[Partly edited October 18, 2007]


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 huge 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 tend to 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 favored. 

The natural rights view is that government should protect rights we already 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 never done.

One example: the right to property.   For those who believe 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 confiscate 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 do?  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 very compatible!

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 society. 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 Rousseau's attitude.]

How does a society come to reflect general will?  Democracy?  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 tuned....