What is the nature of evil

The nature of man in Hobbes / Rousseau and about the possibility of an evil instinct

Table of Contents

1 Introduction

2. An overview: Rousseau versus Hobbes
2.1 Rousseau and the good in people
2.2 Hobbes and the war of everyone against everyone

3. The discussion of the theses and arguments
3.1 Evil and the natural instinct
3.2 The state of nature
3.2.1 The state of nature in Rousseau and Hobbes
3.2.2 An existentialist counter-position
3.3 Reason as a source for natural laws
3.4 To the inner drive and the natural right
3.5 On the possibility of moral action
3.6 To the natural passions
3.7 On the aggression of man

4. Conclusion

5. Bibliography

Primary literature:

Secondary literature:

1 Introduction

Is there a nature of man? Do people have natural urges and if so, can they be judged morally? Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Thomas Hobbes, among others, have dealt with these questions.

In this work I will compare the theses of the two philosophers, which is particularly useful because they represent very opposing opinions. In view of the length of this work, I would like to discuss and criticize only a few selected arguments.

My primary goal is not to answer or clarify the questions asked, but to make a small contribution to the discussion of the topic and the statements of Hobbes and Rousseau.

2. An overview: Rousseau versus Hobbes

I would like to begin by giving a brief and concise overview of the theses of the two philosophers and their point of view on human nature.

2.1 Rousseau and the good in people

In his work “Discourse on Inequality” Rousseau explains that human nature is no longer visible. Society and all the "supernatural gifts" acquired in it[1], i.e. inventions, institutions, etc., obscure the view of the properties originally lying in us. Rousseau's method now consists in a kind of thought experiment "re-developing" people to a point at which there are no societies and people live alone in forests, aiming to satisfy their only needs: eating, drinking, sleeping and so on Sex drive. In this natural state there is no property, social or moral bond. Ergo, people cannot be good or bad.[2]

Rousseau sees the arrival of evil in socialization, the introduction of property, increasing self-love, the desire to compare one's fortunate circumstances with others and to disregard one's peers. In short: in the growing inequality of people.[3]

2.2 Hobbes and the war of everyone against everyone

In order to show the meaning and the usefulness of a state, Thomas Hobbes describes in "Leviathan" a stateless natural state in which people live with mistrust of one another without legal laws. Since people are the same in their abilities, so they also have the same hopes of achieving something, it is sufficient if several strive for something that only one can achieve in order to arouse enmity.[4]

According to Hobbes, therefore, the most sensible way to secure oneself is prevention, by which he understands to subdue everyone until no more dangerous power is seen. This is required of self-respect and is generally allowed. Without a state and an intimidating power, there is consequently a war of everyone against everyone.[5]

3. The discussion of the theses and arguments

In the following I would like to discuss selected assumptions and arguments of the two philosophers, check for consistency and point out possible alternatives. As an introduction to this topic, however, it is advisable to take a look at the terms evil and the natural instinct.

3.1 Evil and the natural instinct

The bad (ahd. Bôsi, from pre-German * bausja- "low, bad", exact etymology unclear)[6] usually denotes an act or a will that is assessed as immoral. The exact evaluation criteria, however, differ depending on the philosophical orientation. In this work I will accordingly link bad or good very closely with morality, which is a rule of action.[7]

The natural instinct should be understood here as a property naturally inherent in the living being. An instinct in which there is no free choice. In this work, various formulations will appear for this, such as "instinct" or "inner drive". However, they all relate to the nature of a being.

3.2 The state of nature

3.2.1 The state of nature in Rousseau and Hobbes

Rousseau criticizes most philosophers who deal with human nature for not seeing him for what he really is. When considering the “discourse on inequality”, however, the question quickly arises as to whether Rousseau's method of “regression” is coherent and can offer a stable concept for further argumentation.

First of all, even if it is just a crude, simplistic thought experiment, I see it as very problematic to mix up evolutionarily important epochs of development in this way. His description of the natural human being appears like a construct made out of great apes without clear reason[8] and stone age man who is able to use woods and stones as weapons.[9] It shows itself to me as too fantastic a structure to allow us to rightly infer our nature from it.

Second: It can be assumed that humans have always appeared as a social being. Signs of this can be seen, for example, in the long period of time that children need after birth in order to be independent, at least in things that are essential for survival. These years are all the more conducive to coexistence, as all living beings are in some way habitual beings.[10] Likewise, it cannot be explained why children should leave their mother as early as possible, by whom they have been cared for and protected until then, to live alone, although it would result in a clear loss of security and, in my opinion, show a nonsense of nature would.[11] The formulation "Man lives from the fact that he is reflected in the other"[12] by the psychiatrist Hans-Otto Thomashoff illustrates the natural need for company.

Hobbe's description of the state of nature, on the other hand, appears to me to be much clearer and more durable, which is due to its clear simplicity. Nor does his thought experiment claim to be realistic. However, by simply assuming that it is a state without a state and intimidating power, on which the further argumentation builds, his concept offers a good foundation that is applicable to all epochs of mankind.[13]


[1] Rousseau, Jean-Jacques: Discourse on Inequality. In: Ders .: Schriften, ed. by H. Ritter. Volume 1. Frankfurt / M .: Hanser 1981, p. 195. Page numbers refer to the original.

[2] See Rousseau (1981), p. 195 ff.

[3] See Rousseau (1981), p. 230 ff.

[4] Cf. Hobbes, Thomas: Leviathan or substance, form and violence of an ecclesiastical and civil state, ed. and a. by I. Fetscher. From the English by W. Euchner. Frankfurt / M .: Suhrkamp 1984, p. 94 f.

[5] See Hobbes (1984), pp. 95 f.

[6] See keyword evil. In: Kluge. Etymological dictionary of the German language. 24th, revised and expanded edition. Edited by Elmar Seebold. Berlin: De Gruyter 2002.

[7] The problem of the concept of morality will be found in the further course of this work.

[8] In the sense of human reason, separated from possible animal reason.

[9] See Rousseau (1981), p. 231.

[10] Rousseau himself ascribes a quick habit of being to humans - albeit in a different context. See Rousseau (1981), p. 235.

[11] See Rousseau (1981), p. 210.

[12] Thomashoff, Hans-Otto: Aggression is not a human drive. In: BBV, 06.06.2009, p. M2.

[13] The properties that Hobbes ascribes to humans should not be given any attention at this point.

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