"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

Rousseau: Natural and Artificial Inequalities

In his Discourse on Inequalities, Rousseau distinguishes two types of inequality among people: natural and moral.[1] Natural inequalities, which exist in the state of nature as well as society, result in difference outcomes owing to innate differences in “genius, beauty, strength or address, merit or talents.” Such differences—both in sources and outcomes—pale in comparison with those from “moral” inequalities, such as exist between rich and poor, professionals and the unskilled, and the powerful and the subjugated.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778)

“Now, if we compare the prodigious variety in the education and manner of living of the different orders of men in a civil state, with the simplicity and uniformity that prevails in the animal and savage life, where all the individuals make use of the same aliments, live in the same manner, and do exactly the same things, we shall easily conceive how much the difference between man and man in the state of nature must be less than in the state of society, and how much every inequality of institution must increase the natural inequalities of the human species.”

Wealth is a case in point—the extremes in the American societies, for example, dwarfing the subsistence differences in the state of nature.

“Riches, before the invention of signs to represent them, could scarce consist in anything but lands and cattle, the only real goods which men can possess. But when estates increased so much in number and in extent as to take in whole countries and touch each other, it became impossible for one man to aggrandise himself but at the expense of some other; and the supernumerary inhabitants, who were too weak or too indolent to make such acquisitions in their turn, impoverished without losing anything, because while everything about them changed they alone remained the same, were obliged to receive or force their subsistence from the hands of the rich.”

Moral inequalities are marketed by the “haves” as moral and thus legitimate and even generally beneficial to society, when in truth the inequalities involve much undeserved harm.

“In fine, an insatiable ambition, the rage of raising their relative fortunes, not so much through real necessity, as to over-top others, inspire all men with a wicked inclination to injure each other, and with a secret jealousy so much the more dangerous, as to carry its point with the greater security, it often puts on the face of benevolence.”

The sordid “moral” inequalities are possible only in a civil state, which in turn exists in a society, as such inequalities stem from institutions in business, higher education, and government (among others). For example, corporations may be designed so that executives and board members benefit disproportionately relative to middle managers and “below.” Governments, even if democratic, may fit into a societal system more broadly in exchanging campaign contributions for legislation that would modify the system in favor of increasing economic inequality. 

Moreover, according to Rousseau, society is not simply biased toward increasing inequality; society gives rise to the inequalities. “(A)s there is scarce any inequality among men in a state of nature, all that which we now behold owes its force and its growth to the development of our faculties and the improvement of our understanding, and at last becomes permanent and lawful by the establishment of property and of laws.” To protect these from usurpers, warfare and aggression come to dwarf the pre-existing natural human compassion or empathy for those who are suffering. “(I)t is merely the spirit of society, and the inequality which society engenders, that thus change and transform all our natural inclinations.” Indeed, being in society may transform human nature itself.

Society engenders the “universal desire of reputation, of honours, of preference, with which we are all devoured, exercises and compares our talents and our forces.” Society thus “excites and multiplies our passions; and, by creating an universal competition, rivalship, or rather enmity among men, how many disappointments, successes, and catastrophes of every kind . . .  it is to this itch of being spoken of, to this fury of distinguishing ourselves which seldom or never gives us a moment's respite, that we owe both the best and the worst things among us, our virtues and our vices, our sciences and our errors, our conquerors and our philosophers; that is to say, a great many bad things to a very few good ones.

Most significantly, “the origin of society and of the laws . . . increased the fetters of the weak, and the strength of the rich; irretrievably destroyed natural liberty, fixed [forever] the laws of property and inequality; changed an artful usurpation into an irrevocable title; and for the benefit of a few ambitious individuals subjected the rest of mankind to perpetual labour, servitude, and misery.”  The artificial variety of inequalities can be expected to increase, silently aided by institutional designs, until the people bled dry finally have had enough and revolt. This involves a different sort of state of nature than that out of which society originally arises.

“The progress of inequality: “the establishment of laws and of the right of property was the first term of it; the institution of magistrates the second; and the third and last the changing of legal into arbitrary power; so that the different states of rich and poor were authorized by the first epoch; those of powerful and weak by the second; and by the third those of master and slave, which formed the last degree of inequality, and the term in which all the rest at last end, till new revolutions entirely dissolve the government, or bring it back nearer to its legal constitution. . . . Tis here that everything returns to the sole law of the strongest, and of course to a new state of nature different from that with which we began, in as much as the first was the state of nature in its purity, and the last the consequence of excessive corruption.”

In short, the sort of inequalities that society and its various species of institutions create and perpetuate clashes with natural right. The exceptional inequality of incomes between CEOs and workers in the U.S. is simply not natural, given the human nature that happily exists in the state of nature. Put another way, the tremendous inequality of wealth both results from and encourages a transformation of natural inclinations that could alter even human nature itself into something much uglier than what it was in the state of nature. The “kind of inequality which obtains in all civilised nations . . . is evidently against the law of nature that . . . a handful of men should be ready to choke with superfluities, while the famished multitude want the commonest necessaries of life.” This is bound not to end well for the human race, whether through society’s impact on the planet (e.g., global warming) or something within the human race, such as nuclear war or a plague.



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