September 07, 2005

What is the state of nature?

Allow me to wax philosophy grad student and expand on Amanda's observation:

Two narratives appear to be emerging about what happened in the aftermath of Katrina when a state of virtual anarchy reigned and mob rule essentially took over where there was a leadership vaccum. I think that basic background is universally agreed on, but what's interesting is that two competing ideas of what 'mob rule' really means are out there. Or, the word 'mob' is needlessly inflammatory, so it would be better to say crowd rule.

In Anglophone social/political philosophy (I'm not going back any further just because I haven't read enough to speak knowledgeably), this division goes back to Thomas Hobbes and John Locke. Both were prominent philosphers in the late 17th century; Hobbes is probably best well known for Leviathan, while (depending on your undergrad major) Locke is equally famous for his Essay Concerning Human Understanding or Two Treatises of Government. Both drew heavily on 'state of nature' arguments, to get to two very different conclusions.

For Hobbes, the state of nature is a 'war of all against all', where life is 'nasty, brutish, and short'. His description of the SoN in Leviathan makes one picture roving bands of thugs, raping and taking whatever they can. Communities and states form as people band together to better consolidate power: one guy with an axe can't keep five guys with rocks from his apple trees.

For Locke, by contrast, the SoN is a much more tranquil scene, where people naturally come together into families and do the work God has put us on Earth to do -- enjoy life, liberty, health, and work the land (thereby making it our property). This is no Eden, however; without a state, violations of the natural order must be punished by the victims; but they are not likely to be fair and impartial in pursuing justice. Thus, for Locke, the SoN ends and we enter civil society in pursuit of truly objective arbiters of justice.

Note that, in neither case do we band together to achieve common ends, eg, guarantee the food supply or raise children. Civil society has its beginnings not in the extended family or clan and its interests and difficulties, but, for these thinkers, in the selfish interests of a solitary man and his ability to pursue these in the face of adversity from other men (the word choice here is VERY deliberate). Locke's comes closer to this than Hobbes, but he still starts with the individual, not the family.

Amanda's two narratives track fairly well onto the different visions of the state of nature: the Hobbesian is focussed on the riots, looting, and rapine, while the Lockean has a more optimistic picture of people helping each other get through a perilous situation and abandoning 'might makes right' in favour of justice. Now, I want to ask the following question: what do the conclusions each philosopher draws from his conception of the SoN tell us about the political inclinations of the people who (at least implicitly) ascribe to their views?

Hobbes is, in modern parlance, a totalitarian: once individuals enter into a civil society by the formation of a social contrast (Hobbes is one of the first, if not THE first, social contrast theorist), the sovereign, whether a congress of elected representatives or a monarch, has absolute authority to determine every aspect of life in the society. Indeed, Hobbes argues that, when we enter civil society, our individual interests become subordinate to the interests of society as a whole, and as determined by the sovereign. That is, the person becomes no more than a tool to be used by the state for determining the ends it has determined to be in the interest of society as a whole. The specific model -- the people form the body of society, the sovereign its mind -- should be quite chilling to anyone familiar with the rhetoric of past totalitarian regimes, especially the fascist governments of the middle of the last century and the South American juntas of the '70s and '80s. Hence, to the extent that they are the intellectual heirs of Hobbes, we should expect those who focus on the looting to support authoritarian government that favours the interests of the elite -- as I believe to be the case.

Locke's SoN, by contrast, critically involves our equality before God. As we leave the state of nature and enter into civil society, we retain that equality, and the true justice which is the telos of civil society reflects this. The authoritarianism of Hobbes is anathema to Locke's view of a justice society, and his call for limited government made him influential enough to be paraphrased a century later by Thomas Jefferson -- the idea that government exists to facilitate the pursuit of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness clearly comes from Locke's assertion that government exists to secure life, health, liberty and property. Thus, to the extent that they are Locke's intellectual heirs, we should expect those who focus on the logistical crisis of Katrina's aftermath -- the problems getting people out of the Superdome and into clean shelters, getting people food, water, medicine, and clean clothes, and so on -- to have broadly egalitarian values and concerns with justice for all members of society, not just those at the top. I think this speculation also has empirical support.

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