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Chilean Miners in a State of Nature

November 9, 2010

As I’m sure nearly all of you have probably heard over the past few months, a group of 33 miners were trapped a half-mile underground after their mine collapsed in Chile. The men were trapped underground for a total of 69 days, and for the first 17, they were completely isolated from the outside world. With no laws, no leader, and extremely limited resources, the miners were left in what could be considered a real-life state of nature. Their situation serves as an ideal case study of what really happens when a state of nature occurs in the real world, and is a great way to test out the theories of philosophers like Locke, Hobbes, and Rousseau.

The miners, faced with only minimal rations of tuna, canned peaches, water, and condensed milk, along with a few basic medical supplies, easily could have fought each other for the right to consume the life saving resources. However, even facing extreme starvation, they decided to cooperate with each other and form their own mini society instead. They elected a leader, who was to be in charge of resolving conflicts between the miners, as well as the distribution of rations and the final say in important decision. They also chose other leaders, including a spiritual leader who encouraged daily prayer, and a medical leader who had taken a nursing class and could help the other miners. All of the other miners had assigned duties within the society as well. The miners agreed on a conflict resolution procedure that included a required “time out” of separation for the miners to cool their tempers, and a community mediation system to deal with them afterwards.

So, keeping in mind the philosophies on that state of nature that we’ve covered so far, which could explain what happened in the mine? In my opinion, it wasn’t Hobbes’ idea of the state of nature, since the miners never fought or tried to overpower each other for the resources. So what philosophy did apply? It seems to me that what happened in the mine could be explained by some sort of combination between Locke’s and Rousseau’s philosophies. It seems similar to Rousseau’s ideas in some ways because the group did make most of their decisions based on a consensus, and because the men were all actively involved in their society. In other ways, the society resembles Lock’s philosophy because the men did elect a leader who they did permit to exercise some control over things, and who could make decisions without the approval of the group. It’s also similar because the men gave up some of their freedom to secure the advantages of society, including protection of their property and liberty. What do you think? Were the Chilean miners in a state of nature? And if so, whose philosophy applied?

  1. tanoodle permalink
    November 10, 2010 1:00 AM

    I agree that the Chilean miners were placed in a state of nature. Completely isolated, and with absolutely no hope for rescue, these miners could have played out a very different story than they did. If it had been in Hobbes’s mind, these men would have fought to survive, doing whatever it took, even if that meant leaving another to suffer. However, I agree with you that it was not Hobbes, but a combination of Rousseau and Locke’s theories that these men employed. The Chilean miners truly gave us pride in mankind as we watched for weeks how they were able to cooperate effectively and come together to survive so far underground. It was a truly emotional story, and the world stands proud of them.

  2. thacarter4 permalink
    November 10, 2010 1:08 AM

    I mostly agree with the idea that these miners were in a state of nature that had elements of both Rousseau’s and Locke’s conceptions of nature with one exception. Rousseau holds that once men have been in society they cannot go back to the state of nature. The men being in the mine was an example of the state of nature, or as close to one as we can get, but the men had already experienced society, which is probably why they cooperated and elected leaders to ration their resources and provide medical support. In this way they clearly break from Rousseau’s ideas about nature.

  3. jmrusso permalink
    November 10, 2010 2:16 AM

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading this post as it complete relates to a situation that its known across the globe. These men definitely experienced the state of nature in completely different terms from those applied by Locke and Rousseau. These men were once a part of a society that did not live by the rules by the state of nature implied by Locke and Rousseau. The men knew that it was essential to form a government that was able to regulate the men from going insane in the trapped mine. Technically they were in a state of nature where they had to live off the land but in a political sense they were just following the norms of society. Also how would they have been to understand how to create a leader since communication was not needed in the state of nature?

  4. jwalsky24 permalink
    November 10, 2010 9:56 PM

    First of all, this is an awesome post. To begin, I don’t think the miners were in a true state of nature because they all had knowledge of what life in organized society was like, and they certainly used it. In Locke’s terms, since Locke’s view seems to have Christian undertones, if one is in the state of nature he is subjected to the laws of nature, which grow out of reason. He states that, as reason teaches us, “no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty or possessions.” The miners seemed to do a good job doing this, as their conflict resolution strategy exhibits.
    Now in Hobbes’ terms, they seemed to do a great job at “endeavoring peace”, but it also seems that by the end they had found their way out of the state of nature, because through mutual contracts they made sacrifices for the benefit of the group.
    Whether the Lockean or Hobbesian definition of the state of nature applies better to the case of the miners is up for debate, but they both exhibit characteristic that help provide a better understanding of the state of nature as a concept.

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