Human nature is, broadly defined, any person’s concept of essential human characteristics: the central norms that are natural in terms of human behavior and thoughts. Put in the simplest terms, a political philosopher’s view of human nature is like the axioms in a geometrical system. Every conclusion a philosopher reaches must come from his assumptions about human motivation and desires. In fact, this is how the rationalist Thomas Hobbes constructed his Leviathan: starting from the lowest levels of complexity and working his way to the highest levels of political authority by means of deducing from conclusions that are more fundamental his seminal work in political philosophy. John Locke, the consummate empiricist, did not work this way, preferring a less straightforward form of argumentation. However, his assumptions about human nature still shine quite clearly through his Two Treatises of Government. The differences between Locke and Hobbes in all areas of political philosophy stick out between the two 17th century works, which are based in differences in their most basic views about the structure of human societies, both when they are politically organized and in the state of nature. The few similarities shared between the two thinkers can be ascribed to the intellectual context of the Enlightenment, and to completely different viewpoints of political instability in 17th century Britain. Ultimately, Locke’s assumptions about human nature are more tenable when faced with philosophic scrutiny, leaving his political philosophy standing on a more solid foundation than his contemporary Hobbes does.
Hobbes begins his Leviathan with an examination of the human being as a mechanical entity, controlled by mechanical interactions of spatially extended atoms. Although the best physical sciences of his time give Hobbes an interesting theoretical framework to work within, it does not actually say anything about what human nature really is. The use of scientific imagery is a bit disingenuous on Hobbes’ part, since his assumptions are not scientific at all. Hobbes believed human beings are programmed, mechanical objects to pursue self-interested ends, without regard for anything other than the avoidance of pain and the incentive of pleasure. What motivates human beings, thinks Hobbes, is self-interest. However, human judgment is distorted by self-interest and can be easily swayed with rhetoric that is often neither directed toward the public good nor the individual’s good.
Hobbes makes it clear that only science can offer reliable and true knowledge in order to overcome the inherent limitations of human judgment. However, Hobbes manufactures a very deductive view of science that is more like geometry than what we might call physics. Therefore, in the realm of human nature, Hobbes’ assumptions are rightly considered either incorrect or at least underdeveloped. With the discussion centered on motivation, Hobbes does not actually claim that humans are essentially self-interested. He develops quite complex pictures of other human motives beyond the simple concept of self-interest, such as courage, pity, honor, and so on. For Hobbes, human beings are neither by nature selfish nor rational. In fact, it is often the problem that human beings are not self-interested enough: they fall victim to others’ opinions of them and to religious dogma. Although Hobbes may not believe in a natural human tendency to self-interested action, he almost certainly advocates for a morality treating self-interested action as the standard of good (what is known today as “ethical egoism”).
John Locke’s view of human nature is not quite as nuanced as Thomas Hobbes’, but is easier to understand in terms of its logical foundation. Locke relies on a notion of God as the creator of man, thus making man a kind of property of God. This kind of egalitarianism underneath God makes man naturally free to pursue life, liberty, health, and property as natural rights (where natural rights are those rights man has in the state of nature before the political society). The law of nature, which Locke claims comes to one through reason, states that humanity ought not to harm others in their life, health, liberty, or possessions and in turn expect their own rights to respected. The individualism Locke seems to advocate here is one centered on a natural human tendency to seek self-preservation, even when it conflicts with the natural law. That is, in an emergency situation and there is a serious threat to my life due to starvation, the natural law saying I ought not to harm my neighbor in life, health, liberty, or possession becomes secondary to the fact I am lacking the necessary resources. Since such situations do arise in the state of nature, governments are instituted to protect these natural rights.
John Locke’s view of human nature presents man as a metaphysically free individual with the rights to certain things in the natural world: rights that are given up as he enters into the political society to receive the benefits of protection and security. John Locke’s human must also be essentially rational in order to grasp the law of nature along with the mental faculties to decide that joining a political community is in his best interests. The primary difference between Locke and Hobbes is in how each of the thinkers describes man. Locke believes a human being is by nature a social animal. Societies arise through the rational, concerted efforts of individuals to build a political society in order to respond to the Inconveniences of life in the state of nature. For Hobbes, man is not a social animal; that is, society is impossible without the coercive power of a state. In the absence of the state, it is a war of all against all in the fight for limited resources. These differences in how they view human nature correspond to perhaps the largest separation in the political philosophy of Locke and Hobbes. Whereas Locke sees men in the state of nature as mostly keeping their promises and fulfilling their obligations, Hobbes sees the lack of any organized society, ruled by continuous fear.
There is, however, one primary difficulty with accepting Locke’s assumptions about human nature outright: it relies on theological premises. Locke begins his argument with the belief that God created man in his image, and since man is property of God, man does not have the “liberty to destroy himself, or so much as any creature in his possession”. As such, Locke gives natural rights a supernatural origin. Hobbes clearly does not share this kind of religious commitment, and it certainly weakens the force of Locke’s arguments (though certainly not to the degree that Hobbes’ pseudoscientific axioms hurt Hobbes’ claims). Forced with this counterargument, Locke can choose to remove God and religion from his argument; however, this leaves him without a foundation for natural rights (and therefore moral defenses against murder and suicide). But Locke can avoid trouble by replacing God as the end of all human action with self-preservation as the proper moral end of all human action. That is, if Locke shares the same moral philosophy as Hobbes, setting self-interested action as the standard of good, he can avoid the problem of setting God as the centerpiece of his justification for the Lockean view of human nature.
John Locke and Thomas Hobbes convey two sets of very different doctrines about human nature within each of their seminal works of political philosophy. Their views differ on the essential characteristic of man as a social being. Locke believes human beings can form societies out of rational desire for self-preservation. Hobbes believes human beings are incapable of forming (or at least maintaining) society outside of the rule of a political authority. Hobbes defends his assumptions about human nature with an untenable pseudoscientific model of human behavior. Locke defends his assumptions about human nature with untenable religious histories that ultimately must be changed if his argument is to work. Inevitably, Locke has the best chance of being right in terms of providing for a coherent model of human nature. Still, both views are useful for further investigation into how our basic assumptions affect political convictions.
Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan. London, 1951.
Locke, John. Two Treatises of Government. London, 1689.