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Which has the most best theory on the state of nature, Locke or Rousseau?

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Voting Style: Open Point System: 7 Point
Started: 6/23/2016 Category: Philosophy
Updated: 3 months ago Status: Post Voting Period
Viewed: 223 times Debate No: 93023
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Out of Locke and Rousseau, which has the most convincing theory regarding their respective points of view on the "state of nature?"
Pro will defend Locke and Con will defend Rousseau
Before getting into the debate, I will be defining the argument.
Oxford dictionary defines "State of nature" as naked or an uncultivated society;
Convincing is defined as "Capable of causing someone to believe that something is true or real", and most is defined as greater amount or degree.

This debate will be judged on whether or not one side can show the least amount of doubt for their respective side.

Rousseau's views are quite simple to understand but hard to defend.
"To know the source of inequality among men, "begin by knowing mankind... [but] how shall man hope to see himself as nature made him, across all the changes which the succession of place and time must have produced in his original constitution? How can he distinguish what is fundamental in his nature from the changes and additions which his circumstances and the advances he has made have introduced to modify his primitive
condition?" (DI 43, OC III: 122)
This excerpt from Rousseau's Discourse challenges the other views of the "state of nature" by saying whom can possibly know for sure what was thousands of years ago. Thus simply putting him on an even playing field with those easier to comprehend views.

His beliefs stem from the idea that all human beings were born and created as noble savages, "only seeking to satisfy primitive needs." and through the course of time have been changed by the inventions of ownership and power such that it is impossible to revert to one's primitive makeup.
"Like the statue of Glaucus, which was so disfigured by time, seas and tempests, that it looked more like a wild beast than a god, the human soul, altered in society by a thousand causes perpetually recurring, by the acquisition of a multitude of truths and errors, by the changes happening to the constitution of the body, and by the continual jarring of the passions, has, so to speak, changed in appearance, so as to be hardly recognizable." (DI 43, OC III: 122)

Thus a completely believable idea, but the main problem is how to make it more compelling than others.
A brief idea is that as we complicated ourselves and went further from primitive needs, destruction and corruption also increased. Using the Nebraska disaster center, (a compelling list of crime stats from 1960-2014) one can easily see that as years go on and technological advances increase; crimes based on greed such as robbery and burglary have a parallel increase. Nebraska is also important because, over the past 54 years, the population has only changed by 200k, thus population per crime is not a suitable argument for my opponent.
When the comparison of greed-based crimes in the US compared to those of social countries such as Canada (55% less than the US) and Denmark (300% less than the US) the results are very compelling.

Though this is only my opening argument, I urge the judges to think of Rosseau's views kind of like innovating technology. As we complicate human needs with human wants, and further our focus on greed and ownership, the original design is lost. No one can deny that our primitive needs were simply surviving but, when did wants begin to supersede needs. Thus one can affirm with Rosseau that we began as simply good, and construed it to the monstrosity we are today.


Thanks to Con for setting this up and welcome back to DDO.

Note that Con has set up a shared burden of proof or a comparison of two competing theories. Con not only has a challenge to negate my arguments but he also has to establish that his theory is objectively better.

Locke’s state of nature is consistent, moderate, reasonable and practical. The premises on which it is based are more accurate and the focus is on solutions to real world problems. For him the natural tensions due to scarce resources and property disputes were the problem that he set out to solve via limited civilization and law enforcement.

The State of Nature

Locke believed that the state of nature began as a state of ultimate freedom where initially conflict would be limited and natural morality would prevent conflict [11]. He argued that a state of war would be inevitable and property would be the cause. In the natural state labor was the initial justification for property and as men began to build basic structures and farm this would inevitably lead to conflict.

He understood that men would naturally settle down to build and accumulate security and stable shelters in communities. He believed that theft was inevitable leading to an escalation since there would be no civil authority. This would lead to a state of war consistent with human history [10].

“Self-love will make men partial to themselves and their friends;
and, on the other side, ill-nature, passion, and revenge will carry them too far in punishing others, and hence nothing but confusion and disorder will follow [4]… I easily grant that civil government is the proper remedy for the inconveniences of the state of Nature.”

Rousseau presents a natural state where humans rarely interacted with each other and resources were abundant [5]. “Because of the abundance of nature and the small size of the population, competition was non-existent, and persons rarely even saw one another, much less had reason for conflict or fear.”

Somehow he believed we were solitary and migratory in direct conflict with history. Primates are a social by nature and children need to be raised for many years [6]. When their children are fully-grown they leave and form their own families but often remain in larger groups. They are territorial not migratory. Although mass migrations to new settlements were common when resources or overcrowding became a problem [10]. Violent conflicts over resources or land have been common with tribal groups throughout history consistent with Locke’s basic theory.

Rousseau vs Locke on private property

Property is a critical component in social contract theory since both authors agree this is a main cause of dispute and causes a need for government.


“his thoughts on political economy -particularly his analysis of private property- are still seen by many scholars as puzzling at best, and incoherent at worst [7].” While he made some bizarrely contrary statements both for and opposed to private property, in general he was opposed. On the topic he clearly states that the, “first man who, having fenced off a plot of land, thought of saying: ‘This is mine’ and found people simple enough to believe him, was the real founder of civil society.”

He then goes on to explain that ownership of land is the major cause of conflict but this is unavoidable. He is opposed to property ownership so to save mankind he would deny us consistent safety, shelter, food and throw us to unknown danger. To save mankind he would make us destitute, migrant hobos.

Locke –

For individual property to exist, there must be a means for individuals to appropriate the things around them. Starting there he believed we owned our body. By extension we would own what we could create including the land you build on.

While Rousseau waffled between pro and con Locke was very clear and consistent [8]. In his view, if you build it you own it. Labor was the key to creating your own private property and this included land rights. At the same time he advocated moderation and cooperation. He was careful to emphasize that men should only farm the land to take care of the family needs. Take only what was useful and not overextend your ‘natural rights of acquisition.’ This creates the vital need for civil authority.

Locke was a moderate while Rousseau was an extremist.

On one end you have Thomas Hobbes who believed the natural state was a state of constant war [9]. It was impossible to keep private property, you could never feel safe and everyone lived in constant fear. Life was, “solitary poor, nasty, brutish and short.”
Rousseau is on the other end, pining for the natural state that he believed was a paradise of sorts or true freedom. He naively believed humans would be solitary and resources would be abundant. He believed the civilization and it’s corrupting, “property rights,” were more dangerous than raw nature, predators, rival tribes, starvation etc.

Locke’s view was more balanced. He agreed that there was a lot of freedom in the natural state and that initially there were some positives. He also saw that the state of war was inevitable and that the security of civilization and law enforcement was necessary to prevent this. For him scarcity of property would cause the war and civilization and law enforcement could prevent it.


Even playing field

Con has interpreted his quote to mean that Rousseau argues that no one can know what the natural state is since thousands of years have passed. I disagree that this would him on an even playing field with other authors. This just discredits the whole social contract gig. Worse it just indicates that Rousseau has no real evidence for his theories.

Noble Savages and the 'inventions' of ownership and power

Con asserts that, according to Rousseau, ownership and power corrupted humanity. The quote only indicates some extreme degradation from society without providing any real reason except, “continual jarring of passions.” I don’t see a reference to materialism or an indication that greed based crimes would increase as Con indicates.

Con provides a reference to some crime statistics in Nebraska, where, a comparison to crime in America with Canada/Denmark where crime is lower and attributes it to socialism. He fails to connect this to his quotes. I’ll concede that some governments may be better than others and certain cultures may lead to greed based crime. Nebraska is too small an area to give us any information.

Crime may have decreased globally and I don’t see that crime rates are relevant to Con’s argument so far. A correlation of materialism rising with the general crime rates has not been established and Locke was opposed to materialism and advocated a minimalist lifestyle, as I indicated.


Con needs to provide sourcing for his quotes and statistics or they should be ignored by voters.


I appreciate where Con is coming from and I agree that materialism can be destructive and the hedonic treadmill leads to unhappiness. He has not made a connection to the natural state of either author.

Debate Round No. 1


nevedarkwolf forfeited this round.
Debate Round No. 2


nevedarkwolf forfeited this round.


I side with locke like I would Aristotle vs Plato. Locke was looking for logical justification of his world view while Rousseau was just looking for confirmation. Con could have built a case against my argument, a good one (it ultimately fails but faith vs logic is always fun). I'm not very familiar with the two world views but I easily sided with Locke. Thanks again for Con for setting this up.
Debate Round No. 3
1 comment has been posted on this debate.
Posted by Murdoc 4 months ago
I cherry picked aspects of your philosopher that lean in my favor. I spent time on it but I am by no means into philosophy. Take a look at the arguments Con. You can do this... or I'll give it a shot.
1 votes has been placed for this debate.
Vote Placed by ThinkBig 3 months ago
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Total points awarded:01 
Reasons for voting decision: forfeit