Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau on Human Nature: Another Lesson for a Rainy Day

I have discussed a couple of assignments elsewhere in my blog and I like doing this thought experiment with my students; usually it takes two days but could be compressed or expanded.  I tell them that they can believe that humans are: 1) basically good; or 2) basically evil; or 3) tabula rasa (good to get the Latin “blank slate” in here).  I tell them that there are philosophers that I’d like them to be able to associate with each one: Jean-Jacques Rousseau for the basically good; Thomas Hobbes for the basically evil; and John Locke for tabula rasa.  We toy around with these categories (and I give them dates and texts and flesh out the philosophers a bit) and I ask them which they believe.  Nearly every student says “basically good,” followed by a significant portion of tabula rasa, and then, if I’m lucky one or two students who say “basically evil.”

I build from here by asking them to consider which form of government you might design based on your view of human nature.   We usually work around to anarchy (I’m precise with this term and DO NOT mean “terrorism”) if you believe people are basically good (and–good news for us–this IS what Rousseau argues for); totalitarianism or some form of controlling government (monarchy) if you believe that people are basically evil; and something between–democracy say–for those who have argued for tabula rasa.  Again, we are fortunate because Hobbes and Locke line up here, too. I ask them if they can deduce the assumption that an organization makes about human nature by studying its structure?  I propose they think about the Catholic church (I teach at a Catholic school and many of the students are Catholic and ALL of them are taking Theology).  This is where things get funny–most say the church believes people are fundamentally good–even though the structure is relentlessly hierarchical and there is the doctrine of original sin! I ask them about the structure of the school–they are savvier now and see the school as desirous of controlling them–Hobbes! Ask them about teams, clubs, North Korea, their youth group, any group that meets for any reason.

By this time the discussion is going exceptionally well and I turn the direction towards education.  If you believe people are basically evil (Hobbes), then you have an obligation to explain how “goodness” gets into the world.  If you believe people are basically good (Rousseau), then you have to explain how evil gets into the world. If you believe that humans are tabula rasa then you have to explain how good and evil are established and how they get into the world.  Of course, Hobbes, Rousseau, and Locke all have good answers for these questions and usually I can tease these answers out of the students. I tell them that I am in the “basically evil” camp–my argument for how “good” gets into the world is that it has to be taught and learned. The discussion about education that ensues is always terrific–education is the thing that students–by their sophomore, junior, or senior year–are most expert on and about which they have the most opinions. (A later blog will discuss St. Augustine and Pelagius on human nature!)

The cool follow-up assignment is to have all the followers of Rousseau write a letter to Hobbes and Locke–using ANY events in human history–to try to convince them to change their minds.  Have the followers of Hobbes write to Locke and Rousseau and have the followers of Locke write to Hobbes and Rousseau to change their minds.  Evaluation of this is straightforward–do they understand their philosopher’s basic position (and their own!) and can they marshal evidence to defend it?

Further cool follow ups can be done with literary characters and fictional characters.  I like to introduce Machiavelli here and ask the question as to whether a leader should desire to be loved or feared.  Show the clip from “The Office” where Michael explains it’s both–he wants to be loved so much it scares people.

I was a philosophy major, so that helps but a basic encyclopedia knowledge of the three philosophers will be enough for an introduction, and the whole assignment could be done without any of them–just the three basic views of human nature.  Students like this because they get a chance to take on the big questions, the things that matter. 

Next week a discussion of a truly dangerous story that scares me (and should scare you!).



Filed under books and learning, critical thinking, Hobbes, Human Nature, inferential skills, Locke, pedagogy, popular culture, Rousseau, teaching, Uncategorized

14 responses to “Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau on Human Nature: Another Lesson for a Rainy Day

  1. joecee

    I still believe Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” may be the ultimate text to illustrate these three ideas. You notice that each theory offers little respect to free will. It is at this point that the existential alternatvie may be attractive.

    • joecee

      alternative 🙂

    • Joe, I agree. “Frankenstein” with it’s Russian-nesting doll narration and various questions about identity, parenthood, responsibility, creators and creations, is particularly suited to the adolescent mind (which I believe we share!). I also agree that moving to the notion of free will and introducing existentialism is a logical next step–in fact–I think you’ll appreciate the blog next week when I take up an incredibly dangerous story that is like natural gas in its untreated state–almost undetectable in its effect until it is too late.

  2. Great lesson, Dan!! Really encourages independent thinking/judging–and considering strong divergent perspectives. Love it!


    Really great lesson and opportunity for a thoughtful discussion! My history/literature teacher junior year–some 50+ years ago–would pose such questions and allow us to consider them in much the same way. She was the match that set the fire inside my head that has been burning ever since… the feeling of THINKING was the most delicious feeling I had yet encountered!

  4. Hi Mary Kim, thanks for the comment and for reading along. I suspect that both you and I agree that a problem in teaching is that some teachers are NOT ambitious enough for their students, They may think that their students do not want to deal with the BIG questions (why are we here? what is the good life? what is our nature? how do we know what is just? what is the distinction between power and authority? what are the obligations of friendship? the nature of leadership? the definition of love? and on an on). I presume students do want to wrestle with the big questions and can handle the big answers.

    How should we live our lives? Your life is going to be the answer to that question so you may as well answer that question consciously and conscientiously.

  5. joecee

    Just read Willingham’s “Critical Thinking.” The article really provides insight into the “method” behind your “madness.” I look forward to your next blog!

  6. Joe

    Great blog, Dr. McMahon. I’m enjoying your entries. I never had the pleasure of having you as a professor, but seeing your thoughts at this stage of my life (post grad school, working full time) might be even more interesting!

    – Joe Edwards, 06

  7. Joe

    Will do, I’m actually hoping to find some (saxophone-friendly) housing in the area soon.

  8. Joe Rooney

    What a fascinating discussion that crosses over so many disciplines. I’m thinking about using this as an introduction to my AP Government class and then move to a discussion of Madison’s Federalist No. 51 (If men were angels, no government would be necessary…) and Federalist No 10 (The latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man….) Thanks for the creative spark.

    Joe Rooney (’76)

  9. Pingback: Locke rousseau | Zubris

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