Introducing Philosophy through Pop Culture: From Socrates to South Park, Hume to House

By William Irwin; David Kyle Johnson | Go to book overview

25
Lost’s State of Nature

Richard Davies


Summary

In political philosophy, a state of nature is a situation where agents’ interests
are best served by cooperative behavior but individuals know too little about
each other’s intentions to act for the common good. A state of nature is more
or less severe according to the nature of the goods at stake, such as fresh water
and food. In these respects, the survivors of Lost are fortunate in landing on
the Island. They are also lucky in (mostly) sharing English to communicate.
Game theory can help us understand how, in such a situation, cooperation
can be generated among the survivors.

The phrase state of nature crops up frequently in comments on Lost for at least two reasons. The first is that two of the leading characters in the program (John Locke and Danielle Rousseau) bear the surnames of two philosophers who are famous for having used the phrase state of nature as a key term in their writings on political philosophy. These are the Englishman John Locke (1632–1704) and the Swiss-Frenchman Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–88). The second, much better, reason why the phrase crops up so much in discussions of Lost is that the situation the survivors of Oceanic Flight 815 find themselves in after the crash can indeed be usefully described as a state of nature.

Before coming to some differences among the ways that Locke, Rousseau, and other philosophers have thought about the state of nature, let’s consider a negative, and rather abstract, characterization of it that would be recognized by everyone working in the tradition of political philosophy that Locke and Rousseau consolidated. In a pure state of nature, none of the codes and expectations, none of the rules and hierarchies, none of the roles and presumptions that make up the fabric of our social lives is operative, can be relied on or can be enforced. Presented in this abstract way, a situation like this is very difficult to imagine. After all, very few of us have any experience of anything remotely similar.

The very difficulty of imagining something that fits the (negative) bill can help explain why Locke, Rousseau, and other philosophers have taken differing approaches

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