Locke’s state of nature and its epistemic deficit: a game-theoretic analysis

Hun Chung*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Locke rejected anarchism. Locke defended the universal necessity of political governments on the grounds that the state of nature will occasionally generate the inconveniences of war. The standard interpretation of Locke identifies three main causes of war in the state of nature: the lack of a common judge, moral disagreement over the law of nature, and self-love. In this paper, I argue that the combination of these three factors does not guarantee that war will occur in every plausible scenarios of Locke’s state of nature. Instead, in order for war to occur at least sometimes in every plausible scenario of Locke’s state of nature, there has to be some sort of epistemic deficit. In this paper, I show via the tools of modern game theory, how Locke’s state of nature may occasionally generate war by two kinds of epistemic problems implied by Locke’s own epistemology: (a) disagreements in subjective probabilities, and (b) uncertainty in other people’s moral motivation to use force to enforce the law of nature. The fact that war occurs primarily because of such epistemic problems suggests a role for a very limited form of government; namely, the ultra-ultra-minimal state, whose role is confined to solving such epistemic problems.

Original languageEnglish
Article number147
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 2022 Apr


  • Game theory
  • Hobbes
  • Locke
  • Locke’s epistemology
  • Social contract theory
  • State of nature

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Philosophy
  • Social Sciences(all)


Dive into the research topics of 'Locke’s state of nature and its epistemic deficit: a game-theoretic analysis'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this