How does one’s understanding of human nature inform one’s account of law? Discuss with reference to at least one of Hobbes, Kant, and Rawls. This essay title invites the analysis of two different questions. The first being whether the understanding of human nature influences one’s understanding of the need for law or not. The second question on whether the understanding of human nature affects formulation of the legal system. I believe one’s account of human nature would significantly influence one’s account of the need for law, and I would use Hobbes and Kant’s legal theory in demonstrating that.
Hobbes’ conception of human nature is primarily self-preservation; where Kant’s is freedom equality or freedom harmonizing, and this essay will demonstrate that these two accounts are the underlying concepts, which map out Hobbes’ and Kant’s entire account for law. On the other hand, through deeper analysis, one’s understanding of human nature is unlikely to change the structure of the legal system. This essay is not concerned with which theory is better or more realistic to the real world, but just illustrating how the understanding of human nature would affect one’s account of law.
The first part of the essay will describe and show how the understanding of human nature would account for the need for legal order, and the second half will demonstrate it has minimal effect on the structure of the legal system. Hobbes’ account of a human being can be summarized by his Fundamental Law of Nature, “that every man ought to endeavour peace, as far as he has hope of obtaining it; and when he cannot obtain it, that he may seek, and use, all helps and advantages of Warre”1, and his description of state of nature, which is “every man against every man…”2.
Clearly showing that self-preservation is the main concept of Hobbes’ account of a person. And therefore the main reason for entering the civil state is also for self-preservation, as a rational man will come to the realization that in order to preserve one’s peace and common defense is to give up one’s freedom, submitting it to a commonwealth power. Kant on the other hand, describes human being with this statement, “No one can compel me to be happy in accordance with his conception of the welfare f others, for each may seek his happiness in whatever way he sees fit, so long as he does not infringe upon the freedom of others to purse a similar end which can be reconciled with the freedom of everyone else…”3 From this statement, it is clear that the notion of equality and freedom of choice is the main concept here for Kant’s account of human nature.
Hence also the main reason for entering into a civil state is to establish rules allowing us to know the limits of one’s freedom and rights, so we are able to exercise them without violating or interfering with another’s freedom, which can only be done by submitting our unilateral will to a common power, the omnilateral will. Therefore, the reason for people to enter into a civil state is highly influenced by one’s conception of human nature.
Kant’s account of a person is rational, seeks to operate within his freedom and not to violate other people’s freedom, but unsure what are the boundaries, hence the reason to enter civil condition is to create a common power to set out the boundaries of one’s freedom. For Hobbes, his account of human nature is to self-preserve, and due to his fundamental law of nature has a right to do so, the main reason to enter civil state is that it provides a peace and common defense. The reason why Hobbes and Kant think law, and hence coercive order is needed is different, and also stems from the different accounts of human nature.
For Hobbes, he believes freedom is the reason we need law. This is due to his understanding of the human nature, which is self-preservation, leading to the consistent temptation to break the law, and obtain whatever they desire. Therefore law and coercive power is required to struck fear into its subjects so they will follow the law. This furthermore results in the legislator enacting laws that are restrictive in nature. Whereas for Kant, his conception of human nature is to exercise one’s freedom in a harmonizing fashion without violating another’s freedom. Hence his account for the requirement of legal order is for correcting infringement.
Kant describes coercion as “the hindrance of the hindrance of freedom”4 He believes that humans are not always trying to break the law or use others as means, but when they did violate one’s freedom, the law is here to correct such violation. Therefore the legislator enacts law that facilitate freedom, providing guidelines and rules on how freedom can be exercised without interfering with one’s freedom. Therefore through describing how Hobbes and Kant understand human nature, it is clear these accounts deeply influence how they justify and reason the need for a legal system.
Now we turn to the second part of the essay, where we show the understanding of human nature has little effect on the structure of the legal system. Even though the reasons for Kant and Hobbes to move from a state of nature to a civil state are different, the main features of the legal system are still the same. They both require their subjects to submit their individual will to one commonwealth power. Hobbes describes this in his second law of nature, “That a man be willing, when others are so too as farre-forth, as for Peace, and defense of himself he shall think it necessary, to lay down this right to all things…”5.
Similarly for Kant, he describes this as the “original contract”6, where “an individual will cannot legislate for a common wealth. For this requires freedom, equality and unity of the will of all the members”7, which is essentially another way of saying the subjects should submit their individual will. Although both the submission of wills are fueled by different reasons, ultimately, in both accounts of law, the subjects’ wills needed to be submitted in order for a civil state, hence a legal system to take place.
This is also the case for coercive orders, where Hobbes’ account for coercive order is to achieve peace, and Kant’s account is to achieve the realization of equality in freedom, after all, both theories require the use of coercive order, as no sensible person would believe a legal system could work without the use of coercive powers. Furthermore, both accounts of law denies the right of rebellion as Kant puts it due to “the people under an existing civil constitution, has no longer any right to judge how the constitution should be administered”8, which is also the same justification that Hobbes used.
The reasoning reaching this conclusion is different; David Dyzenhaus demonstrated Hobbes idea using the validity proviso and legality proviso to show that the sovereign has “an unlimited power to override laws of nature”9. And for Kant, he claims that allowing the right of rebellion will be basing the valid principle of legislation on happiness, which is “highly conflicting and variable illusions as to what happiness is make all fixed principles impossible…”10 This further illustrates the point that the account of human nature doesn’t change the legal structure of law, but only the reason behind the account for law.
Hence if we change, for example, Kant’s understanding of human nature, the legal structure would still be the same. The subjects would still want to move from state of nature into civil conditions, which would still be done by submitting one’s individual will to the omnilateral will. This commonwealth power would then use its coercive power to maintain obedience to the law and rules. Therefore it can be concluded that as important as the account of human nature is to the understanding of the reason why we need law, the fundamental features of a legal system or law would still be the same.
In conclusion, it is clear from the first half of the essay that the understanding of human nature is important and influential to the account for law, which is the reason why we need law in a civil state. Yet, from the second half of the essay I have demonstrated that the different reasons for law, and hence the account of human nature, has very little to do with the structure or features of law. The large number of similarities between Kant and Hobbes’ account of law shows that the understanding of human nature has a minimal effect on the formulation of a legal system.
Yet we have to be cautious in saying that the understanding of human nature influences the account for law, when it could have been easily the other way round, but as it shows in Hobbes and Kant’s legal theory, the account of human nature does have a great influence of one’s account for law. Reference 1. Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, edited by Richard Tuck (Cambridge University Press, 1997) 2. Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, edited by Richard Tuck (Cambridge University Press, 1997) 3.
Immanuel Kant, The Doctrine of Right, Part II of the Metaphysics of Morals in Practical Philosophy, translated and edited by Mary Gregor (Cambridge University Press, 1996) 4. Immanuel Kant, The Doctrine of Right, Part II of the Metaphysics of Morals in Practical Philosophy, translated and edited by Mary Gregor (Cambridge University Press, 1996) 5. Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, edited by Richard Tuck (Cambridge University Press, 1997) 6. Immanuel Kant, The Doctrine of Right, Part II of the Metaphysics of Morals in Practical Philosophy, translated and edited by Mary Gregor (Cambridge University Press, 1996) 7.
Immanuel Kant, The Doctrine of Right, Part II of the Metaphysics of Morals in Practical Philosophy, translated and edited by Mary Gregor (Cambridge University Press, 1996) 8. Immanuel Kant, The Doctrine of Right, Part II of the Metaphysics of Morals in Practical Philosophy, translated and edited by Mary Gregor (Cambridge University Press, 1996) 9. Immanuel Kant, The Doctrine of Right, Part II of the Metaphysics of Morals in Practical Philosophy, translated and edited by Mary Gregor (Cambridge University Press, 1996) 10. David Dyzenhaus, ‘Hobbes on the authority of law’, in Hobbes and the Law D.