After having contributed one whole substantive post to this blog, I’m now going to take selfish advantage of the power of this public forum to request our readers’ help with an issue I’ve been working on. I have an idea that seems original to me, but want to be sure I’m not overlooking important work already developed in the literature.
By no means am I an expert on either Locke or Hobbes. But my understanding is that the scholarly consensus is that these two philosophers offer us very different, and mutually incompatible understandings of the State of Nature (SoN). I think the assumption of mutual incompatibility is mistaken, and that that this has important implications for contemporary moral and political debate.
Here’s the basic idea. It’s widely accepted that for both Hobbes and Locke, the SoN is a relational concept. In other words, it is improper to say that an individual must either exist in the SoN or not simpliciter – for that individual may exist in the SoN with respect to some persons, and not with respect to others. If you and I are subjects of the same civil society, than we are not in a SoN with respect to each other. But if you and I are not subjects of any civil society, or if we are subjects of different civil societies, then we exist in a SoN with respect to each other, even though we may exist in a state of civil society with respect to some other persons.
But if the SoN is essentially relational, such that individuals may exist in it relative to some other individuals but not relative to another group, then why cannot we take this idea one step further and say that the correct description of the SoN depends on the nature of the particular relationship in question, such that some individuals are correctly described as existing in a Lockean SoN with respect to each other, while others exist in a Hobbesian SoN?
How this works will depend on how exactly we understand the key differences between the Lockean and Hobbesian SoNs. I think (though this is an issue on which I’d appreciate enlightenment by our readers if I’m wrong) that the question of the harmony of interests is key in distinguishing the descriptive characteristics of the Lockean and Hobbesian SoNs. Hobbesian SoNs are marked by a fairly radical disharmony of interests, which in turn leads to violent conflict. Lockean SoNs, on the other hand, are marked by a greater harmony of interests, so that we would expect to find the Lockean SoN marked by inconveniences but not the violent conflict described by Hobbes.
If this is right as a description of the empirical differences between Lockean and Hobbesian SoNs, then why not conclude that absent civil society, some individuals will be in a Lockean SoN with respect to (some) other individuals, and other individuals (or perhaps the same individuals) will be in a Hobbesian SoN with respect to (some) other individuals?
That, in and of itself, strikes me as a pretty interesting conclusion. But it gets better. If the Hobbesian and Lockean *normative* theories can be seen as being based in some way on their empirical descriptions of the SoN, then perhaps we can conclude that neither normative theory is correct as a complete account of normative truth. For individuals who would exist in a Lockean SoN with respect to each other, one sort of normative conclusion follows. But for individuals who would exist in a Hobbesian SoN, quite another normative conclusion is warranted. Depending on how we understand the connection between the descriptive and normative elements of Hobbes and Locke’s accounts, then, this kind of argument might lead to a sort of relativism about either the kinds of natural rights we have against one another, or the kinds of political authority that are justified for us.
So, what do you think? Readers could really help me out by addressing any of the following questions. 1) Is this account original, or has it already been developed elsewhere? 2) Is there any literature that you think would be helpful in working out the details of this account more precisely? 3) Any worries you have with the argument as I’ve set it out? Or any aspects of that argument that you’d particularly like to see developed in more detail?
Thanks in advance for the help!