous activities such as smoking and dangerous sports. David Hume argues that human emotion is not structured in any way and does not have the tendency to be automatically selfish. Other opposition of Hobbes would disagree that there no structure to human emotion but instead would argue that the drive to survive is not the only drive we posses. Sigmund Freud presented an argument whereby he believed that our upbringing and social influences causes the needs of other to become part of our consciousness; this he called super-ego and believed that it suppressed natural destructive and selfish desires. Furthermore, he suggested that there are two main contrary drives innate to all human beings. The first being a life-drive (libido) making us want to survive and enjoy life and the other being a death-drive (thanatos) which makes us want to destroy ourselves or run away from the stresses of life. 

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7) Hobbes prevents the existence of true friendships and love

Psychological egoism means that the only love and concern we posses are for ourselves, and that our only interest in others lies in how far they can benefit our own survival. However, whether it is friends or family, there are many examples when one has sacrificed their own happiness and personal interests for another, such as the unconditional love from a mother for a child and the friend, family or even stranger that offers an organ to help the survival of another. 

8) Man is by nature a social being, not a natural individual 

Communitarians argue that human beings are primarily members of groups and cannot exist alone. One well known communitarian Aristotle stated that “he who is unable to live in society…must be either a beast or a god…A social instinct is implanted in all men by nature.” Also, that without being raised by other people, you would retain an undeveloped mind, much alike an animal, and uses language as evidence for this. 

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9) Humans are not completely greedy by nature, but are made greedier by society

Jean-Jacques Rousseau had the view that it is natural for people to feel compassion for those who, like themselves, can suffer. However, he argues that society causes the inflation of self-concern. 

10) People are not naturally equal 

Many people would argue that there are differences among humanity. Where some people may be more intellectually intelligent, others are more socially intelligent (street-wise/interact with others), artistic or physically stronger. Rousseau argued that the differences in talents are the reasons for monetary and social inequality, but wished to see society made equal. On the other hand, Aristotle defended slavery of those deemed of lower quality. One strong point of Hobbes its that he says we are all mortal. 

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11) The state of nature does not show all of human nature

Hobbes’ state of nature thought experiment shows how mankind will generally act in one specific situation, but is it enough to show the full nature of man? Hobbes assumes that true human nature will show under these circumstances but others believe that as social beings, it is a very unnatural situation. Abraham Maslow would say that outside of a survival situation we will then see many more layers to human nature: altruism is more than possible when our basic needs are met. 

12) Political problems

Many would argue that Hobbes’ ideas of a perfect state are flawed, for example, how can selfish individuals ever cope living under a dictator who can do as he pleases? Also, how can people trust each other long enough to establish society? Surely if someone says the will make a peace pact with you the first thing you would  expect them to do was take advantage when you lay your weapons down and attack you, so no pact could ever be made safely. 

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