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State of Nature

Early History, Hobbes, Locke, And Rousseau, Contemporary Developments, Bibliography

The state of nature is a situation without government, employed in social contract theory in order to justify political authority. The device is most important in the works of the great contract theorists of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, mainly Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679), John Locke (1632–1704), and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778). But it has a long history and was used by many other theorists. In the latter half of the twentieth century, variants of the state of nature were revived by John Rawls and other theorists who attempted to establish particular moral or political principles on the grounds that they would be selected in artificially constructed choice situations.

Accounts of humanity's purported natural condition differ in important ways, for example, whether circumstances are peaceful or riddled with conflict, whether there is an absence of society as well as the state, and the extent to which the people depicted resemble those in existing societies. These variations and others lead to justifications of different forms of governments—and moral principles.

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