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Hobbes Versus Rousseau The Need For Civil Society Philosophy Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Philosophy
Wordcount: 3474 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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According to Hobbes, justice is impossible in the state of nature given humans nature. In the state of nature, according to Hobbes, “men live without a common Power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called Warre; and such a warre, as if of every man, against every man” (Leviathan, 83). In this state of nature, the absence of justice is due to every individual’s right of self preservation – for the individual to have the liberty to do anything in order to preserve and protect his own life, regardless of the consequences to others. Without a social contract or an enforced Law to stop the individuals from killing one another for the sake of self-preservation, the individuals in the state of nature will always be in constant conflict with everybody else.

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The following lead to three arguements that Hobbes gave in account to his believe as to why justice is impossible in the state of nature. First, the right to self-preservation will lead the individuals to compete against one another for possession of basic life necessities, such as natural resource, food, and shelter. Second, the right of self-preservation will lead to divident and mistrust between individuals. Upon this mistrust of others, everybody in the state of nature will most likely challenge every other individuals because of the belief that every other individual is out there to steal from him. Third, human’s natural tendency for pride and glory will lead the individuals to seek reputation by fighting one another. The usage of reputation in this state of nature is twofold. The first is that it will attract mates, and the second is that it will make others afraid of this individual due to his reputation.

Given that every individual in the state of nature is entitled to his right of self-preservation, each individual will then also be entitled to their rights of pursuing their self-preservation. Without a social contract or a sovereign power to judge my actions, I am thus able to judge for myself about what is best for me. Therefore, if I were to think that robbing my neighbour of his wife, just because I couldn’t find any females around me, is to the best of my self-preservation, then by my right of self-preservation I am just in my actions. However, it is clear that my neighbour will apparently have a different view on my actions, and will most likely retaliate violently when I attempt to rob his wife. Due to the absence of a trusted third party (the sovereign) to judge whether my actions were right or wrong, a condition of constant war is unavoidable because every man will only think about what is best for himself, without having to care about the consequences it might have caused to the victims. Thus, without a state and without a sovereign power to keep the people in awe, the individuals will act accordingly to their self-interest and therefore justice is impossible.

b.) Explain how the just state enables justice, according to Hobbes. (Interpretation.)

According to Hobbes, the just state enables justice by establishing social contracts among the citizens. The social contract is as follows:

“That a man be willing, when others are so too, as farre-forth, as for Peace, and defense of himselfe he shall think it necessary, to lay down this right to all things; and be contended with so much liberty against other men, as he would allow other men against himselfe” (Leviathan, 87).”

The social contract basically ‘orders’ all citizens of the state to lay down their weapons and limit their individual natural rights, retaining only their right of self defense. Through this social contract, the individual citizens of the state will be willing to make peace with others only when others are willing to do the same. Furthermore, Hobbes also stated in the above quote that the citizens retain their right to self-defense, in times when others chose not to make peace. This collective and reciprocal renouncement of every individual’s natural rights will result in the establishment of the state and society by making it possible for social interaction that is not based on mistrust and divident. Whereas in the state of nature people are allowed to kill and steal for the sake of self-preservation, the social contract governs social interactions and make it possible for people to work together without thinking that the other individuals just want to kill or rob him.

Hobbes believes that the individuals in the state of nature will be obliged to obey the social contract because it is to the best of their self interest. In the state of nature, all men are equal to one another; even the strongest muscled man can be easily stab during his sleep. Given this condition, the life of men in the state of nature is “solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short” (Leviathan, 84). With the constant fear of dying, Hobbes concluded that the state of nature is the worst possible scenario whereby any individuals will find themselves in. The state that uphold the social contract is therefore, the best possible scenario that every individual will find themselves in, because with the limitation on the citizen’s natural rights, the individuals can live in peace without having to fear losing his life during his sleep

The social contract not only brings about the establishment of society and the state but also the birth of a sovereign power, elected by general assembly and whose job is to protect and enfore the social contract. The sovereign is the only individual in the state that is allowed to retain his natural rights of nature. Therefore, the sovereign is the sole judge on the Laws of the state – property rights, civil disputes, and such. Since the citizens in the state are not the judges, they will not make judgement for their own causes; and since the sovereign is the sole judge in this state, every citizens will follow the sovereign’s judgement and not come into conflict with one another’s judgement. The sovereign, given sole power as the judge of the society, will create a written Law, along with the punishment for breaking Laws, to judge the basis of the citizen’s interactions with one another, in order to ensure the smooth operation of the state and not bringing about mistrust among the citizens. Since the sovereign is the only one with the authority to uphold the punishment for breaking the Laws of the state, the individual citizens will therefore reasoned that it is to their best interest to follow the Laws of the state. With a sovereign power to keep people in awe, justice is enabled in the just state by making the citizens reasoned that it is to their best interest to cooperate and work with one another.

c.) What are Rousseau’s main objections to Hobbes’s account of the state of nature and the just state? (Interpretation/application of theory.)

Rousseau’s main objections to Hobbes’s account of the state of nature and the just state is that unlike Hobbes, Rousseau believes in the goodness of human nature. He believes that the only corrupting force that influence men negatively is the society. In Rousseau’s view, the state of nature is a state of peace, and that Hobbes’s account of the state of nature will only come into fruitation with the establishment of societal goods; property rights, currency, jobs, and etc. Unlike Hobbes, who believes that society is the cure for the state of nature, Rousseau believes that society is the disease that causes the scenario “warre of every man, against every man” (Leviathan, 83), to be realised. Thus Roussea made the famous claim that “Man was born free, and he is everywhere in chains” (SC, xvii), undermining that people were free in the state of nature, and that it is society that poisoned the individual’s free will.

The biggest difference between Hobbes’s and Rousseau’s account of the state of nature is the idea of self-preservation. Whereas Hobbes views self-preservation to be ‘every man for himself,” Rousseau views self preservation as non-aggresive and non-violent. In Rousseau’s account of the state of nature, the individuals in the state of nature has no tendency to overpower one another, to compete against one another, or to backstab one another over pride, glory, divident, or mistrust. In his account of human instinct, he believes that humans are governed by their natural instincts, to always aim for a peaceful interactions with others as well as to act compassionately towards others.

It is only through the establishment of the state and societal goods that human beings to compete and disagree against one another over rights to natural resources such as private property and land, and societal goods such as currency. The rise of such artificial goods give rise to the need for the citizens to comparatively look at others, thereby creating aggressive tensions and inequality between the individuals. Therefore, whereas Hobbes’s believes in the civil state and the social contract to be a cure for the state of nature, Rousseau believes in the civil state and society being the poison that caused men to aggress against one another.


“There is often a great deal of difference between the will of all and the general will: the latter looks only to the common interest, the former looks to the private interest, and is nothing but a sum of particular wills; but if, from these same wills, one takes away the pluses and minuses which cancel each other out, what is left as the sum of the differences is the general will” (SC, 60). This point can be understood in an almost Rawlsian sense, namely that if the citizens were ignorant of the groups to which they would belong, they would inevitably make decisions that would be to the advantage of the society as a whole, and thus be in accordance with the general will.

Rousseau believed that due to this natural drive to improve life, humans introduced leisure. A result of this was ‘artificial needs’ and ‘corrupted desires’, creating a new notion which is not one which comes as a natural instinct – gluttony. This ‘greed’ then leads to further problems, humans acquire the desire to become powerful, to own private property, and compete with those around them. They transgress into a society to accommodate for this, thus actually deteriorating their quality of life, which is in fact the opposite of what their natural instinct was causing them to do.

Effectively, Hobbes’ ‘state of nature’ is the position between Rousseau’s ‘state of nature’ and the modern society. The main difference between Hobbes and Rousseau appears to be an argument of the natural state of a human being, the natural instincts we possess. Hobbes appears to believe that we have a natural instinct to compete against each other, a natural instinct to survive at the expense of other people, a natural drive to fight, and he believes that society has formed as a way of controlling these destructive instincts. Rousseau on the other hand believes that we have a natural instinct to be compassionate and solitary, and that society has developed as a result of an increase in population, something which he regards as a detrimental thing as opposed to Hobbes’ view of it as a beneficial thing.

d.) Briefly outline Rousseau’s alternative account of the state of nature and the just state. (Interpretation.)

Rousseau’s alternative account of the state of nature is that it is a state of peace; the individuals in this state of nature live peaceful life, seldom aggressing on others. Due to the abundance of natural resources found in this state of nature as well as the relatively few people residing in this state of nature, competition over resources were rare, and aggressive conflict were few. Given the simplistic living standards, the individuals, as Rousseau believes it to be, are morally pure and instinctively compassionate. Given these standards of human nature, aggressive behavior and competition were unlikely to occur.

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However, the establishment of human society and state brought about a change in human instinctive nature. As people flocked together in society and the state population grew, natural resources are no longer abundant and people no longer have free access to such resources. The establishment of society brought forth many changes to the lives of the individuals. First, division of labor was set forth, allowing people to pursue leisure as well as engage in scientific studies. Scientific discoveries improve the condition, quality of life and easier labor, which then gave rise to leisure and entertainment. The most important discovery, according to Rousseau, was the invention of the notion of ‘private property.’ With the notion of private property, inequality amongst individuals grew and those without private properties now works for those with private properties. Such social notions made people to compare against one another, which then devaluates to social values such as pride and jealousy. This resulted in the change of the morally pure individuals to become an individual driven by greed, competition, and vanity.

With the rise of political power amongst the property owners, they now see a need to protect their property from those who do not own a property. Thus, under the pretense of establishing a sovereign power in which to ensure equality and justice among all the citizens, the government is established, its true purpose being to enforce the inequality that the notion of private property has brought forth. As a result of the establishment of the government, and ultimately of property rights Laws, the property owners get richer and more powerful, whereas the non-property owner stays as being workers.

Thus Rousseau argued that in a just state, a social contract is needed to remedy this inequality in society. The basis of Rousseau’s social contract is a collective sovereign. In this notion of the social contract, the citizens must collectively and aggreably joined together to form a general will and a collective sovereign. By having all the citizens participate in establishing the sovereign, the citizens are thus able chose together the fundamental laws that govern their lives and social interactions. In Hobbes’s account of the sovereign, the sovereign is given total power to be the judge and lawmaker of society. Therefore, the sovereign’s ego might take over his personal judgement and decided to take his personal interest before the collective interest. However, in Rousseau’s sovereign, because all the citizens are now part of the collective sovereign, the individual is thus now forced to put aside his ego and work towards the general will, deciding on what is best for society as a whole rather than as an individual. With the power of the whole citizen assembly behind this sovereign, all those who do not agree to the rules and law made by the general assembly are now forced to conform to it. Having a collective sovereign will ensure that the judgements and decisions made by the sovereign is always directed towards the benefits of the public good and the people.

Roussea believes that all men are born equal, and therefore no one particular individual should have the sovereign to rule over the others. Therefore, the only justified account of the sovereign is that if it is led by the general assembly of all its citizens. Rousseau’s notion of the general will is not about transferring one’s natural right over to a sovereigned individual, but rather it is about the citizens of the state joining together to decide and agree upon collectively, on generating agreements about the rules of social conducts and daily interactions. Only a state that is able to achieve such general will can be just.

e.) In your view, which account of the state of nature and the just state is better? Justify your answer, including by letting the account you’re criticizing respond to your criticism(s). (Argument.)

In my view, I think Rousseau’s account of the state of nature and the just state is more convincing and accurate of human nature. In looking at Hobbes’s account of the state of nature, I found many unanswered questions and loophole in his theory.

Hobbes’s version of the social contract basically ‘orders’ all citizens of the state to lay down their weapons and limit their individual natural rights, retaining only their right of self defense. First, how limited does the individual’s natural rights in society becomes? Second, what accounts as an act of self-defense? If the sovereign decided to kill me, do I have the rights to fight back in the name of self-preservation? Or what if the sovereign has become weak in his judgement and is causing a strain in societal peace? In these circumstances, the big question is whether we are allowed to overthrow the sovereign should we see that it is a necessary action for the survival of the individual as well as the state.

Furthermore, Hobbes’s account of the social contract designates an individual whereby every other individual transfer his power unto, ultimately becoming the sovereign and the sole judge and lawmaker of the state. The question in regards to this is who should become this sovereign, and about the process that we should go about selecting this individual to become the sovereign. In any case, since the sovereign is the only one in the state that is able to retain his natural rights, what is there to stop him from making decisions and enacting law that is to his best interest, all the while deceiving the citizens that his decisions were made for the benefit of the general population? Another problem that the Hobbes’s sovereign might run into are cases in which there are both advantages and disadvantages, such as the dynamites. If the sovereign were to make a decision to ban the usage of dynamites, miners will be having a lot more problem working the mines, natural resource acquisition might slow down and halt civil progress, and etc. However, if the sovereign were to make a decision to allow the usage of dynamites, then it will lead to some problems: accidental casualties, development of bombs and other explosives that will kill millions, and etc. How will the sovereign, by his own, decide about what is best in regards to the general population? Whichever choice he makes will have both advantages and disadvantages. Therefore, I will go more towards Rousseau’s account of the sovereign, whereby the citizens will collectively assemble and come into agreement as a majority about what to do with dynamites.

The main problem I have with Hobbes’s account is that he believes the citizens should transfer all their rights to a certain individual who will then become the sovereign. However, giving a person sole power to rule over the state is unwise because power tends to corrupt. As the saying goes, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” I believe this can be applied to the sovereign of the state; given sole power to rule over the state, the sovereign will undoubtly be corrupted by his sole power nevertheless. In Rousseau’s account of the sovereign, however, because it is assembled through the general assembly of the citizens, no one will hold sole power and thus the power and responsibility is spread among all the citizens, and therefore the sovereign will stay uncorrupted and untainted by power.

On one hand, Rousseau argues that following the general will allows for individual diversity and freedom. But at the same time, the general will also encourages the well-being of the whole, and therefore can conflict with the particular interests of individuals.

As it is constituted only by individual wills, these private, individual wills must assemble themselves regularly if the general will is to continue. One implication of this is that the strong form of democracy which is consistent with the general will is also only possible in relatively small states. The people must be able to identify with one another, and at least know who each other are. They cannot live in a large area, too spread out to come together regularly, and they cannot live in such different geographic circumstances as to be unable to be united under common laws.


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