Rousseau's Concepts of Inequality

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9th Jan 2018 Politics Reference this


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In 1754 Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote his “Discourse on the Origin and Basis of Inequality Among Men”. This essay was in response to a question posed for a prize competition by the Academy of Dijon. The question posed was: “What is the origin of inequality among men, and is it authorized by natural law?” Rousseau found the terms of the inquiry restraining; he reasoned that, to be considered a law it has to be agreed upon rationally and to be natural it must “speak with the voice of nature” (Rousseau and Cress, 25). In order to truly delve into the ontology of inequalities Rousseau asserts that we need to examine the characteristics and maxims which are natural to humans outside of the artificiality of society. However; Rousseau differs from other social theorists – like Thomas Hobbes – in the method that he separates reason or perfectibility from the instincts of the natural man. This leads Rousseau to espouse a positive stance on the natural man – contrary to Hobbes’ conception. I will argue in this essay that Jean-Jacques innovative theory on the state of nature accompanies a firm stance that humanity’s perfectibility allows for both positive and negative advancement; but society in its current manifestation, is inherently unequal. Rousseau recognizes two different forms of inequality which lead him to a positive ideological view on the state of nature.

Rousseau makes the argument that violence and inequalities are not inherent to humans but rather that they occur due to socialization and improper assertion of reason. Rousseau identifies two different types of inequality: natural and moral. Natural inequalities are those that derive from differences in age, intelligence, capacity for reason and health or other physical characteristics. (Rousseau and Cress, 34) However; it is moral inequalities that are of greater concern to Rousseau. It is Rousseau’s belief that these inequalities occur due to consent and convention. Thus these inequalities are merely a form of political rule and are preventable. In the “Discourse on the Origin and Basis of Inequality Among Men” Rousseau proves that these moral inequalities do not occur in the state of nature due to several human maxims.

The state of nature to Jean Jacques Rousseau is one that draws many parallels to an animal existence but differs because of one essential human characteristic. Rousseau claims two basic maxims which exist prior to man’s nurturing within human societal systems of rationality. These are self-preservation and pity. It is from these principles that natural right manifest themselves. A natural right is pervasive among all people by virtue of being human itself. In the state of nature man feels a responsibility to prevent the harm of other sentient beings. This is unless a person’s self-preservation is at stake. Pity and self-preservation essentially balance each other out and make it possible for savage men to exist together. These two principles rarely conflict because, according to Rousseau, one man’s pity should prevent him from interfering with another’s attempts to preserve himself. Rousseau states: “pity is a natural sentiment, which, by moderating in each individual the activity of the love of oneself, contributes to the mutual preservation of the entire species.”(Rousseau and Cress, 55) This natural right of pity is not a rational one but rather is drawn from the empathy of being able to feel. This contrasts with the modern rational discourse which protects the individual. The natural man requires vigorous sense of dedication towards self-preservation. Animals also embody both these principles of self-preservation and pity. Humans and animals differ in one aspect – which Rousseau describes as the faculty of “perfectibility”. (Rousseau and Cress, 45) Man is a free agent possessing the freedom to override the natural and their instincts. This distinct adaptability and unlimited faculty gives humans the capability for vice and virtue to develop. Rousseau describes this faculty of “perfectibility”, or reason, as having developed through a desire or fear. (Rousseau and Cress, 45) Perfectibility also implies that humans are subject to their environment. In the state of nature humans have only natural passions of food, sex and rest and a fear of pain and hunger. Instinct alone provides that our own self-preservation does not conflict with the self-preservation of others. Because of this savage man is as ignorant of good as he is of evil. The reduced nature of their passions keeps them from rationalizing actions that contradict the natural right. Pity is essential to what Rousseau states as the “mutual preservation of the species”. (Rousseau and Cress, 55) Outside of the state of nature reason engenders “amour propre”, or love of oneself, and overrides pity. “Amour Propre” is a kind of supreme self-preservation unchecked by empathetic feelings of pity. (Rousseau and Cress, 56) This instills the human identification as an individual, separate and comparable to others. In Rousseau’s state of nature pity takes the place of laws, morals and virtues. Savage men aren’t prone to quarrels – they are solitary and have no conception of property or vengeance. Only self-preservation and pity can guarantee human equality. It is due to humanity’s faculty of “perfectibility” that creates the potential for the greater good or the greatest evil. Modern society is the foil to ignorant equality of the state of nature. Jean-Jacques Rousseau presents a very different conception of the state of nature, in comparison to many previous philosophers

The portrayal of the state of nature, as one guaranteeing equality, by Rousseau differs greatly from conception by many other political thinkers. In particular Rousseau’s views go against the ideas which liberal thinkers like Thomas Hobbes set forth. Hobbes’ state of nature, described in the Leviathan, is that the state of nature is one where humans engage in perpetual warfare. Mankind’s passions drive him to desire things and to fear others. In this state self-preservation is the supreme and singular goal. The singularity of self-preservation leads to the human belief that they have a right to all things. Only through the submission to the social contract – does Hobbes believe that humanity can escape the dangers and evils of the state of nature. Rousseau’s conception of the state of nature shares some similar principals but the overall outcome is in stark opposition. Man in Rousseau’s state of nature is ruled by the dichotomous relationship between pity and self-preservation. The right to all things does not exist since maxim of self-preservation is checked by pity. Hobbes also fails to acknowledge that in the state of nature man is ignorant to Rousseau’s idea of “amour propre”. It is through a simplified world-view that the natural man exists – their passions are simple. Rousseau’s natural man is not wicked because they do not know what it is to be good. While Hobbes insists savage man has no conception of good and thus he is wicked. The social contract – Hobbes solution to his exacerbating state of nature – requires a consensually chosen Sovereign to protect its citizens from the state of nature. In opposition; Rousseau believes that it is these institutions, created under an illusion of reason, that create unequal competition between people. Rousseau states “All ran to chains themselves, in the belief that they secured their liberty, for although they had enough reason to feel the advantages of political establishment, they did not have enough experience to foresee its dangers.” (Rousseau and Cress, 70) Rousseau’s connotative meaning surrounding the social contract and its effects on humanity are portrayed through his depiction of the evolution of man from the state of nature.

The conditions surrounding Rousseau’s embryonic man are simple yet positive – compared to the situation of his successors. His first concern was for self-preservation. Man had no dreams for exploiting or profiting from nature. However different natural obstacles forced humanity to their faculty of “perfectibility” to adapt to different climates – producing different lifestyles. The hunt of different animals led to the axiomatic belief in preeminence among earth’s species. Rousseau asserts that were several “revolutions” that originated from the adaptations due to human perfectibility. The first revolution, that Rousseau addresses, spurred from the creation of tools. Tools led to the establishment of communal homes and family life. Conjugal love resulted and also led to different familial and societal roles. These changes in lifestyle allowed for more than self-preservation, but also leisure. (Rousseau and Cress, 62) New conveniences were developed and eventually relied upon. Mankind grew to be more settled increasing the salience of culture and tradition. These in turn led to ideas of merit, preference and eventually jealousy. (Rousseau and Cress, 62) However; Rousseau believes that this early society was the happiest epoch – representing a middle way between the indolence of state of nature and the activity of “amour propre”. From this we can draw what was Rousseau’s larger purpose. He believed as long as men applied themselves only to one-man tasks, they were free and healthy. The moment when one man needed the help of another, and one man wanted what was enough for two, equality disappeared, work became necessary and oppression developed. Thus it is during what Rousseau calls the “second revolution” (cause by metallurgy and agriculture) that inequality begins to emerged. (Rousseau and Cress, 62) Initially the division of land followed its cultivation, and labour gave the right to the land. Eventually due to the unequal distribution of talents and resources gave way to the exploitation of labour. The division between land and labour is what has spurred modern inequalities. Rousseau states:

“the first man who, having fenced in a piece of land, said “This is mine,” and found people naïve enough to believe him, that man was the true founder of civil society. From how many crimes, wars and murders, from how many horrors and misfortunes might not any one have saved mankind, by pulling up the stakes, or filling up the ditch, and crying to his fellows: Beware of listening to this impostor; you are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody.” (Rousseau and Cress, 60)

This division between labour and property coupled with the social contract are what Rousseau deems responsible for societal inequalities. By uniting the rich and poor in a supreme power of the social contract laws of inequality and property became fixed thus systemically ensuring the profit of the few.

When the principal maxims of humanity become peripheral the result is of overarching inequalities in the civil society and state. I believe that Rousseau thought that humans are not inherently evil but that their faculty of “perfectibility” has led them temporarily astray. His belief could be interpreted as distaste for the capitalist system in which “Amour Propre” is essential. However; humanity is not trapped within the system of “Amour Propre”. Human’s may also use the faculty of “perfectibility” positively. Rousseau dismisses the importance of the distinction between natural and moral inequalities. We can draw from this that Rousseau is against the argument for the origins of the division of labour – that some people are by their nature physically and mentally inferior to others. This is an argument that was also used to discredit slavery. Rousseau argues that the establishment of property and division of labour are at the root of societal inequality – but he does not argue against cooperation. Rousseau’s innovative theory on man’s natural state of being led him towards the transformative concept of the general will. He states:

“There is often a great deal of difference between the will of all and the general will. The latter looks only to the common interest; the former considers private interest and is only a sum of private wills. But take away from these same wills the pluses and minuses that cancel each other out, and the remaining sum of the differences is the general will. (Rousseau and Cress, 155)

“The general will” allows for the citizens – in their ignorance of their place within civil society – to make decisions in the interest of the greater good. Rousseau espouses a state in which the sovereign incurs freedom and equality of citizens rather than limiting them; for, the “general will” is utterly well intentioned. Rather than being ruled over by the sovereign, the people rule the sovereign or are the sovereign. In effect; Rousseau is proposing a system radically different than his counterparts due to his conception on the state of nature.

What is the origin of Inequality? Is it due to natural law? Are people inherently inclined to subjugate one another? Rousseau answers these questions with a resounding no. He proves that it is humanity’s own actions and intentions which give rise to inequality. He does not believe we are destined to behave this way. Our reason – given birth through desire and fear- can be our salvation or our undoing.

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