In the past week and a half, Intro to Political Theory have sparked some interesting debates over exactly how people would act in a state of nature. This idea got me thinking: what are humans like if allowed complete freedom? This idea of “complete freedom” is embodied by the state of nature, but it is difficult to imagine. After all, I certainly have not experienced this state in my 18 years. However, one example did come to mind: college.
When young adults leave their parents’ homes and move into dorms, they are faced with a completely new world of freedoms and choices. Where will I eat lunch today? When will I go to bed? What will I do this Friday night? Without the controlling hand of parents, college students live with nearly complete independence. The University of Iowa’s page on residence halls for parents addresses this idea of developing independence, saying that students will develop a healthy freedom being away from home. I believe that this freedom nearly matches the perfect freedom in Locke’s states of nature.
Let’s first look at the thoughts of John Locke, a famous philosopher, regarding the state of nature and people’s actions within it. Like other state of nature philosophers, Locke believed that people could do what they pleased, but, in contrast to the others, people would be restricted by a higher power. Furthermore, Locke said the state of nature would not be complete chaos; there could be order, property, and even some rules. Finally, he said that man is basically self-interested and rational.
College does contain many of the features of Locke’s state of nature. As previously stated, college students obtain a freedom that is as pure as it gets in modern-day America, but, like Locke believed, our freedoms are limited by a “higher power” and there are rules on what we can and can’t do. The “higher power” in college students’ lives is past experiences and morals taught through their first 17 years. For example, although college students could skip class every day and just watch Netflix, most do not because they feel a moral obligation to work hard and become the best they can be. After all, the whole point of college is to learn and prepare for life after college, so students will most often do the morally correct thing and go to class.
College’s rules on what can and can’t be done come both formally and informally. Formal rules are generally quite clear; the university says that I cannot do certain things, so I don’t. But informal rules are more difficult to identify. Some of these informal rules are university-wide social norms, traditions, and rules. For example, here at Michigan we have our “Don’t Step on the M!” rule. Other schools have other traditions, like camping out for tickets at Duke or rubbing a statue’s toe for luck at Harvard (here’s a list of some interesting ones). Most informal rules at college, though, are social norms, like not wearing other colleges’ and high school apparel or not being too loud in dorms at night.
Of course, this analysis is a little of a stretch. College is does not offer complete freedom; students are still bound by laws of the American government. Nevertheless, it is interesting that university shares many characteristics with Locke’s state of nature.