Hobbes’ theory is based on the notion of ‘individualism’: that society can ‘only be explained in terms of the individuals comprising it.’ Consequently, he claimed that we are all selfish and concerned only with our own self-preservation even if it comes at the cost of others. This would result in conflict, and eventually descent into a ‘State of War’. Self-interest was based upon the theory of ‘psychological egoism’, where the motivation for all actions is benefit for oneself. Even altruistic actions could be explained in this manner because, according to Hobbes’ theory, our primary desire is self-preservation and in other’s misfortune one’s own plight is foreseen, therefore providing motivation to act in this seemingly unselfish manner. This ‘materialist’ point of view conflicts with philosophers such as Plato, who felt that there was definite conflict between reason and desires on the level of decision making; whereas Hobbes views materialistic desire as the motivation for all actions while reason provides the best possible way to fulfill these desires. Overall, Hobbes has a rather negative view about human nature, in that without an ‘absolute sovereign’ to control our desires we will live in a constant ‘State of War’, which is ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short’.
Rousseau’s theory contrasted with that of Hobbes, as he thought human nature is largely good. Society is the corrupting force that transforms ‘natural man’ into the self-obsessed beast illustrated by Hobbes. Rousseau does not deny that Hobbes’ account of the ‘State of Nature’ is correct, just that Hobbes did not define the ‘State of Nature’ correctly. For Rousseau, the ‘State of Nature’ is much more than just a removal of government, it is the removal of all ‘cultural clothes’ including beliefs, language and even an understanding of ourselves. At this level of development Rousseau believed that self-love and pity are the only sentiments that remain in our nature; that we are solitary, and have no desire for power because there would be nobody to have power over. Therefore Rousseau’s view of human nature is very positive compared to Hobbes’, and that any negative aspects of human nature are the result of interaction with society.