"The greatness and the genuine trait of your thought and writings lie on the fact that you positively and interestingly make use of philosophical thoughts and thoughtfulness in order to deeply and concretely cogitate about America's social issues. . . . This does not mean that your thought is reducible to your era: your thought, being inspired by issues characterizing your era . . . , overcomes your era and will still likely be up to date even after your era, for future generations." Bruno Valentin

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Living the Urban Life: Increasing Economic Inequalities?

Richard Rinaldi, an innovative photographer in New York City, devised an interesting photo series, titled "Touching Strangers." It provides an answer to the following question: If brought together literally through touch, will two people who have never met begin, after some initial discomfort, to feel comfort, even a feeling of caring for the other person? Richard traversed the streets of Manhattan looking for pairs to put together. Seeing one person, and then another, who together would make an interesting picture, he would ask them simply to stand together. The  resulting picture would depict any initial reluctance. Then, he would arrange the two so they are touching each other in a friendly way.

A curious thing came out in the resulting pictures: a feeling of caring. Astonished, the subjects invariably reported that merely from the touching they actually had actually begun to care about a stranger! Reflecting on this feedback, Richard said in an interview that his “experiment” reveals humanity that lies within us, that we wish there were more of in the world, and that existed in the past. By “the past,” the photographer was referring to the photo shoots.

If we are willing to go a bit farther back in our reflection, say to the state of nature, whether mythic or historical, we can profit from the theory of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, which can explain why we do not feel more caring and compassion as we inhabit great edifices of modern business, government, and society. Indeed, it may be that those tremendous artifacts within which we work, argue, and live may have gradually changed human nature itself—and not for the better.



In his Discourse on Inequality,[1] Rousseau argues that humanity was in a much better condition in the state of nature, before all the artificialities of society changed us. Indeed, the question we might ask the eighteenth-century philosopher is whether forming commercial enterprises, governments and societies has modified human nature itself, or merely our proclivities. Rousseau’s view of “primitive” humanity is best grasped in a bundle.

With “savage man, wandering about in the forests, without industry, without speech, without any fixed residence, an equal stranger to war and every social connection, without standing in any shape in need of his fellows, as well as without any desire of hurting them, and perhaps even without ever distinguishing them individually one from the other, subject to few passions, and finding in himself all he wants, let us, I say, conclude that savage man thus circumstanced had no knowledge or sentiment but such as are proper to that condition, that he was alone sensible of his real necessities, took notice of nothing but what it was his interest to see, and that his understanding made as little progress as his vanity.”

We are naturally inclined to far less social interaction than is foisted on us by living in towns and cities. Less social intercourse meant less conflict and even fewer desires—hence my question of whether human nature was different. All that the savage man desired was limited to whatever nature could provide of its own making, rather than by means of man’s cultivation of forest and field. “The first sentiment of man was that of his existence, his first care that of preserving it. The productions of the earth yielded him all the assistance he required; instinct prompted him to make use of them.”

Like Hesiod’s and Ovid’s idyllic descriptions of a Golden Age, whose natural wealth literally grows on trees for the easy taking, Rousseau (unlike Aristotle, whose notion of natural wealth involves the labor of cultivating land) views labor for the savage’s subsistence as nugatory; real labor kicks in when people start to desire wealth. In the simple life enjoyed by primitive man, free time gave rise to more and more “conveniences.”  Through regular use (given declining marginal utility), they “lost almost all their aptness to please, and even degenerated into real wants, the privation of them became far more intolerable than the possession of them had been agreeable; to lose them was a misfortune, to possess them no happiness.

"There being no wealth or property and only limited contact with other humans at first, pride and jealousy from comparisons with others were either not yet in human nature or latent in its bowels. Hence, Rousseau rejects Hobbes’ theory that constant warfare exists in the state of nature and thus justifies the institution of government—even a tyrant. In fact, Rousseau refers directly to Hobbes’ theory in remarking, “so many authors have hastily concluded that man is naturally cruel, and requires a regular system of police to be reclaimed; whereas nothing can be more gentle than he in his primitive state.” To Hobbes life in the state of nature is short, cruel, and brutish. Rousseau totally rejects this view.

Rousseau argues that pity, or empathy for others who are suffering, is  a sentiment natural in human beings:

"(P)ity is a natural sentiment, which, by moderating in every individual the activity of self-love, contributes to the mutual preservation of the whole species. It is this pity which hurries us without reflection to the assistance of those we see in distress; it is this pity which, in a state of nature, stands for laws, for manners, for virtue, with this advantage, that no one is tempted to disobey her sweet and gentle voice: it is this pity which will always hinder a robust savage from plundering a feeble child, or infirm old man, of the subsistence they have acquired with pain and difficulty, if he has but the least prospect of providing for himself by any other means.”

In the state of nature, the compassion is not yet overwhelmed by the vices borne of the close proximity of other people in society. Empathy can check anger and fighting in the state of nature. Before the institution of property and law to protect it, “goodness of heart” was “suitable to the pure state of nature.” Furthermore, “nothing can be more gentle than he in his primitive state, when . . .  he is withheld by natural compassion from doing any injury to others. . . . For according to the axiom of the wise Locke, Where there is no property, there can be no injury.”

Rousseau embraces Locke’s theory that property arises from one’s labor. “(I)t is impossible to conceive how property can flow from any other source but industry; for what can a man add but his labour to things which he has not made, in order to acquire a property in them? . . . enjoyment forming a continued possession is easily transformed into a property.” To Rousseau, mine and yours came about in the process of societalization. “The first man, who, after enclosing a piece of ground, took it into his head to say, ‘This is mine,’ and found people simple enough to believe him, was the true founder of civil society.”

Furthermore, because man in the state of nature was oriented to “his real necessities,” no impetus kicked in to trigger industry. Hence, there was no economic inequality beyond that which nature grants. Referring to human beings in the state of nature, Rousseau maintains,

"(A)s long as they undertook such works only as a single person could finish, and stuck to such arts as did not require the joint endeavours of several hands, they lived free, healthy, honest and happy, as much as their nature would admit, and continued to enjoy with each other all the pleasures of an independent intercourse; but from the moment one man began to stand in need of another's assistance; from the moment it appeared an advantage for one man to possess the quantity of provisions requisite for two, all equality vanished; property started up; labour became necessary; and boundless forests became smiling fields, which it was found necessary to water with human sweat, and in which slavery and misery were soon seen to sprout out and grow with the fruits of the earth.”

The increased industry involved the development of reason and understanding, which have also led to problems. The savage man needed only to learn “to surmount the obstacles of nature, to contend in case of necessity with other animals, to dispute his subsistence even with other men, or indemnify himself for the loss of whatever he found himself obliged to part with to the strongest.” As the mind grew more enlightened, “property, and along with it perhaps a thousand quarrels and battles” more than countered the epistemological benefits. Whereas Hegel hails the progression of reason through human history, Rousseau sees a link between the expanding use of reason, increased wealth, and more wants and thus comparisons and conquest. In other words, modern man uses reason much more than is natural, and this had led to problems confined to society rather than based in the savage man.

In political terms, “Those who heretofore wandered through the woods, by taking to a more settled way of life, gradually flock together, coalesce into several separate bodies, and at length form in every country distinct nations.” From the increased interaction between people, jealousy and warfare take off. “Every one [sic] begins to survey the rest, and wishes to be surveyed himself; and public esteem acquires a value. . . . From these first preferences there proceeded on one side vanity and contempt, on the other envy and shame; and the fermentation raised by these new leavens at length produced combinations fatal to happiness and innocence. . . It was thus that every man, punishing the contempt expressed for him by others in proportion to the value he set upon himself, the effects of revenge became terrible, and men learned to be sanguinary and cruel.” Increased contact with others from that of our natural state leads to tremendous problems. Interestingly, the increased cruelty suggests that the human race has become weaker, as it is the weak person who seeks to dominate who is intentionally cruel.

According to Rousseau, our bad qualities have surged ahead of our pre-existing good ones. Society and the ensuing established relations among people draw on “qualities different from those . . . derived from their primitive constitution.” The question is perhaps whether the bad qualities had been merely latent, or altogether absent from human nature. Put another way, have the artificial aspects of society changed human nature or merely altered the balance between a number of instincts that we have come to see as good and bad?

In referring to different characteristics of man coming to dominate others, Rousseau implies that human nature has not changed. On the other hand, he also writes that “natural compassion” has “suffered some alteration” as human interaction has increased. Moreover, "the spirit of society" and "the inequality [that] society engenders" have changed and transformed "all our natural inclinations." This would seem to go beyond merely increasing some and decreasing others, suggesting instead that human nature itself has been altered, even transformed.

The implications from the change in context being able to transform human nature could only be highly significant. It would seem that societal artifacts, including systems of business and government, can render humans less humane in our very nature, which is perhaps to say human, all too human.


1. All quotes are from Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Discourse on the Origins of Inequality, Harvard Classics, Charles W. Eliot, ed., Vol. 34 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1910).