PHIL 4110: Philosophy of Law
Dr. Robert Lane
Lecture Notes: Friday January 12, 2007

[1.2.2.] Turnbull and “Man Without Law.”


In today’s lecture we are continuing our examination of the state of nature, a condition in which man lives with no social structure, no government, and (what’s most important for the purposes of this class) no laws.


We have already examined one of the most famous philosophical accounts of a hypothetical state of nature: that described by Thomas Hobbes in Leviathan (1651).


We now turn to what appear to be humans living in an actual state of nature, as described by:


Colin Turnbull (1924-1994)

·         English-born anthropologist

·         multiple degrees from Oxford University

·         conducted field research on tribes of pygmies living in the Congo (formerly Zaire) and Uganda; this research resulted in the books The Forest People (1961) and The Mountain People (1972)

·         towards the end of his life he became a Buddhist monk


Turnbull described two tribes of African pygmies, each of which lived without laws as we understand them.



[] The Mbuti.


In The Forest People (1961), Turnbull described the Mbuti [m-BOO-tee] people of the Ituri Forest in the Congo (Zaire):[1]


·         The Mbuti are the shortest pygmies in Africa, averaging under 4’6” tall.[2]

·         They have no chiefs or council of elders, and they have nothing like laws as we understand them—no central authority wielding the threat of force to coerce people into behaving in a certain way.

·         Nonetheless, the Mbuti were able to live sociably, even in very difficult circumstances.

·         What holds Mbuti society together in the absence of a force-wielding authority? According to Turnbull, it is that “[t]hey have a vital family life...” [see rest of passage, p.10]


The Mbuti seem to have a developed sense of morality:

·         They make value judgments (about what is right and wrong, good and bad), but those judgments are based, not so much on the sort of action being assessed, as on the circumstances in which the action was performed, and on the motives of the person who performed it.

·         When disputes between individuals arise, the tribe manages to settle them...


At the very least, there is tension between Turnbull’s account of the Mbuti and Hobbes’ account of the (allegedly) best way to escape the state of nature...



[] The Ik: “The End of Goodness.”


In The Mountain People (1972), he described the Ik [eek] tribe of Uganda. He studied the Ik during 1965-66, a period in which they were experiencing a devastating famine.


In the book, [Turnbull] wrote of witnessing food being snatched out of the mouths of elderly Ik, children swallowing dirt and stones for food, Ik mothers abandoning their very young children to fend for themselves, women stuffing their mouths with “grass” while the more energetic ones followed vultures to scavenge rotting carcasses.

Sex to the Ik was simply a way of getting rid of semen. The Ik defecated on each other's doorstep including Turnbull's. He called them the “Loveless People” and said they “were as unfriendly, uncharitable, inhospitable and generally mean as any people can be”.[3]


“The Ik lost their sense of humanity and became a scattered band of hostile people whose only goal was individual survival.” (p.6) According to Turnbull, they have

·         nothing like social life or social organization

·          no “family, cooperative sociality, belief, love, hope, and so forth...”

·         no “myth of altruism”


altruism (df.): unselfishly acting so as to help others at one’s own expense.


The world of the Ik is “dead, a cold, dispassionate world that is without ugliness because it is without beauty, without hate because it is without love, and is without any realization of truth even, because it simply is.” (p.11)


A lesson he draws:


these qualities are not inherent in humanity at all, they are not a necessary part of human nature. ... society itself is not indispensable for man’s survival, ... man is not the social animal he has always thought himself to be, and ... he is perfectly capable of associating for purposes of survival without being social. (11)


This contradicts Aristotle’s pronouncement that


...the state is a creation of nature, and ... man is by nature a political [i.e., social] animal. And he who by nature and not by mere accident is without a state, is either a bad man or above humanity; he is like the "Tribeless, lawless, hearthless one," whom Homer denounces- the natural outcast is forthwith a lover of war... (Aristotle, Politics).


Turnbull concludes that our own society is moving towards something like what the Ik have, a scenario in which individuals feel no obligation towards the group but constantly pursue only their own individual interests.




Turnbull’s account of the Ik has been harshly criticized by other anthropologists beginning soon after its publication. Critics have claimed that is work was founded on an insufficient understanding of the Ik’s language and that he took much of his information about the Ik from conversations with members of other tribes who had a very negative opinion of the Ik.[4]


Turnbull predicted that the Ik would soon die out, but this prediction was wrong. The population of Ik has continued to grow since the 60s, and recently there were more than 5,000 Ik with a population growth of about 2.7% annually, typical for Uganda.[5]



Stopping point for Friday January 12. For next time (Wednesday January 17), read pp.13-18, which includes an excerpt from Plato’s dialogue Crito.




[1] A recent article on the Mbuti is Paul Salopek, “Who Rules the Forest?”, National Geographic, Sept. 2005 < >.


[2] Information on the Mbuti not taken from your textbook comes from "Bambuti." Encyclopædia Britannica. 2007. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 9  Jan. 2007  <>.


[3] Curtis Abraham, “The Mountain People Revisited,” New African no.404, 2002, p.34. Available online through GALILEO.

[4] For an example of follow-up work on the Ik that is very critical of Turnbull, see Bernd Heine, “The Mountain People: Some Notes on the Ik of North-Eastern Uganda,” Africa 55 (1) 1985, pp.4-16, available online through GALILEO.


[5] Abraham, “The Mountain People Revisited.”

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