The Deficiency Theory of Human Nature and Its Deficits

Thomas Hobbes writes famously in chapter 13 of his Leviathan that human life under natural conditions is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”[1] In order to live a social rather than a solitary life, a comfortable rather than a poor one, in order to live in a pleasantly civilized way rather than a nasty and brutish one, and in order to be long-lived rather than cut short in years, Hobbes argues, humans need to overcome their natural condition and create an artificial world, a second nature, a state, a commonwealth. Fortunately, they have “reason” which “suggesteth convenient Articles of Peace, upon which men may be drawn to agreement.”[2] These “laws of nature” allow them to create the desired “commonwealth” with its “commodious living.” But it is not inevitable that they will succeed in this undertaking. Hobbes writes in De Cive: “Men come together … not because naturally it could happen no otherwise, but by accident.”[3]

We can summarize his view in five points. (1) Humans must pursue a common good, if they are to thrive, (2) but they lack the natural capacity to pursue that end. (3) For they are naturally concerned only with their own private interest. (4) That may still allow limited and unstable forms of social interactions but it prevents the formation of organized society. (5) With the help of reason they can, however, construct conditions which make it possible to pursue the common good.

It is evident that Hobbes does not mean to say that human beings are like a species of solitary animal. For unlike solitary animals, humans cannot flourish in the wild. “It is true, indeed,” Hobbes writes, “that to man, by nature, or as man, that is as soon as he is born, solitude is an enemy.”[4] But man is also not “a creature born fit for society.” The Greeks and specifically Aristotle, called him a zoon politikon; “and on this foundation … they build up the doctrine of civil society … the preservation of peace and the government of mankind.” But this is “certainly false and an error proceeding from our too slight contemplation of human nature.”[5]

The natural inclination of human beings is rather to look only after themselves, their own private interests, and their own business. In the human case – in contrast to the genuinely solitary species – that turns out to be a serious deficiency. Even in the state of nature, human beings can and do, however, engage in some social interaction. In order to overcome someone stronger, a person may, for instance, even in the state of nature act “by confederacy with others, that are in the same danger with himself.”[6] Humans will thus act at times with “forces united.”[7]  They also compete with each other for scarce resources and thus become “enemies.” Mutual fear (or “diffidence” to use the original term) will make them seek “augmentation of dominion over men” and in their effort to gain glory, they will strive to “over-awe” each other. It is for such reasons, “that during the time men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called war.”[8]  Competition, mutual fear, the desire to over-awe others, and warfare are, of course, all social phenomena. Human beings in the state of nature are for this reason not really  solitary beings. Their sociality is, rather, of an exclusively negative sort, restricted to eliminating, terrifying, over-powering, and fighting others.  Their kind of sociality is, moreover, highly unstable; it certainly cannot provide peace or security and thus prevents, among other things, the formation of any organized form of “society.” The most we can expect in this situation is “that brutish manner” which consists in “the government of small families, the concord whereof dependeth on natural lust.”[9] The conundrum is how to overcome this deficit in human sociality, how to create a positive sociality that allows for peaceful interactions, co-operative forms of living, of living well despite the preoccupation of human beings with their own private interests.

If “deficiency” refers to the absence of some quality and “deficit” to an insufficient degree of a quality, we can say that Hobbes combines a deficiency and a deficit view of human nature. Human beings lack, according to him, a natural capacity to pursue the common good and are in this way deficient.  And their deficiency restricts them to a limited, negative form of sociality. This is the deficit for which they are trying to make up. We can call this, then, the deficiency/deficit conception of human nature.

This conception was not Hobbes’ invention. We can find an earlier version of it in Protagoras, the sophistic Greek philosopher. In Plato’s eponymous dialogue, Protagoras explains his understanding of politics by means of a creation story in which human beings are initially left “naked, unshod, unbedded, and unarmed” and thus in a state of deficiency.[10] Their lack of social skills prevents them from living and working together. “They sought to save themselves by coming together and founding fortified cities, but when they gathered in communities, they injured one another for want of political skill.”[11] We can’t quite say then that these creatures are genuinely solitary since they appear to have the need and the desire to form communities, but they definitely lack the social skills for doing so. They can’t even successfully join forced long enough to defend themselves against wild animals, they are incapable of conducting war, and have no grasp of “the art of politics, of which the art of war is a part.”[12] Thus far their deficiency. But humans are also given a sense for mutual respect and justice, but this only in a rudimentary or dispositional form.  Wit the help of these, they can begin to form human communities but they suffer initially from a deficit in social skills which they need to overcome with nurture and education.

Protagoras’ story was given a new life in another creation myth that Plato told in his dialogue Politikos (The Statesman). In Plato’s version, the God Kronos created the world and initially took care of everything. But at some point, he withdrew from the cosmos and thus left humans to take care of themselves. But they turned out to be insufficiently equipped to rule themselves. The consequence is that they are bound to come to a bitter end unless the God returns to resume his divine nurture and save them. In this version, the human deficit is not apparent at the beginning, as it is in Protagoras’  account; it becomes manifest only after God has withdrawn. Politics is thus the doomed effort of human beings to take care of things in the face of God’s absence. Plato’s story is, in turn, reminiscent of that told in the Biblical book of Genesis. It, too, can be said to contain a version of the deficit conception of human nature. In the Garden of Eden, so we are told, Yahweh took care of all human needs. When Adam and Even make an attempt to take care of themselves, they are expelled from the garden and find themselves leading a life of bitterness and struggle. In the end God must come back once more to redeem his creation.

Hobbes will have known the Biblical story, but was he familiar with his other antecedents? His words certainly remind us of Protagoras, though it will become evident on a closer look that there are significant differences between the two views. We can see in any case that the deficiency/deficit theory of human nature has in one form of other had a long career.

I note in passing Nietzsche’s characterization of the human being as an underdetermined animal (das nicht festgestellte Tier), a more recent version of the deficit theory of human nature which has exerted influence on both philosophy – Max Scheler and Martin  Heidegger – and  anthropology – Helmut Plessner and Arnold Gehlen. Gehlen speaks thus explicitly of humans as “deficient beings” (Mängelwesen).  Deficit theory is, moreover, not confined to the Western tradition of political thinking. We can find another version of the it in the Chinese philosopher Xunzi. who is commonly said to have held that human nature is evil. But this rendering of his thought is misconceived for two reasons. The first is that the Chinese tradition does not operate with the Western and Christian concept of evil and the second that Xunzi is not arguing that human beings are permanently flawed. He is arguing instead, like Protagoras, that human beings are initially deficient and need to be socialized through nurture and education.

For all its wide spread and attraction, the deficiency/deficit theory of human nature is, however, incoherent. We can see this most clearly when we return to Hobbes. The first thing to notice is that his account of the all-important moment of transition from the state of nature to that of social and political order is utterly sketchy. It is, in fact, incomprehensible. We must ask: would solitary beings or, rather, beings restricted to pure negative forms of sociality be sharing a language in which to settle on articles of peace? And why would such nasty and brutish creatures be willing and able to negotiate with each other and put trust in the outcome of their negotiations? The answer has to be that asocial or minimally and negatively social beings can’t turn themselves by negotiation into positively social beings. Something similar holds for Protagoras and Xunzi. Beings with an innate deficit in social skills will not be able to turn themselves into social beings through education for it is only positively social beings that can educate each other.

Given this evident shortcoming of the deficiency/deficit theory, we need to ask why it has nonetheless been considered plausible. The answer seems to be that its proponents, either consciously or unconsciously,  see the life of the species on the model of the life of the individual human being. This looks at first sight like an attractive comparison. Don’t we sometimes speak of early human history as “the childhood of mankind”? The comparison is nonetheless misleading. It is, of course, true that the new-born baby is helpless and appears to lack functional social skills. Protagoras’ description of the initial condition of the human species as “naked, unshod, unbedded, and unarmed” fits precisely that state of a new-born baby. The denizens of Hobbes’ state of nature are, of course, more sinister creatures. Protagoras’ natural man is said to lack even the art of warfare whereas Hobbes’ counterpart is mysteriously equipped with precisely that art. For all that, he/she/it is just as helpless in trying to establish a proper social life as Protagoras’s unformed baby-like being.  Like new-born children, Hobbes’ creatures could, of course, never survive on their own. The new-born baby does so only because it is born into a social group (“the family”). It is this group which takes care of the child and helps it to become socialized. It should be obvious that the human species would be long extinct, if its initial state had been akin to that of a new-born because there would have been no one to take care of it.

The theory of evolution tells us that at any point in its development, the human species must have been fairly well adapted to its conditions of life because otherwise it would not be here today. There is no moment in that history in which the human species was in a state of deficiency or deficit. Human sociality is not a belated product of rational choice, but the outcome of a long, slow process of habituation and adaptation. The evolution of social behavior, it turns out, has proved beneficial in the process of natural selection. It is true that human beings are born helpless and without immediately available social skills. But this does not indicate that the species as a whole was initially in that state. The helplessness of the human child indicates, rather, that it belongs to a highly socialized species. Asocial species have no helpless offspring – otherwise they would die out.

Aristotle was closer to reality at this point than Hobbes, Protagoras, and Xunzi. He said that human beings are by nature political and that political institutions exist by nature. Hobbes attacked him, of course, for comparing animal gregariousness to human sociality. He had some justification for this in that neither he nor Aristotle had an evolutionary outlook. Both treated species as substantially fixed. And in that case it is not obvious why features found in one species should help to explain those in another.

The lack of an evolutionary perspective had another limiting effect on Aristotle. Like others, he found the closest affinity to the sociality of the human species in the life of the social insects. But insects are far apart from us on the evolutionary tree of life. A more instructive comparison is that of human sociality with the social life of primates. We can see from it that complex forms of social interaction, including nurture of the young, are already highly developed in some of primate species. It is reasonable then to conclude that the human species is “naturally a social species with complex skills that include both the capacity for teaching and for learning as well as a variety of other social and political skills.[14]

Aristotle appears right, also, in thinking that the distinctive form that human sociality has taken is largely due to the possession of a capacity for an advanced form of language. But his claim to that effect has been widely misinterpreted.  It has been taken to mean that humans have a mental capacity for rational thought whereas Aristotle’s term “logos” refers to language as a social phenomenon. Aristotle  recognizes  that some animals use primitive sign systems to communicate with each other. But only human logos or language allows for complex forms of deliberation. The possession of such language characterizes the distinctive form of human sociality and it provides the human species with a tool for conceiving new forms of socialization. Where animal gregariousness is fixed, human sociality is thus malleable. It is characteristic of human sociality that we can choose between different forms of political order. It is from this kind of sociality that also our distinctively human individualism has emerged. That is evident from the fact that we define ourselves as individuals by means of language.  Human individuality is, in other words, a product (we might even say, a by-product) of human sociality and it is maintained only by this form of sociality. It is this individuality, moreover, that gives human politics its distinctive character.  Aristotle conclusion that political institutions are by nature prior to the individual – an idea that was, surely, incomprehensible for Hobbes – is the outcome of this line of thinking.

Aristotle’s lack of attention to the social life of primates (in fact, his lack of knowledge of this pre-human form of sociability) had, however, also the  consequence that he downplayed the role of conflict in human life, in contrast to Hobbes who highlighted this aspect of human behavior. Warfare, competition for resources, and social fear are not fundamental to Aristotle’s way of thinking. He knows that there is warfare and that political institutions must be ready to deal with conflict and violence. But war signals for him a failure of politics. Aristotle would never have been able to assent to Clausewitz’ characterization of war as the continuation of politics by other means and he would have been even less receptive to Carl Schmitt’s and Michel Foucault’s reverse description of politics as the continuation of war by other means. For Hobbes there is a constant struggle for power in the natural condition of the human species. Where human beings seek to over-awe each other in his world, Aristotle assumes that there is a natural and fixed order of rank between them. The struggle for power is thus secondary for him. This view is once again linked to Aristotle’s conception of animal gregariousness and its relation to human politics. The interactions of the social insects are  genetically determined and there is, as a result no warfare, no competition for resources, no mutual fear, nor a struggle for power in the beehive or the antheap. The life of the social insects is one of positive sociality. To say it in other words: where Aristotle’s sees human society as a fundamentally collaborative undertaking and based on a natural drive to cooperation, It is for precisely this reason that Hobbes considers Aristotle’s account of animal gregariousness irrelevant to the understanding of human sociality and politics.

If Aristotle and Hobbes had paid attention to (or known of) the sociality of primates, they  might, however, have both felt the need to revise their accounts. For in primate life we certainly find all the elements of negative sociality that Hobbes had identified. There is conflict, competition for resources, there is mutual fear, and there is a constant ongoing struggle for power. But this is not sufficient to justify his account of human politics. The actual situation is, rather, that in primate life we find both negative and positive sociality conjoined. It is thus not the case, as Hobbes thought, that negative sociality is primary and fundamental and that positive sociality is a secondary and derivate construction designed to overcome or, at least alleviate the facts of negative sociality. But Aristotle’s view is also unsatisfactory for looking only at the life of the social insects he did not see that species more closely related to us depict a more complex pattern of sociality. The right picture is then that Aristotle and Hobbes have each identified only one side of human sociality and thus of human politics. A properly evolutionary view will have to recognize that we share with our pre-human relatives a mixture of both negative and positive social drives and capacities. It is this mixture that contributes to the characteristic complexity and volatility of our kind of social and political life.

There is, however, nothing inherently deficient in this. The peculiar dual nature of human sociality has contributed greatly to the success of our species. The deficiency/deficit theory of human nature is for that reason misguided. This does not mean that the combination of positive and negative social drives and capacities that has proved so successful in the struggle for human survival will continue to do so forever. It may turn out that our specific biological endowment will eventually bring about the decline of the species. At that point we would discover that human nature has finally become deficient. It is not the case then that deficiency marks the initial state of human evolution (and is “natural” in that sense). The deficiency of human nature may rather be still ahead of us. And it may then turn out that we lack the means for creating a second nature that will allow us to overcome that deficiency.


[1] Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, edited by Michael Oakeshott, Basil Blackwell, Oxford, p. 82 (Hereafter cited as “L”)

[2] L, p. 84

[3] Thomas Hobbes, De Cive or The Citizen, edited by Sterling P. Lamprecht, Appleton-Century-Crofts, New York 1949, p. 22. (Hereafter cited as “C”)

[4] C, p. 21, note.

[5] C, pp. 21-22.

[6] L, p. 80.

[7] L, p. 81.

[8] L, pp. 81-82

[9] L, p. 83.

[10] Plato, The Protagoras, 321c in Plato, Protagoras and Meno, , translated by W.K.C. Guthrie, Penguin Books, London 1956

[11] Ibid, 322b.

[12] Ibid.

[13] In De Cive, though not in Leviathan, Hobbes also recognizes the role of education in socializing human beings. He writes there: “Man is made fit for society not by nature, but by education.” (p. 22. footnote)

[14] Frans de Waal, Chimpanzee Politics. Power and Sex Among Apes, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore and London, rev. ed. 1988.

1 comment

  1. it seems pretty straightforward that we have invented and employed tools (writ large) that have resulted in complexities and other impacts which are beyond our means to manage, the ruinous tyranny of the means intentional and unintentional.

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