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High School and the State of Nature

March 15, 2011

As the college admissions process is becoming more “cutthroat” than ever, high school students are also becoming increasingly more competitive with one another. From my personal experience at high school (a small suburban high school twenty minutes outside of New York City), many students, especially upperclassmen, were very nervous that by helping their classmates, they would be putting themselves at an academic disadvantage when it came time to apply to college. With that being said, not all students subscribed to this philosophy. I believe that these two types of college-bound high school students can be classified into categories described by Hobbes’ and Locke’s differing ideas on man in the state of nature. These two basic classifications are as follows: the ruthless student and the more laid-back student.

Let me first briefly summarize the two types of man in each state of nature, one according to Hobbes and the other according to Locke. In Hobbes’ state of nature, people are self interested, ruthless, and brutish. According to Hobbes, every person has the innate right to the liberty to do anything he or she wishes to do. Furthermore, since there are no sets of laws in such a state, people are able and willing to do anything in order to be successful within society. On the other hand, Locke’s state of nature is based upon the ideals that man is innately good and that man is in accord with his community. This state emphasizes that no harm come to others and that man is moral and honest. These characteristics could easily be applied to the two types of college bound students previously mentioned.


Hobbes explains in his definition of man’s behavior in the state of nature that, “…the postulate of human greed by which each man insists upon his own private use of common property…” is emphasized. In other words, man is always in search of more for himself and behaves greedy in order to get what he wants. The type of student that can be identified with Hobbes’ definition of man in the state of nature is one that is ruthless in every sense of the word. This self-interested student rarely, if ever, will help other students with homework, tests, or general course questions. This student is typically, in accordance with Hobbes’ state of nature, brutish in the sense that he will always put himself and his academic work above assisting others with theirs. This type of student tries to gain an “edge” by being selfish. They think that if they help out the “competition”, they are in turn, lowering their chances of gaining acceptance into the college of their choice; therefore they (usually sneakily) refuse to help out their classmates.


In contrast to the “Hobbes state of nature student”, the student who is more laid-back and academically less brutal exemplifies characteristics of man in the state of nature as described by Locke. This student is not ruthless but rather willing to help others with their schoolwork. Locke believes that one should not, “…harm another in his life, health, liberty or possessions”. When applied to the college bound high school student, those that fall under the “Locke’s state of nature student” are kids that look out for their fellow classmates and do not look to hurt another’s “life chances” (chance of getting into a desired college).


Although it is easy to separate high school students into categories based on Hobbes’ and Locke’s views of man in the state of nature, there are in fact some similarities between the two men in each state and, in turn, the two theoretical students. For example, both types of students, as both states of nature, are characterized by insecurity. In the two states, the people are trying to do what they perceive as the best to achieve a specific outcome for a given situation. Whether determining how to elect a ruler in a society or deciding whether or not to help a peer with their homework, both scenarios require a specific approach in order to reach the best possible decision.



  1. Melissa Boelstler permalink
    March 16, 2011 12:23 PM

    While reading this I began to automatically think of specific people I went to high school with, who followed these characteristics near perfectly. Then even more, I bean to realize that this hasn’t even changed since we’ve gone to college. There still is the Hobbes type student who doesn’t want to help anyone else because he/she doesn’t want to risk the curve getting any higher, is fighting against the other students for a better GPA, or wants to get into another school here. Then there is also the Locke type student who sees that they may know something more than their friends, and does anything to help them out because he/she wants them to prevail in the school too. If this is true, I’m sure as life goes on these characteristics will still be found in encounters everywhere. Maybe not everyone follows these characteristics to be strictly one or another, but this is interesting because it can be found true throughout our experiences in school.

  2. Emily Slaga permalink
    March 16, 2011 12:39 PM

    This was a neat comparison! I completely related to what you were saying because it’s easy to remember how my friends and I responded to the pressure of trying to get into a great college. And I agree, it’s not just high school. It follows us to college. Some people won’t help others study for fear of scewing the curve, and others believe they should help their peers actually learn.
    I think you could say it even follows us through life in general. How you are as a student in high school or college, being cut throat or helping others, says a lot about your character, not just your school habits.
    It’s their personality showing. In essence, you can conclude there are Hobbes-like people in life, and there are Locke-like people. This example of students shows perfectly that there isn’t one type of person. We may not all be cut throat, but we may not always look out for each other either. There’s a blend of people/personalities throughout society. This example is justification for the idea that neither state of nature is right or wrong. They coexist in the world.

    • Rebecca Birnbaum permalink
      March 17, 2011 3:26 PM

      I agree with this! It comes down to whether people are acting selfishly or selflessly. The tendency to act one way or the other definitely has to do with someone’s personality, but it also is circumstantial. Everyone is selfish sometimes, and most people act selfishly to get ahead and be successful. In high school, being successful meant getting the best grades – it’s the same in college and grad school. Once you get into the real world, it’s about making the most money, holding the highest position, etc. Everyone has a personal agenda. Some agendas include helping others with their own, and others don’t.

  3. Pierre Gerondeau permalink
    March 16, 2011 2:31 PM

    This was a really interesting way to characterize Hobbes’ and Locke’s states of nature in a context that everyone is familiar with. Similar to other people that have commented, I can definitely remember people that are in both of these categories; the ruthless, Hobbesian student who doesn’t want to help other students and is more self-centered/self-interested, and the Lockeian student who doesn’t mind helping friends with work. It is interesting to see how these two states of nature can be seen in everyday life. I can sympathize with both sides, the way I’m sure many people probably can. Deep down, I want to be successful, and in this competitive world that means being more successful than the people you hang out with, but if someone were to ask me for help, in Locke’s ideology I would not be able to say no.

  4. snradin permalink
    March 16, 2011 4:56 PM

    I find this post extremely interesting because it puts Hobbes’ and Locke’s state of nature into prospective for us college students. It is hard as a Freshman in college to relate to the state of nature and discuss which perspective one agree with because we have never lived through any times close to the times that are described in both theorist’s state of nature. When our GSI asked us in discussion which theorist’s concept of the state of nature we agreed with, almost every single hand flew up in agreement with Locke’s concept. I heard responses such as “I would never steal for my own self interest, that’s ridiculous” or “man is innately good and not even close to as barbaric as Hobbes wants us to believe.” The ironic part is, as I took the poll in this post, 0% voted in belief of Locke’s state of nature, and the majority agreed with Hobbes. This is because, in a upperclassman’s state of nature, college acceptances are what is most important–we don’t care about stealing food instead of foraging for it by ourselves or cheating our way for survival. The bottom line is our future survival depends upon college acceptances and we are willing to do whatever it takes to gain an upper hand. As college students, we are quick to reject that in Hobbes’ mind we are “brutish” or “constantly acquisitive of more,” but as it was pointed out in the previous post and the poll, we might have to rethink this when we put it into perspective.

  5. Kendall D Rhode permalink
    March 16, 2011 5:26 PM

    I went to an academic private school and I found that I was surrounded by driven students that portrayed characteristics of the Lockean student. The size of my class had a lot to do with this. My graduating class was about 108 students and most of us grew up together since kindergarten. This allowed us to form strong bonds and friendships which made us willing to help one another with school work, even though we were all competing with one another to get into the top colleges. We all looked out for each other and always assisted one another because of our strong community base. I remember countless times when I studied with friends for school tests and standardized tests as well. I must admit there was a lot of competition, but the competition never came out in savage way. Most students strove for good grades, while helping one another.

  6. Christina Beckman permalink
    March 16, 2011 9:25 PM

    I agree with everything you’d said here!
    I think the comparison to High School students really helpes put all of these theories into perspective. But al this talk about High School really got me to thinking about college. And where would the kids at U of M fit in? Well, what about Rousseau? Let’s not forget about him! And when you think about it, it makes sense: the main, primal instincts of any being are sleep, sex, and eating- if one were to add studying to that equation, wouldn’t we have a college campus?

    Of course, I realize this is a stretch. Hobbes and Locke would fit in with many students on campus here as well, but some of us also just need the basic motivations in life to get by. Would you agree?

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