A Hobbesian State of Natur(al Disaster)

Sarah Peng

When Hurricane Katrina hit, one of the major problems that arose was looting. In the midst of the natural disaster and the wreckage of the New Orleans-Florida area were people going into places of business and taking what they pleased. Sociologists call this a “breakdown in the social order.” 

This may not come at a surprise. Sure, times are tough and people need resources like food and water. If a storefront has been left bereft of a cashier and open to the public, what’s so wrong about someone ‘looting’ a few items?

The reason that looting is a real issue during natural disasters is that it’s not just about survival. After Hurricane Katrina, the trend of looting during natural disasters only seemed to go up. People were beginning to plan ahead their looting when Hurricane Sandy was brewing.

A warning set out to Hurricane Katrina looters.

Additionally, looters usually don’t take food and water, but items of material value. Looting isn’t a last-ditch attempt at surviving, but “using a breakdown in the social order for personal enrichment at the expense of others.” In my opinion, looting is evidence that a Hobbesian state of nature is possible and more likely than we think.


Hobbes’ state of nature says that the life of man is “nasty, brutish and short.” Everyone looks out for their own wellbeing and they stop at nothing to get ahead. The natural condition is a free-for-all “war against all” state, as all actions are driven by a need for power.

The theorist himself.

In discussion we talked about whether or not we think Hobbes’ theory is legitimate. Would we devolve into a constant state of war if the government ceased to exist or never existed at all? A lot of us leaned toward a more Lockeian mindset, reasoning that people would eventually start cooperating with each other and eliminate the grounds for all-out, perpetuated war.

However, the nature of looting seems to show that Hobbes’ theory holds water relatively well. Our more humanitarian sides like to believe that in the face of disaster where many people are left without resources and shelter, individuals would come together and help each other. While I’m not going to sit here and argue that this absolutely didn’t happen post-Katrina and Sandy, one can’t ignore the fact that actions based on pure self-interest occurred on a larger scale. What’s more, as I stated before, these actions were not purely circumstantial but deliberate and planned. They come about individuals know that there is a lack of law of enforcement, and thus nothing stopping them from furthering their own interests. This is much like Hobbes’ theory that when living without a “common power” men will live in a condition of war.

Looting is not just about gaining material goods or wealth. There’s evidence that much of looting arose from individuals who experience social inequality. The natural disasters thus posed as “once-in-a-lifetime opportunities for attacking the party in power.” This is eerily reminiscent of Hobbes’ description of men’s actions during a state of nature, in which they “[take] pleasure in contemplating their own power in the acts of conquests.”

The response to the shooter exacerbates the “all-out war” scenario as well. Storefront owners, as seen in the picture at the top of this post responded by threatening to shoot any looters that came to their store with bad intentions. Hobbes’ state of nature predicts a turn of events like these in that men, being inherently driven by self-interest and thus rendered unable to trust anyone around them, have to take actions to preserve their security. Their violent actions/intentions come from expecting someone else’s, or as Hobbes’ puts it, “every man, ought to endeavour peace, as far as he has hope of obtaining it; and when he cannot obtain it, that he may seek, and use, all helps, and advantages of war.” 

The fact that antisocial, power-hungry actions arise when a natural disaster renders law enforcement weakened may indicate that Hobbes’ theory has some legitimacy in a real-world context. Looting and a “breakdown of the social order” (as stated before) arises in this situations in the same way that the state of nature would be a constant war among men without a civil power or sovereign force.


2 thoughts on “A Hobbesian State of Natur(al Disaster)

  1. I find this blog post to be very intriguing. It is an excellent connection, made between a real natural disaster and Hobbes’s theory on the human state of nature. I personally never believed that the life of man was “nasty, brutish, and short” in any situation. I always assumed that moral development over the years has made an impact on human state of nature. People now are more family oriented and morally obligated than civilizations in the past. After reading your blog post, I realized humans are humans, and they are organisms that need certain things to survive. Looting during a catastrophe is a perfect example of how humans will support themselves at any cost to others. This not only made me rethink my opinion of human nature, but also informed me of a serious social issue during Hurricane Katrina. Centuries after Hobbes created his theory, no one would assume that he is correct. Most people assumed his ideas cannot be applied in a real world context, but this post proves that political theory can be seen in faint ways in any given time period. All societies will have some aspects remain over time, and in this case, it is the human state of nature. It will not change from a self-serving state of nature because too many people would have to sacrifice to the common good in order to do that. People cannot be innately good if they are all worried for their life. Difficult situations, such as a natural disasters, will obviously bring out a selfish state of nature as opposed to in times of prosperity. Overall, your post inspired a lot of thought, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it!


  2. Very interesting post! Funny, I thought about writing a post about looting after natural disasters too, but I changed topics. Anyway, I do agree that the actions of victims post-disaster certainly replicate human nature from Hobbes’s point of view. These people disregarded all societal rules and looted simply for their self-interest. I’m not too sure if this represents Hobbes’ state of nature, though; while some aspects do match, I don’t think the situation constituted a state of war. Still, it is interesting to see how modern people act when given the freedom to do whatever they want. I think that these looters give us an important insight into human nature.


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