The question of what would happen if people lived without any state of authority over them has been debated for centuries. Since Hobbes and his Leviathan, the philosophers have tried to find explanations to the law of nature and it influences and organizes people. Locke included the notion of God-given morality in his view of the law of nature and so opposed Hobbes belief in the primacy of the war drive in humans. In his turn, Rousseau defied Hobbes by saying that compassion is an inherent human characteristic which prevents humans from engaging into continuous exploitation and violent conflicts. Finally, Kropotkin and other anarchists believed in the value of human cooperation without any state authority. To accommodate these views, one may focus on the idea of a minimal state with legitimate and benevolent political authority discussed in the works of John Locke. The purpose of the minimal state is to function for the benefit of the subjects and to protect moral rights without violating the latter.

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What Would Happen if People Lived Without Any State Authority over Them?

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In Hobbes’ Leviathan, one comes across the following words: “And the life of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short” (Sim & Walker, 2017). These words describe the condition of mankind when in the state of nature. As these words reverberate down several centuries, they communicate to a modern person a sense of the fragility of the social bond separating humans from the desperate condition they could have been in. In the times of Hobbes, one will agree, there was every reason to draw people’s attention to this fragility. Hobbes,’ in his turn, aimed at resolving “the disorders of the present times,” as he himself noted (Sim & Walker, 2017). He advocated for absolute sovereignty, specifically, in a person of a monarch, who was unable to divide against himself and would have an authority that could not be questioned by the state’s subjects. Whereas Hobbes’ view is reasonable, it is still flawed because he overestimates people’s resort to war for the sake of finding felicity or continually satisfying their desires. The question to answer in this essay is: does Hobbes’ claim still make sense? Would people be able to live without any state authority over them?

While Hobbes associated the state of nature with the state of war, other philosophers opposed his view. Locke, for instance, was keen to emphasize that Hobbes’ view was flawed. According to Locke, the life without any state authority would be possible even if no government was present. In order to support this view, the philosopher used some theological background. Unlike Hobbes, who believed that seeking peace was the fundamental Law of Nature and overlooked the aspects of morality and theology, Locke asserted that the Law of Nature says that no one should harm another in his liberty, health, possessions, or life (Wolff, 2016). It also says that while all humans are equal on earth, they have Someone superior in heaven. Locke, in other words, believed that all humans are God’s creations and God’s property that was put on Earth as God’s servants. All of mankind, Locke said, was “made to last during His, not another’s Pleasure” (Wolff, 2016). In this sense, Locke saw the Law of Nature in the mankind’s preserving itself as much as possible. Unlike Hobbes, who said that “men desire to hurt each other” and only act in service of their desired ends, Locke argued that people have a clear duty in the state of nature not to harm others (Darrell, 2010; Wolff, 2016). Criticizing Locke’s views one should say that they are rather one-dimensional and disregard the complex nature of human needs and desires. While Locke developed the view of the anarchic state of nature, where conscience dominates and guides reason and actions and where aggressive behavior does not happen because it is counter-productive, he did not seem to have challenged his own limited view. The new approach is simply the result of the uncritical workings of his mind. Indeed, to suppose that one can prevent aggressive behavior by simply realizing that it is counter-productive is a bold idea that offers just one dimension and leaves out other aspects of the issue.

Just like Locke, Rousseau believed that Hobbes’ position was too pessimistic and the likelihood of conflict among humans was exaggerated. While he, just like Hobbes and Locke, thought that human beings were, above all, motivated by the desire to preserve themselves, Rousseau saw the focal aspect of human motivation in compassion. The philosopher asserted that compassion or “an innate repugnance at seeing a fellow creature suffer” operated as a significant restraint on the drives which could cause war or attack. Rousseau described compassion as “so natural, that the very brutes themselves sometimes give evident proofs of it” (Wolff, 2016). He believed that compassion hurried humans without any reflection to the relief of the distressed, “supplies the place of laws, morals, and virtues, with the advantage that none are tempted to disobey its gentle voice” (Wolff, 2016). He even went as far as to claim that compassion is what prevents savages from robbing weak children or old people if they see they can provide themselves by other means. While Rousseau’s views seem somewhat naïve, he claimed that his claim does not refer to modern citizens, who are corrupted by the society, but to savage men, who have not been affected by the ills of the society. His other claim supports the first one: motivated by compassion and self-preservation, people would live in a completely different from Hobbes’ state of nature. They would develop even a more civilized society in some respects than what one could see in Rousseau’s times (Wolff, 2016). Criticizing Rousseau’s views one should say that they are rather one-dimensional and fail to consider the complex nature of human needs and desires. His views are also contradictory in some respects. In particular, even though Rousseau believes that citizens can co-exist in a community as free and equal persons, who are sovereign to themselves, he is also pessimistic about the future of the humanity. He thinks that the humanity will continue to get alienated from one another, to oppress one another, and to limit the freedom of one another because people derive their understandings of themselves from the views of others.

Further, anarchists believed that life without any state authority would be possible. The Russian anarchist thinker Kropotkin believed that all animal species, to which he also referred human beings, thrived from giving and getting natural “mutual aid” (Wolff, 2016). Kropotkin opposed Darwin’s theory of evolution via competition and argued that the fittest were the species that were able to achieve cooperation. Judging by his observations, Kropotkin advanced the view that human beings developed uncoerced cooperation among themselves. Just because they realize that they benefit from cooperation, humans will refuse from the state of war and start cooperating to satisfy their interests, Kropotkin wrote (Wolff, 2016). Anarchists are limited in their view that governments are only needed as remedies to human anti-social behaviors; they disregard the fact that the governments themselves are causes of this behavior. Besides, their focus on the need of authority of experts in the society and on the power of ostracism is very close to the norms and rules established and advanced by a state.

Having evaluated all key claims about the necessity of state authority, it turns out each of them makes sense and can be supported by quality examples. At the same time, none of them is exhaustive and can be taken for granted. Hence, a more or less acceptable approach should be chosen when resolving this issue. It seems that the most reasonable answer to the question of what would happen if people lived without state authorities over them is they would still create a minimal state. Locke’s political philosophy, if to delve deeper, justifies the concept of a minimal state (Wendt, 2016). This sort of state would successfully protect people’s moral rights without violating them. The humanity simply needs to establish the political authority that would be legitimate and benevolent (Reidy, n.d.). It seems this perspective can be the most all-embracing of all: neither does it exclude other arguments nor does it advocate for a radical viewpoint like Hobbes’ totalitarian state or Kropotkin’s anarchy. Instead, this position seems to accommodate all views.

  • Darrell, C. (2010). Authority and force: Investigating authority in the works of Thomas Hobbes and J.M. Coetzee’s Diary of a Bad Year. Stony Brook University.
  • Reidy, D. (n.d.) John Locke. Retrieved from http://web.utk.edu/~dreidy/JOHNLOCKE.html.
  • Sim, S. & Walker, D. (2017). The discourse of sovereignty, Hobbes to Fielding. Routledge.
  • Wendt, F. (2016). Political authority and the minimal state. Social Theory and Practice, 41 (1), 97-122.
  • Wolff, J. (2016). An introduction to political philosophy. Oxford University Press.