Compartmentalising Human Nature

Welcome to this small segment of our diverse and inclusive world. This column has the intention of musing on, reporting about and considering diversity initiatives and various threads of our society’s tapestry of identities and interactions.

Contributor: Tabin Brooks (Charles Sturt University)

The social contracts of Locke and Hobbes may be well understood by those who have previously studied economics, philosophy or historical geopolitics. In this week’s column, I’d like to address their beliefs under the overarching question of: Australia is a very compartmentalised society: does integration of intersectionality require DEcompartmentalisation? (digital/physical?)

I did not study political economy, but the geopolitical background of the world is a topic I have some familiarity with – the projector dragged out at Christmas, and in the boxes of slides, photos from a trip to the Amazon, tribes whose only experience with the British was the prior parties that never returned. The theorists of the world create a very interesting story in and of themselves, however I particularly want to focus on Locke and Hobbes from the perspective of how these ideas can be reconciled with intersectionality.

Political realism, such as was promoted by Hobbes, assumes a trait of human nature, one in which tenacious individualism, a winner-takes-all mode of life, with the solitary and destitute living a short and brutish life is underpinned by a self-interested desire. It is this belief that humans are equal, and the weight placed on those interactions that might be seen as selfish or antisocial, beneficent or prosocial, is approximately the same, which in Hobbs mind would have lead to anarchy. The formation of a state would therefore be the people of the society placing mutually agreed upon importance upon the seat of power – a collective agreement to adhere to certain curtailments of freedom in exchange for a well-planned society.

In this, both Locke and Hobbes agree, though the underlying motivation for the decision is different. In Locke’s world view, each member of a society consented to live under a mediator that would preserve the natural rights of liberty, life and property. In both societies, the members were presumed to be rational actors, however where Hobbes attributed the decisions made to self interest, Locke understood the primary motivating factor as a moral (that towards others) interest. From what may be a naive reading, the outlining of these moral interests and rights seems similar to the concept of boundaries discussed by many current practitioners of therapy.

In fact, upon reading Shea(n.d.), which agrees with other readings I have encountered on the subject, in the answer to Hobbes’ ideas of a short, brutish life, Locke viewed this fact of aggression as a symptom of a lack of impartial justice. When combining the readings of the two contemporaries, the conversation seems to involve agreement in many areas, but a fundamental difference in world-view, similar to that observed in modern relationships of various types.

“When conflict arises between two parties regarding violations of their rights, Locke argued that neither one had the means to decisively resolve the situation peacefully, as both regarded their own position as the true and correct one and were too biased and personally invested to offer an objective viewpoint. Like Hobbes, Locke believed that people were ultimately rational actors who sought to avoid violent conflict wherever possible, and so in such a situation, opposing sides consented to allow a third party to mediate the case, let them deliver a verdict of their own, and agree to hold by that verdict.”

Shea, M. (no date) Hobbes, Locke, and the Social Contract, American Battlefield Trust. Available at: (Accessed: 27 February 2022).

Could the source of this worldview be found within their respective histories? Perhaps: Hobbes was raised with Anglican religious heritage, and Locke with Puritan. Both had extensive histories of achievement – one a tutor worthy of a king, and the other a doctor and parliamentarian, and it is unlikely, given both parties location and respective positions in society, that these dialogues were created without some knowledge of the other’s personality and attitude. There is probably another essay to be found in the deconstruction of these intersectionalities, but for now I would like to bring back the original question. Australia is a compartmentalised community (as are most areas of the world, whether these divisions occur by geographic, religious or social tribalism). The existence of Hobbes and Locke as independent actors whose works have been criticised but not outright rejected suggests that there has been a certain proportion of the population that believes in one or the other of these since these ideas were distributed into their society – for over a century – and these beliefs have been used to develop the overarching concepts of government, power dynamics and society at large. This suggests that if considering the process of decompartmentalisation, this divide in perspective may be symptomatic of natural variation in humans.

If this is a natural variation in humans – that some view individualism and self interest as the framework used to interpret new information from the world, and new situations that arise within society, and that others view moral responsibilities and community as their framework, then this must be taken into consideration in the formation of a governance and justice structure. If performing a thought experiment on the evolutionary history of a tribal society such as early humanity, both of these forms of worldview are necessary if the priority of the group is both short and long-term survival. Those that act in their own self interest are capable of making decisions quickly – where the only factor that must be considered is the individual desire to survive and succeed. If these desires line up with the goals of the group, this quick decision making can benefit the entire group (particularly if prosocial behaviour is seen as in one’s own interest, and there are consequences for antisocial behaviour, such as ostracism).

On the other hand, considering moral frameworks as the foundation for any decision may cause delays in decision making, but are vital to maintain a society where the continued pro-social behaviour benefit is higher than the success found in unethical or immoral behaviour displays. A trap that may be encountered under this worldview is the desire to be prescriptive along one’s own model, to encourage group cohesion and to enlarge the pool of cumulative shared values. A descriptive view – the assessment of what does happen, rather than what should – can prove helpful to integrate ideas of intersectionality and diversity into the society at large, as this allows for a more accurate understanding of what the universals of society can be. Where both sides of the argument agree is perhaps where focus should be addressed – understanding the compartments as more of a Venn diagram, with truly shared values retained.

For those more familiar with the specifics and histories of these two theorists, why not drop a comment below – what did Locke and Hobbes agree on?

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