1. About sixty
years after Locke, who wrote in the 17th century, we have Rousseau. Rousseau envisages humankind as starting in a
“state of nature”, where they are basically like other animals, but smarter. Moreover humans start solitary (there, Rousseau is just wrong: like bees, we're social animals). As human beings develop, however, bad things
start to happen. Thus, after human
beings figure out how to make tools to make their lives easier, they become
dependent on them. And being dependent
on the tools, their lives become unpleasant should the instruments become
unavailable. Moreover, after a while,
the pleasure of having tools abates, and we have the state of affairs that
having tools is neutral—not pleasant and not unpleasant—while losing them is
unpleasant. This is not a good state of
- But the real difficulties start once
people become capable of judging the differences between people. “[T]hey acquired imperceptibly the ideas
of beauty and merit, which soon gave rise to feelings of preference.” (That one can imperceptibly acquire such novel ideas is quite dubious,
though!) While things were pretty
idyllic, inequality began. “Whoever
sang or danced best, whoever was the handsomest, the strongest, the most dextrous, or the most eloquent, came to be of most
consideration; and this was the
first step towards inequality, and
at the same time towards vice.”
- But to maintain a society, people
needed morality. There was a
balance between indolence and activity.
Then for quite a while things were pretty good. It is here that we have the “noble
savages” of European myth. While
there are seeds of evil, namely of inequality, things generally are pretty
good. It is in this state that
human beings were meant to remain.
subsequent advances have been apparently so many steps towards the
perfection of the individual, but in reality towards the decrepitude of
- Observe a curious fact. Rousseau talks as if being natural is
good—a sort of natural law theory.
But at the same time, it sounds like the optimal state is one in
the middle, when people have developed some skills. So it is natural to develop some skills. But then comes an unnatural
development—“the decrepitude of the species.” Yet, what grounds does Rousseau have for
saying that this development is unnatural?
Only, it seems, that it is a bad
development. But then it is not bad
because it is unnatural, but
counts as unnatural because it is bad.
- Observe, too, that the decline of the
human race is caused by the ascendancy of the individual. We each want to perfect ourselves, to be
better than others, etc. And
humankind suffers through the inequality that results. Yet the driving force behind the
inequality, according to Rousseau, is our interdependence. We need others, we are no longer
independent. So paradoxically, it
is our interdependence that drives us to perfect ourselves
individually. Why? Presumably because our interdependence
makes competition possible. I and
you can only compete at providing some service (e.g., music) to others if
someone else is in some way dependent on that service.
- It seems that Rousseau thinks that
significant interdependence is unnatural.
This is to be contrasted with the view of Aristotle and Aquinas who
think that our essence is to be social animals.
- The interdependence led to
specialization. Tasks as difficult
as metallurgy cannot be done by someone who is also making her own clothes
and growing her own food. But
specialization requires barter. So
specialization led to a developed system of private property.
- Inequality then results because some
are more talented than others.
- Interdependence, inequality and
property then are all tightly interconnected. And from these spring evils: “Insatiable
ambition, the thirst of raising their respective fortunes, … a vile
propensity to injure one another, … a secret jealousy ….”
- This gives an argument for the badness
of private tradeable property. Private tradeable
property implies interdependence and inequality. Inequality then leads to all of the
- But why should inequality lead to these? Take jealousy. Suppose you gain more than I. Why should I be jealous? Why shouldn’t I instead be glad for
your sake, enjoy your good fortune vicariously?
- Suppose we have a state where all
have the same amount, and then suddenly some gain more while no one
loses. Sure, this would produce inequality. But why should this inequality make
anyone miserable? Why wouldn’t
those who did not gain materially become happier through vicarious
enjoyment of the goods that the rich have?
- Of course, we know that that is not
what happens. People do become
jealous. But what I’ve just said
shows that it is not inequality alone
that is responsible for jealousy.
Likewise, inequality is not alone
responsible for “insatiable ambition”.
One needs inequality plus
- Now, Rousseau probably thinks we are
naturally selfish. And so this
selfishness plus inequality might give rise to ambition. But it seems Rousseau talks not just
about ambition in the sense of trying to do the best one can, but
ambition in the competitive
sense of trying to do better than others.
And even if one grants the assumption of selfishness, it does not
follow that there will have to be the competitive
sort of ambition, the kind that does not seek just to do well for
oneself, but to do well for oneself as
compared to others. (Cf. the
parents who care more about the rank a child has in the class than about
what the exact grades are.)
- This suggests that inequality,
property and interdependence are not the sole root of the evils Rousseau
is thinking about. One needs to
add some particular predispositions, such as a disposition to jealousy or
to being better than others. But why should there be such
predispositions? After all,
prior to the emergence of inequality, property and interdependence, such
predispositions would seem to be useless.
So why would nature have given them to us?
- This suggests in turn that the true
story about the rise of evil is going to be different. Maybe it is simply that people choose
to be wicked, regardless of inequality, etc. But Rousseau might still be able to say
that inequality gives a field
for such choices. Still, this is
not obvious. For if one wants to
be evil, even without social inequalities one can do it—I can go beat up
my neighbor “just for fun.” True,
one might think that without there being any property to be gained from
harming others one wouldn’t bother to harm others. But why would one bother to be, e.g.,
jealous in any case? Jealousy does not make the jealous
person happier. (Indeed it seems
that if human beings are naturally selfish, then it is hard to see why
they would be naturally jealous.)
On the other hand, maybe the reason the
competitive emotions arise is that in this state of society, one is competing
with other people to provide commodities. Thus, the products that one is
oneself producing do not merely need to be good, but they need to be better
than those of others. Thus, it makes sense to strive to do better
than others. And it makes sense to feel bad if one doesn't, since
that impels one to do better.
I don't think this response is sufficient to
defend Rousseau. We need to distinguish two kinds of ambition (1) to be
better off than others, and (2) to produce better products or provide better
services than others do. It is type (1) ambition that seems to be the
most vicious sort. But type (1) ambition is not an inevitable
result of the kind of "selfish" free-market system that Rousseau
criticizes. Why? Because one is not competing with others in
happiness, but in providing products and services. Similarly, a jealousy
of people who are better off than one is does not seem an inevitable
result. Now a type (2) ambition might well be a result of a competitive
system of production. But a type (2) ambition seems significantly more
innocent than a type (1) ambition. Likewise, a type (2) jealousy, i.e., a
jealousy of the better workmanship of others, seems more innocent than a type
(1) jealousy, i.e., a jealousy of someone's good fortune. Moreover, as
the ideal of sportsmanship illustrates, it is possible to have type (2)
competition--competition at trying to do better than others--while remaining
respectful of others, etc. Nonetheless, as the practice of sports
illustrates, the ideal is hard to attain.
2. There are
two relevant claims in Rousseau. The first
is that it is quite natural and good for human beings to exist without private
property—they did so for quite a while.
The second is that inequality is bad.
- On private property. Locke gives this argument: Suppose I have an apple that I have
picked and I eat it. Everyone
should admit that eventually the apple is mine. Certainly after I
have swallowed it, you have no right to dredge it up again to eat it
yourself. But at what point does it
become mine? When in my digestive
tract? Mouth? Hand?
Locke thinks there is no logical point here where to draw the
line. He thinks that the most
logical place to draw the line is when the apple is picked by me or maybe
when the field is planted. That is
when property is acquired. But, in
any case, we all agree that eventually
there is private property.
- On inequality. Particularly galling seem to be
inequalities that come from things people are not themselves responsible
for, e.g., the fact that some people are just genetically or
environmentally blessed with some talents.
- But suppose we have a community
where everyone is equally well off.
But a really bad influenza epidemic is coming and will cause
everyone who is unvaccinated to get sick (let us assume). We have exactly one dose of vaccine
against the disease. Should we
throw it out, or should we use it, say via a contest or lottery? Suppose we have a lottery for who gets
it. Then as a result of the
lottery, we get inequality—the winner doesn’t get sick, while everyone
else does. True, it would be
better if everyone equally was healthy.
But why would it be better if everyone were sick than if everyone
but one were sick?
- The only thing better about the
state of affairs of everyone being sick seems to be that there aren’t
jealousies. But the jealousies
seem to be a moral failing of those who are jealous. It is not that we are treating them
- Note that in this example it is not
the fault of the people who are going to get sick that they didn’t get
vaccine. It was random.
- But likewise many (though not all)
environmental influences on talents are random. Are the random ones OK, but the
non-random not? Why not?
And then there is the Social Contract, which
we did not discuss, since I was just
trying to get some ideas relevant to an opposition with Aquinas and Locke.