Last time, I made the generalization that the great thinkers of the
18th century turned to reason for answers to mankind's problems.
They thought reason would help them end poverty, war, and
injustice, that reason would help them create the ideal political and
social system, that reason would give them the answers to religious
questions. I said that, in some instances, they carried their
faith in reason to an irrational extreme. Last time, I talked
about two of the philosophes, Diderot and Condorcet, and was just
starting to talk about another of the philosophes, Rousseau.
[Note: In the previous class
session, I retold a few of the stories from The Confessions,
stories that show Rousseau admitting that he is not such a nice man. I
have to give cartoon versions of these stories in class, so you might
want to look at Rousseau's original versions, e.g., the
"ribbon theft" story as actually
told be Rousseau.]
Rouseau admitted that he was, in some ways, not a very nice
man. But he insists that none of us are any better. Now
this is not at all a new idea: Saint Augustine in *his* Confessions showed that even a man
later regarded as a saint could be not so nice. "All have sinned
and come short of the glory of God," says the apostle Paul.
Paul, Augustine, and Pascal and everyone else when confronted with
this problem say that, because of this tendency to evil, we need to be
careful about our thoughts and actions, and hope we can find something
to help us change what's wrong in our hearts. Rousseau says this
is wrong: we should try to change society. His "Social Contract"
claims to be an attempt to suggest how we might get a just society
"given men as they are, and laws as might be."
This is an important turning point in history. Descartes had
said the wise man resolves to change himself. Rousseau says we
should instead focus on changing society itself.
Essentially, we have this dilemma. We are bad people because
we are the products of a bad society. And because we are bad
people, we will create a bad society. Now if society were good,
it would produce good people who would in turn produce a good
society. Earlier thinkers had said that the thing to concentrate
on was the individual. If we can make ourselves better
individuals, we'll end up with a better society. Rousseau says to
go about things at the other end. Work on creating a good
society, and then we will have good individuals.
But what exactly is a good society? Rousseau says that, in
order to understand human society, we ought to look first at how our
society is created in the first place, and by looking at mankind in the
state of nature. Note that this is the same place Hobbes and
Locke say we should start. And like Hobbes and Locke, Rousseau
says we leave the state of nature by making a contract with one
another. But Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau disagree on the nature
of this convenant. Hobbes said we sacrifice all our rights to
Leviathan, the state, so that we can be protected from each other and
our lives won't be solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.
Locke said we form a government to exercise reparation and restraint on
our behalf, and that the government's job is to protect our natural
rights. Rousseau says that, when we form a society, our natural
liberty is destroyed. And so, in order to be just, a society must
compensate by giving us something back of equivalent value: Civil
Liberty. We give up our natural
rights to equality, life, liberty, and property and get in
exchange civil liberties:
equality, life, liberty, and property!!!!
Notice that, while the "rights" terminology is the same, there is a
difference between natural rights and civil liberties. For one
thing, natural rights come from God, and are inalienable. Civil
liberties come from the government, and, under certain circumstances,
they can be taken away be the government. Natural rights types
want limited governement. Civil liberties types don't want a
Hobbesian government, but, since governement secures our civil
liberties, they want a more activist government than Locke
The natural rights view is that government should protect rights we
have. The civil
liberties view is that government must constantly intervene
to give us rights we don't have. Locke, for instance, insists
that we are equal by nature--equality meaning only that no one has the
right to enslave/interfere with the liberty of anyone else. In
Rousseau's view, the government must intervene to makes us equal, and,
since, equality in this sense is ellusive, the government's work is
One example: the right to property. For those who
in the right to property as a natural right, the government's job
is simply to protect those who have property from those who would take
it from them. For those who believe in civil liberty, on the
other hand, the government's responsibility may instead be to
wealth and distribute it more equally.
With the right to life, too, there tends to be big differences
between the natural rights types and those who believe in civil
liberties. Natural rights types tend to oppose abortion.
The unborn baby, having done nothing wrong, cannot possibly have
forfeited its natural right to life, and to kill the unborn is a
fundamental violation of natural rights. But Rousseau doesn't
believe in an unalienable right to life. In his Social Contract he writes,
"If the prince says it
is expedient for the state that you should die, then you should
die." And so abortion might be justified if it seems to serve a
governement interest, e.g., population control. Also, abortion
seems to civil liberties types essential to equality--or, at least,
equality in their sense of the world. When a man and a woman have
sex, the man can apparently walk away with no lasting consequences. [I
don't think that's true, but it might seem to be so.] The woman,
on the other hand, may end up pregnant--and that will change her life
entirely. What's the only way to ensure "equality," i.e., to make
it possible for women to treat sex just as casually as many men
Well, eliminate the consequences--the baby. And so while for
Natural Rights types abortion violates one of the most fundamental
rights, for Civil Liberties types abortion is essential to one of the
most fundamental rights! No wonder the two philosophies aren't
And then there's capital punishment. Natural Rights types tend
to favor capital punishment. Why? Because the government is
supposed to exercise reparation and restraint on our behalf.
Murder is a fundamental violation of someone else's natural right to
life. Violate someone's rights in such a way, and you forfeit
your own. What reparation can be made for murder? Clearly,
if the execution of the murderer is in any small way compensation to
the family and friends of the victim, the murderer must be made to pay
that price, and the government is negligent in its duties if it doesn't
execute him. Natural rights types favor capital punishment, not
only for murder, but also for rape since that also is a fundamental
violation of natural rights for which no recompense can be made.
Civil Liberties types, on the other hand, oppose the death
penalty. Rousseau said, "There is no man so bad he can't be made
good for something, and no-one should be killed if he can be allowed to
live without danger to the state" (Social Contract II:5). Why no
death penalty? Well, whose fault is the crime? Not the
criminal's: he does bad things only because he comes from a bad
So, since crime is society's fault, society's obligation is, not
punishment, but rehabilitation. Besides, capital punishment is
unfair because it is applied unequally, and their is no way to ensure
that rich, poor, male, famale, black, and white are treated equally in
death penalty cases except by eliminating the death penalty all
together and executing no one.
Obviously, it's very hard to get civil liberties types and natural
rights types to agree. It's even hard to get them to tolerate one
another since they don't agree even on what tolerance is!
Locke favored, in general, giving all ideas a fair opportunity in
the marketplace of ideas. The only thing that will stop the truth
is its forcible supression.
[Somewhat earlier than Locke,
Milton made a fine case for toleration in his "Areopagitica"--well worth reading!]
Rousseau also is a champion of tolerance, but his idea of tolerance
is very different:
"As for the negative dogmas, I would limit them to a single one: no
intolerance. Intolerance is something which belongs to those
religions we have rejected.... Now that there no longer is not, and can
no longer be, an exclusive
national religion, all religions which themselves tolerate others must
be tolerated, provided only that their dogmas contain nothing contrary
to the duties of the citizen. But anyone who dares to say
"outside the church there is no salvation" should be expelled from the
state" (Social Contract IV:8).
Note the limitations on religion. First, it is not allowed to
have anything in it's doctrine "contrary to the duties of the citizen,"
i.e., that the government doesn't like. Second, if it claims to
be the way to salvation...out it goes: it's intolerant. So, of
course, in the name of tolerance, we don't tolerate anyone who really
takes their religion seriously.
[This is part of what some call
the paradox of tolerance, reflected well in Tom Lehrer's line,
"There are people in this world who do not love their fellow man, and I
hate people like that."]
Rousseau spends much of his time describing his ideal society. But there's a problem: how do we go about implementing it in the first place? How do we go from being a bad society to a good one? Right now, Rousseau says, we're unjust because we live in unjust society. So how can us unjust people possibly create a just society?
The key is what Rousseau call's the "general will," a concept sort
of like the golden rule and sort of like Kant's later "categorical
imperative." This "general will" does not err has never erred and
shall never err to all eternity [I
probably shouldn't paraphrase Gregory VII in this way, but that is
How does a society come to reflect general will?
No. Rousseau doesn't trust democracy. What Rousseau thinks
is that there will sometimes be an individual who really knows how
things should be run: a Lawgiver. At critical moments in
history when people will accept
the good laws the Lawgiver has to offer them...and, at these rare
moments, we might just get that good society that creates good
people. So when you reach such a moment, what do you do?
Anything at all. Anything! As we will see. Stay