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Locke and Rousseau on the Question of Inequality
John Locke's Second Treatise of Government argues that "men are naturally free" (55). In other words, Locke believed that humans, in their natural state, and prior to the creation of civil society, would have been a kind of sovereign entity, possessing a set of natural rights prescribed by God and nature, and those rights would have afforded individuals the opportunity to protect themselves against the transgressions of others. Societies, for their part, were set up in order to avoid civil, interpersonal, or foreign wars -- wars that might have occurred over a dispute, for example, about property. Locke believed that in the early stages of evolution, humans would have lived with one another as co-owners of the earth and its resources, and given this type of communal existence, humans were all equal. In the natural world, a natural set of laws took precedence -- a 'law of the jungle,' as it were -- and again, individuals would have had the absolute right to protect themselves from those who might have wished to take liberties with regards to their natural rights.
In comparison, Rousseau, in "Discourse on the Origin of Inequality" (hereafter "Discourse"), argued that modern systems of morality and law were at the heart of economic, social, and political inequality, where Locke saw such systems as the basis of civil society and as the protector of individual rights. In humanity's natural state, and prior to the imposition of moral laws forged in and through governmental bodies, Rousseau hypothesized that humans would have been motivated by certain instincts, like pity and self-preservation. At this stage, humans would also have had only a few needs and no real understanding of the difference between good and evil -- a difference only intelligible inside modern political or social orders. As humans came progressively into contact with one another, societies developed and humans began to adapt to new systems by developing new needs and qualities. One of the negative consequences of these evolving social and political orders was the need amongst people to compare themselves to one another, to envy others, and to attempt to gain power and economic control over others. In part, Rousseau described this impulse as "amour propre." While savages only cared about survival, modern man learned to care about what others thought about him; in other terms, the modern individual became keenly aware of the difference between simply being in the moment and appearing to be a certain way in the eyes of others. For Rousseau, this was certainly a harmful psychological condition that again was linked to the evolution of human reason and political society.
In general, though, Rousseau believed that the creation of both labor and personal property marked the beginning of inequality amongst people, and, as well, the desire amongst humans to dominate or exploit one another. Rousseau argued that in a state of nature, humans had certain natural inequalities, for example, strength, age, and sex, and those inequalities allowed some individuals to take more personal, self-serving liberties than others. In line with Locke's thinking, Rousseau asked, "for what can a man add but his labor to things which he has not made, in order to acquire a property in them?" (223). But Rousseau goes on to show that t]he man that had most strength performed most labor; the most dexterous turned his labor to best account; the most ingenious found out methods of lessening his labor; the husbandman required more iron, or the smith more grain, and while both worked equally, one earned a great deal by his labor, while the other could scarcely live by his. Thus natural inequality unfolds itself... (223).
For Rousseau, the beginnings of labor brought with it the beginnings of inequality and the destruction of natural liberties; civil society "fixed for ever the laws of property and inequality...and for the benefit of a few ambitious individuals subjected the rest of mankind to perpetual labor, servitude, and misery." (228). In Rousseau's system, inequalities would never be remedied in and through social systems in a way that they would for Locke; such inequalities would only be compounded and would culminate in a kind of despotic rule where wealth would become the one and only standard by which people are measured. Inequality, for Rousseau, is certainly natural when considering physical differences, but in societies, economic inequality is the inevitable result of an intellectual and social evolution that begins in nature and becomes progressively more corrupt and unjust as it evolves into societies. In other terms, moral or economic inequalities are the result of an unnatural and unhealthy social contract between humans that leads to discrepancies in power, status, and wealth. What started as a wholly acceptable and natural inequality resulted in destructive moral and economic inequalities in society.
Locke saw things differently. While both he and Rousseau developed a primary distinction between the state of nature and civil society, Locke was less accepting of natural freedoms or natural states of liberty where political authority did not exist. He argued that a state of nature was not the same as a "state of licence." Locke wrote, "though man in [a state of liberty] have an uncontroulable liberty to dispose of his person or possessions...he has not liberty to destroy himself, or so much as any creature in his possession" (9). In other words, humans do not live in a moral vacuum, unresponsive to moral and social requirements. While they may have natural freedoms, humans do not have the absolute license to exercise their natural impulses in any way that they might wish; they are obliged, in fact, to act in a way that affirms the equal status and rights of others. Locke went on to say, "[t]he state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which obliges everyone: and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind, who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions" (9). Locke felt that the construction of social laws and social contracts would ensure that natural laws were followed and that humans would not descend into a state of war (civil or interpersonal), given that self-preservation is an essential law of nature. Where natural license is grounded in natural law, an individual would presumably be able to act freely, without either obligation or the accusation of having perpetuated some injustice. Locke rejected the argument that individuals should have license to enact natural laws or instincts because, as shown above, the state of nature appealed to an even higher law, that being reason, and that law imposed natural obligations on the individual. Natural laws limited what was permissible and on this point Rousseau remained in sharp contrast with Locke.
For Rousseau, reason was certainly not the highest law, in fact, the passions or instincts inform reason. For the savage, the passions instinctually drove him, his reason and language developed as a means to explain or explore those more basic passions. For Rousseau, the savage had all he needed in his instincts alone. Therefore, reason was a later addition to the human skill set in Rousseau's philosophy. Moreover, in Locke's argument, he problematically presented the idea of license in that he failed to acknowledge that license is an entirely moral distinction and cannot be readily applied to the state of nature. Individuals can only concern themselves with the moral consequences of natural laws after having pre-figured civil society, law, reason, and morality. Locke is clearly priortizing the reasoned, civil man over Rousseau's savage, perpetuating his lack of reverence for the originary state of nature. In the above argument, Locke seemed troubled by the potential consequences of natural law in society, showing a disdain for uncivilized acts. But for Rousseau, the savage was complete in himself. He would gratify his senses and move on, without a thought. Rousseau wrote, "nothing is more gentle than he in his primitive state, when placed by nature at an equal distance from the stupidity of brutes, and the pernicious enlightenment of civilized man; and confined equally by instinct and reason to providing against the harm which threatens him, he is withheld by natural compassion from doing any injury to others" (219). In this context, Rousseau even quotes Locke, saying, "according to the axiom of the wise Locke, Where there is no property, there can be no injury" (219). Of course, though, Rousseau ironically quotes Locke for the two men are certainly not on the same page with regards to either property or the state of nature.
For Rousseau, inequalities can only breed when individuals come to believe that they have the right to say "this is mine" (211). Throughout the "Discourse," Rousseau created an impassioned argument that showed how all human injustice, including economic inequality, began with the emergence of civil society and the ownership of property. The capitalist society that Locke envisioned was based in large part on greed and…[continue]
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